February 24

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?

poles
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