Contingency Planning for Long Distance Hike

Backpacking + Hiking Tips
Feb 24, 2015

Spend any significant time backpacking, and you're going to have something go wrong. Usually they are pretty small things that are more an annoyance than a major problem - being prepared for the rain when it starts pouring down, the air mattress springs a slow leak, the headlamp gets turned on in the pack and runs the batteries down, or you forgot your spoon. As most trips are often just for a weekend when the car, warmth, dryness, and safety of civilization aren't that far away, it can usually be chalked up to an excellent learning experience and typically makes for a great story. But when transitioning to doing long distance backpacking trips, more planning is required to think through what could possibly go wrong and to come up with contingency plans to allow you to successfully complete your journey.

rock monster

Say you've always dreamed of doing that long distance backpacking trip - the John Muir Trail has always been on your bucket list - and you have finally gotten around to committing to do it. Permits have been reserved. The vacation time has been set aside and approved. Countless hours have been spent obsessing over your gear to optimize it and make sure you have exactly what you need and nothing more. You've taken several weekend backpacking trips to shake everything down to make sure it all works exactly as you planned. You crossed off every 't' and dotted the proverbial 'i'. The date of trip finally arrives and you hop on that plane ready for the adventure of your lifetime, fully confident in all the preparation you've done for the trip. What could possibly go wrong?

poles

The John Muir Trail did a number on these trekking poles. They weren't the only broken ones the author saw on the trail.

Hopefully you considered this question seriously as you were doing all your milage and other trip planning. The exact same thing that make so many long distance backpacking trips such an adventure - their remoteness and the distances involved -can make completing them successfully that much more of an issue if something does go wrong. Usually when considering what could go wrong in the back country, the initial though is of the big things - a fall or major injury, a bear getting at the food, getting hit with severe weather - things we know would ruin a trip or be potentially life threatening. But long distance backpacking is often about the psychological challenge of it all, and sometimes it can be the smaller things that challenge us mentally, meaning how we deal with them can make or break a trip.

For these kinds of incidents, the only thing that can substitute for hard earned experience or preparedness planning is pure ingenuity. Did I choose the right backpack fit? If you have a shelter that uses both of your trekking poles, what will you do if one of them breaks? Finding a stick to substitute may be okay in the woods of the mid-Atlantic, but won't work so well if you're camping in the high country where many of the trees might not be that tall to begin with, if there are any trees at all. You use a free standing shelter? What will you do if one of the poles breaks? I've had a hip belt buckle break during a thru-hike when it got stepped on while the pack was sitting on the ground. That's not an issue you start off thinking you'll have to deal with, but it can be a major nuisance.

packrepair

Stitching up the shoulder strap of a well used pack likely carry more weight than it was designed for. Good thing group members had a large needle and some floss. It held fine for the rest of the trip.

Maybe you've already spent many nights on the sleeping pad and it's never leaked on you. It's likely that it won't happen on the trip either, but if it did, are you prepared for the consequences of a deflated pad night after night? Is that a risk you're willing to take to in order to save weight by not carrying a repair kit, or are you assuming that you'll be able to pull off the rest of the trip when you may be stuck sleeping on granite with overnight temps in the 40's? Best to know how that works for you before being forced to do so because you don't have any other options. Otherwise, do you have what you need to repair your air mattress and know how to use your repair kit? No, duct tape or Leukotape aren't going to cut it for patching up an air mattress!

When considering what could possible go wrong, go over each item you plan to take with you and ask yourself how it might break or fail, the probability of the incident occurring, and how disastrous the consequence would be. Look over your consumables too. Pots get tipped over, re-hydration bags spring leaks, and resupply drops can not show up in time. Ask those people you know have spent lots of time backpacking what kinds of problems or disastrous situations they've encountered. They're going to enjoy sharing their story, and you're pretty much guaranteed a great tale and some new insight into what kind of crazy and unexpected things can happen.

You then need to consider how risk adverse you are, how confident you you are about coming up with a solution, and find a balance for it all. You don't want to suddenly add a lot of contingency items that will overly increase your pack weight. Look for solutions to a situation that may be transferable to other possible problems. That repair kit for your mattress may be suitable for patching up tears in tents or a rain jacket. Sometimes, however, the only solution may be to carry the specific repair kit, or a backup or spare.

woodenstakes

A stick and sharpened wooden stakes to use in place of a simulated broken trekking pole and forgotten tent stakes.

Another great thing to do is to practice some different scenarios on easier trips. Try setting up your shelter without using your stakes, or without one of the poles. See what it's like to submerge your sleeping pad in water to find a slow leak. Practice treating yourself for blisters on your toes, heel, and the ball of your foot, then walk on it all day to see how secure your solutions are and to ensure they don't cause additional problems when you actually need to use them. You may never actually need to implement your solutions in the field, but the confidence and experience you develop will go a long way in helping you prepare for when something does go wrong, helping to provide that extra insurance that your trip is going to a raging success.

This post was contributed by former Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Brian Horst