Podcast Episode October 17, 2018

Podcast 005 | Navigation




This podcast is about route planning and navigation skills and discusses a case study in complex navigation.

In September 2018 eleven people ventured into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on Backpacking Light’s Whitetail Trek, our premier Wilderness Adventures program for intermediate-to-advanced ultralight hikers.

Our group faced snow, hail, cold temperatures, and windy exposed conditions above treeline. The vast majority of our route was off-trail on tundra, through bush, and on steep off-trail terrain with unstable talus and scree.

One of the program goals was to learn the skills and confidence necessary to plan a route and navigate off-trail in the mountains. Today’s episode examines navigational strategies and tools through the lens of the Whitetail Trek.

Ryan and Andrew get things started by giving you a brief rundown of the trip before introducing this episode’s guest. Chris Schultz is an M.D., a hockey player, and most importantly (to us!) an ultralight backpacker who participated in the trek.

After the interview, we guys cover a range of navigation topics: tools and resources for finding your way, books, apps, maps, and getting lost.

Ryan touches on how the planning is going for next year’s Wilderness Adventures trips, and Andrew introduces the new podcast segment Hiker Hacks. We wrap up the show with a brief discussion about risk management, and Andrew plugs a great book he’s been reading lately (spoiler alert: it’s a scary one!)

Podcast 005 guest Chris Schultz (R) discussing route options with his son Nick (L) just below the summit of Froze-to-Death Plateau in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Ryan Jordan photo.


  • Ryan and Andrew introduce the episode topic: navigation and the BPL Whitetail Trek.
    • This is one of Ryan’s favorite BPL experiences!
    • Andrew digs the mental side of the situation.
  • Ryan introduces this episode’s guest: Chris Schultz.
  • Guest interview:
    • Chris gives his reasons for joining the trek and shares his extensive backcountry experience.
    • The guys talk gear prep and strategies.
    • Physical training for steep, off-trail travel
      • Chris was coming off a hockey injury coming into the trip.
      • The terrain was demanding – Montana does not mess around!
        • Chris was worried about the altitude but it didn’t end up bothering him.
        • Challenging talus, scree, snow, and steep descents and ascents.
      • The best way to train? Get out and hike more!
        • Also, be at your ideal body weight. Don’t carry extra weight in the form of metabolized doughnuts.
    • The route planning process:
      • Available online tools, including Google Earth, AllTrails, HIllmap, and Caltopo.
      • USGS quadrangle maps.
      • The general area where we hiked.
      • Slope angle analysis is an excellent tool for off-trail navigation, since it eliminates routes that we know are too steep and dangerous.
      • Summit Post is a great crowd-sourced information tool – it turns out that climbers like to post detailed information about the approaches to mountains, and those approach routes provide valuable beta for trekkers!
      • All of these tools are more powerful when combined with each other!
      • Route planning is not a linear process!
        • It’s iterative and chaotic.
        • (Especially when a large group is involved!)
      • Chances of route success depend on:
        • Weather conditions.
        • Ambition of the group.
        • Little-to-no data, and our ability to read terrain in real-time.
      • Our final route did not look like the planned route!
    • Changes to route on the hike:
      • Day one went pretty well – as planned!
      • Day two was challenging and ambitious:
        • There were three route changes in one day!
        • Some of the worst boulder hopping in the northern Rockies? Ugh.
        • Froze-to-Death Plateau: as intimidating as it sounds.
      • By day three, all bets on the original route were off – and required a radical change in expectations.
    • What new navigational skills did Chris learn on the trip?
      • He’s a map and compass guy, so…
      • He learned a lot about electronic navigation!
      • Sometimes different tools in a large group can conflict with one another. A difference in philosophy?
      • You have to re-learn navigational skills with each trip (especially if you don’t do it that much).
      • Sometimes it all boils down to your next twenty steps – don’t spend all your time looking at a map when you could be viewing nature in Real HD!
    • Grizzly Bear Territory:
      • Chris and Ryan are pretty experienced in grizzly country.
      • Andrew? Not so much.
      • Strength in numbers.
      • One encounter is all it takes to build some pretty serious safety habits.
    • Bonus Questions
      • If Chris could do one thing differently? Listen to the podcast to find out!
      • If he had one takeaway? Ultralight is the way to go, man!
        • Fitness level + gear intentionality = astounding success.
    • Leadership and fatherhood.
    • The group learned a lot and had a wild time!
  • Ryan and Andrew break down the conversation
    • Ryan always asks about gear on the trip:
      • The main challenge of this trip had nothing to do with gear!
      • Once you get your gear dialed in … other things reveal themselves.
    • Andrew was fascinated by the group dynamics under stress.
  • Getting lost.
    • If you know what you are doing, it’s not difficult to find your way in mountainous areas with minimal tree cover.
      • Heavily forested areas with subtle contours are more challenging.
  • 2019 Wilderness Adventures registration launches in November!
    • This season was the best yet. Why?
    • The Whitetail Trek was a new format and will be offered next year as well.
    • Early enrollment for Unlimited Members begins Nov 16th.
    • Public enrollment begins November 26th.
  • Check out the Whitetail Trek photos on Instagram – we tell the whole story of the trek!
  • Gear!
  • Hiker Hacks
    • How do you get a hydration bladder to dry out completely and quickly for storage?
      • Ryan’s paper towel method.
      • Do silica gel packets really work?
      • Send Hiker Hack suggestions or questions to [email protected].
  • Here and Now
    • Ryan can’t wait to get back to the Beartooths for the Wilderness Adventures guide’s training next summer, and is in the process of planning this event already!
    • Andrew has been thinking about risk management on “easy” adventures.
      • Andrew and Ryan’s thoughts on risk management and backcountry safety.

Feedback, Questions, Tips?


  • Backpacking Light – Executive Producer
  • Ryan Jordan – Director and Host
  • Andrew Marshall – Producer, Host, and Editor
  • Chris Schultz – Guest Interview
  • Look for Me in the Mountains – Music

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Home Forums Podcast 005 | Navigation

Viewing 6 posts - 1 through 6 (of 6 total)
  • Author
  • #3560272
    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies

    Companion forum thread to: Podcast 005 | Navigation

    This podcast is about route planning and navigation skills and discusses a case study in complex navigation.

    Jason G
    BPL Member


    Locale: iceberg lake

    great episode. sounds like a fun trip. I did a similar one through kinds canyon in aug.  Its fun doing the route planning and navigating on the trip. Breaks up the monotony of straight trail walking

    [edited – MK]

    Renais A
    BPL Member


    I’ve looked around a couple times and have had little luck finding trip reports detailing the treks.  Are they available someplace I’ve missed?  The podcast description of this trip is interesting, and I’d be quite curious to read more reports from the participants in other treks.


    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    For some reason BPL details those trips on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but never get posted here.

    casey hardin
    BPL Member


    Another good pCast Yall ! Thx.

    old paper towel cylinders help those water bladders stay open and dry out after most of the water is wiped out; but really, you gotta leave em hanging around the house to be truly SUL. cheers.

    David Sugeno
    BPL Member


    Locale: Central Texas

    Another great episode.  But it seems odd to me to have a podcast about navigation and not address hand-held gps devices.  You note that you don’t need one, since you carry a smart phone.  Some of us, believe it or not, do not carry smart phones.  That is a minor quibble, intended constructively.  I am really enjoying the podcast.

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