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Contingency Planning for Long Distance Hike

Spend any significant time backpacking, and you’re going to have something go wrong. Usually they are pretty small things that are more an annoyance than a major problem – being prepared for the rain when it starts pouring down, the air mattress springs a slow leak, the headlamp gets turned on in the pack and runs the batteries down, or you forgot your spoon. As most trips are often just for a weekend when the car, warmth, dryness, and safety of civilization aren’t that far away, it can usually be chalked up to an excellent learning experience and typically makes for a great story. But when transitioning to doing long distance backpacking trips, more planning is required to think through what could possibly go wrong and to come up with contingency plans to allow you to successfully complete your journey.

rock monster

Say you’ve always dreamed of doing that long distance backpacking trip – the John Muir Trail has always been on your bucket list – and you have finally gotten around to committing to do it. Permits have been reserved. The vacation time has been set aside and approved. Countless hours have been spent obsessing over your gear to optimize it and make sure you have exactly what you need and nothing more. You’ve taken several weekend backpacking trips to shake everything down to make sure it all works exactly as you planned. You crossed off every ‘t’ and dotted the proverbial ‘i’. The date of trip finally arrives and you hop on that plane ready for the adventure of your lifetime, fully confident in all the preparation you’ve done for the trip. What could possibly go wrong?


The John Muir Trail did a number on these trekking poles. They weren’t the only broken ones the author saw on the trail.

Hopefully you considered this question seriously as you were doing all your milage and other trip planning. The exact same thing that make so many long distance backpacking trips such an adventure – their remoteness and the distances involved -can make completing them successfully that much more of an issue if something does go wrong. Usually when considering what could go wrong in the back country, the initial though is of the big things – a fall or major injury, a bear getting at the food, getting hit with severe weather – things we know would ruin a trip or be potentially life threatening. But long distance backpacking is often about the psychological challenge of it all, and sometimes it can be the smaller things that challenge us mentally, meaning how we deal with them can make or break a trip.

For these kinds of incidents, the only thing that can substitute for hard earned experience or preparedness planning is pure ingenuity. Did I choose the right backpack fit? If you have a shelter that uses both of your trekking poles, what will you do if one of them breaks? Finding a stick to substitute may be okay in the woods of the mid-Atlantic, but won’t work so well if you’re camping in the high country where many of the trees might not be that tall to begin with, if there are any trees at all. You use a free standing shelter? What will you do if one of the poles breaks? I’ve had a hip belt buckle break during a thru-hike when it got stepped on while the pack was sitting on the ground. That’s not an issue you start off thinking you’ll have to deal with, but it can be a major nuisance.

Be sure to check out part 2 of this article

5 Responses to Contingency Planning for Long Distance Hike

  1. Brian Horst February 24, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    Ironically enough, shortly after submitting this post I took a hard fall on day 2 of a 4 day xc-ski trip that totally tore off the hip-belt webbing on the pack I was using. Seriously, who ever expects that to happen?!? Glad I was packing that large sewing needle and some floss!

  2. Fireweed February 27, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    I invariably take a tumble while hiking in the desert and puncture a soft sided water container like a Sawyer or Platypus on prickly pear cactus thorns or else forget and lay my pack down on the ground without inspecting it for thorn encrusted fallen cactus pieces. Two solutions–only carry hard sided water containers on the outside of the pack, or carry “Glue Dots” that I bought from Michael’s craft store. I just peel one small “dot” of rubbery glue off the paper and slap it over the hole and cover it with duct tape. The duct tape alone seems to start leaking, but the combination is a permanent fix. I have continued using the bladders for weeks after the puncture. This would also work for a leak in my air mattress, although I am very careful to never deploy it outside of my tent. I have not tried the air mattress repair kit on the water bladder–it may work, too.

  3. Dr. Suuz (Susan Adams) February 28, 2015 at 5:25 am #

    On our 2013 JMT hike, my friends’ 2-person tent frame malfunctioned the night we camped at Grouse Meadow. A fortunate find of a curved nail in a tree and a broken hiking pole tip provided a repair that lasted through the last night on the trail before summiting Whitney.

  4. anutherrick March 2, 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Ingenuity is great. Sometimes luck comes thru so I can keep the ingenuity in my back pocket for later use. On a three day trip around Matterhorn Canyon I left the fly in the car since weather was perfect. Late afternoon of the second day big dark clouds are rolling in. We went off trail a few hundred feet to set up. There in a small clearing sat a 6’x8′ piece of Tyvek, probably a ground cloth someone had left. Worked perfectly as a fly. Possibly saved a marriage. One time I dropped my pack and headed off to a big rock, swearing because I had forgotten the TP. Behind the big rock is a half roll of TP sitting on a ledge. Maybe it’s luck or maybe there are enough hikers like me, forgetting and leaving things, so that it all evens out.

  5. Jeff Hersey March 13, 2015 at 10:18 pm #

    When things go wrong a great attitude is one of your best assets. Overcome and adapt to your situation and embrace the challenge. Example: On my 2014 PCT hike my feet had swollen to the point my toes were bumping the ends of my shoes. I soon had blisters on my big toes. 40 miles out of Sierra City I sat down, took out my knife and cut out the toes out of my shoes. Coolest pair of sandals I ever owned! There is always something you can do………….. HYOH “Raggs”

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