Thursday, December 20, 2018

2019: Two Hundred Days of Dirt

"When are you going to do the PCT?"

As I neared the end of my CDT hike, I started to get the question. Friends, family members, and fellow hikers inquired,. They were curious. I've now completed two of the three legs of long-distance hiking's rarified "Triple Crown". The Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail are done. The Pacific Crest Trail is next, right?

Well, sorry to disappoint, but I'm not going to do the PCT. At least not now. 

Putting one's life on hold and hiking for six months is a tough thing to pull off. To do it twice, or even three times is rare indeed. That, in part, explains why only about 400 hikers have ever Triple Crowned. Even for the most savvy thru-hiker, there's a very real possibility that this long hike will be their last - either for hiking reasons or for work/family/financial/community/health reasons. 

Each thru-hike is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, if I knew this were my last hike, where would I go?

For several years now, I've planned, plotted, and schemed a north-south traverse of Utah. Utah is an absolutely terrific state, but relatively unknown amongst long-distance hikers, at least in comparison to its more famous cousins - Colorado, Wyoming, California, etc. Yeah, the Hayduke Trail is gaining popularity - and by "gaining popularity", I mean that maybe two dozen hikers attempt it every year - but in my opinion, the rest of Utah still has a lot of unexplored potential.

So here's the plan: I want to once again hike from Mexico to Canada. I want to explore my own home state. I want to a route that's rougher around the edges than even the CDT. This route will run the lengths of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. 

Naturally, everything in our modern world must be named, defined, and commoditized, so I'm calling this thing the "Route In-Between". Geographically, it's between the CDT and the PCT. Between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Cordillera. The RIB explores some oft-overlooked country. An unassuming name - a crappy name - for what I hope will be a really neat route. 

The RIB consists of three distinct chunks:
  • The Arizona Trail (800 miles). The AZT runs the length of Arizona, from the Mexican border near Tucson, up the center of the state, through Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon before terminating in the middle of nowhere on the Utah border.
  • The Deseret Hiking Route (950 miles). This one's my own creation. The DHR uses a combination of existing trails, dirt roads, and cross-country travel to make its way northward through the middle of Utah. It passes through Bryce Canyon, the high plateaus of Southern Utah, the Manti Skyline, and does a complete traverse of the Wasatch Range. Just north of the Utah/Idaho border, the DHR turns to the northwest and makes a beeline across the Snake River Plain, terminating in the Sawtooth Mountains. 
  • The Idaho Centennial Trail (700 miles). The ICT itself runs the length of Idaho, a thousand miles from the Nevada border in the south to the Canadian border in the north. My route follows the northern 70% of the ICT from the Sawtooths to the Canadian border. Along the way, it passes through some truly remote terrain, including some of the largest designated Wilderness areas in the country.
The idea of connecting the Arizona Trail and the Idaho Centennial Trail is not exactly new. I know of perhaps a half dozen people who have contemplated a route like this in the past. Most notably, a hiker named Pepperflake hiked a route from Mexico to Canada through Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Montana in 2016. Our routes both utilize the Arizona Trail and run concurrently through parts of northern Utah and southern Idaho. 

What kind of resources are available for the RIB? Well, it depends where you are:
  • The Arizona Trail is a designated National Scenic Trail. Map sets, tracks, planning guides, town guides are all widely available. Logistical difficulty is no harder than, say, the CDT.
  • The Deseret Hiking Route is entirely my own creation. I've invested hundreds of hours of planning and research, made calls to random BLM field offices, perused satellite imagery, tracked down local experts, and more.
  • The Idaho Centennial Trail is a nascent trail. Only a couple dozen hikers have done the entire ICT before. A few resources are available, but they may be poor, limited, or out of date.
I am planning to start around April 1st on the Mexican border. That's a tad late for a standard northbound thru-hike of the AZT, but if I start any earlier, I will hit quite a bit of snow in the high terrain of Utah. The RIB looks to be about 2,500 miles, although I'm relatively confident that the actual route walked will be a bit longer than that. With significant routefinding and navigational challenges, along with the occasional bushwhack and re-route, I anticipate that the RIB will take nearly six months to complete.

The RIB is frankly tougher than anything I've hiked previously. Sure, I've done things that are more difficult on a per-mile basis. But this route combines the logistical, route-finding, and aloneness challenges of an off-trail route with the physical and mental ardor of a multi-month thru-hike. Even though I've done everything possible to increase my chances of success, there's frankly no way to guarantee that I will make it all the way to Canada. I'm pioneering something that may or may not be possible for an "average joe" like myself.

So I'm going to give it my best shot. I know that if I didn't take this opportunity now, I'd always look back and wonder what could have been. I hope you'll follow along on this adventure - an adventure in the truest, rawest sense of the word.


As mentioned above, I plan to begin the RIB in mid-April. But it's not April yet. What am I up to between now and then?

Well, in short, a bunch of things. In broad terms, I'm planning an extended road trip through the Southwest. It's mostly outdoor-themed - a mix of backpacking, car camping, day hikes, visiting friends, and whatever else catches my fancy. So it's back to the #crappybeatupsubarulife for me. I've got a few destinations already in mind - Joshua Tree, Big Bend, White Sands National Monument, and more. Included in there are a few more out-of-the-way destinations as well. Know of something cool and unique in CA/AZ/NM/TX that I should go see? Let me know!

I will be updating my blog occasionally during the next few months, but won't be taking the time to write up every little adventure. Additional photos and vacuous commentary are always available, though, on my Instagram page. And no, you don't have to have an Instagram account to view the page. 


My grandmother had an old, stately grandfather clock many decades ago. When she passed away, my family inheirited it. Tempus Fugit, it said on the clockface. Time flies. I've got time right now. I had better make the most of it. Time to make 2019 a year of adventures. Two hundred nights in a sleeping bag? That's my goal. Two Hundred Days of Dirt. 

Sunday, December 16, 2018

2018 - In Review

Think of it just in terms of National Parks. In 2018, I hit eight different National Parks, most of them part of the "inner circle" of true American classics: The Grand Canyon. Zion. Rocky Mountain. Yellowstone. Glacier. Add in Death Valley and my personal all-time favorite, Capitol Reef, and that's already an unforgettable year.

But wait, there's more! Only about 10% of my hiking this year was inside a National Park. And that 90% was usually just as remarkable as the stuff in the parks. I am truly, truly blessed. But before we get to far, here are the stats, per usual:

  • Shoes destroyed: 5 pairs
  • Broken backpack buckles: 3
  • Containers of DEET: 3
  • Ice axes: 2
  • Orange hiking shirts: 1 (vaguely resembles Swiss cheese at this point)
  • Containers of Aquamira water treatment drops: 5
  • "Indestructible" DarnTough hiking socks shredded: 4 pairs

  • Long-distance hikes completed: 2 (Continental Divide Trail, Hayduke Trail)
  • Medium-length backpacking trips: 2 (Uinta Highline Trail, Lowest to Highest Route)
  • Short backpacking trips: 6
  • Sleeping bag nights: 190
  • Miles hiked: 3,700
  • States visited: 8
  • National Parks visited: 8
  • Solo Trips: 6
  • Trips with friends: 4

  • State highpoints: 3 (Colorado, Utah, California)
  • State lowpoints: 1 (California)
  • Highest elevation: 14,505' (Mt. Whitney)
  • Lowest elevation: -282' (Badwater Basin)
  • Highest point (metaphorical): Reaching Canada (Chief Mountain, CDT)
  • Lowest point (metaphorical): Intestinal distress, in the rain, surrounded by ravenous hordes of mosquitos (Cochetopa Hills, CDT)
  • Longest full day, in miles: 36 (Great Divide Basin, CDT)
  • Shortest full day, in miles: 8.4 (Saddle Canyon, Hayduke)
  • Most consecutive days without seeing a human: 3.5 (Bootheel of New Mexico, CDT)
  • Longest waterless stretch: 60 miles (North of the Grand Canyon, Hayduke)
  • Heaviest packweight: 41 pounds (Grand Canyon, Hayduke)
  • Lightest packweight: 7 pounds (Route X)

  • Months snowed on: All of them except July
  • Latest snowstorm: June 30
  • Earliest snowstorm: August 28 
  • Fourteeners summited: 2:
  • Thirteeners summited: a whole bunch

Number of times:

  • Stopped by a backcountry ranger: 2
  • Stopped by a police officer: 2
  • Had my information run by a police officer: 1
  • Educated said police officer about what all these scruffy vagrants are doing in his town: 1 
  • Got a hitch from a police officer: 1
  • Acquired backcountry permits: 5
  • Hitchhiked: 20
  • Rode the Greyhound: 2
  • Regretted the Greyhound: 2
  • Woke up screaming to a car bearing down on me: 2 (unrelated to the Greyhound misadventures)

  • Packets of tuna: ~250
  • Pop Tarts: 0
  • Clif Bars: 2 (first time in 5+ years)
  • Sticks of string cheese: ~750
  • Resupply boxes mailed: 10
  • Favorite food: precooked bacon
  • Most hated food: those nasty granola bars I got at the sketchy food emporium
  • Cans of pop given: 3
  • Cans of beer given: 5
  • Cans of beer found abandoned on the side of the road: 3
  • Invited to share a meal: 1

Wildlife encounters:
  • Elk: hundreds
  • Moose: 6 
  • Gila monsters: 1
  • Bighorns: 2
  • Pronghorns: hundreds
  • Bears: still, forever, and always zero.

Ok, enough of the silliness. On to the trips!

In January, I hiked a wonderful route in Slickhorn Canyon, in the once-and-hopefully-future Bears Ears National Monument.

In March, I finished the Hayduke Trail (Sections 10-14), looping through the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.

In April, while still in Zion, I hiked the world-famous Narrows of the Virgin River...

...and then headed down to New Mexico to start the adventure of a lifetime, the Continental Divide Trail.

In May, I finished New Mexico and entered Colorado by midmonth...

 ...and while waiting for some lingering snow to melt, took a side trip back to Slickhorn with some other CDT hikers.

In June, I continued northward through the mountains of Colorado, crossing into Wyoming just before month's end.

In July, I hiked through the Great Divide Basin, the Wind River Range, and Yellowstone National Park. 

The entirety of August was spent in Idaho and Montana, dodging fires closures and eating entirely too much food.

I walked into Glacier National Park on the first of September, and finally finished the CDT on the 4th, after 148 days on trail. 

Later in the month, I did a version of the Uinta Highline Trail with a few bells and whistles...

...and hiked the Lowest to Highest of Salt Lake County.

In October, I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route from Death Valley to the Sierra Nevada...

...and a lovely little route in the Escalante area of southern Utah. 

In November, I explored the lower end of Dark Canyon...

...and began an extended road trip and car camping extravaganza, beginning in SE Utah.

It's always a challenge to recognize just how good you have it.. But I can say with some confidence that this has been the year of a lifetime. I am very, very blessed. And Lord willing, 2019 should bring even more adventures. 

See past "Years in Review": 2017, 2016, 2014

Friday, November 23, 2018

National Park Bingo. Play Along!

One of the chief delights of spending time in National Parks or other touristy areas is people-watching. Perhaps you've heard the stories of people putting baby bison in their cars, getting way too close to active geysers, or following their GPS units into the middle of nowhere

But sometimes the tourists are just funny. Way too much gear for a simple two-mile hike? Check. Folks complaining about the lack of wifi and/or cell reception? Check.
We've all seen those tourists before. We've all been those tourists before. 

Next time you're in a park, bring along these handy bingo cards! You can even play with friends!

Download Link

The Uinta Highline Trail - A Guide

Updated for the 2021 hiking season.

Over the past few years, the Uinta Highline Trail has increased greatly in popularity. I often get questions from prospective UHT hikers about the trail. This page is intended to be a quick planning resource to address those questions.

Where is it?

The Uinta Range, in northwestern Utah, is a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains. It's home to all 14 of Utah's thirteeners (peaks in excess of 13,000'). It's one of only ranges in the United States that runs east-west, rather than north-south. The UHT parallels the crest of the Uintas through mostly alpine terrain.

Why should I hike it?

Unlike many other classic backpacking destinations (Winds, Sierra, Cascades), the Uintas aren't particularly jagged. Instead, you'll be impressed by the bigness of the place. The Uintas are high enough that the basins, not just the peaks, sit above treeline. The views from the passes are truly incredible, and there's nothing better than walking past an alpine lake while peaks tower overhead. And speaking of the fishing, it's pretty great in many of the lakes. The Uintas (and in particular the UHT) have become more popular in recent years, but solitude is still found in abundance.

How long is it? 

Anywhere from 65-102 miles, depending on your choice of eastern trailhead (more on that below). Call it 5-10 days for your average hiker.

Where is the eastern trailhead?

There are three options:
  1. The "true" trailhead at McKee Draw on Highway 191 (102 miles). This trailhead makes for the longest hike and easiest logistics, but the first 20-25 miles are mostly a forest walk, and don't really fit the high alpine theme of the rest of the route.
  2. Leidy Peak/Hacking Lake trailhead (78 miles). Leidy Peak marks the east end of the classic High Uintas. It's the easternmost 12,000-foot peak in the range, as well as the easternmost peak above treeline. The dirt access road is fairly good, but it's the longest car shuttle of the three options.
  3. Chepeta Dam trailhead (65 miles). This trailhead makes for the shortest hike. The dirt access road is fairly rough, although doable for most passenger cars with a little care.
I personally highly recommend option #2, the Leidy Peak trailhead. Starting at Leidy will give you an all-killer-no-filler hike which has a consistent theme and feels "complete". Starting at the Highway 191 trailhead, to me, seems like a 20-mile approach trail just to get to the good stuff. Starting at Chipeta Dam misses a rather nice section of trail, for no real benefit other than shortening the hike. As always, hike your own hike! 

Where is the western trailhead?

Highline Trailhead, near Hayden Pass on Mirror Lake Highway (UT 150).

How do I get from one trailhead to another?

This is the most significant logistical challenge of the Highline. Those who have friends/family in the area are probably best off bribing somebody with gas money and a nice dinner. Those from out of state will have a bit harder time.  
I've seen various people offer their services on the internet over the years, but they come and go quickly. Recently, multiple users have reported good experiences with Mountain Trails Transport. If you use a shuttle service and have a good experience with it, please shout it out in the comments.

For those hikers who are coming from out-of-state or who don't have somebody to shuttle them, it's possible to self-shuttle using a mixture of hitchhiking, Utah Transit Authority buses, and free Summit County buses. For detailed information, step-by-step directions, maps, and more, please visit the UHT Shuttle Page.

When can I hike it?

As soon as Dead Horse Pass melts out. In most years, that's around mid-July. My first UHT hike was in an average snow year, and the north side of Dead Horse was still fairly snowbound on the 4th of July. If I were planning the trip in advance, I probably wouldn't plan to start until about the 3rd week of July. In a high snow year, it may not be doable without an ice axe until August. By mid-September, winter is on its way. Call it mid-July through mid-September.

When should I hike it?

In July, you'll have patches of snow garnishing the landscape, beautiful fields of wildflowers, and abundant water. You'll also have muddy trails, potential lingering snowfield issues, daily thunderstorms, and oft-horrendous mosquitos.

In August, you'll have drier trails, fewer bugs, and golden grasses in the high basins. You'll still have thunderstorm issues and some lingering bug issues.

In September, you'll have beautiful fall colors (when below treeline), very few thunderstorms, and no bugs. You'll also have colder temperatures and the ever-present threat of early season snow.

In my mind, the end of August is an ideal time to hike the Highline - in that short window between when the bugs and thunderstorms subside, and when winter hits. Were I to plan a trip right now, I'd plan it for the last week of August. YMMV!

What direction should I hike it?

It doesn't really matter all that much. It's far more common to hike westbound for a couple of reasons:
  1. The west end of the Highline is more spectacular than the east end. It's a nice feeling to have something even better to look forward to.
  2. Whether you're from Utah or elsewhere, you're likely going to be coming from Salt Lake City. Parking your car at the west end and getting shuttled to the east end, before your hike begins, allows you to save a little gas, and walk back to your car when you're done. I always try and get a hitch/shuttle/ride on the front end whenever possible, so I can get that logistical worry out of the way, and so I don't smell as disgusting when someone else is giving me a ride in their car.
Where can I get maps for it?

Maps for this trail are remarkably straightforward. If choose trailhead #2 or #3, as outlined above, you'll need Trails Illustrated Map 711, available at any outfitter in Utah or on the interwebs. If you choose #1, you'll need 711 and 704.

You can also print DIY maps using Caltopo. Simply follow this link (embedded below as well) and print to your heart's content. If you're doing a significant amount of off-trail navigation, this may be a better choice. The Trails Illustrated maps are just fine for on-trail and easy off-trail navigation; however, they have 100-foot contour lines rather than 40-foot contour lines and don't provide as much detail as a Caltopo 7.5" quad would offer.

What's the trail like under my feet?

The trail can be a little faint at times, especially through meadows and open areas. Remember, this trail is pretty remote and doesn't see a lot of hikers. It is a bit rocky in places, especially where horses have done damage to the trail. Be prepared for a few slow/frustrating miles. In general though, it's fairly straightforward walking - generally fairly flat, except for the passes.

What about the passes?

Glad you asked! There are eight named passes on the official route, described here from east to west.
  1. Gabbro Pass (11,700'): nothing particularly complicated, although snow cornices can hang around for an uncomfortably long time on the eastern side. You may be able to sneak around the snow by staying north of the actual pass on the main Uintas crest, as shown on the mapped alternate. After Deadman Lake, there's a 400' climb back up before you crest an unnamed pass and drop to Whiterocks Lake
  2. North Pole Pass (12,200'): This one may hit you like a ton of bricks. It's not very steep, but it's your first 12,000' pass of the trip unless you've been taking ridgetop alternates.
  3. Anderson Pass (12,800'): The highest point on the UHT. It's mostly just a long uphill, and those in good high altitude shape may be able to power up. Just before you get to the top, you'll find a reliable, albeit shallow spring. Don't forget to tag Kings Peak! The west side looks intimidatingly steep, but there's a fairly good trail down.
  4. Tungsten Pass (11,400'): A total joke - hardly worth being called a pass at all.
  5. Porcupine Pass (12,200'): Gradual approach from the east, dropping off sharply on the west side. A decent trail most of the way. 
  6. Red Knob Pass (12,000'): A little confusing. There is a trail junction atop the pass - the East Fork Blacks Fork trail runs parallel to the ridge and joins the Highline trail from the East. You want to head north, then southwest, into West Fork Blacks Fork drainage. 
  7. Dead Horse Pass (11,600'): The crux of the official route. The north side of Dead Horse generally holds snow well into July. It is steep and loose and, if the trail is still snow-covered, a bit treacherous. Be careful!
  8. Rocky Sea Pass (11,300): The last pass on the trail. The western approach is fairly steep and rocky, but nothing to be concerned about. If you did Dead Horse, Rocky Sea won't be a problem.

Any special route recommendations?

While the UHT is a great hike overall, I think there is a little room for improvement. Below are a few recommendations:
  1. Summit Leidy Peak. Leidy Peak is the easternmost peak above 12,000 feet in the Uintas, and is a perfect way to begin your UHT hike (if starting at Leidy) or to introduce yourself to the High Uintas themselves (if starting at US 191). There's no official trail to the top, but the slopes are gentle enough to summit from any direction. Lowlanders will be gasping for breath as they climb above 12k.
  2. Summit Kings Peak. Kings is Utah's highest peak, at 13,528'. It's so close to the Highline Trail itself - less than a mile - that to skip it would be a shame. The route is class II all the way to the summit, staying just on the E (left) side of the ridge. I usually drop my pack at the top of Anderson Pass before taking the side-trip and haven't had any issues with 4-legged critters gnawing it, or 2-legged critters stealing it. Plan at minimum a couple of hours for this side trip - it's not hard, but it's also not fast. 
  3. Rock Creek Basin. The East Fork Fire of 2020 did considerable damage to Rock Creek Basin, and the trails below treeline have likely suffered as a result. The official UHT takes a direct route through the basin, but also drops way down into the lower elevations to do so. It was reported to be in rough shape before the fire, and is almost certainly impassible after the fire. Fortunately, the Head of Rock Creek trail travels through mostly sparse tree cover right at the edge of timberline. There will certainly be damage to the trail, but it's probably passable with a little creativity. Even before the fire, it was the best option (in my opinion), and that's even more true now.
  4. Mirror Lake Finish. A few tenths before the western terminus, a trail splits from the UHT, heading SW to the campground at Mirror Lake. If you're not quite ready for your High Uintas adventure to be over yet, head to Mirror Lake. There's a great view of Bald Mountain reflected in Bonnie Lake along the way, and Mirror Lake makes for a great place to yogi a ride down to Kamas if need be.
  5. UHT western extension. The official UHT ends at Mirror Lake Highway, but the Uinta Mountains themselves continue west, ending at Hoyt Peak just above the town of Kamas. Using a hodge-podge of trails, along with a few short roadwalks and a tiny bit of off-trail travel, it is possible to hike from the western terminus of the UHT to Hoyt Peak. This clocks in at about 30 miles. The western Uintas are nice enough that, if I had time to hike 100-ish miles through the Uintas, I wouldn't actually do the traditional 100-mile UHT hike between US 191 and Mirror Lake Highway. Instead, I'd start at Leidy Peak and end at Hoyt Peak, giving me a hike that was both more beautiful and spanned the entire length of the above-treeline-Uintas. Owing to the small amount of off-trail travel, including through a burnt area, this alternate isn't mapped. If you're planning on doing it, map it yourself and carry USGS 7.5' quadrangle printouts for the area.
In addition to the above, savvy hikers will notice that the eastern end of the Uintas (east of Anderson Pass) are pretty gentle. Lots of off-trail alternates are possible through here, including along ridgetops. The travel is slow, rocky and frustrating at times, but jawdropping. Ridgetop alternates are not advised during July and August due to limited bailout opportunities and the likelihood of afternoon lightning storms. 

What about weather?

It's gnarly, no two ways about it. Particularly in the height of summer, the Uintas experience a consistent afternoon thunderstorm pattern. Unless you're interested in getting charbroiled by a stray bolt of lightning, you'll probably want to be below treeline by noon each day. That often means you'll hide in your tent for a couple hours while it storms like the dickens outside.

In general, hikers in the Uintas are served well by getting up early and hiking hard all morning, knowing that the afternoon will be slower as the storms roll through. The passes, conveniently, are about a dozen miles apart. Start hiking at 6am, and you'll often complete your daily mileage by early afternoon. 

What about bears?

They're not a big problem up high. I don't know anybody who's seen one above 10k in the Uintas - and the UHT stays at/above 10k for its entire length. Proper food storage (e.g. bear-bagging) is required, but bear canisters are not. Utah is not home to any grizzlies at this time - only black bears.

What about water?

If you're starting at US 191, there's a long (20-mile) before you get to Leidy Peak. I've normally found a little bit of water running across the trail in the Leidy Peak area, but it's not reliable. West of Leidy, you should find tons of water and shouldn't ever have to carry more than a liter or two. 
Of note, there is an unmapped but reliable spring on the E side of Anderson Pass at about 12,400. It flows right across the trail. It's a bit hard to collect (use a quart zip-lock to scoop from shallow flows) but I've seen it running even in September of a dry year.

What about resupply?

There are no practical opportunities to resupply along the UHT. After Leidy Peak, it crosses just one dirt road - at Chepeta Dam - and that road has zero traffic. I suppose you could arrange for a friend to meet you on that dirt road with some food, but to be honest, most hikers just carry all their food with them.

What about cell coverage? It's basically nonexistent, Verizon does get some service atop Kings Peak (and I've heard reports of AT&T as well), but you should plan to be completely incommunicado for the duration of your hike. Get a good weather forecast before you leave. Those of a cautious disposition may consider carrying a personal locator beacon in case of emergency.

What about red tape?

Basically none. Yippee! If you park a vehicle on the west end, along Mirror Lake Highway, a self-service permit is required. Permits are available at the Highline Trailhead itself or at a permit station along the highway. America the Beautiful passes are accepted.
Campfires are prohibited in many of the more popular basins along the UHT. If you plan to have a campfire during your UHT journey, be sure to download or print a list of campfire-restricted areas, available on the Forest Service's website. Do not rely on the Trails Illustrated maps - while it does shade some popular areas in purple, I've noticed several discrepancies between the TI maps and the actual Forest Service order. Better yet, please consider forgoing a campfire - in sensitive alpine environments, the impacts of campfires can last for years.

What about fishing?

It's excellent. Fish will bite at just about everything up there. I am a complete fishing novice and even I can catch a few. Don't forget your a Utah fishing license

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Safety Series Part 4: What Do I Need For Navigation?

In retrospect, attaching my maps to a lanyard around my neck might not have been the best idea:
It was slow going. The terrain was steep with lots of ups and downs. Branches tugged at me as I ducked over, under, and around them. I stopped to check the...
MAP. Where's the map?
It was on the lanyard around my neck just a few minutes ago. But now the lanyard was broken, dangling mournfully around my neck. And that map pack was nowhere to be found. I attempted to re-trace my steps, but it was impossible. It could be anywhere. I walked a mile back and forth, looking for where it fell. Nowhere.

I sat on a fallen pinyon trunk and tried and compose my thoughts. I had no map, 40 miles from the nearest paved road. I had downloaded a backcountry mapping program onto my phone, but had cell coverage to access the topo for this area. However, even though I didn't have topographical data, I still had a GPS track of the route saved on my phone. A blue line through empty space. I had no choice - try to follow that line - and be cognizant of the remaining battery.
I knew that, as long as I made it into Dark Canyon, I'd be home free. I expected to see backpackers in Dark Canyon and in the worst case scenario, I could hitch a ride back to my car from them. The challenge was getting there. I aligned my phone to north with my compass, shot a bearing, and started following my compass, overland, south-southeast. I had to go three miles and end up in the right canyon system. Messing up was not an option.
Spoiler: I made it back to civilization just fine. But things could have been a lot worse. It's a good thing I had that GPS track on my phone, even without topo data. That squiggly line through empty space saved my bacon. I had one and a half sources of navigational data. That was enough - but just, just barely. And had I not basically memorized the map before I lost it, it wouldn't have been enough.


Spend enough time in hiking circles on the Internet, and you'll soon find people debating the merits of GPS apps versus map-and-compass navigation. I'm not going to go into it here, except to say that both GPS and map-and-compass have their benefits and drawbacks. 

The real problem with the maps-vs-GPS debate is that both sides fail to recognize that different tools are needed in different situations. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, my personal preference, most of the time, is map-and-compass navigation. It allows me to build a better "mental map" of the area I'm traveling through and forces me to get better acquainted with the terrain. But in thick fog, where I can't see more than ten yards? GPS all the way. 

Ultimately, what I'm concerned about is not the kind of navigation sources, but the number. Those complaining that a GPS can fail in the middle of nowhere are right - but they forget that maps can also, um, go missing, leaving you equally stranded. So with that in mind, I offer three categories of navigational situation, each with different navigational requirements:

Type A: I've been here before and know the area very well. The hike I'm doing is on-trail. This may be a "touristy" hike, say, something at a National Park that goes three miles to a beautiful waterfall. There are other people on trail and water is not a problem. I do not need a map for this hike.

Type B: If I've even been here before, it was a long time ago. I don't know the area in very much detail. The hike is still on-trail or follows an obvious off-trail feature like a ridgeline or watercourse. The trail is still fairly obvious but all junctions may not be signed. I may spend a lot of time in the trees, or pass through more complex terrain. I need a map for this hike. 

Type C: I haven't been here before, or I don't remember it very well. The hike may be on faint trail or off-trail entirely. The terrain is complex and confusing at times. Water might be an issue. I need two maps for this hike.

Why two maps for Type C hikes? Type C hikes are in remote areas, often off-trail, and often in arid places. If I lose my map, get my phone wet, run out of battery, etc, I don't have any real hope of finding my way back to civilization fast enough to avoid death. When I'm halfway through a 30-mile waterless stretch, getting lost will kill me very, very quickly. 

The lost-maps story I refer to in the introduction occurred in a Type C environment on the Hayduke Trail. I needed two sources - and I had two sources, even though one was pretty minimalist. But there are plenty of other routes that fall into the Type C category and thus require two sources:

  • Just because there's a map pack out there for that cool new "high route" you're hiking doesn't mean it's a trail. Nobody's gonna find you if you're off-trail and lost.
  • The CDT through New Mexico is a maze of seldom-traveled dirt roads with long water carries. Getting off-route could mean running out of water in the middle of nowhere.
  • The PCT may be a well-marked and maintained trail, but when it's buried by snow in June in the Sierra (or Washington in September), it suddenly becomes a Type C trail. Got your second source of navigational data?

Here's where the rubber hits the road. In my experience, the majority of hikers on the western long trails (here I refer to the CDT, but I surmise that the PCT is similar) carry only one source of navigational data, even though the environments they're traveling through often fall into the Type C category. There are certainly times that the long trails are Type B, for example, the CDT through Glacier National Park. In those times, carrying only one source of navigational data is warranted. However, I have observed hikers treating the entire 3,000-mile trail as if it were all Type B, when in fact, a good chunk of those miles are type C. So, here are my shamelessly opinionated declarations:

  • If you're carrying only a GPS app on your phone for navigation through the dirt roads of New Mexico or the snow-covered San Juan mountains, you are an idiot, plain and simple. Messing up, veering off course, and having your phone unexpectedly crash can kill you.
  • If you're carrying only one set of paper maps for navigation through those dirt roads or the San Juans, you're also an idiot. What happens when the maps fall out of your pocket while you're glissading and go over a cliff? And before you say "that's unlikely", it happened to me on the CDT, in the San Juans, in 2018.

In case you haven't gathered this by now, I'm very careful when it comes to navigation. But despite that, I've lost my maps on two different occasions over the years, and suffered GPS app failures twice. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. But, by embracing redundancy in Type C situations, those failures have been mere annoyances, rather than dangers.

A word on the nature of navigational sources for Type C expeditions: two different apps on the same smartphone do not count as two different sources of navigational data. A charging issue, OS crash, simply losing the phone will render both apps inoperable. Similarly, a brochure map that you get in the backcountry-permit office that doesn't have topographical data doesn't count either. The key question: if I flat-out lost the other navigational source, could I get back to civilization safely?


Thus ends the diatribe. I do have certain recommendations and ways of doing things that I prefer, but don't necessarily rise to the level of universal guidelines. So I offer them as mere recommendations based on my experience:

  • In type B environments, I prefer to navigate with paper maps rather than GPS/electronic sources. I enjoy looking at maps and getting to know the lay of the land in a deep way - far deeper than if I were looking at just my location and immediate surroundings on a small screen. I believe this gives me greater awareness of what's around me and makes it a more enriching experience.
  • In type C environments, I generally use paper maps as my primary navigational resource and keep an electronic source (GPS app on my phone) as a backup. I find that if I rely on my phone as a primary resource, I don't have a good "mental map" of the area - and if my phone fails, I still won't know where I am, even with the maps as backup. 

For the seventeen of you who've read this far, thanks for reading and I hope it inspired some thought.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Safety Series Part 3: Decision Points

Last time, I explained the Mom Principle as an important backcountry decision-making tool. But of course, applying the Mom Principle is only possible if we realize that we actually need to make a decision. This isn't as trivial as it sounds.

PC: ej Horrocks

Plenty of ridgeline scrambles start out relatively easy and get progressively more difficult and more exposed. If we're not careful, we can become numb to the difficulty and just keep pressing forward - until we hit something truly impassible and have to turn around. And at that point, we realize that it's considerably more difficult to scramble down than it was to scramble up, and now we're stuck in a bad situation. Or a snow slope that starts out gentle and gradually gets steeper as you get closer to the pass. The point is, if we get lured in by something easy, and never stop to re-evaluate our plan as conditions change, we're rolling the dice and merely hoping that we won't cross that line that separates "difficult" from "dangerous".

Enter, the decision-point paradigm. Although originally developed for backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain, I find it useful in a wide variety of backcountry contexts. It's relatively simple in theory. Whenever I'm entering an area of complex or difficult terrain, I I follow these steps:

1) Stop. Nobody goes any further until we all discuss and make a collective decision. We don't even start the discussion until everybody in our party is standing right here and ready to talk. One person takes on the mantle of leadership and coordinates the discussion in steps #2-4.
2) Converse. The leader asks each group member, individually, is asked what they're seeing, if we should tackle this objective, and if so, what the best route is. Any special considerations (i.e. "let's spread out so we don't kill each other with rockfall") are voiced at this time.
3) Decide. The decision to press forward must be unanimous. If any group member believes it's unwise to push forward, we don't tackle the objective. We find another way.
4) Review. The leader repeats back the plan to the group, and identifies, via pointing or description, the next decision point. Each group member verbally agrees to the plan. 
5) Move. We execute the plan and arrive at the next decision-point, where the cycle starts over.

It seems like a clunky process at first, but it really does become second-nature. It's important to get a solid opinion from each group member (a simple yes/no is not enough). If I have doubts, it's easy enough to keep quiet while everyone else decides we should push forward. But if I am asked directly, I've got to either speak up, or swallow my doubts and spew a load of nonsense I don't believe. It forces the question in a way that encourages differing perspectives and, when in doubt, trends toward more conservative decision-making.

For example, a group of friends and I employed the decision-point method while ascending Knapsack Col in the Wind River Range this summer. The pass was still choked with snow in early July, and a large cornice adorned the top. We all had slightly different opinions on the best route to the top. Skunk thought right looked best, and it did, until Max pointed out that the cornice over there looked pretty gnarly. I thought the left side looked best, while Lara preferred center-left. After talking past each other for a couple minutes, I took a picture on my phone and traced the route with my finger. Turns out that was the same route that Lara was advocating. It looked good to all of us, and Skunk suggested a big Z-shaped switchback underneath to gain the elevation more safely. Looked good.

I reminded everyone not to get above or below each other, reiterated the plan to everyone, and got a "yes". Go time.

A half hour later?

PC: Kevin Erkelenz

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Safety Series Part 2: The Mom Principle

I'm closing in on thirty years old (yikes!). And yet, "what would I tell Mom?" is still my guiding principle. Allow me to explain.

As discussed last time, there are a multitude of "brain traps" we can fall into when out in the backcountry. Recent avalanche avoidance research has identified a pile of them. Bottom line: our brains aren't that good at identifying and assessing risk, much less when we're actually in the backcountry. So as a safeguard against letting my lizard brain take over, I ask myself this question:

Could I, with a clean conscience, tell my mom about what I'm poised to do?

I ask myself this question because it brings to front of mind any latent, lingering doubts that I'm trying to suppress. Are there any warning signs I'm missing, that I should have seen? Am I 100% confident that I can do this safely?

In my backpacking career, there's really only been one decision I've made that violated the Mom Principle (though, it was before I had developed the Mom Principle). In 2014, I traversed a snowy, sketchy sidehill in Grand Teton National Park. If I had slipped on the hard, icy snow, I would have taken a very fast ride down some very steep terrain, interspersed with sharp boulders. I had not brought microspikes.
It quickly became apparent that Paintbrush was every bit as challenging as they said. From Lake Solitude, the trail ascended the side of a ridge. Theoretically, at least. In reality, there was no trail in many spots, and I had to traverse several steep snowfields, going sideways across a 50-60 degree slope. The ice axe became a necessity. I chopped steps in the icy snow where necessary. It took me perhaps 10 minutes to go 50 yards in the most treacherous spots.
Setting aside the fact that there's no way it was actually 50 degrees, let alone 60 (I'd now say it was about 40-45 degrees at its steepest), this was just a flat-out bad decision. I couldn't tell Mom about it without feeling guilty. It was a dumb risk to take. I didn't have the experience using an ice axe. I didn't have traction devices for my feet. If I had waited several hours for the snow to warm up and soften, it would have been easy. But given the current conditions, my traverse of that slope was simply unsafe.

I aim never to be in that position again.

Note, however, that the Mom Principle is not dependent on whether my mom (or anybody else) actually agrees with my decisions. It's about whether I am confident in my decision. If the worst happened, and I were badly injured, would I regret undertaking that traverse to begin with? Would I feel ashamed? Or would I imply acknowledge that bad stuff sometimes happens out there and that I just got "unlucky"?

Since the development of the Mom Principle, I've backed down on at least two occasions from routes that exceeded the accceptable level of risk. I was confident I could make it safely, but not 100% confident. Not confident enough to tell my family about with a clean conscience. So I turned around, went another way, and lived to fight another day. I turned around in the moment, but really, I had made those decisions months or years in advance. And I can tell my mom about them without the slightest twinge of guilt.


A special note on solo travel. I do quite a bit of solo backpacking, some of it off-trail. I've done the entirety of the Hayduke Trail alone, as well as off-trail routes in the Uintas, Absarokas, and Beartooths, among others. I wish I could find the study, but the research apparently indicates that solo travelers in the backcountry actually make more conservative decisions than those traveling in a group. If anything, I'm less likely to get myself into a dangerous situation when I'm solo.

Solo and off-trail. Worth it.

But I freely admit that the stakes are higher alone. Take, for example, a simple case of food poisoning in the desert. If I'm too physically weak to hike, my partner can easily hike to the next water source, fill up ever container we have, hike back, and wait for me to recover with plenty to drink. If I'm alone and unable to get to that next water source? I'm dying of dehydration in the hot desert sun. There's nobody coming past to see my plight and lend me a hand.

Therefore, my corollary to the Mom Principle, regarding solo, off-trail travel: If 1) I am both alone and off-trail, or 2) not being able to move forward will kill me in short order, then I will bring my Personal Locator Beacon. 

My PLB is designed to do one thing and one thing only: to summon a helicopter. I won't push it unless my life literally depends on it. It's not a way of bailing myself out of sticky situations, nor is it a tool that allows me to take greater risks while still having a safety net. I intentionally bought one with limited functionality so that I'll never be tempted the make riskier decisions just because I have a PLB as a backup. 

There you have it. The Mom Principle. A useful way of checking whether I'm really, really sure about the decision I'm about to make. Next time? Decision points.