How the Heck Do You Plan a Backpacking Trip During a Pandemic?

“Damn!” I shouted. My wife stood tall, startled. She thought something terrible had happened, as I rarely raise my voice. She asked, “what’s wrong?” “The maps! we’ve got to get to Fedex before 6.” It was 5:40. With ranger stations closed due to the pandemic and none of the local outdoor stores with curbside pickup carrying the map, I had to meticulously craft my own online. I certainly wasn’t going to head out of town without them. We grabbed the last of our gear, double checked our lists and made it to Fedex just in time.

That’s a solid snapshot into trip planning right now and I’m not even getting into the ethics of outdoor recreation in our current environment. Okay, I touch on it, but there’s already been good stuff written about the ethics of getting outside during the pandemic and I’ll link some articles at the end. I’ve taken quarantining and social distancing very seriously. My outdoor adventures had solely been walking and cycling in my neighborhood for over two months. Until I absolutely had to get out in the woods. Soon I’ll have a trip report up, and the image featured above is a sneak peek, but more importantly as outdoor recreation is opening up, how has trip planning changed?

How to Get Your Beta?

The pandemic has thrown off my dialed-in, but flexible, go-to routine for getting the info I need. I still scour guide books (both new and old), as well as researching routes online. During a normal year I check current trip reports on local sources, which for me include the Washington Trails Association and Oregon Hikers. Right now those reports are minimal, but they are starting to accumulate, albeit at a lesser rate than a typical year. Normally I contact ranger stations, Forest Service/ BLM offices, visitor centers, and local hiking groups for the most recent trail and road conditions. During the pandemic government agencies have less or often no boots on the ground, so where does that leave us for critical information?

Without trail reports or rangers stations, how will you find out if a stream is crossable?

Local Knowledge

Local hiking clubs do a good chunk of the hard work maintaining trails, especially nowadays with government budgets slashed. They’re your immediate best bet for the most current and accurate trail info. Most groups have a website or social media page you can contact them through. For this trip I was able to get particulars from the Siskiyou Mountain Club I couldn’t through other avenues. If you do use a local group for information, I highly recommend donating a few bucks to help them maintain trails for the future, even if it’s far from home. For your home area, or at least close enough, consider joining trail work parties. If neither option is feasible for you, sharing their information and goodwill via social media will help them broaden their presence.

I kicked in for the Siskiyou Mountain Club‘s basic membership, because they were extremely helpful. They do a ton of trail work in Southern Oregon and Northern California and I was happy to give back.

Getting Off the Beaten Path

A ridiculous number of hikers and backpackers tend to consolidate at a handful of destinations through either familiarity or inexperience. Popular trails are extermely busy right now according to rangers I’ve spoken to and from reports on forest service webpages. With it being best to avoid people, how do you get away from the crowds?

Guidebooks often rate destinations by solitude and this is a good place to start. Books focusing on less popular hikes are even better. I mentioned old/out of print guidebooks earlier and they often have hikes that the masses might not know about. I’ve also had good luck on hiking club forum discussions about less popular routes. Another option is hiking areas that have been burned in the past, but are now open. Scorched areas deter many hikers, but have their own unique beauty and the chance to see an ecosystem regenerating is fascinating and educational. I especially enjoy returning to forest fired areas to see the change over years of recovery and regrowth. Careful though, burned trails have there own specific hazards; including being prone to deadfall, lack of shade, and overgrown or impassible trails.

About Those Maps

There are many sources for online maps. If you plan in advance or don’t mind shelling out for expedited shipping MyTopo has sweet custom maps with lots of options. USGS maps are available for free online though a variety of sources. The Gaia app is my go-to and I used their desktop computer customization tools (not available on the mobile app) to create custom 11×17 maps that were roughly 1:24,000 scale. I uploaded them to Fedex and had them printed for a little over a dollar per page. There are good articles around the web on this, but expect a full post on becoming an amateur cartographer in the near future.

1 of 4 maps I created for my trip

Keeping Yourself and Others Safe

In my opinion the most important aspects are:

  • Staying as local as possible
  • Social distancing
  • Using proper hygiene protocols
  • Knowing your limits

This last point seems especially important when heading into the backcountry. Search and rescue teams, traditionally stretched thin in personnel and funds, are reporting high instances of rescues this season. Know your level of experience and ability to keep SAR crews and yourself safe. Take all possible safety precautions on your trek.

Normally I spend as much money as possible in the small towns I pass through, but under current circumstances that doesn’t seem prudent. I’m gassing up and getting supplies close to home. If stopping in these communities is necessary use all possible precautions, especially wearing a mask. Stay safe and when in doubt stay local.

Links on the Ethics of Outdoor Adventure

With trails opening, is it safe—or ethical—to go hiking this summer? — National Geographic

What are the Ethics of Outdoor Recreation While We’re Sheltering in Place? — Adventure Journal

Leave No Trace COVID-19 Research —

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