I recently wrote an article that I don’t believe that people clamoring for more #hastagging and geotagging are talking about “gatekeeping.” When most people who travel more than 50+ miles on an outdoor vacation have the time, economic, and cultural resources to make this trip, the lack of geotagging is not the issue.
I think people want breadcrumbs and in a manner that is convenient for them. But to get to these wild places, especially culturally and historically significant, requires some elbow grease.
AllTrails may not necessarily list it, nor is most social media that’s readily suited for “evergreen” and detailed information. Social media goes viral and trends; it rarely stays relevant in the longer term.
And not everyone who loves to discuss concepts is necessarily good at details.
History’s my background. I am more of a big picture kinda guy. Frankly, detail-oriented tasks are something I can certainly do but do not come naturally to me, unlike concepts, ideas, and general overviews. You don’t want me writing guides accurate to the neatest meter of how to find something. 🙂 I do believe in doing my best to give people the skills and knowledge to make their own decisions. Be it rain gear, puffies, how to stay safe during some hunting seasons…or figuring out how to plan an outdoor trip.
Hence this article.
I wrote this article in 2015; an eternity in internet years! I figured in light of my recent article, time to update it for 2020.
So here’s my updated version of how to get ideas for your outdoor trips.
As mentioned previously, I frequently get inquiries on this site or other media about trip ideas for the backcountry.
While I and others have pre-made routes, be it in print form or online, that is only one way to get some ideas. These routes tend to be well-liked and popular. Plus, these routes tend to be on-trail. The exciting stuff typically goes along non-designated routes. 😉
When I am looking for ideas, I can “go to the well” and do some old favorites.
But, and this may be a failing part, I tend to get bored doing the same trip multiple times So what to do? How do I personally find new trip ideas in a familiar area or even new areas to explore?
Here are my methods for finding places to spend time in the outdoors.
- Research the overall area
Knowing the conditions on the ground is the first step. I know a high country trip in the Colorado Rockies in March will probably not work if I don’t bring skis or snowshoes and other winter gear (And the knowledge to use this equipment correctly!).
Likewise, I’d better really enjoy desert hiking and intense heat if I want to backpack in Arches National Park in July!
How to get this information if not living in the immediate area? As with most things in life, Google is your friend.
Some quick Googling will tell me that April is perhaps not the best time to hike in the Rockies. The ski areas are still open, and a park website says there is still quite a bit of snow. But if I try a different search, it seems like Utah is popping up a lot. I also see a lot of Colorado wilderness areas in western Colorado near the Utah border. Hmm..looks more promising!
- Get the big view
A Benchmark Atlas will show many wilderness areas, BLM lands, or obscure national monuments. If I want to plan a trip and find an area I have not explored, this type of atlas is awesome for finding these areas. These books often have a larger overview map and then more detailed info on the map pages themselves. Perfect for finding areas I have not thought about.
Another good idea for this type of information for Western states is Publiclands.org.
Want to see how isolated a place may be? Dark Site Finder is beneficial.
Finally, I find the various layers of the web-based version of CalTopo or GaiaGPS also beneficial. See below for more info on those tools.
- Find out some specific information
Once an area looks good, it is time to get more specific information about the area. What maps do I need, be it electronic or print? What are some more precise driving directions? Any permits or other red tape involved? Seasonal closures? And so on.
A great site for this type of info is Summit Post. A site somewhat aimed at climbing, I find this site often answers many of the questions I may have about a specific area. Sometimes there may even be topo maps or GPX tracks to download. I like Summit Post because the included links often lead to the government agencies that manage these sites.
If Summit Post or similar resources does not have the information, then Google is again your friend. Find the specific BLM office that manages that area. Find the directions to the place. Other trip reports may have maps, waypoints, or general information. You may have to email the specific office…or, gasp, call the office directly for information!
If you want more detailed information than’s what typically found online, I suggest a print guidebook (How pre-2010!) Guidebooks will have very detailed info about specific areas—no need to purchase one. Use one of my favorite pieces of gear and get an interlibrary loan. If some of the info, such as to permit costs, is outdated, well, pick up the phone and call to find out. 😉
And if you are new to this type of trip planning, perhaps balancing safety, planning, and a sense of discovery may be a concern, too.
- Look at the maps
Once an area looks good, time to plot out a route. CalTopo and GaiaGPS are services that have various maps online. Study the map, see what looks doable for your own comfort and safety levels, along with your personal technical abilities and navigation skills. Are those tight contour lines going to be more of a Class 4 scramble? Perhaps a little west may be an easier Class 3 option?
Another option that works well for pre-trip planning is the satellite view in Google Maps. Great way to potentially see how rough the terrain may be or even if the approach road can be traveled by your vehicle.
And a few days before the trip? Check out the NOAA site. Weather can change the trip at the last minute. If it is rainy, the approach road may be too muddy for even a 4WD vehicle to go up safely, for example. Go back to step 1. 🙂
And that’s it! Nothing too difficult about finding a route to hike. Just a little elbow grease in the form of research and knowing the type of trip you want to take.
Again, pre-made routes with all the information in one hand-dandy package can be an option. But there is something immensely satisfying about finding out an area new to you, getting the correct information on it, plotting out a route, and then going on the trip.
Need more knowledge to make use of these steps?
Lots of resources out there, many low cost or even free. The lightest gear of all? Knowledge!
- Map reading makes a fundamental skill set needed for trip research. The Columbia River Orienteering Club (CROC) makes an 18 part series covering all the modern navigation aspects, including smartphone use, map, compass, GPS, mapping tools, etc. Free, thorough, and very useful.
- A shameless plug, but I wrote a book that covers many concepts beginners backpackers will find useful.
- I made a video that covers quite a bit of these trip planning concepts. The video is part of a beginners series I did for a high school outing group.
- Finally, I have a LOT of free resources if you are new to the outdoors.
Great information. I’ve also found that some useful information can be gained about future trips from chatting with people you meet on the trail, at the trailhead, or at a campground. I don’t try to be too chatty, but I’ve had friendly rapports develop into conversations that clued me in to great info. Stuff like alternate routes from one drainage to another, great campsites, off-trail waterfalls, etc. I think the people fighting against “gatekeeping” would be doing a much better service to novice backpackers by encouraging them to become informed and proficient at trip planning (by just linking to this… Read more »
Good conversation, be it in person or online, is always invaluable.