Planning Basics

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?

What if…..

Planning Basics






Whoops! These hikers finished and ran out of food.
Their ride was a day out, and, they called on us to
deliver groceries.

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