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Resources, Tools, and Processes for Planning Nontechnical, Off-Trail Backpacking Routes

Resources, Tools, and Processes for Planning Nontechnical, Off-Trail Backpacking Routes

The aim of this text is to doc the method I typically use to plan and execute off-trail journeys within the mountains utilizing digital mapping and navigation instruments. My general aim is to offer the reader with a part of a framework that can be utilized for planning mountainous, off-trail routes which are achievable by hikers with out mountaineering expertise in a protected and environment friendly method.

The choice to go to a specific area for a backpacking journey might embrace one of many following:

  • It’s near house and doesn’t require a whole lot of journey.
  • It’s removed from residence, so it feels unique.
  • “I saw others hiking here on Instagram, and it looks like a neat place.”
  • My household is visiting the in-laws and this close by wilderness space will probably be a pleasant place to decompress.

Nevertheless, upon getting settled upon the general area, it’s time to plan the precise route. This course of is extra nuanced and complicated, so now that you’re away from the in-laws, you’ll have to drill down to find out extra particular goals.

Goal #1: Achievement of a Progress Objective

The most typical approach to plan a route is to plan a path from level A to level B (a traverse or thru-hike) or a path that begins and ends on the similar location (a loop). Out-and-back and lollipop routes are widespread as nicely.

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Goal #2: Go to Particular Locations

A part of your route planning course of might embrace the necessity to go to a selected place as an goal, and this preliminary want might then dictate the beginning and/or finish level of a visit. Fishermen could also be looking for trophy trout at a specific lake, climbers could also be tackling a specific route on a peak, and photographers could also be eager to seize a picture of a specific scene.

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In case you have a tolerance for slightly little bit of struggling, together with route planning and navigation expertise, you possibly can attain places like this which are far off-trail. Lakes like this one maintain treasures for the intrepid.

Goal #three: Maximize Aesthetics

A route might tackle the aesthetic preferences of the hiker. For instance, within the case the place two routes traverse the identical mountain vary between factors A and B, aesthetic values might come into play when making a choice. Aesthetics might embrace issues just like the consolation afforded by tenting places or scenic magnificence.

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Lots of my mountain routes spend a number of time above the treeline. Tenting in a location with expansive views is among the biggest rewards of mountain journey.

Goal #four: Maximize Effectivity

Planning an environment friendly route is a numbers recreation and an train that appeals extra to left-brained hikers. An environment friendly route may be one which minimizes the mileage, elevation achieve/loss, or journey time between factors A and B. Maximizing effectivity requires an acute understanding of terrain and topography.

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One of many routes I’ve taken within the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness a variety of occasions travels in a nearly-perfect straight line for greater than 15 miles – all off-trail, and all above the treeline. We affectionately discuss with it by its compass path: “Hey, let’s take the 285 over to Zimmer Creek!” The route travels alongside a pure fault line, with solely minor ups and downs alongside the best way.

Goal #5: Reduce Danger

When planning a route that’s designed to attenuate danger, environmental and different goal hazards have to be thought-about. Terrain steepness and problem, publicity to inclement climate whereas mountaineering and tenting, river crossings, and snow circumstances are some things that have to be thought-about when assessing the danger of a specific route.

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Negotiating a flooded canyon in Utah (Lake Powell space). On this occasion, understanding how the extremely variable reservoir ranges affect your capability to journey via a canyon can have a dramatic influence on whether or not or not a route right here is satisfactory.

These are the 5 aims I often contemplate when planning a route. You could have a unique record!

Within the previous days, I deliberate my routes at a kitchen desk with USGS quadrangle maps and a pot of espresso. Typically, relying on the world I used to be visiting, I might learn mountaineering or climbing guidebooks for further beta. Now, between the web and digital imagery, we’ve entry to a big physique of data that we will faucet into for route planning assets.

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Viewing 3D satellite tv for pc imagery in the course of the “route discovery” strategy of the 2018 Whitetail Trek, as a part of Backpacking Mild’s Wilderness Adventures Program.

Journey Report Web sites

Journey report web sites present a few of the greatest sources of beta for obscure routes.

Those I exploit most frequently embrace the Boards and Summit Publish. My gateway into these web sites is most frequently a Google search for particular place names (lakes, peaks, trails, and so forth.).


Youtube is turning into an more and more helpful useful resource as properly, as video manufacturing turns into simpler and cheaper for the plenty.

I’ve found some worth out of journey report movies posted by others. Typically, it is good to see video examples of surrounding terrain and tenting areas, or to see water circumstances in backcountry whitewater canyons when planning a packrafting trek.

Google Picture Search

A Google Picture search may be useful for evaluating the scenic magnificence of varied locations, or for amassing beta on off-trail routes by analyzing high-resolution photographs taken by others.

I exploit Google picture search primarily to see what the routes over obscure mountain passes may appear to be, by looking for pictures of peak and/or lake basin names.

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This picture offered the beta I might use to reconcile with my notes about earlier climbs of this move.


Climbing guidebooks reminiscent of these provided by Falcon Press present priceless info for starting and intermediate hikers wanting for fascinating trails that others have accomplished.

Lengthy distance path guidebooks and databooks are thought-about all however important for these planning thru-hikes, and present further details about resupply and different logistics (e.g., lodging, eating, transportation). A wealth of data is obtainable for widespread lengthy distance trails just like the Appalachian Path or the Pacific Crest Path.

Climbing guidebooks supply beta for off-trail journey that may be invaluable for extra skilled hikers eager to plan extra artistic routes. A few of my favorites embrace The Excessive Sierra, Washington Scrambles, The Beckey Guides for the Cascades, and Choose Peaks of Higher Yellowstone.

Fishing guidebooks aren’t simply for fishermen. They typically include descriptions of obscure off-trail routes to lakes and streams present in distant wilderness areas. Marcuson’s fishing information has given me extra significant beta about mountaineering within the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness than nearly some other useful resource. Studying the revealed fishing journals from old-timers like Finis Mitchell not solely reveal worthwhile route info, but in addition add immensely to your understanding of the pioneers that trekked earlier than you.

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Some trusted sources.


Topo maps stay the de facto normal for each backcountry route planning and real-time navigation. Paper maps supply the benefit of with the ability to see bigger areas directly. Spreading paper maps throughout a big desk is a helpful apply for planning longer routes.


Planning a visit throughout your complete Bob Marshall Wilderness requires loads of massive maps – right here, tabletop mapping with paper maps is greatest for taking a look at massive image routes throughout huge landscapes.

USGS quadrangle maps (1:24,000 scale) present one of the best element for planning off-trail routes, however you should not depend on their outdated path places and property boundaries. Digital (e.g., web-based) maps like Caltopo or Hillmap supply some great benefits of entry to complete world-wide topographic map units, further layers (e.g., route shading, slope angles, satellite tv for pc imagery), and route-making (and route evaluation, e.g., mileage, elevation achieve/loss) utilizing built-in path and waypoint instruments.

Path maps which are up-to-date and based mostly on the newest GIS knowledge are worthwhile for figuring out the precise location and standing of maintained trails. My favourite path maps are 1:100okay maps from Beartooth Publishing and Trails Illustrated – they’re waterproof, light-weight and compact, cowl giant areas, double-sided, and sturdy. Simply as you should not depend on 1:24okay USGS quads for path navigating, you should not depend on 1:100okay path maps for complicated off-trail journey.

Satellite tv for pc Imagery

Satellite tv for pc imagery can present details about terrain and floor cowl that may’t be gleaned from different sources. I exploit satellite tv for pc imagery layers in Caltopo to take a look at rivers (for each packrafting and factors of crossing), to determine wildfire burn areas (not my favourite locations for off-trail journey!), to determine potential tenting places, and to determine cliffy terrain for alpine routes.

Google Earth is one of the best device I’ve discovered for figuring out extraordinarily steep terrain which will pose issues for non-technical trekking. It is based mostly on satellite tv for pc imagery, however perspective might be modified to a profile view that provides a a lot better really feel for steepness. As well as, with the ability to “fly over” a route and visualize it earlier than you try it is extremely thrilling!

Member’s Solely Content material

Login as a Premium or Limitless Member to learn the great Efficiency Evaluation and Writer Commentary sections of this evaluate:

  • The Route Planning Course of (A Case Research)
  • How Route Planning Works: Linear, Chaotic, and Mesh Community Fashions
  • Case Research: Princess Lake to Froze-to-Dying Lake by way of the Froze-to-Demise Plateau
  • Overview – How you can Handle the 5 Goals
  • Assets and Processes
  • Topo Mapping
  • Route Discovery Utilizing Slope Angle Evaluation
  • Evaluating Route Hazards Utilizing Satellite tv for pc Imagery
  • Case Research in Slope Angle Evaluation: Explorer Cross in Utah’s Uinta Vary
  • Making use of the Case Research to the Froze-to-Dying Plateau Traverse
  • Assessing Route Problem – Distance and Elevation Profiles
  • Power Mile Calculations
  • Assessing Route Problem – Correcting Power Miles for Off-Trail Terrain
  • Selecting a Route
  • Different Assets
  • Utilizing Google Earth to Determine Terrain Hazards (Video)
  • Journey Studies
  • Picture Search

Member’s solely model is 5,000 phrases, consists of 30 pictures and different photographs, and 1 educational video.

Along with a number of the assets I’ve outlined on this article already (Caltopo, Hillmap, Google Earth, and Google Picture Search are the 4 I exploit probably the most), right here is the gear I’d tackle a trek to enrich my digital route planning course of:

  • Gaia GPS – I’ve discovered Gaia to be one of the practical, quick, usable, and useful items of cellular (smartphone) software program to make use of on a trek. I can obtain detailed (24okay) map units alone with satellite tv for pc imagery and GPX information (routes) to my telephone and have all of my route planning maps and imagery at hand so I can use them in actual time. Gaia and a water-proof (IPX6+) smartphone are the 2 most dear advances in backcountry GPS know-how, and I discover the Gaia Membership to be properly well worth the cash.
  • Garmin inReach Mini – Having a tool that I can use to speak with my spouse and maybe negotiate alternate exit factors with my pickup experience has given me plenty of flexibility in how I strategy backcountry journeys. Not am I confined to climbing a selected as-planned itinerary, and can change my route on the fly as alternatives come up or circumstances change. Learn my full assessment of the Garmin inReach Mini right here.
  • Garmin Fenix 5X Plus – I am a little bit of a knowledge junkie, so something I can do to watch my physiological efficiency whereas trying troublesome mountaineering routes over assorted terrain goes a great distance at calibrating my fashions for assessing the problem of proposed mountaineering routes. For instance, my use of power mile correction elements above for numerous terrain varieties are a direct results of amassing physiological knowledge utilizing instruments just like the Garmin Fenix 5X Plus.

Many curmudgeons will lament the daybreak of the digital age and yearn for an easier time the place one crossed the mountains with nothing greater than a liquid-filled compass, a tattered map, a peanut butter sandwich, and grit.

I’ve to confess that I typically slip again into this camp, and benefit from the artwork of exploration with out the affect of people who have gone earlier than me or help from satellites.

Nevertheless, I consider that the digital instruments that at the moment are out there to us supply an elevated variety of alternatives to push our limits and see extra terrain. Their use has considerably improved my security within the backcountry and my willingness to take calculated dangers.

I hope this dialogue of the instruments that I exploit, and presentation of how I exploit them, has the potential to offer some worth to you as you embark by yourself exploratory journeys of the backcountry.

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The rewards of going off-trail embrace fewer individuals, extra dramatic vistas, and the therapeutic solitude of silence. Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana.

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