Things To Consider When Planning A More Complicated Hiking Route
There is no question that over the last three years I have spent a significant amount of time planning more and more complicated hiking routes. With over 6,000 miles under my feet exclusively in New England, (and over 99% of those miles solo) I have learned a lot and made many mistakes along the way. But as I close out my first round of hiking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guidebook, and with over 58% of round two complete, I’ve got some advice to share about building more complicated routes.
When I look back at some of the unrealistic expectations that I had for myself as a newbie hiker I chuckle. From setting personally unattainable distance goals, to not checking whether a trail is safe to descend prior to building a route, it is no wonder that I’ve had to redo my routes many times. But YOU don’t have to make the same mistakes I made, you can learn from them too.
Planning Routes in New England
The trails in New England are special. By special I mean that they may not start at 10,000’ but what they lack in high altitude, they very much make up for in steepness and ruggedness. Here’s an example of why proper route planning is essential. In speaking with a fellow hiker who is unfamiliar with our trails a few months ago, they informed me that they planned on bailing off of the Presidential Range down Great Gulf Trail if they couldn’t keep going along the traverse. The Great Gulf trail gains 1600’ of elevation in .8 miles. That’s almost 38% grade and unbeknownst to this hiker that trail is essentially a mossy waterfall. Descending it is not recommended (per the guidebook). What I’m getting at is, if you don’t plan your routes with all of the pertinent information, you may end up getting hurt. Switchbacks are almost unheard of in New England. So are graded trails. I often joke that trail building consists of slapping a blaze or two on a drainage (and I wouldn’t be far from telling the truth). Learning about the trails you intend to hike is the first step in planning a more complicated hiking route in New England.
Step One Planning Routes in New England
When I started off as a newbie hiker I didn’t use the guidebook at all. I thought that there was no way it would have up to date information in it, and relied heavily on blogs for trail information and route building. But hiking trails are not like social media, they don’t change every few hours (or days), they are stagnant and by and large the guidebook is the place to go for accurate information.
My recommendation for planning a more complicated hiking route (or any hike that is in unfamiliar territory) is to read the guidebook. What does the trail description say? Does it say that you will be contending with nine water crossings (like Downes Brook Trail) or does it say that the trail is poorly blazed and seldom used. The guidebook will tell you everything you need to know about a trail with just a few exceptions. This is where step two comes into play.
Step Two Planning Routes in New England
While the guidebook and map set that comes with it are your primary source for route planning, your secondary sources are found online. Checking the weather the morning of a hike is essential to bringing proper gear and knowing if it is even safe to do the hike. (When I say checking the weather, I mean the weather where the trail is located and the higher summit forecast if you’re heading up above treeline.)
You may want to reach out to fellow hikers to see if they’ve hiked the trails you’re planning on visiting and can give you some intel on how difficult the hike was. Some things to consider when taking advice from another hiker: is the person you’re asking a faster hiker than you? Do they have more experience on less traveled trails? I can tell you that what I consider bad and what someone else considers bad might be two very different things.
Along with asking other hikers (that you trust) what conditions are like, you may consider seeing if anyone in any of the myriad hiking groups on facebook have done this or a similar route recently. When reading these reports make sure that they are not outdated. I know that seeing someone else successfully complete a route that I have planned gives me a confidence boost that I can also do that hike (based on our similar hiking speeds).
Most Important Things To Consider
- Grade of the hiking trail (how steep is it and can you descend it if that is your intention)
- Length of the route (is it too long? Do you need to do an overnight to complete it?)
- Trail conditions (is this going to take you twice as long because it’s covered in blowdowns and needs to be brushed out? Or is it smooth sailing and a nice stretch of trail)
- Weather/time of year that you’re doing the hike matters. Even things like daylight hours should be taken into consideration.
- Personal experience is also really important. Are you comfortable in the middle of the woods (especially if you’re alone) or do you need to reconsider your route and perhaps take some more commonly traveled trails.
Route Planning Example
When looking at some of the most intimidating areas in The Whites for route planning, I almost quit building my routes for my White Mountain Trace back in 2019. The Randolph Mountain Club trail builders back in the late 1800s really had a field day on the western slopes of the northern presidentials and what looks like spaghetti is the result. Creating routes in this area is a nightmare if you’re trying to complete as many trails in the least amount of miles/elevation. And on top of that, many of the trails are seldom used, rocky, rugged, or dangerous for descent. Here is an example of a route that I created in this area for my White Mountains Trace:
In planning this really complicated route, I tried to get the best bang for my buck. The goal for this hike was: how many smaller out and backs could I do realistically? In total, mileage for this hike was 10.37 and elevation gain was 4097’. Building routes is a lot like making a puzzle. Simply drawing lines on a map to fill in all the trails isn’t route building if you can’t physically hike that route. Counting miles for each piece of trail, and counting topo lines on a map to see what the total elevation gain will be is how I planned almost all of my routes for my White Mountains Trace originally. In recent months I have transitioned from building routes on a paper map using highlighters to using gaia gps to build them, however I know that gaia isn’t always accurate in terms of total elevation or mileage (usually underestimating both by several hundred feet and up to a mile in distance).
In planning the above route, I wasn’t as concerned with things like can I descend these trails safely (because I had read the guidebook and knew that I could) I was more concerned with how long it would take me to do the number of shorter out and backs along the route. I also was trying to be mindful of elevation gain. Knowing what your own strengths and weaknesses are is key. Elevation gain is always a struggle for me, and keeping my routes at max 5000’ is one of the ways that I plan my hikes. This is a realistic goal for me and I know that by keeping my elevation under this amount I can hike four days a week without being completely exhausted.
Sometimes testing my own abilities is the only way to know how long it will take me to do a hike. The trails in the northern presidentials take me at minimum 39 minutes per mile and sometimes as much as 60 minutes per mile. But I didn’t know that until I started hiking in this area. My average is always around 2mph elapsed time so when I planned my routes in the northern presidentials I planned them with that pace in mind only to find out that I am significantly slower on these trails because of their conditions. This led to me having to redraw multiple hikes to account for a slower pace.
Ultimately, there is no better teacher than experience. Learn your own strengths and weaknesses and modify your routes based on those. Get out there and try different things. But before you do, read the guidebook, talk to other hikers for advice (take it with a tiny grain of salt), and learn how to read a map. The more information you have before stepping foot on the trail, the better of an experience you’ll have. And most of all, don’t be afraid to turn around. If you feel out of your element, or don’t think you’ll have enough time to get back to your car, DON’T keep going. Remember: the summit isn’t the end of the hike, it’s the halfway point. Hike safe and have fun!
Favorite Tools/Apps For Route Building
- The White Mountain Guidebook and Mapset
- Gaia GPS (it’s 100% free for all the features I use)
- Mountain Forecast
- New England Trail Conditions
- Facebook groups for red lining, the 4000’er page, 52 With A View, The New England 100 Highest Peaks