The last 24 hours has reminded me that for all the planning and excitement for a hike or backpacking trip, sometimes you need to be willing to leave the goal behind and bail on your plans. As I was counseling a colleague and his daughter on an upcoming backpacking trip, I was reminded how important this step is in planning.
Plan Your Route to Include an “Out”
It’s a topic that doesn’t always get a ton of attention. After all, you’ve made the plan, told family and friends and are excited darn it! But what if something goes wrong? What if you get started and realize you don’t really want to do this? What if your gear gets wrecked, you have an injury…the list goes on.
It took planning for my solo backpack of Isle Royale National Park in 2017 to realize that I needed to plan not just for the awesome trip, but also what my plan would be if something changed and I didn’t want to or couldn’t finish my planned route. I needed an “Out Plan.”
I spent quite a bit of time researching how best to tackle my trip. The Isle Royale Forums was invaluable. Meeting with people who’d been to the park was also helpful to hear first hand of the potential challenges. I learned that weather might be my biggest obstacle. It might delay my arrival to or departure from the park. That it would be unlikely to have reliable cell service and that help could be hours or days away.
In the end my plan include making sure my map was marked with the shoreline camps with boat docks and the time that the ferry would likely be stopping, if anyone had booked it as a stop. It included planning to have one “buffer” day so if I got stuck on the island due to weather I wouldn’t be a no-show at work.
Study The Map Before You Go
Much like my Isle Royale adventure, any trip I take includes getting a map and reviewing it several times before I go. That way I know where my “out” points are. And knowing that my “out” might be turning back around.
Last fall I spent several days hoping to link up with a pal thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in northwest Minnesota. The SHT, as it’s lovingly known by hikers, offers an abundance of out points because of its location and all of the state, county and forest roads it crosses. But some segments can be longer or difficult terrain to get to the out point so a good review of the trail before you go is really helpful.
I picked one day to during the trip to hike from Temperance River State Park to Carlton Peak where I hoped to meet my friend coming in the opposite direction. I had a bit of added pressure knowing my partner who does not hike was expecting to see me at the end of the three hour window I’d promised to be gone.
I was well on my way and close to Carlton Peak when my alarm told me I was halfway in my time window. I made the difficult decision to turn around for the car, leaving Carlton Peak for another day. Not the decision I wanted to make, but it was the right decision.
Weather Can Make the Decision for You
There are times when even with the planning you’ve done, that weather makes the decision for you. I’ve seen several stories out of Colorado recently of hikers who got started late on assents, only to be forced back from a summit by lightening. Or mountain climbers who have to bail due to avalanche conditions. Those decisions are hard.
Just this morning a small group of my Women Who Hike friends and I made the decision at 6:30 a.m. to reschedule a hike. I’d set my alarm on a weekend to get up which is a big deal for me. It would take us an hour to get to our chosen trail and we’d be hiking in an elevated area. The weather forecast looked to be a day of gentle rain 12 hours earlier. But when we woke and checked again it included strong winds, heavy rain and lightning. So we agreed we’d reschedule.
It’s Ok to Bail. Really.
I have two friends who have attempted thru-hikes of the SHT who, ultimately had to bail on their trips. For very different reasons.
A couple years ago one of my guy friends wanted to tackle a solo hike of the trail in the span of about three weeks in the months leading up to his wedding. He’s spent most of his life exploring sections of the trail, but the idea of a thru-hike under his belt was enticing. It was a goal that had been sitting there for a long time and he decided to take it on with the support of his fiancée, family and friends. He had regular checkpoints to be resupplied by family and friends and segments where he’d be joined by someone on trail.
As he added miles during his first week, an issue with his knee coupled with the abundant mud of the spring made the going get more difficult. And in the sections where he was alone, he discovered that he didn’t like being alone. At the end of the week he made the hard decision to take a break to let his legs heal. To spend time with friends. In the end he chose not to finish the hike and in a heartfelt post on social media shared that the hardest part, more than the physical, was that he deeply missed the woman he was about to marry.
On the flip side, my pal Wandering Pine and her sister ended their attempt of a SHT thru-hike after 100 miles last summer. The decision came after hornets and blisters got the best of them physically. I know they both agonized over it a bit, but in the end, an honest conversation and knowing that they could still complete the trail another day made the decision a bit easier.
Save the Hike for Another Day
It’s hard making the decision to turn back. I struggle with it every time I’ve had to do it. More so when I’m hiking with a group. And I’ve had to do it. Maybe not in the same circumstances as the examples I’ve shared, but those decisions were no less significant.
Here’s the thing … that trail has been there for a long time and will likely be there for a long time to come. I’d rather bail when conditions and abilities warrant than have it be my last hike.
Did you have a time you had to make the call to take an out? I’d love to hear about it.
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