Within the backpacking community I have sensed increasing interest in “high routes,” such as the the Sierra High Route, Wind River Range High Route, and Kings Canyon High Basin Route. I think this concept will continue to expand, with most of the emphasis on “route” rather than “high,” since there are thematically similar opportunities in non-mountainous areas like southern Utah.
The appeal of these high routes is easy to explain:
- For backpackers who have mastered on-trail hiking, high routes are a new challenge and necessitate the development of new skills.
- For thru-hikers who lack the free time they once did, or who have already completed the long-distance trails that interest them, high routes are a more compact yet completely worthy backcountry experience. (Read: Short is the new long.)
High routes are a step-up from conventional backpacking trips, however. And if you are planning one, I think you must make three critical mental adjustments:
1. Accept that you may not finish.
High routes are like mountaineering expeditions: to reach the summit, everything must go right. You need a window of stable weather; you can’t be surprised by the conditions, like steep lingering snow or unsafe river crossings; and your group must remain on pace, mentally sharp, and physical healthy.
On three of my high route attempts, I’ve had to pull the plug, one even before we left Colorado for Wyoming. These experiences were tough to swallow, but I think it’s the nature of these routes. My advice: Have a backup plan and backup maps, and appreciate the learning that goes along with failure.
2. It will be very mentally taxing.
High routes pass through the wildest and most remote terrain that an area has to offer. In doing so, they remain largely off-trail and normally feature exceptional vertical gain and loss. The cumulative experience tends to be very intense.
When off-trail, you must always pay attention and you must constantly make decisions. For someone accustomed to on-trail travel, where hours-long autopilot is the norm, this level of engagement is tiresome.
On top of that, the travel is rarely easy, even if it’s not a “high” route. Talus and scree, brush, wetlands, blowdowns, uneven slabs and grass — all the naturalness that you never noticed because trails smoothly route you through, over, or around it. If it is a high route, expect constant up and down. For example, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route averages about 700 vertical feet of change per mile, about twice that of the John Muir Trail.
Finally, you will need to digest the experience on your own, or only with other members of your group. Run-ins with other hikers will be limited to the trail sections, which are a comparative flash-in-the-pan versus the off-trail segments, and probably no hikers you meet will understand where you have been or what you are experiencing. Oh, and this should go without saying, but don’t get hurt. You won’t be found in 15 minutes by the next hiker who comes along, and evacs from trail-less areas are not convenient.
3. Plan to hike far fewer miles per day.
Off-trail travel is inherently slower. First, you spend more time standing still: confirming your location using your topographic map plus data from your watch, altimeter, and/or compass; and then formulating (and, in a group setting, communicating) your navigational plan of attack for the next section.
Second, you simply hike slower, for the aforementioned reasons. Sometimes it’s a simple ratio of your normal hiking speed, e.g. 75 percent for easy off-trail travel. But on days or routes with exceptional vertical change, you may hit your “vertical quota” and have no gas for additional miles. For example, on my Kings Canyon thru-hike last month, I found that I could climb about 7,000 vertical feet per day. On the second full day, I covered 27 miles before hitting this limit; but on the fifth full day, I eeked out only 17. On both days, I was tapped.
How much slower will you be? It’s impossible to say, as it varies tremendously with the backpacker and the location. It’s best to use precedent. Ideally, a high route guidebook will include some time referenences. If not, or perhaps in addition to that, talk with another backpacker who has done the route and with whom you share similar navigation skills and fitness.