To any experienced hiker there is one thing that is most important before even the first boot imprint is left on the trail: planning. Now, if the trip that is being planned is a multiple overnight hike - there can be so many details, that preparation can quickly become a jumbled mess of complexities.
Not only is it imperative, but - it’s also fun. Seasoned hikers, including myself, will use planning as a way to lengthen the pleasure of the hike. Through this stage we can extend the euphoria of the hike by thinking and re-thinking about the adventure, days, weeks, even months before actually being on trail.*
When I decide it is time to go for a hike, my first step in planning is to use a pen and paper, or in today’s electronic world - a computer, to answer down what is called the six w’s of questioning. Used in investigative reporting, police investigations, and numerous other professions worldwide - the six w’s are used as a method to collect information. I use it as a tool to organize my thoughts concerning a hike. This is how I utilize the six w’s when preparing for a hike:
◦ Who is going?
◦ What will be in my backpack according to the where and when?
◦ Where is the hike taking place?
◦ When during the year will the hike take place?
◦ Why - this question usually has the simplest answer – ‘to be in nature’
◦ How am I getting to and from the trailhead? (and yes, I realize this doesn’t start a ‘w’. I didn’t make it up, I just use it.)
Now, I’ll use my latest trip as an example to how these questions truly help me plan my trips.:
The Who: Greyhound, my hiking partner and I were itching to get back on a long distance trail. It didn’t matter where the trail was located. What did matter was the time frame that we both could get off from work. We decided on a two week time table for our hike. Two days for travel to and from the trail head, and 12 days of continuous hiking.
The options to where we were going - otherwise, unlimited.
The Where: The time period was too short for a trip out west, or to Europe. Both Greyhound and I agree we would rather spend more time in these locations to make the cost of traveling work for us. We have been doing section hikes for the past several years going north from Springer Mountain on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The southern Appalachian Mountains on the east coast of North America have some of the finest mountain hiking in the world. This would be a good time to knock off a huge chunk of miles continuing up the trail. Our last AT section hike ended at Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Knowing my average miles per day is somewhere between 18 – 24 miles, this would be a two week ambitious 260 mile hike beginning at the gap and ending in the small town of Damascus, Virginia. We would walk through the northern half of the Great Smoky Mountains considered by some to be the wildest and most remote section of the park. We would continue north on the AT and climb over some of most scenic landscapes the Southern Appalachian Mountains have to offer. Places like Max Patch, Big Butt Mountain, Big Bald, Beauty Spot, Unaka Mountain, Roan Mountain (where the highest shelter on the AT is located at 6,275 ft.), Little Hump and Big Hump, and Laurel Falls, just to name a few, could be hiked in one continuous hike.
Knowing this was a 260 plus mile hike, I cannot carry all my food for that time period on my back. It would be just too heavy. So, I had to figure where I was going to resupply and for how many days until the next re-supply.
The When: Like I said, Greyhound and I were itchin’ to go for a hike. Considering all possibilities, we wanted to go when it was still quite cool and views could be seen through the leafless winter trees. The date was set for mid March.
The How: We would fly up to Ashville, North Carolina and met a mutual friend by the trailname of Caboose. She lives in Ashville and would meet us at the airport. We would spend the night in Ashville and the next morning Caboose would take us to Newfound Gap. Our return flight would be from Tri City Airport in Tennessee, 30 miles from Damascus. We could get a shuttle ride to the airport from one of the outfitters in Damascus. During this stage of the planning we got a bonus. The flights out of Tri City were only on certain days, so the flight date extended our schedule 5 days (more time in nature).
The What: This is probably the most important W for me to consider. Now that I knew we would be in the Appalachian Mountains in early spring, my backpack, or kit, would be put together for the nasty cold, windy, and wet weather found during this time in the mountains. I look at the weather, terrain and wildlife that I will encounter on any given hike and as a safety precaution evaluate what gear will ride on my back. Top on my list on this particular hike would be gear to prevent hypothermia, a life threatening condition in this type of weather. No matter how big or small my hike will be, it is always in the back of my mind what will be in my backpack for a safe and comfortable hike.
Next, I want to determine what I initially was going to eat for the first three or four days in the way of meals and snacks. I also want to consider what my possible choices would be during resupply.
And finally the WHY...simply to get outside.
As you can see, planning is a very important function for a successful hike. By using the Six W’s one can take the confusion out of planning to organize a safe hike. In fact, most experienced hikers will tell you they enjoy the planning almost as great as the actual hike.
*-For example, it is late December and you are with a few of your of friends sitting around the warmth of a blazing fireplace. Outside temperatures are in the low 20 degree Fahrenheit range with a light snow dusting the ground. The purpose of the get together is to discuss the annual backpacking trip the group takes every year. The group decides to backpack the Florida Trail during Spring Break to escape the cold. You can now return home and for the next several months contemplate what type of gear to bring, the splash of an alligator torpedoing through the water, maybe a visit to the beach, and the feel of sand between the toes. And, on a cold wintery night almost feel the warmth of the sun hitting your back. You have just extended your 7 day hike into an exhilarating three month journey.