Planning Your Trip

Often, recreationalists venture into the backcountry with little or no pre-planning. This occasionally results in catastrophe as they do little to prepare for the severe conditions that they may encounter.

With even a seemingly insignificant day-hike, the time to plan a trip is before leaving home. There are numerous things that should be done before starting out on the road.

Let Others Know

One important rule too often forgotten is to let others know exactly where you are going, with whom and when you can be expected back. I hate to nag, but search and rescue teams often spend hours driving around on back roads looking for a subject’s vehicle before they know where to enter the field to begin a search.

By letting someone know EXACTLY where you intend to go, when you expect to return and where your vehicle will be parked, you can eliminate the possibility of searchers having no idea of where to look. Should your plans change in route to your destination, stop and notify that person of your new itinerary. In addition, if you leave pertinent information on the dash of your car (e.g. name and phone number of your contact in town, location of travel/campsite and so on) search teams will have a very timely idea of your plans. Otherwise, search teams can be of little assistance when all that is known is that you “went camping somewhere in the Sundance Range.”

Whenever possible, utilize trailhead and summit check-in logs. These generally exist at most popular trailheads and atop many popular mountain summits.

Plan Your Route

Before Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man to stand atop Mt. Everest in 1953 (at 29,035 ft., the highest mountain in the world), many climbers had tried using various routes. A few of these mountaineers died trying. To this day, the South Col route on Mt. Everest remains the prominent Everest route.

Careful planning based on earlier attempts combined with detailed study of the risks of various routes led the 1953 British Everest Expedition to choose the now famous South Col route. It is not by accident that this route is so popular. Repeatedly, it has been proven to be the safest and easiest route.

Likewise, popular routes to the summits of mountains in North America are based on similar exhausting study by early mountaineers. Detailed in mountaineering books, as well as on many topographical and trail maps, these trails should be closely followed. Any deviation by inexperienced mountaineers can lead to disaster. In addition, backcountry users should stay on maintained trails as part of the Leave No Trace ethic of mountaineering.

Backcountry preparedness begins with prior knowledge of the anticipated route…types of terrain, technical skills needed, length of the route and amount of available shelter along the trail.

Know Your Physical Limitations

Disorientation results when the body is cold, oxygen deprived and/or fatigued. Know the physical limitations of each member of your team, especially if any member has a predisposing medical condition that could possibly require immediate care while on the trip (e.g. diabetics and persons with heart conditions).

Among your considerations should be the following:

Altitude acclimatization of each party member

A mountain resident at 12,000 feet is accustomed to 68% of the oxygen to which someone living at sea level is accustomed. Since air density decreases as altitude increases, more work is required to breathe at higher elevations. The intercostal muscles surrounding the lungs must work harder when the air density is lower. High-elevation residents have already strengthened these muscles and changed their blood chemistry to accommodate inspiring less oxygen. Mountaineers who live at sea level would therefore experience greater difficulty catching their breath when climbing to 14,000 feet than would the resident of the mountains, even if the flatlander is in better physical condition. Additional problems can develop as well, including Acute Mountain Sickness, Pulmonary Edema and Cerebral Edema. These complications are serious and can result in coma and death, and at elevations far lower than 14,000 feet.

Based on these facts, plan the difficulty of your route based on the knowledge that each team member may be accustomed to a different concentration of oxygen.

Know your team members’ comfort level near steep ridges

Although most backcountry trails are not technically difficult, some may involve hiking moderately close to a steep ridge with an imposing severe drop. This could create anxiety on the part of recreationalists who are not accustomed to such relatively unprotected slopes, even if the trail is five feet wide and perfectly flat.

In addition, the lack of a flat horizon on high peaks may make balance more difficult for those who are not accustomed to such terrain. This can lead to increased anxiety, panic and perhaps nausea on the part of inexperienced backcountry users. Imagine yourself standing on a five-foot wide ledge at the top of a 30-story building. Scary, isn’t it, even if the ledge is five feet wide?

The team’s most experienced backcountry user should stop and ask each of the team members whether or not they feel comfortable with the exposure when encountering severe pitches.  If some team members do not feel comfortable they must be given the option of turning back, or risk cleaning out the gene pool.

If team members do turn back, they should always travel in groups of two or more and the team leader must be certain that they are equipped with a map, compass and survival equipment. This reduces the risk of a lone hiker becoming disoriented and lost.

Maintain a chemical-free body

Not surprisingly, many rescues are performed each year on victims who have altered their body chemistry with alcohol and/or other drugs. If these substances are an active part of your life, remain in the safety of less severe terrain.

If you think going UP was hard…

Many inexperienced backcountry users become intrigued by small, seemingly simple pitches of technical rock and decide to challenge themselves by attempting to climb them without technical equipment. After all, if the first ten feet was THAT easy…

The startling surprise comes when they reach a point at which they cannot continue up and realize that descending the same pitch will be much more difficult than the ascent they just completed. The reason is simple. In ascending a pitch, the foot placements are easily visible somewhere between the feet and waist level and one never HAS to look down. In descending, the foot placements are now below the feet, perhaps 6-8 feet below the eyes and are not easily discernable. What makes this realization more alarming is that in order to find those footholds, the climber must look down more often. At this point the inexperienced technical climber, without any fall protection (such as ropes, anchors, and a belayer) is faced with the grim reality that a fall would be very dangerous. Adrenaline now overtakes the body and the leg and arm muscles that are holding the person in place quickly become fatigued as a result.

The moral, based on many seemingly unnecessary rescue missions, is this: Unless you’re carrying technical rock hardware and are experienced at technical pitches, stay off them and enjoy a safe hike. After all, a helicopter ride back to the nearest hospital is not worth the long and painful several hours wait (with broken bones or ruptured internal organs) for the rescue team and helicopter to arrive. Rescue helicopters are a lousy way to see the backcountry.Sparrowhawk Chopper

Not so surprisingly, a large percentage of rock climbing accidents occur with novice climbers.

Think “Before”

“Prepare” is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “to make ready beforehand for some purpose, use or activity.” The inclusion of the word “before” in this definition is not by accident.

One way of assuring the success of your trip is to remember the “Rule of Befores”. Listen to a weather forecast before planning a trip. Tell people where you are going and when you’ll be back before you leave. While on the trail, drink before you get thirsty, eat before you get hungry. Add a layer of clothes before you get cold; remove a layer of clothes before you get hot. Make camp before you need camp. Find protection from foul weather before it arrives.  By doing these things, you will find yourself always thinking ahead. Think ahead at all times and you will rarely find yourself unprepared.

Test your equipment under controlled conditions prior to actual use

Do not put yourself in a position in which you discover that your equipment is inadequate while in the backcountry. If, for example, you plan to use a three-season sleeping bag in conditions of extreme cold, test the sleeping bag in a safe place, such as your own back yard, in similar weather conditions. This way, if the sleeping bag does not perform as expected, a warm bed offers a safe alternative. Consider this example with all backcountry equipment to be used.

Protect against Giardia

Giardia is a microscopic parasite that exists in water sources nearly everywhere on the planet. It cannot be seen with the naked eye and once ingested, its symptoms read like a “Who’s Who” of digestive system ailments: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, loss of appetite, nausea, flatulence, vomiting, weakness and fever. One’s digestive system is never quite the same after a battle with giardia.

The disease begins with fecally contaminated surface water and the parasite thrives in cool, clear water. Elk, deer, beaver, muskrat, dogs and humans are all known carriers, which helps to explain why it has overtaken literally every water supply on Earth. Once ingested, the microscopic cysts multiply in the intestines at a phenomenal rate. A victim of giardiasis may excrete billions of the tiny parasites in a single day.

Carriers of the disease may be “asymptomatic;” that is, they show no signs of the disease themselves, but can spread it to less tolerant individuals. Since humans are known carriers, human waste should ALWAYS be disposed away from water sources to reduce possible future contamination of those water supplies.

To reduce the risk of infection, all water to be consumed should be boiled for several minutes (increasing boiling time at altitudes above 10,000 feet). If boiling is impractical, chemical treatments or portable filter systems (available at backcountry outfitters) should be used. The giardia parasite is so small, it is possible to contract the disease from a toothbrush dipped in a stream or from bottle cap threads. For that reason, you must be meticulous with your water treatment.

Though giardiasis may not present itself for five to seven weeks after ingestion of the parasite, it has been known to occur much more quickly. The only treatment in the field for a victim showing signs and symptoms of giardiasis is to quickly transport the individual to a medical facility. Because of diarrhea and vomiting, hypovolemia (reduced level of body fluids) can be a serious complication, so periodic intake of treated fluids should be encouraged. Sometimes victims of giardiasis may be so incapacitated that they are unable to walk. In this case, a rescue team should be sought to assist in evacuation.

Keep the Team Together at All Times

In this article, every group of backcountry travelers is referred to as a “team”. The word “team” implies a group of people working together for the benefit of the whole. If you consider yourself part of a team and constantly stay aware of the other team members throughout your trip, especially in cases of extreme weather, accidents can be easily avoided.

As with any team, a “team leader” should be chosen for all backcountry trips. Your team leader must be perceptive of the individual abilities and experience of each team member. This person must know that the only real goal for a backcountry adventure is the safe return of each party member. The team leader need not be the most skilled member, but rather the most trusted and most respected backcountry user.

Of the hundreds of searches performed by Search and Rescue teams each year, most are conducted for subjects who have been separated from a group of people and usually from shelter and survival equipment. The rule is simple: do not wander away from the team.

If team members must separate from the rest of the team, they should always do so in groups of two or more. In addition, they should carry and be skilled in the use of a map and compass. This will reduce the risk of any individual becoming lost. Also, make certain to mark on the map the precise location of the team.

“If You Don’t Like the Weather, Wait Ten Minutes.”

“Today’s forecast calls for clear skies in the morning. Highs will be in the mid- to upper-seventies. Increasing clouds with localized thunderstorms by late afternoon in the mountains.” God only knows how many hundreds of times we hear this mountain weather forecast in the summer. Day after day it’s the same story. And day after day some percentage of the mountain peaks and valleys experience severe thunderstorms in the late afternoon.

Backcountry weather in specific valleys or ranges is relatively difficult to predict from distant weather service offices using even the most modern instruments. It is generally easier for the backcountry traveler to predict the weather from the particular valley.

When hiking in the mountains constantly watch the sky and take note of the size, height, form and movement of clouds. Changes in these characteristics are meaningful.  With relative ease one can predict local storms in the mountains through basic observations. This is important so that your team can be quickly guided off the mountain to a place of safety.

Dress For Success

Since hypothermia is the most common cause of accidental death in the back country, proper clothing is essential to every back country user from novice to professional. Hypothermia results when the body loses more heat than it can generate. Effective dressing is the simplest way to avoid hypothermia in the diverse weather of the back country.

hikeEffective dressing means more than simply owning the most expensive parka and the fanciest rain gear. World-class mountaineers have long known the value of specialized techniques in mountaineering dress.


At any time of the year, the most effective way to dress is by “layering”. This method has been proven, not only on Mount Everest but in the summer Eastern Slopes of the Rockies as well.

Layering simply means wearing one thin layer of clothing over another over another. Many experienced winter mountaineers do not carry a heavy down parka into the back country and for good reason. If they become warm underneath a down parka, removing the parka leaves them extremely exposed. Rather, they will carry numerous lightweight layers.

The advantage of layering is that one can add and remove protection from the elements in small increments, thus balancing heat generation with heat loss. In addition, layering traps dead air for additional weight-free insulation.

Composition of Layers

The body is a source of heat, which you want to retain within your clothing. It is also a source of moisture, in the form of perspiration that, in many situations, must be kept away from the skin due to the cooling effect of evaporation. For this reason, the layers of clothing near your body should be thin and porous to hold in heat and wick away perspiration. Middle layers should be thicker in insulating quality to hold in more heat, yet be able to dissipate the moisture further away from the body. Finally, the outer layers should be thick enough to prevent heat loss and still protect the inner layers from the external elements. The most effective outer layer is completely waterproof, yet allows water vapor (perspiration) to escape. Most conventional rain-gear does not allow water vapor to breathe, thus the body’s perspiration is held within the layers of clothing, increasing evaporative heat loss and saturating clothes.

The key to mastering the layering system is to add or remove layers of clothing at just the right times. Remove a layer before you begin sweating; add a layer before you get cold. By doing so, you can balance the amount of your body’s heat generation with heat loss. Conserve your sweat, not your water!

 Extra Clothing

Whenever traveling in the back country, carry additional clothes. This simple suggestion should not be overlooked, since a warm, balmy morning at the trailhead often ends in a cool, windy chill on the summit.

Five Methods of Heat Loss

Just as the body constantly produces heat, it constantly loses it.

There is a simple reason why we wear clothes, besides to preserve our own simple modesty. Since human beings are warm-blooded, we must rely on our own bodies for internal heat. Most warm-blooded creatures are protected from the elements by a coat of fur. This fur helps preserve warmth by trapping air and providing a layer of insulation. Humans, on the other hand, have no such coat of fur. This means, quite simply, that we must maintain a suitable artificial environment close to our skin that allows for the retention of the body heat that we create internally.

Five Ways We Lose Body Heat

There are five mechanisms through which body heat may be lost:


CONDUCTION is the transfer of heat through direct contact. If you were to sit on a slab of ice, your body heat would move through your clothes to the ice below. Wet clothing robs your body of heat through conduction as well. In fact, wet clothing will do so MANY times faster than dry clothing. This is why we should remove a layer of clothing before we begin sweating.

CONVECTION is the transfer of heat through the movement of air. The body tries to create its own insulating layer. This means that the body warms the air close to the skin.  If this thin layer of warm air were to remain intact, our bodies would maintain their own insulating layer and clothes would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, wind brushes this warm air aside with little effort. The body must then generate another warm layer of air. In even moderate winds, the body doesn’t have a chance to keep up with this loss of heat.

EVAPORATION occurs when we sweat and the tiny droplets of liquid are converted into vapour. The conversion from a liquid to a vapour results in a net heat loss. That is, the surface on which evaporation occurs will lose heat (which explains why you feel a bit cold when you step out of the shower, before drying off). The body sweats because its internal temperature is too high and it wants to cool down. Sweating will occur even in winter, if the backcountry user does a poor job maintaining ventilation through clothing. When the clothes become wet with sweat, further heat is lost through conduction.

RADIATION is the movement of rays of heat from a warm object to a colder one. At temperatures as warm as 4⁰ Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), fully one half of the body’s heat can be lost by radiation from an uncovered head, since blood vessels in the head lie close to the skin. Hats and balaclavas (facemasks) are essential to prevent this loss of body heat.

We lose our body heat naturally, simply through RESPIRATION. Furthermore, we may burn over 50% more energy in winter than we would in summer. This is partially explained by the fact that we are breathing extremely cold air, warming it and saturating it with water vapour. As much as one-third of our body-heat loss can occur through breathing. Breathing through a scarf or balaclava helps by “pre-heating” the inspired air.

Keeping these mechanisms in mind, and using a good layering system, should keep everyone healthy and happy when out in the wild…