Trail Safe Trip Preparation
I think of every major trip as a research project. In my own planning, I consider any trip to be "major" if I plan to go into territory I'm not familiar with, if I plan to stay out overnight or longer, or if I plan to leave the United States. This definition encompasses a fairly broad spectrum of trips; however, in the case of planning, I'd always rather err on the side of too much rather than too little. Minor trips are also subject to information gathering, although not necessarily at the level of that for a major trip.
The Research Process
Information gathering starts with guidebooks. For a major trip, such as a multi-day hike on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails, I expect to spend several hours at a bookstore comparing guidebooks. I'm lucky enough to live near Boulder, Colorado, where local bookstores sport aisle after aisle of guidebooks. Look for bookstores in your area that carry a wide selection of guidebooks and begin frequenting them. Big outdoor retailers, such as REI and Eastern Mountain Sports, also carry a great selection of guidebooks. In addition, independent outdoor specialty retailers also take pride in their book selection. At this point, I'm just gathering data and starting to put together a quick mental picture of the trailhow many miles am I looking at in total; what's a rational expectation of the number of miles per day; how should I classify the difficulty of the trail. Eventually, I'll purchase, borrow, or checkout two or three of the guidebooks I like the best. It's important to remember that some guidebooks have errors, minor or otherwise. Also, all guidebook writers have their own quirks and their own criteria for ranking difficulty, enjoyment, and amenity. For example, the various guides to hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park describe the trek up Long's Peak, the highest mountain in northern Colorado, as anything from a fun day-hike to a really scary scramble. The truth is, as you might expect, somewhere in the middle. However, buried in those guides is the tidbit of information that all the books have in commonfor example, that the final approach to the summit is steep, exposed and, in wet or snowy weather, dangerous. That's the tidbit of information you're looking for.
Sometimes authors of guidebooks have a specific audience in mind for their material. This approach can be very effective and efficient. However, some such guidebooks are aimed at trekkers with about 50 cents in their pockets. I've seen some recommended hostels in various countries that I wouldn't stay in with an Uzi and a detachment of armed guards. This risk makes it important to check out the criteria used in the guidebook, line it up against your own criteria, and evaluate whether or not the guidebook will provide you with information that you personally will feel is valuable. On a foreign trip, once I arrive in a country, I always like to spot-check the information in my guidebooks by cruising by a few places the guidebook recommends (hostels, campsites, trailheads, and so on) just to get a feel. If I get bad e-mail from the back of my head, I downgrade the guidebook in general.
I like topographical (or "topo") maps, too. Between the guidebooks and the topo maps, I'm constantly creating a mental image of the trip. I match the descriptions in the guidebooks with the terrain of the topo map, and I try to visualize the lay of the trail. I ask myself some fundamental questions that will help me to assess riskAm I going to be on my hands and knees at any point? Where would be a good place to finish for the day? Is the area heavily forested? And so on. Topo maps are included in many good guidebooks, and you can also purchase them separately in map sections of large bookstores or outdoor retailers.
Throughout this research process, I'm looking for any data that can be pasted into my basic risk assessment such as, "There has been lots of vandalism in the trailhead parking lot," or "Don't leave anything valuable in your car." Such comments raise small red flags. When the book was written, enough of a problem existed so as to encourage the writer to flag the issue. Apparently, a few of the local predators had already figured out that hikers or mountain bikers were relatively easy targets. As I've mentioned before, popular trails are more crowded today than they were just two years ago; trails that were secret two years ago have been discovered and publicized in this month's Bike magazine. Therefore, if a guidebook made reference to problems when the book was written, I make the assumption that the situation is either the same or that it has worsened since the book's publication.
For planning purposes, we need to think like a scuba diver. Divers tend to round off numbers to give them a higher safety margin when determining how long they can safely stay underwater: 10.8 minutes of bottom time becomes only 10 minutes of bottom time. Similarly, if you make an assumption, always assume in the direction of a greater safety margin.
Fleshing Out the Picture
Once I have this basic picture of my trip in place, I want to throw the net a little wider. Using Internet search engines, I start looking for any magazine articles or newspaper pieces written about the specific area I'm visiting. If any violent incidences in the particular area I'm going to have occurred, those incidences usually turn up. At the very least, I'm getting a more detailed picture of where I'm going and what I'm going to be doing. Searching the Internet is an art, andhonest disclosurein our partnership, Denise usually adopts the role of the searcher. She has a knack for finding tidbits of information, then following the tidbit back to its original source to determine whether or not it can be relied upon.
Outdoor sports and adventure Web sites can also provide valuable information for planning various trips. Many of these sites allow you to ask questions, which get answered directly by some really excellent outdoors-people. Use these sitesmore data is better. If I'm going out of the country, I hit the U.S. State Department advisory site (http://travel.state.gov) to see if our tax dollars at work have coughed up any interesting information.
The more red flags I get, the deeper I go diving for information. If I see a red flag in any of my Internet informationan article on a violent incident, a reference to a violent incident, or a warning of any kindI go to the next level of gathering data: interviewing. I start calling around, looking for people who have been to where I'm going and can give me some direct information. I level with them about what I'm looking for: "I saw an article in such-and-such magazine about a rape along the trail, and I was wondering what it was like when you were there . . . anything spooky? Crowded?" Whatever information I can get is factored into my risk assessment.
Throughout the planning process, I'm going through my risk definitionsperceived versus actual; subjective versus objectiveand I'm plugging in the data. Once I have a risk assessment that makes sense to me, I start planning to minimize my exposure to the risks.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication