Route Planning and Navigation

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Not all miles are created equal. This statement is especially true in the rugged terrain of Northern California. Steep mountain passes and sometimes primitive trails combine to slow things down compared to trails in the “front country.” When we consider how long a given stretch of trail will take, we factor in the terrain. We consider direct sunlight. We think about trail technicality. These factors, and others, can make one mile very different from the next.

Maps, Trails and GPS

Navigating in the wilderness has changed a lot. Until recently, a map and compass were the tried and true tools that every backcountry user needed to master. While we are proponents of learning these skills, we realize that in this era not everyone will.

On our guided fastpacking trips we teach our guests to understand and use a phone mapping app called GAIA. Utilizing airplane mode on most devices allows the battery life to get into the 5-10 day range, rather than 5-10 hours. Even in airplane mode your phones GPS still works. And with pre-downloaded topographic maps and trail files, following a route through the wilderness becomes a breeze.

Using app does not mean you can stop learning or using common sense. Neither GAIA nor any other phone app can replace your ability to read and interpret the map on the screen, or your ability to make sound judgements. Bringing a paper map and compass as a backup is highly recommended unless you know an area extremely well, or are very confident there is no chance you will break your phone.

Distance, Elevation, and Time

Anytime you are planning a trip or a route in the wilderness, you should consider the distance you are traveling, how much elevation gain/loss you have between you and your destination, and approximately how long it might take you. This is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.

One really great tool for conceptualizing and quantifying these numbers is the website Caltopo. We use this application extensively for trip planning and remote route scouting. You can create trail files and then see pretty accurate distance and vertical gain/loss numbers for the route you’ve created. It’s quite useful (and possibly addictive).

River Crossings, Snowfields, Marshes, and Bushwhacking

There are a multitude of factors and conditions in the wilderness that might not be readily apparent on a map or guide book. Some years, snow can linger late into the season in the high country, keeping trails buried into August and slowing your progress on fastpacking journeys. A flat path through a valley which looks like it should take no time at all can turn into a soggy, muddy slog, where you are constantly searching for a trail swallowed whole by a meadow.

Going off-trail to get from one drainage or trail to another is something you’ll surely entertain if you travel in the wilderness long enough. You might see an “easy” move with just a 1/2 mile as the crow flies to access a hidden gem of a lake. But, of course, not all 1/2 miles are created equal. If you are in the Trinity Alps attempting an off-trail move over a South facing fire-burned slope, you may find that 1/2 mile takes you a couple hours and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.

Bottom Line

Traveling through large wilderness is exhilarating, mesmerizing, and not for the faint of heart. The risks are higher. Communication and help are harder to access. But the rewards far outweigh the costs. Do your home work, and commit to a learning mindset. Go with people who can help teach you. But DON’T be dissuaded from starting. The wilderness is here for everyone to access and enjoy.