Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Planning my big adventures - Backpacking Trips

In my last post, I talked about planning my Family trips. In this post, I'm going to concentrate on how I plan my backpacking trips. Like I mentioned in the previous post, I generally try and plan one backpacking trip with my wife and sometimes my two older kids, and one guys trip. Last year, it was to the Inyo National Forest with my wife and two oldest kids and to Yosemite National Park with one of my buddies. The year before last, I did a trip with my oldest son and a friend and his son to Rocky Mountain National Park and a trip with my wife to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

I thought I would share with you my thought process for planning one of these backpacking trips.


First, I try and determine who wants to go. I do this so that I can determine what is going to be the best experience for all. My wife is a big fan of big mountains, trees and lakes. I've got friends that are desert canyon rats. My eight year old and six year old sons are big fans of the desert as well. Having been in the Smokies as well as the Rockies and Sierras, my personal favorite is definitely out West. In the West, the mountains are bigger and you can actually see the mountains when you're in the mountains. Most places out East that I've been, you get very few good views of the mountains from the trail. Most of the time, you are walking in the woods. For my desert dwellers, you almost can't beat the Southern Utah/Northern Arizona area. Hiking in and out of the slot canyons is other worldly.

Next, I try and plan the duration of the trip. With my wife and kids, 3 nights is a great trip duration. Beyond that, I risk burning them out. It's always best to leave wanting more, than leave wishing you'd left sooner. When it's just the guys, 4 nights is about right. One reason for the difference is that with my wife and kids, I will generally bring more creature comforts (read: more weight). My wife and I enjoy a nice glass of wine at the end of the day and I want to make sure we keep my son and daughter fed with good food that they will eat plenty of. Also, I may bring a change of clothes so my wife will let me sleep in the tent at night. When it's just the guys, we tend to go lighter with less food and fewer of the comfy items. Who cares if you stink, so do your buddies. Also, you can get away carrying a little less Makers Mark than Merlot.

Now, knowing the type of scenery and terrain I'm looking for and the length of trip, I start looking for places that don't make the logistics too hard. Trailheads close to an airport make it easy to arrange a shuttle removing the need to rent a car that's just going to sit at the trailhead for the duration of the trip. Loop hikes eliminate the need to arrange for a shuttle or hitching a ride back to the car. Hiking in a National Park allows you to leverage free transportation from trailhead to trailhead if you need to do a point-to-point hike. If you do have to drive from the airport to the trailhead, you need to evaluate the flight arrival times and know the distance you will do the first day or plan to camp at the trailhead or stay in a hotel. I prefer staying in a hotel after the trip to avoid stinking up the plane on the ride back home.

For finding the right hike, I look again at who is coming with me. For hikes with my wife and kids, I will try and keep elevation gains to less than 500 feet / 1 mile. Anything more than that, I run the risk of burning them out. With the guys, we can take on the 1,000 vertical feet / 1 mile. Also, I look at starting and ending elevation. So far, none of my family members have shown any effects from altitude up to 10,000 feet. If you're going to above around 8,000 feet, check with the members of your party to make sure everyone has been at that elevation and determine if anyone has had issues before. Also, if you're going to that elevation, you may want to plan a night at the trailhead before going to high to allow everyone to acclimatize properly.

As far as distances go, with my wife and kids, I try and keep it to around 5-7 miles per day whereas with the guys, I've done as many as 20 miles in a day, but would prefer 10-12 miles per day. I like to stay on the move and see as much as I can each day I'm in the backcountry.

For campsites, my wife and I like to move camps every night and see a lot of different places. Some of my friends prefer the basecamp method of finding a good spot on the first night and day hiking off that spot and always coming back each night to the same campsite. It allows you to go fast and light during the day, but you also end up seeing a lot of the same scenery.

For food, I haven't gotten real adventurous yet. I stick mostly to pre-packaged freeze dried foods from companies like Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House. Some of my personal favorites are the Mountain House Wraps Breakfast Skillet, Mountain House Beef Stew, Flour Tortillas with either Justin's Almond Butter and Jelly or StarKist Smoky Tuna Pouch, and I always bring along some good Chai Tea for breakfast and some Gatorade packets for the trail. I also broke down and bought myself a Bear Vault BV500 to carry it all in in Bear Country.

I might soon add a new trail bar to the menu. I recently was introduced to a company out of Oregon called Skout Natural. I have tried a couple of the bars and have been impressed. I will soon be posting a full review of four of the five flavors they come in, so stay tuned.

As far as the carry weight goes, I try and keep to following total weights carried including food and water:
  • Myself - No more than 30-35 pounds (preferably 28)
  • Wife - No more than 20-25 pounds
  • Son - No more than 18 pounds
  • Daughter - No more than 12 pounds
  • My buddies - I'll load 'em up. Just kidding, we evenly distribute
Maybe I'll post some of my gear lists for the trips going forward. I keep a spreadsheet with the weights of all our gear. While I'm not a true ultralighter by no means, I do try and keep the carry weights down as much as possible.

Finally, one of my biggest criteria is having available water. I would much rather carry water filtration than carry a gallon of water per day. This may keep me from seeing a few places such as Big Bend, but it's a deal killer for me if I have to haul all of my water.

Once I've got my criteria set, I do a ton of research using sites such as Trails.com, Backpacker Magazine, GORP.com, and asking a few friends. Once I've got my list whittled down to two or three potential sites, I look at permit regulations and availability, use Google Earth to do flyovers to see the lay of the land, search for other sites with trip reports and will even pick up topo maps from REI or mytopo.com to look at the contours to see how rugged the hike might be.

Then, it's time to book it. I try to use my airline miles to get me there and back and any hotel points I can. This helps to keep costs down. I think my trip to the Inyo last year cost me maybe $300 (rental car) for myself, my wife, son and daughter to spend 3 nights in the Inyo (1 in the front country and 2 in the backcountry) plus 1 night/2 rooms in a hotel in Reno, NV. We even flew first class home. Not bad for a 4 day vacation for 4.

One big piece of advice I would add if you are going to take your family members backpacking with you. Have everyone try on all their gear, fully loaded, and walk around with it for a while. Walk around the neighborhood, on the local trails, or wherever, but have them do it. Also, try everything you will eat, prior to getting in the backcountry. Nothing worse than getting back there and finding out that the lasagna isn't like grandma makes and the kids won't eat it. Finally, have everyone do some form of exercise prior to the trip. It's tough enough carrying an extra 15-30 pounds or so, but if you haven't gotten up off the couch for the weeks leading up to the trip, you're really going to be in trouble.

I hope this helps you plan your own backpacking trips. I've done a ton of research on a lot of different places, so feel free to post a question if you have 'em.

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