Those we left behind: What to tell the people at home

Back in the dark age of the late 1990s, when I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, my way of checking in with family and friends meant a phone call every few days and the novelty of an online journal that the general public could read. Such an innovation, the Providence Journal featured an article about my online journal.

I’d call Mom, tell her I’m OK, went forth, and repeated the cycle three or five days later.

The family knew my general itinerary due to my maildrops (Pro Tip in 2019: No need for most people to do maildrops on the Appalachian Trail.), and they’d hear my thick RI accent tell them of my travails.

A few years later, when I hiked the CDT, I used a Pocket Mail to send basic emails through a landline (Whuh?)  via, even in 2006, old-school dial-up technology. My family and friends would get the occasional phone call with my less thick Rhody accent and an email stating, “I’m doing fine.”  And I even filed articles to the Boulder Daily Camera.

After that time, technology matured. Many places have cellular connectivity, and two-way text communication, emergency, and tracking devices are relatively inexpensive both in cost and operation and are, overall, reliable even deep in the backcountry.

In short, letting our loved ones know we are OK is straight forward.

But, in my opinion, that’s only part of what to let people behind know. The location and a text message do not mean much if the person at home does not have context. When do you expect to be back? What is your rough itinerary? Who should they contact if they don’t hear from you? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Over the years, here’s what I found worked for me both as the person on the trip. And as a person whose partner takes off on some cool trips of her own, too.

Long live “IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC)”!

 

  • Figure out who to let know about your trip plans.  After my marriage ended, my friend Geri and colleague of many years asked who am I giving know the “What, when, and how?” of my trips.  A bit abashedly, I admitted that I did not let anyone know and just took off. She, rightfully so, said that is not a good idea.  A dear friend of hers, also single, died a heart attack in his apartment, and no one knew for several days. And not one person knew how to contacts his family and friends. After that, I made a habit of letting my two brothers, my very close friends in Boulder, and Geri know my plans via an email.  And, most importantly, they all had each other’s contact information. In many ways, Geri would know before anyone else something went wrong as she saw me almost every Monday morning after one of my trips.  And she would know who to call if the worse happened.

A vigilante billionaire apparently does not have a data plan for his Bat Phone.

  • Give a rough itinerary of where you are going. The dates, the route, and any information about the trip you think might be useful. I often sent an overview map, too.

Here’s an email I sent for a quick Fri-Sat trip that involves some off-trail hiking. And yes, you can tell the tail end of my office worker phase came quickly after that weekend. 😉

Where: Moffat Tunnel to Clayton Lake, to the CDT, down to Forest Lake and back to the car sometime later Saturday morning.  Map attached.
When: Starting after work tomorrow. Hiking in three miles to Clayton Lake, set up camp, read a book, eat a burrito I pack in, drink a beer, get up on the divide in the AM , flip off the office 7000′ lower and to the East, and get back to the car just as most people are looking a for parking spot.  Work on a Saturday night rather than the planned trail work I had all weekend… Rant loudly come Monday.
 
Who:  If the worse happens, the ranger district info is:


Boulder Ranger District

2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder,  CO 80301
303-541-2500

When to call: If you don’t see a reply to this email by Sunday… But it is a short trip. But a solo one off-trail, so I thought I’d be good. 🙂
Obviously, for longer multi-week or even multi-month trips, there might be more ETAs or multiple contact information depending on the locations. Use your best judgment and adjust as needed.

Note I gave the route info, the time frame, who to call if people did not see or hear from me within twenty-four hours. Also, note that I set the expectations – more on that below.

Your map should not be this rough, however. 😉   From 123RF

 

  • Test your equipment! If you use a Garmin or SPOT, give it a test with your contacts *before* you take off. After a nearly twenty-year career in IT, I’ve learned about the finickiness of technology.  Set up a test with your group above. Confirmed they received the email or text messages. Can you text someone in turn? Is your phone synching up OK with the device? And so on. Finding out that you can’t get a satellite lock due to a firmware upgrade, your friends did not receive an email, or that your phone is not communicating with your device is a pain in the posterior at home. In the field? You could make your family nervous, or an emergency might become even worse.  And be sure all your electronics are charged up, and you have the appropriate battery pack for your needs. Of course, the expectation of connectivity vs. having emergency options is whole ‘nother discussion.

I loved getting the emails, with a map link, from Joan on her PCT hike.

 

  • SET THE EXPECTATIONS! I can not stress this step enough.  What does this mean? Emphasize that your route and itinerary is a rough one overall. Meaning, esp on a multi-day backpacking trip, you might not camp precisely where you originally stated or planned,  or you might decide to take a different route, or that you might not be able to check-in since technology can be wonky or outright not work. I always told people that if I didn’t check in within twenty-four hours of my weekend trip, assume something went wrong.  For longer trips? I could conceivably be out of contact for several days, a week, or more.  And if you use a Garmin, SPOT, or a smart device? More than one spouse or panicked parent called the authorities when their partner or adult child did not check-in that evening or even after a few days; much to the “lost” person’s chagrin when they hopped on a cellular network in town.  

The hiker’s phone and battery both ran out of juice.

  • And don’t forget to check-in! A quick phone call, email, or text message when you have reception will put everyone’s mind at ease. Order your beer, look over the menu, give the wait staff your order, and quickly send a text message. Then enjoy your well-deserved post-trip feast.

And that’s just what I did in New Mexico.

________

Pretty simple, really –  Get a crew, pass on the info, test your tools and make sure you charge them up, tell them not to panic, and WHEN to panic, and be sure to tell them when you are safe.  

Happy Trails!

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2 Replies to “Those we left behind: What to tell the people at home”

  1. I think that my wife may have forgiven me for the time that my daughter and I were a day late getting back, having had no worse trouble than pesky bad luck with routefinding on a New York bushwhack. (We were hitting a trail-less peak I hadn’t been to before, and wound up doing a seemingly endless back-and-fill in a maze of ledges.)

    We had left a VERY approximate itinerary (New York bushwhack, after all!) and clear instructions not to panic for 24 hours after scheduled check-in. We managed to check in only 18 hours behind schedule, but still, I had OUR DAUGHTER with me, and if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. But, $LC_DEITY bless her, my wife followed instructions and didn’t call out the troops.

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