Having just planned and completed a thirty mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, I am rather tanned, and still getting some grief about my planning process from some of my participants. Here is a summary of lessons learned. Or unlearned. I still feel rather self-righteous.
Start Early. I started a little over two months early. It apparently was not
enough time. All plans change according to the number of people coming.Many times participants do not confirm in time. Set a deadline. I re-planned the route of our trip a week before going after discovering that we only had one car going, and thus needed to hike a loop. Nonetheless, the earlier you start, the more time you have to deal with unexpected problems and get permits–but the more devastating cancellations are.
Get a good map. Detailed maps are imperative. The best online map of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia was not detailed enough for me to use my compass. To wit, the best use of my compass the entire trip was as a weight for the end of the line for hanging the bear bag. If you can buy one, an official map or guidebook is a good thing to have. (My local outfitter was sold out.) Elevation profiles and detailed descriptions are helpful, to a point. (The mileage to the privies on side trails in the detailed description is actually the mileage of the trails to the shelters.) It is important to realize, however, that a mile in mountainous country will feel like five because of the vertical distance covered.
Double-check your best source. For the reasons mentioned before, and
because many points on one description are often not mentioned in another–and vice-versus. Research many different sources and kinds of maps. Topo maps are good resources, as long as one has a standard of comparison. Exactly how high is six hundred feet? And how hard is it to climb that high in two-thirds of a mile? The surface of the trail also makes a big difference. It is easier to climb both purely rock and purely dirt trails, than it is to climb trails of dirt and rock, mostly because rock comes loose under the feet, wasting half of the effort one puts into hiking.
Know where to find water and shelter. Ideally, each camping spot should have water within a quarter-mile. Running down Blood Mountain in twilight to replenish our water supplies is not one of my fondest memories. Not all camp sites or streams are on the map. Many streams are seasonal, so know where the reliable ones are, know the mileage between them and pack enough bottles for an all-day dry hike if one looks likely.
Have a contingency plan. Especially on the weekend, camping spots fill up quickly. Note alternate camping spots and sources of water in case of changes in plan, and remember, in mountainous country, these spots are generally not as near as the mileage would suggest. Leave a copy of your route with someone, and note highway crossings, approach trails, and takeout points in case of emergency. If one is really organized, one may plan an entire alternate trip for if the weather turns sour, fewer participants show up than expected, or fewer cars are available than planned.
Test your equipment. Borrowed equipment is especially prone to malfunction. Even if someone demonstrates a water purifier for you, take it home, play with it, remove the batteries and replace them, and see if you can making the tool work yourself, with your eyes closed. Trying to purify water at twilight with a temperamental Steri-pen was not fun. Neither is drinking water with chlorine tablets in it–test the tablets too, and find something to temper the taste. The same goes for backpacks. Load new backpacks down, put them on, and adjust them. If any weight sits on the shoulders, than you are doing it wrong. Readjust. Get a new backpack if it is not possible to make the backpack feel like a glorified fanny pack. That is what it is. The straps are only there to keep the backpack on, not to carry weight. The same rule goes for new boots. Test them until they are no longer new.
Insist on a shakedown. Have everyone unpack their packs one by one, and leave anything that is not essential. The backpack should only be a quarter of its wearer’s weight at most when fully loaded, including water. (A gallon of water is eight and a third pounds, not including the weight of the bottle/bladder.) No one is too experienced to get a shakedown, and anyone who insists on bringing more than a pound of excess stuff is better off staying at home than saddling others with their junk or slowing everyone down, as they inevitably will. Shakedown hikes are also a good idea. When someone has to hike up Stone Mountain with a loaded pack, they will both get used to their equipment, and voluntarily shed equipment, at least in theory.
Ask experienced backpackers for advice. In the first place, they will be a grave help in the shakedown. Secondly, if they have been in the area before, they will supply details that the map neglected to mention, such as how far
the next campsite is from a particular point and how far the next campsite feels. Someone who has been in the area before will also know whether a stream is a reliable source of water, as well as the surface composition of the trail. The Freeman Trail is a boulder field, littered with fallen trees. It looks like a whitewater riverbed that has been moved to the shoulder of a mountain. I did not discover that until I spoke with someone who had been on the trail before. A hiker who can mentally measure distances is an asset, even if he has never been in the area. All experienced backpackers, however, will probably be doomed to queries of, “Are we there yet?”
Plan for your participants. One lesson I could have learned before coming was to know what my hikers could do. This is where a shakedown hike would have come in handy. Nevertheless, it will lighten the load on the slowest person if you put them in front and make everyone go at their pace. The slow pace will hopefully help everyone go on for longer without as many rests. Hopefully, this will also help the slowest person to go at their own speed. Than again, it may make them feel that they are slowing everyone else down, and they may go to the back, where they worry about trying to keep up. At this point, everyone else might need to take a share of their load. I do not know how to set the pace to a comfortable level yet, and I am barely able to carry my share of the load, much less lighten someone else’s.
It is always the trip planner’s fault. Rest assured that any unforeseen difficulties on the trail, even those not mentioned in the best of sources will be blamed on the planner. There are three ways to deal with this. 1)Plan by committee–delegate. Less blame sits on any one person’s shoulders. Even if no one does what the planner asks them, the principle planner can shift the blame. 2)Do not come on any of the trips you plan. The advantage is that when the hikers feel like strangling you, you will be well out of reach. The disadvantage is that neither you nor anyone else will ever go hiking again if you are the only one willing to plan. 3)Do your best and roll with it.
No one is perfect. No trip is perfect. Do your best in the planning stage, and then take lots of pictures.
If anyone knows a better map of the Georgia Appalachian Trail please feel free to link to it, or send me the ISBN. Please. Backpacking stories are also welcome.