I subscribe to many hiking, backpacking, and kayaking forums online as well as being a moderator for some. I do this mostly to learn. On occasion, I’m fortunate to give advice.
Recently, I’ve seen the question pop up several times: “Who here doesn’t plan and just wings it when backpacking?”
When I see this, I go into Outfitter Mode. My typical response:
“As an outfitter, I highly recommend that do not neglect planning out your trip. Unless you want to be rescued. And, my rates are Distance x Stupidity.”
A little snarky, yes. But, I can tell you from experience, most of my rescues are not injury related. Of the hundreds of rescues we’ve conducted, I can count on one hand how many were from a legitimate injury (and some can say that with proper physical training, you can “plan” by being fit). The rest were clearly from a lack of planning.
Planning takes time. It involves thinking. It means meeting with others in your party. And it has many faces. Personally, I like to play the “What if….” game when planning.
What if we get lost? What if we get injured? What if we run late? What if we run out of food?
Whoops! These hikers finished and ran out of food.
Their ride was a day out, and, they called on us to
What experience are you seeking?
The utopian answer is “I want to be in a remote place, where I can set up camp wherever I want, and not see another human for days”. Most of my inquiries are for Pictured Rocks, so, I have to let them down easy when I tell them they won’t get that experience.
It used to be it was about getting back to nature and seeing very few or no other people. Now it seems to be more of a social event especially with the younger crowd. It is definitely a spectrum, as you gain experience, you’ll find your comfort level to the number of others you’ll encounter.
Wildlife viewing is another reason folks like to get out on a trail. In the Great Lakes, the best time to view wildlife is in the spring and very early summer. Once you get past Independence day, the wildlife becomes less active. If you are a birdwatcher, you’ll enjoy yourself more than if you are into turtles and snakes, especially in October.
Wild, sweeping views is another popular experience hikers seek. It may explain why permits on the west end of Pictured Rocks fill much faster than on the east end. And, it may explain why it’s like pulling teeth to get folks to hike outside of the park, even though the trail follows Lake Superior for another 40 miles to the east!
Where can you find the experiences you seek?
If you want to find moose and be out of cell phone range for a week, The Florida Trail isn’t the trail you seek. If you want wide, sweeping landscapes with tall mountains, the Continental Divide and Pacific Trail is for you. Not so much the North Country Trail. Our mountains are just older.
The number one question I get is about wildlife. Will I see a bear? A moose? Bald Eagles? What are the mosquitoes like? Coming in a close second is “How easy is it to follow the trail?”. Having a good time usually means being able to find and follow the trail tread and markers. I would agree with that! Pretty frustrating when you lose the trail. In a state or national park, very unlikely. Wilderness area? Be prepared to lose it it, but in most instances it’s a momentary thing.
These two are “ultra runners” and ran the entire 42.5 mile trail through Pictured Rocks in a day. They brought with them an overnight kit with 10 essentials just in case they needed to spend the night on the trail
What type of route?
I’d say most backpackers seek out a loop. No need to shuttle or spot a car as your begin and end point are the same. However, in Michigan, anyways, loops seem to be very popular and quite frankly, overcrowded. In Michigan, the Manistee River Loop, Porcupine Mountains, and the Beaver/Chapel loops are quite popular. No shortage of hikers there.
Linear trails mean you’ll either have to hike out, then back on the same route, or, arrange for a shuttle/carspot. Many are resistant to paying an outfitter to shuttle them, but, if you do the math, manytimes it is much cheaper to do that then bring a second vehicle. In addition, you lose time hiking on the trail moving cars around. This fall, I’m looking at either a 4 hour shuttle, or, if we brought two vehicles, losing two days to moving vehicles around. Plus, all the extra gas driving 18 hours to where we need to be. I’d rather fork over the shuttle money to get an extra two days on the trail.
An option that works with young and/or new backpackers is setting up a base camp. Base camps work well where there is a network of trails. Many state parks can accommodate base camping. In Michigan, Tahquamenon Falls, Porcupine Mountains, Yankee Springs, Fort Custer, Waterloo, and Pinckney State Parks have camping and many trails. Pictured Rocks as well, although, you may have to drive to some of the trailheads.
Routes are usually dependent on the skill level and stamina of the group. If you’ve got a six year old with you, they are too heavy to carry and too small to hoof it 15 miles in a day. So, a basecamp, or short days may be for you. If you are doing a linear trail, you’ll need to arrange transportation via shuttle, spotting, or LYFT/UBER
How many days?
The actual, on the ground days on trail is important to know. But, you also need to include travel time to and from trailheads. On my last adventure, it was a two day drive for two in my party to get to a campground about 30 miles from the trailhead. Then, a half day drive, to get to the actual trailhead. On the way home, we red-eyed it back home with an 18 hour drive!
Food will most likely be you limiting factor. Most of our customers are out 3-5 days. Seven days is really pushing it without a re-supply. For trips lasting longer than a week, you can always send packages ahead to a Post Office, rely on friends/family to deliver, or use an outfitter. You can even cache your food in a bear-proof cooler and hide it.
My last trip my companions were Mike Otis (L) and
Keith Otis (R). I’m the disheveled guy in the middle.
Who are your companions?
This can be the most important decision, you, and, the others in your group can make. There are probably more variables and factors in deciding who will be part of the group. Probably the most important factor that I have found successful is going with people whose company you already enjoy.
Each person will have strengths and weaknesses. It may be wise to identify those skills you are good at and those that you are not, and, seek out others who are good at the things you are not.
Matching confidence, experience, & skill levels to a complimentary trail is also very important. No sense in four newbies being dropped off in the Denali wilderness, although, I’m sure it’s been done. Or, attempting to climb even a slightly technical trail when no one has had any experience. And, if you are going to rely on your cell phone for navigation, probably doing so in an area with a cell phone signal, numerous road crossings, and the opportunity to see other hikers on a regular basis would be a good idea.
Time of year?
If you hate biting insects, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in early June may not be a good idea. If you hate humidity, starting the Appalachian Trail in July out of Springer won’t bode well for a comfortable hike.
Every year I receive a few calls from enterprising college students looking to hike Pictured Rocsk on their Spring Break to get a northern woods hiking experience. I always ask “What brand of snowshoes will you be bringing?”. Most college spring breaks are the first week of March, when there is 3-6 feet of snow on the trail and all the feeder roads are closed. Always call ahead to ask about trail & road closures. Even in the summer, especially out west.
Another factor the vast majority overlook, especially in Michigan, is the danger of wildfire. Knowing if you are in a fire season, what the current conditions are, and having a plan in case there is a wildfire during your hike is a wise move.
Always research the climate, as, we all have temperature, weather, and humidity ranges of comfort. I hate the heat (over 80) and humidity (over 60 degrees dew point), therefore, I find most of my Great Lakes backpacking in late August through October. The Florida Trail in January may suit my climate needs as well.
In a future blog, I’ll discuss planning for Food, Shelter, Footwear, Clothing, & Navigation
I was recently asked by Chris Gray, moderator of the Facebook Group Northern Michigan Hiking, Backpacking, and Kayaking (and trip leader), to recommend 2-3 day / 40 mile stretches of backpacking opportunities in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Naturally, I gravitate towards the North Country Trail. Chris asked me to leave out Pictured Rocks, as, that is the most obvious and recently, most utilized (and some say over-run) segment of North Country Trail in the UP.
The North Country Trail Association (www.northcountrytrail.org) has several trip planning resources on their website. One of which I reference several times a week in helping customers and folks like Chris, plan backpacking adventures. Click on “The Trail” then “Map and Planning Resources”. Scroll down and click on “Launch the Online Map”. The NCT Online Map is a treasure trove of information. Water sources, parking, camping, and length of trail segments are all available. It even shows half mile and mile markers of trail, making it very easy for anyone, even me, to quickly find a forty mile segment of trail.
There are several base maps to choose from, from streets, to USGS topo, to aerial views.
Craig Lake State Park to Silver Lake Basin parking is about a 35 mile journey which brings you through the McCormick Wilderness. There are no services. Both trailheads are accessible by car. This is a wild area with no services and a segment of trail few backpack. In addition, it really isn’t a day use area so anyone you encounter is probably there on a multi-day journey themselves.
Little Garlic Falls to Laughing Whitefish Falls is 40 miles
Coming in from the west to the Little Garlic Falls parking & trailhead is mostly a gravel & paved road walk. From Little Garlic Falls Trailhead the NCT is a mix of tread, paved trails, & sidewalk through Marquette, bike trail out past Harvey, then back to tread as it leads you to Laughing Whitefish Falls. Ideally, you could stay in downtown Marquette, then the trail shelter at Lakenland Sculpture Park (http://www.lakenenland.com/) then finish at Laughing Whitefish Falls.
You’ll experience the Donnelely Wilderness, Hiking to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain (on a side trail, if you so choose), wild Lake Superior Beach, downtown Marquette, the sandy plains along lake Superior east of Harvey, and the heavy woods near Laughing Whitefish Falls.
As you come into Marquette, you’ll encounter many types of trail users, from dog walkers, to roller bladers, bicyclists, and fitness walkers. Outside of Marquette, past Harvey, you’ll have the trail to yourself.
Grand Marais NCT trailhead to Mouth of Two Hearted River is about 40 miles. Wonderful hike.
It continues to amaze me when a potential customer calls me and wants me to recommend a Pictured Rocks itinerary that is free of people and full of seclusion. My answer is invariably “February”. Pictured Rocks is a National Park, and, it is so popular the park uses a permit system to control the number of backpackers in order to afford everyone a quality experience. That being said, hiking east or west of the park will afford you a quality hiking experience free of the hoards of day trippers and seemingly numerous backpackers.
Two miles east of Grand Marias is a North Country Trailhead with parking that is your gateway to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The trail winds along the Lake Superior Shore. Sometimes up on a bluff, sometimes inland to avoid private land, and others right along the beach. Be prepared to lose the trail as Lake Superior has eroded bluffs that carried portions of the trail that were close to the edge. When in doubt, walk the beach.
This is by far the most popular backpacking route on the NCT outside of the Porkies, Tahquamenon, and Pictrured Rocks. That being said, the traffic on this segment is about 5% of the popular parks. It is unlikely you’ll see another backpacker. But, you will be walking through a state park and several state forest campgrounds. Plus, the beach is popular with day trippers as there is relatively easy access to the beach along most of this stretch. Bring your fishing pole as you’ll encounter several trout streams.
Mouth of the Two Hearted to Mouth of Tahquamenon is 40 miles.
Should I mention there is a brewery on this segment? Falls Brewery at Upper Falls, a must stop!
The NCT turns south from the mouth of the Two Hearted River and enters an area ravished by the Duck Lake Burn of 2012. The trail goes through burnt out pine forest, which is beginning to regenerate to the point you are seeing less and less of the damage caused by this massive, 21,000 acre forest fire http://greatlakesecho.org/2015/01/06/when-fire-changes-the-landscape/
After passing Culhane Lake, the trail leaves the fire burnt area and continues south. Cross over CR500 at the Little Two Hearted River and follow a snowmobile trail for several miles before turning east and entering Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Even though the park sees near a million visitors a year, most do not venture more than 500 feet from a paved surface. The only exception is the popular hike between Upper and Lower Falls. But other than that, you’ll probably not see another day hiker.
There are three backcountry campsites in the park, however, you have to pre-register to use them. Which can be a pain if you are hiking in from the east as two of the campsites are before you reach the ranger station. Call ahead and secure your reservations.
After Lower Falls, the trail traverses old dunes, swamps, streams, and along the Tahquamenon River before ending at Rivermouth Campground.
Feel free to contact me about planning your backpacking adventure and helping with logistics.
Next time, we will cover a couple more segments of NCT and two long spur trails that connect into the NCT