Trip Planning Never Goes as Planned by Maddie Smith


Sometimes, trip prep means weeks or months of planning. Sometimes trip prep happens the night before you leave. I’ve had less than 36 hours notice to meet a crew at Lee’s Ferry to put in on the Colorado River. I’ve agreed at 9pm one night to leave at 4am the next morning for a trip to Utah. I’ve also had 6 months to prepare for a 17-day backpacking trip in the Aldo Leopold and Gila Wilderness of Southern New Mexico. Spontaneity, I’ve learned, is almost easier than long-term planning.
I’ve known that I will be spending 17 days in Southern New Mexico ever since I became a Parks and Recreation Management major in the fall of 2014, and chose my emphasis in Outdoor Education and Leadership. I’ve known that I will be leaving for this trip on April 22nd since I applied and was accepted into the class last November. And yet even now, when people ask me when do I leave for that big backpacking trip that I’m going on this Spring; my reply is, “Oh yeah we leave in late April.”
It’s late April.
When I found out the trip dates, as someone who procrastinates almost for the sake of procrastinating, I knew that trip preparation was going to have to be a top priority in the coming months. In December, I knew I needed new hiking boots, a lighter backpacking tent, and a new sleeping bag since my old one had suffered extensive zipper damage thanks to my dog’s chewing tendencies. Initially I was pretty proud of myself because before the start of 2016, I had ordered and received a new sleeping bag. I thought maybe my last minute tendencies were becoming a thing of the past, and I was on the road to a well-thought out and long term planning process.
Come April, and I still hadn’t ordered the other two big purchases on my list, boots and a tent. I frantically dumped my bank account on the two items and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t stop nervously pacing by the front door and tracking the orders on FedEx every ten minutes until the packages arrived at my doorstep. I’m also pretty sure that one my tent arrived on my doorstep it didn’t remain in its packaging for more than about five seconds, I wasted no time in giving it a first go at setting it up in the middle of the living room.
One of the goals for this trip was to get everyone’s pack and gear as close to Superlight or Ultralight as possible. Superlight means a dry weight (weight of pack without food or water) of less than 20 pounds; Ultralight is under 10. This meant hours of weighing each item individually, and knowing that ounces add up. I used to roll my eyes at my friends who would cut their toothbrush in half to save a few ounces, or who repackaged every single item they bought, soap, band-aids, even toothpaste. Now, I am making a public apology for mocking my friends brushing their teeth with half of a toothbrush, because I will be joining them this time around. Each little ounce saving sacrifice on its own seems pointless, but when you can shave off two or three ounces from 8 items, that’s a pound off of your pack weight. And knowing just how much food we were going to have to carry, I was not about to carry any more weight than I needed to.
My pack weight ended up being right around 15 pounds, which was significantly lower than any other pack I had carried before. It took being meticulously choosing between items, but it paid off, because I still had to consider the weight of food and water while hiking. Since on average you’re carrying 3 liters of water with you, depending on access to water throughout the day and whether or not you are planning on dry camping or camping near water on a given night, I averaged that I will be carrying approximately 6.5 pounds of water on any given day.
Which brings me to the next hurdle of trip planning: food. We had a 6-day travel portion in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, then a food re-ration before we embarked into the Gila Wilderness for 11 days. I’ve carried 6-7 days of food on my back before, and while splitting the weight between a cook group of two or three definitely helps, it still comes out to about 9 pounds per person. We ended up needing to carry two stuff sacks for food for the 11-day portion; we simply could not fit all of it into one. We spent about 6 hours earlier this week weighing out, repackaging, and dividing the food for the 6 and 11-day portions among cook groups, and by the end of the day we had two more weights to add onto our pack, ~9 pounds per person for the 6-day travel portion, and ~12 pounds per person for the 11-day travel portion. Add that to my pack weight and approximate water weight, and I have about a 30-pound pack on the first portion, and about a 34-pound pack for the second portion.
Dehydrating food saved us an incredible amount of weight, and although in their little baggies the dehydrated lasagna doesn’t look particularly appetizing, we all knew that after a week in the backcountry it would make a fantastic dinner. Think of it in calories, for instance carrying one non-dehydrated pepper, you’re also carrying its water weight, which holds no calories for you. When you dehydrate peppers, you can carry significantly more calories, and not carry the water weight. One pepper is ~53 calories and weighs ~6.7 ounces; we are carrying 2.7 ounces of dehydrated peppers, and getting ~191 calories.
No matter how many different types of trips I go on, preparation is usually a similar cycle that ends with me running around scrambling to tie up loose ends within the last remaining days/hours/minutes before departing. And I almost always forget something; extra headlamp batteries, a spork, one time on a river trip I forgot the sunscreen that I wasn’t allergic to and instead grabbed one that gave me an angry red rash. But it always worked out, my headlamp batteries didn’t die until I returned home and was using it to unpack my car, I managed to eat without a spork using a combination of my own hands and my pocket knife, and when my rash flared up I would dunk myself in the cool and soothing waters of the Colorado River. Whether it’s a backpacking trip, river trip, or a day hike in Sedona, something almost always goes wrong and something almost always works out better than expected. It’s part of the beauty of what we do in outdoor recreation. Even when the only unknown element might be weather or we’re not sure exactly where the trailhead is, we are almost always leaving something to chance. And now, finishing this blog post with less than 24 hours remaining until my departure on this trip that I’ve had 6 months to prepare for, I’m reminding myself of all of the elements that I am simply forced to leave to chance, and embracing it.

To be continued in 17* days

*If it’s less than 17 days, something has gone terribly wrong and I’ve been evacuated. If it’s more than 17 days, then we’re very lost and hopefully someone has sent help.

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