You’ve decided to make the transition from day hiking to overnight excursions into the backcountry. Sleeping under the stars, carrying all that you need on your back; the opportunity to disconnect from the everyday stresses of town and city life.
Whilst there is no universal blueprint by which each and every multi-day hike can be planned, there are certain basic questions and issues that need to be addressed before heading out into the wilderness:
- Alone or with a group?
- Leave trip details
- The Unexpected
Alone or with a Group?
“Never walk alone” is a common refrain heard from Park Rangers, Liverpool Football (Soccer) fans and Rodgers and Hammerstein aficionados the world over. In so much as it relates to hiking, it can be considered sound advice for beginners and/or experienced hikers venturing into unfamiliar conditions. It should not, however, be taken as an all-encompassing gospel truth. Whether you hike solo or with a group depends on three principal factors:
- Your level of experience.
- The prevailing conditions.
- Personal preference.
Walking alone in the wilderness can be immensely rewarding. However, problems can occur when hikers venture solo into terrain and conditions for which they are not prepared. It is therefore important to always balance intangible considerations such as freedom, self-determination and connection with nature, with a realistic assessment of your backcountry skill set.
Click here for an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of hiking solo or in a group.
Before undertaking any multi-day hike it pays to be in good shape. Why? The fitter you are the less you struggle; both physically and mentally. This particularly holds true during the first few days of a hike. By being in good shape, you are able to focus more on the beauty of your surroundings and less on the distraction of how exhausted you feel. In addition, a good level of pre-hike conditioning minimizes the likelihood of stress/repetition related injuries such as knee and achilles ailments.
One of the keys to a safe and enjoyable backcountry experience is pre-hike research. Guidebooks, maps, historical weather data, trip reports of other hikers; wilderness travel can be unpredictable, but by arming yourself with the necessary knowledge before setting out, you improve your chances of successfully dealing with whatever Mother Nature may throw your way.
Once you have obtained all the general information pertinent to your journey, it’s time to work out the details of your proposed route:
- Estimate times and distances; both overall as well as for individual sections.
- Determine possible campsite areas.
- Pinpoint the location of water sources.
- Identify notable landmarks and/or points of reference along your chosen route.
- Note potentially hazardous areas and possible evacuation routes in case of a worst-case scenario (see Weather below).
Research the terrain and conditions you are likely to encounter and pack accordingly (see Gear). Keep things simple. Emphasise necessities, rather than luxuries. Go through each item you plan on carrying and ask yourself two questions: 1. Do I need it?; 2. What will happen if I don’t have it? Your own wilderness experiences will ultimately be your best teacher in regards to what you can and can’t do without (see Going Light).
Three pre-hike gear tips:
1. Keep all your hiking equipment in one cupboard and/or area. This will save a lot of last minute rushing around trying to locate everything. Definitely speaking from personal experience on this one. 😉
2. Take your big-ticket items (e.g. shelter, backpack, stove, filter) for a test run before going on a multi-day trip. It’s never ideal to discover that your filter doesn’t work, just as you’re about to “purify” water from a pond filled with cow-patties.
3. The same principle applies to your footwear…………only double. Irrespective of which model you decide to go with, head out for at least a few shorter hikes before embarking on a multi-day trek. Your feet need time to adapt. This especially holds true if you purchase leather boots, which may require weeks of regular wear before they feel completely comfortable (see Footwear for details).
No matter whether you are a Gourmet, Spartan or somewhere in between, food will play a significant role in your hiking plans. On shorter trips of a week or less, our body’s natural reserves are such that we can pretty much eat anything and still be relatively ok. However, for longer walks, nutritional (i.e. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. Ideally a balance should be struck between the following five elements: quantity, quality, taste, variety, simplicity.
For details, see The Hiker’s Diet in the Health & Safety section.
Before setting out, always check the latest weather forecast. If conditions take a turn for the worse, you need to be aware of your options in regards to:
- Emergency shelters or campsites.
- River crossings that may become impassable during heavy rains.
- Canyons that may pose a flash flood danger in the event of a sudden downpour.
- Exposed areas such as treeless ridge lines……….whereabouts can you descend if an electrical storm is approaching?
- Evacuation route options.
See Nature’s Emergencies in the Health & Safety section for more details.
Leave Trip Details
Always leave your hiking itinerary details with a responsible contact person. Once you have completed your walk, be sure to inform the contact that you have finished.
You may have planned your trip to the umpteenth degree, but Mother Nature has ideas of her own. When you enter the wilderness by all means be as prepared as you possibly can, but at the same time go with an open and adaptable mindset. Schedules that are set in stone are rarely a good thing when it comes to backcountry travel.