Discovery vs Safety – The Balance


from Parks Canada.

I was recently asked by @AdventureWithBG the following question:


Jarrett (I assume BG is not much for typing... 😉 ) and I were discussing earlier how to balance exploring a new place and having a sense of discovery yet doing proper research.

Honestly, it all depends on the trip.

If I am hiking something well-marked with ample guidebooks and a robust infrastructure in place, safety is not my primary concern. My experience level is such is that it would, hopefully, be a pleasant stroll.

At this point in my hiking career, when hiking on such a trail,  there only a few things I really need. Mainly five days of food, some appropriate navigation aids, maybe a data book (for resupply info) and I am good to go.  I can make it up on the fly without too much planning. My little guide for The Colorado Trail reflects this mentality: Just the facts; no filler needed.

Easy enough to have a self-sense of discovery: Don’t read one of the many hiking blogs, journals or books about the trail!  Some maps and some sort of databook is enough in most cases.

However, I am not attracted to these popular routes at this point in my life.

When I research a place to backpack, camp or hike, there is usually not much information on it.  Summit Post will have a page of the pertinent info for the area and the BLM site, or similar will have road information and such. There are no Point A to Point B to Point C connect-the-dots trip reports typically. And if there is? I don’t tend to read them.  The maps are what I study.

I want a general overview of the area and any “Gotch Ya!” type info in terms of red tape, permits or even driving conditions.

So that is how I get a sense of discovery: Look for obscure places that don’t have a Facebook Class of 2016, smartphone apps or a trail angel network available. 🙂

Being a bit more serious, I tend to shy away from detailed guidebooks as it for something like Rocky Mountain National Park or when I did the Uinta Highline Trail.

As for safety in these lesser known areas, that’s another good question.

A non-technical trail? It is hiking. Usual precautions for three-season conditions are fine. Again, the map and some overview information is usually adequate. Obviously, I make sure my personal skill set can handle the weather conditions, terrain type, time of year and so on, too.

Off trail? Similar to above. The main difference? I study the map…but in even in more detail.  Google Maps’ satellite view can be useful as well before the trip. I make sure my route is not too steep for non-technical scrambling. And if the rock is too crumbly after all? Know how to read the map to plan out a different route. I’ve had to do this on a few occasions.  

Getting to and from the trailheads is also something I research for lesser-known areas. When we went to New Mexico recently, and for a trip we are planning over Memorial Day Weekend, research was done via Summit Post and Google Maps. The satellite view will show road conditions and terrain. Both items are good for scouting ahead of time.  My ever-handy Benchmark Atlas is perused beforehand to give me another detailed overview of the area.  In particularly remote areas, I make a note of where the last gas stop may be using this atlas or Google.

So that is how I balance exploring a new place and having a sense of discovery yet doing proper research to be safe.

Again, I want to know the details to get me to a place, arrive there safely, and be safe when actually hiking. I don’t need to know every step of the way or what the arch will look like before I get there.


Looks nice enough when I see it myself. The map told me it was there. That’s all I needed to know.

In summary:

  • What kind of trip am I doing? If it is a well-marked trail or even a maintained hiking trail, just knowing how to get there and having some basic information is fine. I don’t necessarily need a detailed guidebook, marked campsites, etc. Even on a well-marked trail or route, I still like to know possible bailout points or shortcuts if the weather turns, if my route is taking longer than expected or even if I am ready to head home or do something different.
  • Off-trail? I study the map in detail. Make sure my route is within my technical skill set, know where I have to tank up with water, possible bail out points, potential campsites and if I can do the proposed route in the time allotted.
  • Off the beaten path area? What are the road conditions like? Will a 4WD vehicle be needed? If it rains and the desert roads become muddy, will I get stuck? I make a note of the nearest gas station, AND I FILL UP THERE before entering the area, too.
  • Of course, I always get the basic logistic info ahead of time. Permit, directions to trailhead, any red tape, etc.
  • Lastly, no matter what I am doing, I leave an itinerary with someone I trust. It is a rough plan usually as the person knows I reserve the right to modify the plan. But it has the place, a map of my planned route and I call the person when I am back in range of a signal. 

I never feel as if I am lacking in a sense of discovery, beauty or wonder when exploring a new place with these methods.

Knowing that the Grand Junction canyon country is a beautiful area with some exquisite scenery is something. But seeing what was discussed on Summit Post, spotted from Google Earth or looked at on a topo? Something entirely different. And utterly magical.

Hope that answer’s the question.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Casey Burnett
Casey Burnett
8 years ago

Nice Outline. I will revisit it as I journey further away from prearranged or maintained routes

8 years ago

Great write up and thanks for the answer. It was very insightful. I always feel it’s a little bit of struggle to not get bogged down with trying to research everything or just declare that I’m a “so manly” I don’t need any research to prepare.