I am planning a trip to Phoenix in the next couple of weeks and will be taking advantage of that to get out into the Superstition Wilderness for a couple of nights. This makes for a good opportunity to discuss some of the process I go through and the tools I use as I plan a multi-day romp.
There are several considerations that I’ll address for any trip, like Route Planning, Permitting and Local Restrictions, and the Weather Forecast. Each of these areas are critical to the success of any trip. I will also then usually research a little history of the area and perhaps the geology or other aspects of the locale that will help me more fully appreciate the experience. I’ll cover each of these topics in more detail below. But before I even start, I need to understand what I am wanting to get out of my trip.
- Rangers, etc.
- Emergency Contact – pna
Am I going for miles? For scenery? I am looking to setup basecamp and explore, or move camp each night? Is there a particular achievement objective or goal that I want to incorporate? Defining goals if very personal, but I find it worthwhile to give this some thought before your in-depth planning begins. That way your are framing your expectations in light of your goals and setting yourself up for the greatest possible outcomes.
For this particular trip, my goals were shaping up like this:
What Is My High Level Goal For This Trip?
To have a relaxed and fun trip, hopefully inspiring and encouraging my sons to enjoy the hike as well.
What Are My Hiking Goals For This Trip?
Easy does it. I want the miles and elevation to be relatively low to ensure my sons don’t get discouraged.
Does This Trip Have Any Exploration Goals?
We would like to see iconic cactuses, like the Saguaro, or any other interesting features that will standout from our typical PNW experiences.
Are There Restrictions?
Since backpacking is not the primary purpose of the trip to Phoenix and we have other commitments, we will need to stay relatively close to Phoenix. Perhaps 1 to 2 hour drive from airport to Trailhead at most.
Based on these goals, I am already getting a sense of what this romp is going to look like. It’s going to be laid-back, casual. Not going for a lot of miles, but instead looking to soak up the scenery and find inspiration. A base-camp style romp or a loop that is relatively low miles might work out pretty well. I need to stay pretty close to Phoenix, so that may limit my options.
To get a sense of the general area I might explore, I use a couple of tools that will plot distance on a map. In this case, I am going to plot the distance from PHX airport. First, using a tool from Oally (see resources on the right hand side) that will calculate driving time, I create a 30 minute and a 60 minute overlay:
The map layer itself, unfortunately doesn’t show general geographic features like National Forests or Parks. But I can see that I can get about 40-45 miles from PHX in about an hour. So, I can use another tool from the MapDevelopers website that will simply draw a radius for a given number of miles from a starting point. Looking at this map, it’s pretty clear that the area I want to look at is the Tonto National Forest:
Tonto National Forest is a pretty big area, as many National Forests are. And with National Forest and National Parks you will often often further protected areas known as Wilderness Areas. These are areas where no development is allowed, motorized vehicles are prohibited, and they are generally roadless. As a result, they are often prime destinations for backcountry romps. It’s worth it then to “zoom in” on the general area to determine if there is a more specific area worth exploring.
At this point, you can often check out the websites for the park or forest area where you are headed. I have found it often the case that the National Forest information is not very well organized or easy to navigate. But it’s still worth trying. And one great online resource is a map of all of the Wilderness Areas within the United States, a great tool provided by ArcGIS. In that Tonto National Forest there are several designated Wilderness Areas, and the one closest to Phoenix and the one I am now really interested in is the Superstion Wilderness (how can you not be with a name like that?).
Once I have settled in on the area that I want to explore, I start diving into maps to get a sense of the trail systems, camps, accessibility of water, and of course the overall mileage and difficulty of the hike. For this hike, I’m looking to get enough miles in to feel the sense of accomplishment, but not so many miles that it feels a chore. I do enjoy that kind of hike sometimes, but not when I am trying to encourage some reluctant hikers.
I almost always purchase or print a paper map for the area I am visiting. It really comes down to the availability and quality of the maps. I really like Green Trails Maps for the PNW areas that I hike most often and PATC Maps for a lot of the east coast trails. NatGeo Trails Illustrated also makes some great maps, but I find them better suited for planning rather than taking in the field as they tend to be large and bulky. Once I have the map picked out, I lay it out on the dining room table to start visualizing some possible routes. Since Green Trails Maps covers not only the PNW but WA, OR, CA, NV, AZ, and NY, I went with a Green Trails Maps covering the Superstion Wilderness.
As you can see in this map, I have laid out a route in blue for Day 1, from the trailhead to White Rock Springs where I will intend to camp. Day 2 isn’t entirely visible, but it is a yellow route heading south from camp, around Weaver’s Needle and back to camp. And Day 3 is indicated in red as the return from camp to the trailhead. One advantage of laying out each day as a separate line, is the ability to calculate elevation profiles by day:
I will often use this to determine how strenuous a day may be and that may in turn result in a modification to my plans for the day, perhaps choosing an alternate route or even a different campsite. Once I am settled on my route and my plan for each day, I will often print the maps out. CalTopo does a nice job of printing maps with all of the expected options to adjust scale, include grid lines, etc.
It can also be a good idea while planning out the routes for each day to give some thought to time. While it can feel good to not be bound to time when in the backcountry, the reality is that time is a useful tool for backcountry navigation. It not only helps you set expectations (for yourself and others) it also is good to ensure you are on the right track. Knowing your average pace along with time can help you estimate distance and prevent navigation errors by giving you a sense when things don’t feel right. For example, if you know your pace is 2 mph and your lunch spot lake is 4 miles away, you should reach it in about 2 hours. If you’ve been hiking more than 2 hours and the lake isn’t in sight, you now have a clue that you may have made a navigation error.
If you don’t know your pace, you can use rough estimates of 2mph as starting point for level travel and 1.5 mph for climbs. You can also use online tools like the Hiking Time Calculator. Using this tool, my three days is starting to look like this:
Day 1: 6.5 miles, 1322′ elevation gain: 3h 35m
Day 2: 10.06 miles , 3050′ elevation gain: 6h 12m
Day 3: 6.93 miles, 1417′ elevation gain: 3h 49m
Later, this will be useful when putting together a daily itinerary and setting expectations for my emergency contact so they know when to expect us to be back to the trailhead and on our way home.
If you use any app on your phone for backcountry navigation, don’t forget to download the map layers so that you can use it offline! AllTrails, Gaia, CalTopo all have these capabilities. You don’t want to get into the backcountry, dependent upon your smartphone for navigation, and then realize you are out of cell range and don’t have the map data downloaded. This is why I always carry a paper map, by the way. It’s a great backup in the event that you down have the maps downloaded, or if you damage or lose your mobile device.
One final recommendation on route planning is to consider emergency exit strategies and routes. Rather than wait to do this under stress, look over your planned route and imagine a scenario that requires you to abandon your plans and exit quickly. This can be for any number of reasons, so consider injury as well as weather conditions, forest fires, etc. Your plans may be different for different conditions. In the case of an injury at the farthest point from your trailhead/car, will you backtrack to the car? Is there a more direct route? Is there a closer exit point that may not be where your car is parked, but where you could get help? In the case of fire, you must be aware of all possible exits.
For this trip, there is on alternative exit that would indeed be closer in the event of a need while exploring south around Weaver’s Needle. The overall mileage on this trip is not great, so it would be a judgement call between heading to the car or heading to a trailhead in hopes of locating other people to assist. However, on other trips where you can easily find yourself several days of travel from your TH, a closer alternative exit can be vitally important.
Considering most of my romping is done in the PNW, and the trip I am discussing here is in Phoenix, it probably is worth quickly mentioning climate considerations even before weather. Climate is the generalized, longer term, view of weather over time. The climate of Phoenix is considerably different than Seattle. Seattle will have more than 150 days of rain a year, Phoenix maybe 30. Does this bring any special considerations? It’s likely to be much warmer and much dryer. Sun lotion and chapstick are essentials. Dry climate trails are often very dusty or sandy. Might be worth having gaiters. But importantly, even at similar temperatures, the dry desert air will result in a warmer feel as the radiant energy from the sun passes right through the atmosphere and much quicker water loss. Water is going to be critical and an important part of the planning.
So, consider the big picture climate first, and then focus on the weather, the near-in forecast for the days of your travel.
When it comes to weather, I usually rely on the National Weather Service Forecast from NOAA. But, I again use CalTopo as the launch board. Enabling the weather grid will overlay a series of dots onto the map. Each dot can be set to show the 24hr high, 24hr low, precipitation, wind, or other data points. However, you can also simply click on one of the dots to jump to the NOAA forecast for that specific location.
From the NOAA forecast you can get a really localized perspective of all sorts of weather parameters. Looking at this hourly view for the weekend, it’s looking like midday highs will be around 75°F and night time lows will be in the 50’s (the red line graph is Temperature). A warmer temp sleeping bag or quilt will be a good choice.
And looking at precipitation (the brown line in this next graph), it’s probably a pretty safe bet that I won’t need to pack rain clothes.
It’s a good idea to periodically check the weather forecast right up until the day of travel to ensure you are aware of any last minute changes.
Once you have a good sense of the predicted weather, you can adjust your kit accordingly. While I don’t practice ultra-lightweight backpacking, I do minimize my pack to what I need for the conditions and goals of my trip. By knowing the weather, I will know if I need micro-spikes, hiking poles, extra layers, sleeping bag liners, or rain gear. But, the weather analysis doesn’t necessarily end here, not if I am out for more than a few days at a time.
While on the trail, I will always take a Garmin inReach emergency communication device. The inReach also has the ability to receive weather reports, so I will update my weather while on the trail if there is uncertainty in the longer term forecast. Obviously while out on the trail I won’t be able to re-pack, but I will be able to adjust my expectations for the day ahead and I may adjust my plan if very poor weather is expected (for example, stopping short of a summit camp spot to stay in a lower elevation shelter if severe thunderstorms are imminent).
We’ve already touched on the environment slightly when considering the climate, but the natural environment includes the biome (the flora and fauna) as well as that natural physical elements like the geological composition of the area. In the case of this trip, the Biome of the broader Phoenix area is desert, or xeric shrubland. Already this gives you a sense of what to expect in terms of the natural environment and you may already possess enough knowledge to be satisfied. To be honest, many aspects of this part of my planning process are to fulfill natural curiosity and develop interest in a location. That may or may not be important to you so you may not do a lot of research here, but I would suggest that everyone should at least consider those aspects that may affect safety or comfort.
From a safety perspective, are there any apex predators in the area? These are the animals at the top of the food chain and often larger, bolder, and potentially more dangerous than others. The typical animals that should come to mind include wolves, bears, cougars, and crocodiles. And there are others that rise to the level of apex in some areas, like the coyote in regions without wolves. Does the presence of one of these predators in the area affect your planning? Do you need to pack differently, for example using a bear canister? Do you need to carry additional gear, like pepper spray? Do you need to be more aware of silent stalkers?
Are there threats apart from apex predators? There are plenty of smaller animals that can also present some form of risk. Are there poisonous snakes? Are there aggressive territorial animals, like wolverines or boars? How about curious animals like racoons? Or nuisance animals like rodents? What considerations does the presence of these animals bring to mind? Will you need a critter-proof way of storing your food? Do you have the skills and resources to properly hang your food?
Covering each of these animals and how to prepare for them is beyond the scope of this article, but know that you should do your research, understand the risks, and prepare accordingly.
Beyond safety, I enjoy becoming familiar with the local fauna, looking for them while I hike, discovering tracks, and hopefully getting lucky enough to take some decent pictures. The resources are just too varied to list here and really dependent on where you are hiking, so my primary recommendation is to simply refer to the websites for the land agency responsible for the area where you’ll be heading. They often have great information. And then simply search the Internet. With a search like “Fauna of Tonto National Forest” I will immediately see that in addition to a couple of apex predators (mountain lion and arguably the black bear) as well as snakes (the Rattlesnake will be something to keep an eye out for) but also some other interesting animals like the cats, and birds.
Your level of interest will determine what warrants additional research, but even if you just have a passing interest I would suggest you may want to consider some apps like iNaturalist for recording your sightings. Or some specific apps like BirdNET for bird call identification or various guides to birds, animal tracks, butterflies, and other insects. I personally find it sometimes useful to have electronic versions of field guides as well (I use the Kindle app on my smartphone). See Resources for more.
Again, starting with safety considerations first, are their plants that present a risk to your adventures? Are there plants poisonous to the touch, like Poison Ivy and Oak, Stinging Nettles, or Poison Sumac. Ensure you know how to identify, avoid, and are equipped to treat contact with these plants. Are there other types of considerations, like cactuses that may affect what you plan to wear?
From the perspective of simple interest, I enjoy looking out for flowers and other interesting plants, taking photographs, and identifying the plants that I encounter. There are several good apps that help with identification, including Seek, LeafSnap, and PictureThis. Seek is part of iNaturalist and free, though the results are often quite broad. Perhaps identifying a class of plant (and animals actually), but not the specific species. LeafSnap and PictureThis are better at getting to a specific classification but you will have to pay to get the most from them.
Are there any other apps, guides, or field books that you find useful in the backcountry? If so, let me know in the comments below!
For the budding geologist, it can be particularly fun to look at the various rock formation as you hike an imagine how they were formed and how the affects of time and geological forces shaped the land you are walking upon. As with the biome, there is often useful information to be found on the land agency websites. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive sites though is the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Mineral Resources guide which contains a wealth of information and raw data to comb through. And as well the USGS’s MapView which will allow you to visually browse the geology of the US and access nicely detailed maps of macro-geology within the US. As an example, in the area for this trip will mostly be within an area designated as “Volcanic rocks” or “Volcanic and sedimentary rocks”. Not very precise.
Another interesting tool, at the macro level, is Flyover Country. It’s surprisingly useful considering it’s really intended to provide a macro view of the world below as you fly over it. But it also has a “land” mode and can even download the data for the region where you’ll be traveling. It will show you general geological area like land types (e.g. Middle Proterozoic Granitic Rocks), fault lines, and some detail about prominent features of the landscape. But again, not much in the way of specific localized rocks or land formations. If you want more than “Undifferentiated Eocene” and are looking for some specific way to identify a sample of rock directly in front of you, you will then rely upon guides in the field and you need to generally know how to identify rock types. The app, Geology Rocks – Handbook of Rocks, has some decent flow charts to assist with this. And the premium app, Geology Toolkit, has a wealth of information including 3-D models of minerals (requires Internet access, so not as useful in backcountry), identification guides, geological map data, and a lot of instructional content.
Knowing if a little about the history of the area you are romping in, be it natural history or social and cultural history, can really add to the sense of adventure. Just looking at a trail name can lead you down a path of discovery that unravels how the trail came to exist, the people that used it, or adventures that occurred there. Was there use of the land by indigenous peoples? Are there artifacts or other interesting archeological features worth exploring? This is a really broad topic and so specific as to not really lend itself to any real recommendations other than to generally research the area, place names, and even local lore.
Before wrapping up, there are a few fine details to cover, including permitting and any other restrictions on your travel and camping.
Each area will be unique in terms of permitting so you must understand what land agency provides oversight and check in with them for any required permits. Consider that there can often be multiple permits involved, including permits to park at trailheads, permits to access the land, and permits for backcountry camping. Some areas may require permits be purchased in advance and some popular and/or sensitive areas may issues permits but once a year through a lottery system. Do your research early and account for this!
Also be sure to understand how permits must be displayed. Access and parking permits are often obvious, a placard that hangs from a rear view mirror or lays on your dash. Backcountry permits may be as simple as a register at the trailhead, but they can also be tags that must be tied to your backpack or your tent. If it isn’t clear, call the rangers and ask. Better to be safe as I have seen people escorted out of a site for not having a permit.
Other details that you really must know well are restrictions for things like campfires or disposal of waste. Is the site you are visiting generally allowed to have campfires and if so, are they currently allowed to have campfires? Conditions change rapidly so do a final check at the trailhead as there will usually be a post if a fire restriction has been recently put in place.
Bringing it all together, I like to create a rough itinerary now for each day. This starts with my route, mileage, and elevation details that we completed earlier. And to this I will add a daily menu (see Menu Planning Tool ) and any particular notes about the route, including information I have learned from my research into the natural environment or the history of the area.
- Saturday: 6.5 miles, 1322′ elevation gain: 3h 35m
- 8:00 Start at TH
Remember to place permit on dash!
- 10:00 -10: 15, Break, Snack 1
- 12:00, Arrive at Camp
- Lunch 1, Rest, Explore
- 3:00, Head to Charlebois Spring for water: 2h 30m Moving Time+ Filter&Fill
- 6:00, Dinner 1
- 8:00 Start at TH
- Sunday: 10.06 miles , 3050′ elevation gain: 6h 12m
- 7:00, Breakfast 1, Prepare for Hike
- 7:30, Begin Hike
- 9:45 -10: 00, Break, Snack 2
- 11:30, Reach Saddle, break for Lunch 2.
- 12:30, Resume hike.
- 3:00, Break, Snack 3
- 6:00, Back to Camp, Dinner 2, Relax
- 6.93 miles, 1417′ elevation gain: 3h 49m
- 6:00, Breakfast 2, breakdown camp, pack bags
- 7:00, Hit the Trail
- 10:00, Snack 4, Break
- 12:00, Reach TH
You’ll likely notice that I allow more time in my schedule than the hiking hours calculated. This is to account for taking time to stop and take pictures, enjoy the views, and explore nature. I actually tend not to be a time watcher and schedule follower, but I find the exercise of thinking through a schedule like this helps to set expectations, and ensure I am allowing for the slower pace of things when you are walking. For example, allowing space to squeeze in the time it will take to hike an additional 3 miles at the end of a day just to fetch water!
Notification / Emergency Contact
The final element I include as part of planning is to always leave emergency information with a reliable Emergency Point of Contact (EPOC). For me this is typically my wife, but may also be a friend, my mother, or one of my kids. The point is to provide them peace of mind but also to ensure that there is good information in their hands that will help me in the event of an emergency. If you miss a pickup, they will be worried and the last thing I want is for them to be stressing even more to find the right information to provide to search and rescue. Instead, I put it all together and put in their hands.
The details I provide include a brief summary of the route (day of trip, trails I’ll be on), a map of the route and my camp location. I also include the latest expected return time. This is the time at which they should worry and begin calling authorities. I include a safe margin to allow for any number of delays that aren’t life threatening. So, assuming I expect to be at the trailhead by 12n, I might put a latest expected return time of 4p.
I also include information about my car that is parked at the TH or information about the person dropping me off and picking me up. I also include personal and identifying details of everyone in the party. Again, we want to make it easy on the EPOC to share this information when in a breakdown/crisis mode.
Resources Mentioned in this Article
Driving Circle Maps
Good Paper Maps
Route Mapping Tools
Apps for Exploring the Natural Environment
Emergency Point of Contact Form