Introduction – Complex Backpacking Trips
Nine years ago, a friend of mine planned a backpacking trip for twelve hikers and asked if I wanted to go. Though I had been hiking, horseback riding, and camping most of my life, I knew little about logistics of planning a backpacking trip. In September 2007, I took an inexperienced and impulsive leap onto one of Canada’s most challenging and scenic trails.
My first West Coast Trail (WCT) trip, though memorable, did not reflect a fine example of backpacking skills. Due to inexperience and lack of planning, WCT 2007 was one of the best/worst experiences of my life. Failure is a better teacher than success. From an overstocked pack to poorly suited footwear, the trip was a learning experience like no other. I broke a foot bone, sprained several tendons, had to borrow trekking poles to use like crutches, and met a sports injury doctor who mercifully taped me back together long enough to survive the trail. All in all, I completed the trail because I had some great friends, a couple of trail miracles, a tenacious attitude (which defied common sense), and realized that two feet and a heartbeat is the only exit off the WCT.
Years later my planning skills are considered strong by my backpacking companions. Most prefer to let me handle planning details. To my chagrin, I learned “the hard way” so my friends wouldn’t have to. This year, I’m planning to backpack the West Coast Trail in British Columbia, Canada…again.
After a decade of trial and error, I will share the twelve crucial points of complex backpacking trips planning to avoid making common mistakes.
Lesson 1: Choose your destination intentionally.
Some people have trust-funded travel accounts. Most of us have to budget and plan to head out. My first WCT was a whim; I vaguely knew where I was going. My friends were going, and I wanted to go too. I’d never seen the ocean or been to a rainforest. I loved and hated it. Time has numbed my memory of the bog (less aptly called a rainforest), but white sandy beaches remain engraved in my memory.
I am intentionally choosing to endure the muddy trudging to get to the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I know how bad the conditions can be, I’m mentally and physically prepared for what lies ahead: I could not say the same ten years ago.
Lesson 2: Choose your companions wisely.
A backpacking trip is not the place to determine that the trip mates on board may not be enjoyable company. If in doubt, take some shorter trips with proposed companions. Make sure that being in high-pressure situations for several days is workable for everyone on the trip.
Of the twelve companions on my 2007 WCT, I didn’t like seven of them by the time it was over. Of the five people I still liked, I only travel with one of them now. For this trip, I picked a friend I’ve done intense trips with before. We mesh well, have equivalent experience, and have similar styles of trekking.
Lesson 3: Know before you go.
This should not come as a surprise: understanding tidal charts on a coastal hike is important. Knowing that buses to the trailhead only run every other day is crucial. And realizing that there are impassable channels and rivers that require that you book ferries to cross is vital. Knowing pays, plan accordingly. Purchase trail guide books, read online articles and trip reviews, look at pictures and gain the critical information.
In spite of having made the trip before, I purchased the updated guidebook for the area and downloaded the topographical map. I’ve already looked up the proposed tidal schedule for my trip and how low tides have to be for me to cross at certain key points.
Lesson 4: Don’t lose the schedule but remember it’s not infallible.
When dealing with complex travel arrangements, being on time is crucial. Any extensive backpacking trip is fraught with timelines. Handle transportation and mother nature’s schedules with finesse. Miss a bus, ferry, or tide and a trip can be waylaid or canceled.
Just remember, though, trips like the WCT can take six to eight months to plan; there can be good reasons to delay or reschedule. When the forecast on Vancouver Island calls for six days of rain its best to reschedule as the coast can take an exceptional turn for the worse with rogue waves and lightning strikes. Always have an alternate plan. Worse comes to worst, and I’m bussing to Tofino, staying in a hostel, taking surf lessons, and soaking in the hot springs.
Emylene’s Sample Planning Itinerary for WCT 2016
- Pick backpacking destination
- Confirm hiking companion
- Research logistical necessities
January 2016 – April 2016
- Create rough itinerary
- Estimate costs
- Evaluate and replace required equipment
- Book Primary travel arrangements (trail permits and flights)
- Plan Secondary travel necessities (buses, taxis, ferries, gear storage, etc.)
- Identify skill building if required
- Create travel and gear budget
- Plan meals
May 2016 – August 2016
- Training and practice trips
- Plan gear list
- Gear testing
- Meal testing
- Detail itinerary
- Book secondary transportation
- Prepare meals
- Detail gear list
- Additional physical training
- Confirm bookings
- Order supply box from local outfitter (items which cannot go on a plane like fuel canisters)
- Pack gear
- Confirm and gather required travel documents
- Whatever is forgotten…it’s too late now.
Lesson 5: Cash is king even in the backpacking world.
For a solid trip you need three types of cash:
- Emergency Cash: WCT 2007, I slipped, fell, stress fractured a foot bone, sprained an ankle, and that was only the first 3.11 miles (5 km). On the remaining 44.12 miles (71 km) I chipped a shin, lost six toenails, had credit-card sized blisters on both feet, and my legs experienced bruising beyond recognition. At the end of the trail, I found myself injured, short on cash, and not able to return to work. Today, I have a saved enough cash to cover bills for a couple of months, and I carry travel insurance in case something happens.
- Pocket Cash: I still remember the chocolate bar I had to forgo because I only had enough cash to pay for a ferry. Heaven forbid, I would have to forgo the ferry, though; it’s a long swim. Ensure that you have enough cash and budget it well.
- Gear Cash: Go through gear, and if it is lacking, budget to afford what is needed to make the trip go right. Don’t forget those pesky expenses like fuel, water purification tablets and other consumables which may need to purchase when the flight lands because they can’t go on board a plane.
Lesson 6: Test your gear.
If it doesn’t have a proven, daily purpose it does not go in the pack. If I don’t know if an item has a proven, daily task, I did not prepare properly by testing my gear. Ten years ago, I packed things I never used because someone told me I should. I packed ill-suited gear because it seemed like a good idea. I had extra clothes which were extra wet clothes by day two. I didn’t factor in how much anything weighed. I didn’t properly test my boots. I had worn them lots and they were worn and not in good condition for a backpacking trip. The boots leaked, slipped, rubbed, and were generally worn out. I know better and do better now: happy feet, happy backpacker.
Recently, my most disappointing but crucial tests were with trail runners. After the nerve damage to my foot during the West Coast Trail expedition in 2007, I have relied on full grain trekking boots to support my foot. Trail runners have always appealed to me and I gave them a try. I can manage a short day hike in trail runners, I cannot manage a full backpacking trip. I like how trail runners feel for a day, but limping for days on end is not appealing.
Lesson 7: Book early.
Some trips can be navigated on impulse, but thru-hikes and longer backpacking trips are not the places to learn instincts or to find out about travel quirks. The WCT trail permits, on average, sell out in forty-five minutes on the first booking day. Trail booking starts eight months before I plan on hitting the trail and four months before the trail opens for the season. My flights to the coast can be booked for under four hundred dollars in January; by August flights will have more than doubled. In addition, there is one flight to the coast which will arrive on time for me to make the only bus connection to the trailhead for two days. I will know where I am going and research travel logistics. This could be the difference between going backpacking – or camping at a transit terminal for two days.
Lesson 8: You don’t know what you don’t know, but you can find out in advance and learn.
Long, complex hikes are not the place to try and learn basic skills like fire starting. They are also not the place to bring out gear which has never been out of the box. Well-being in the backcountry is a personal responsibility. Each individual is responsible for individual and group safety. On my first WCT trip, I had no idea how half the equipment worked.
Today, I can field strip and reassemble every piece of equipment in my pack and my partner’s pack and treat simple injuries without batting an eyelash. Learn vital information before the trailhead. On the WCT, “need-to-knows” include: what bear and cougar tracks and scat look like, how to read tide tables, basics of firestarting, first aid and topographical navigation. Don’t plan on learning on the way. When cold, wet, sore, tired, and hungry, learning new skills does not come easily.
Lesson 9: If you don’t like it at home don’t take it backpacking.
For the WCT 2007 trip, a local summer camp gave us some of their leftover meal supplies for our trip. As grateful as I was for free food, some of it was stuff I would have had a hard time choking down at home. Being hungry did not improve the flavor or make the pudding cups lighter to pack. I played with my food for all but two meals (Mac and Cheese and Beef Tacos) and ate a lot of dried fruit. My other key mistake was I had no idea how much I would actually need to fuel my body. I had at least ⅓ more food than I needed. The weight was unnecessary and if I had done a calorie calculation I would have known better.
Today, my friends often turn to me as the backpacking foodie. I have everything from lightweight trail pizza to trail pies and everything is portioned, weighed, taste-tested and packed with care. I like my food, and I want to eat it at the end of the day, because I have already tried it.
Lesson 10: Don’t neglect your most key piece of equipment – your body.
Planning a big hike without training is a bad idea. Most backpackers have a “moment of clarity” when they realize they are not eighteen years old anymore and have to treat their body accordingly. For the WCT 2007, I was athletic and active, but I did little to prepare my body for several days of backpacking. I paid dearly; I lived on anti-inflammatories and was so exhausted at the end of the day I could barely talk.
My ten-year older and wiser self has to do better just based on my physiology (see my article My Journey from Injury to the Canadian Rockies for details.) The worst place to have an epiphany, about not being as fit or young as before, is on a backpacking trip. I walk into every trip being aware of each of my body’s shortcomings and have physically and mentally prepared to compensate for them. I can do a hike without training, but I will regret it. Be kind to the body: train for difficult hikes.
Lesson 11: Confirm everything.
Being at the airport with no ticket or passport is a problem. Standing at a bus stop with missing gear is a bigger problem. Being on the trail with a stove and no fuel is beyond aggravating. Double check bookings, reservations, and gear; hopefully, anything you miss is a small thing. I was fortunate on my 2007 WCT, I didn’t have to plan logistical details. I would have been completely out of my depth if I had been in charge of logistics.
The WCT 2016 requires me to register a vehicle for parking at an airport; hop on a flight; rent a car; pick up a box of consumable gear; drop off a rental car; catch a bus; put off-trail equipment into storage; book a campsite overnight; attend a mandatory info session; ride a ferry and hike the worst terrain of the trail with a late day start; all in less than 24 hours. Just as in nailing down bookings, missing the mark on any of those steps can end a trip abruptly.
Lesson 12: Plan your hike – you alone are responsible for your backcountry choices.
As a new backpacker, I made more than my fair share of mistakes. I’m impulsive and confident by nature, but I lacked the experience to put those traits to good use.
I’ve made and will continue to make mistakes, backcountry and otherwise. My mistakes have made me who I am and are a part of my story. The challenge of a backcountry adventure should not prevent the adventure from happening. Face challenges, take risks and make mistakes in a calculated way. Everything is better when you make it home from the backcountry unscathed. On a final note, though these are the “best practices” sometimes breaking the “rules” makes for an adventure which couldn’t happen otherwise.
Planning a complex trip the first few times is nerve-wracking. With a little bit of preparation, it can be more easily managed and pitfalls avoided. As experience is gained in trip planning, the process becomes easier, predictable and more enjoyable. It took me a couple of years to build up the confidence to backpack again after the WCT. I would rather see backpacking newcomers enjoy their first trip and not dread the next one.
This fall, I’ll put my money where my mouth is and offer a first-hand look at my planning skills and inevitable improvisations when I publish my Notes from the Field on the West Coast Trail at backpackinglight.com.