How to Plan and Prepare for a Hike
So you saw that perfect photo on Instagram, you know the location, YOU HAVE TO SEE IT WITH YOUR OWN EYES.
Great! Do it! But don’t just type the name of the hike and “trailhead” into Google maps and show up in your 8 year-old beater running shoes with a 16oz bottle of water. Use the internet a little more productively and research your selection! Do you know how long it is? Is the weather going to be the same as it is in the city? (spoiler alert, mountain weather is often different) Does anyone know where you are at and who to contact if they don’t hear from you by a certain time? Has the snow melted out of the area? These are all important questions you should have the answer to before you head out.
I am definitely not an expert, but I do my best to be prepared for whatever wilderness situation I am throwing myself into. In June of this year FIVE people had to be rescued off of a popular hike in my area, most of those rescues were because hikers were unprepared for the snow at the top that leads to dangerous conditions. Accidents can happen to anyone at any time, but a lot of them can be avoided with proper research and equipment! So I wanted to do a little write up of how I chose and prepare for hikes.
Step One: Trail Selection.
One of my favorite resources in Washington is WTA, but other states have their own sites or you can also use the app/site Alltrails. When planning out my hikes I do one of two things: 1. If I am not sure where I want to go or what to do, I open up the recent trip reports option on WTA and start reading up on what people are encountering in the mountains; 2. If I do know which hike I want to do, I will search for it specifically and read the trip reports at the bottom. If there are no recent reports I will go back a year to see what conditions were like then (not the most accurate but it will give you a general idea of what to expect) I find all of this research especially important in the shoulder seasons. In June even though it can be up to 80 degrees, much of the snowpack in the mountains hasn’t finished melting. For some hikes this is fine as long as you have micro spikes and poles, for others you should only go if you are well versed with using an ice axe. I am not prepared or knowledgable enough for conditions requiring an ice axe so I save those hikes for later when the snow melts (or when the day comes that I do have the skills required)
EDIT: Another couple of factors in trail selection are elevation and timing. If you see a hike is 3 miles long....don't be fooled into thinking it's short and easy. If that hike is 3 miles long with 3500 ft of elevation gain, it's going to be tough, and it's going to take longer than you expect 3 miles to take. Hopefully in trip reports people are leaving information on how fast they are and how long it took them to get to the top. You want to know when you should start if you are hoping to get off the trail before dark. If you are unsure how long it will take you, start early in the morning and bring a headlamp and extra batteries just in case!
After your hike if you encounter anything not in recent trip reports that you think is useful information to other hikers....be a peach and leave your own trip report!
Step Two: Check the weather.
The main place I check is Mountain Forecast. It hasn’t always been 100% accurate, and you need to know exact peak names, but it definitely gives me a good idea of what to expect. It's easier if you are hiking a specific peak to know what to type in. If you are heading to an alpine lake you will need to do some research to see what peaks are nearby. Personally, if certain conditions are forecasted, I don’t hike…examples being high wind or thunderstorms if the hike is super exposed or white out conditions in general. I also like to know what my chances are for getting a view. Last summer I went on a lot of hikes hoping the weather would magically be better than forecasted. Surprise Surprise…it rarely was, and I did a lot of hikes I wish I would have saved for a nicer day.
Step Three: Pack correctly.
There are tons of lists on the 10 Essentials, so I won’t go into depth on that, but I will talk about what works for me.
What I bring with depends on the season/weather, popularity of the trail, and estimated duration of the hike. Last weekend I did Blanca lake. It’s a steep 12 mile round trip hike, it was forecasted at 75-80 degrees, and there aren’t water sources until you reach the lake. I filled up my 2L bladder with water and a couple of Nuun tablets. I also brought a small filtration device in case I needed to top off my bladder at the lake. It ended up not being necessary, but I'd rather have the extra weight then face dehydration issues on a hot day.
I also packed a small first aid kit, lunch, snacks for myself and my friend (with some extras in case we for some reason got stranded or just needed more food than anticipated) my headlamp, trekking poles, and a puffy jacket in case we got stranded overnight. I left my microspikes at home after reading multiple trip reports saying the snow had all melted out. My trekking poles I actually never ended up using. I mainly like having them along for mental reassurance. If I get tired enough I have them. I also like to think if I sprained my ankle and needed to hobble down I could attempt to use them as makeshift crutches. No idea if this would actually work in practice so I really try to not sprain my ankles.
For navigation I know that personally a compass and map are pretty useless for me. I have no idea how to use them yet. So I generally screenshot the WTA description of a trail (especially any important junctions it might mention) and also screenshot the map of the trail to give me a good idea of what I should be following.
Above are some examples of what I took screenshots of on my recent hike for Blanca Lake. They ended up not being needed, but on other hikes I have definitely pulled out my phone to get a refresher on what to do at junctions that aren't signed!
EDIT: Please also be packed to follow Leave No Trace principles. Are you able to pack out your trash? What about your dogs waste? I always bring ziplock backs in my backpack for this purpose. Do NOT leave these things on the trail and disrespect our public lands and ruin the experience for other people visiting the trail!
Step Four: Let someone know where you are going.
I recently messed up at this one a couple of times, so feel free to learn from my mistakes! A couple of weekends ago when I left for a hike Brian was still sleeping. I gently woke him up, told him the name of the hike I was doing and then left. I didn’t say anything about how long it was or when he could expect me back in cell service. After my friend and I finished the hike and got back to an area with cell coverage, I had a few panicked texts from him asking where I was. I also had a few messages to a group chat we are both in to see if he should call search and rescue for me yet. Lesson learned. The next weekend I gave him my full itinerary including side routes we were planning on taking and a time to call for help if I hadn't returned.
Another time in Banff I started a hike with Brian later in the afternoon after we landed. The trail started out easy to follow and then immediately broke out into a scree field that was extremely steep. We were climbing on all fours trying to make progress. When I turned and looked back I realized how steep it would be to go down later. I thought a little bit more and realized Brian and I had told no one where we were hiking, it was the beginning of Bear season in the area/we had no Bear spray, and we would have to make this sketchy descent in the dark with headlamps later. So I called it and we turned back to the car. This was by no means a hard hike, but I know my limits and made an appropriate decision to turn around.
Moral of the story; always let a responsible person know where you are going and when to expect you back. You can do this via text or phone call, or I also found this resource in case you want to leave someone with a written record of your plans.
Step Five: Know your limits.
There are times in life when you might hear me say, “Don’t be a quitter” but that will never happen when it comes to the backcountry. Quitting and living to see another day is a totally appropriate and smart decision. There are appropriate times to push yourself and appropriate times to say, “this is out of my comfort zone and toolset and I should save this for when I am more prepared”
For me, if I see that a trail requires route finding…I don’t go alone or with someone at my experience level or lower. I wait until I can find a partner or group that has the skills required. If a trail has high avalanche risk in the winter or spring I don’t go because I currently have no idea how to safely travel in avalanche terrain….and the list goes on with different things that will stop me from picking a hike. I know what I am currently capable of. That’s not to say I will never have these skills or am incapable of learning them, I just don’t have them yet and pushing myself to try hikes that require them is asking for a shitty if not potentially life threatening situation.
If you find yourself on a trail and feel like you may have over estimated you or your groups capabilities there is NO shame in turning back. Anyone who judges you and feeds you some line about “no pain no gain” is an idiot and you shouldn’t listen to them. Mother Nature isn’t messing around and she can kill you. Or make you have a super miserable night scared and alone in the woods while you wait to be rescued. I personally haven’t experienced this yet, but I have known many people who have and their stories are enough for me to say…no thanks.
Step Six: Keep Learning.
Like I said. I may not have certain skill sets now, but I definitely want to have them in the future! There are tons of resources to keep learning. One is good ol' fashioned Google. I can't tell you how many times I have googled what to do in case of a bear attack or if I get lost in the woods. Partly because I am a generally anxious person, but also because I think reading the same thing over and over will help me remember what to do case something awful does happen.
There are also great classes you can take. REI is a great resource for this. If you are local to the PNW there is also courses you can take through these guys. The added benefit is being in a class with people that have the same hobbies as you and are pumped to get out there!
I doubt this is the best preparation list out there, but this is what works for me and helps me go out into the mountains feeling prepared. I'd love to hear what anyone has to add! Let me know your thoughts in the comments!