Most people know about Aron Ralston of “127 hours,” who cut his arm off to save his life. A major take-away from this was that he should have left a Trip Plan with a friend. Something as simple as a short note saying where he was going and what to do if he wasn’t back on time would have gotten him help far sooner than 127 hours. This is why you should make a Trip Plan (even a very short one) and leave it with someone for every backpacking trip. [Picture above is the author about 12 miles from where Aron Ralston’s arm was pinned by a loose rock.]

You think disaster won’t happen on your trip – but you might be wrong

No matter how incredibly competent you are and how meticulously you’ve prepared for your trip, an accident or emergency can happen to just about anybody, at any time.  It happened to Aron Ralston with a random loose rock. And similarly random things have happened and will happen to many others. A fluke accident, a flare up of a pre-existing medical condition, or even the odd event like an appendicitis, or acute altitude sickness, etc. can change your trip from fun to damage-control-mode in an instant.

The Life you Save Might be your Own!   or Why you Should Make a Trip Plan

If you make a Trip plan you stand a much better chance of getting help or a rescue.
And stuff can happen. Personally in the last 5 years:

  • I’ve participated in an immediate, life-threatening helicopter evacuation (not my bad).
  • Received in-field medical instruction on how to lance an abscessed tooth though the gum with a pocket knife (yes, my tooth!).
  • And locally we had a backpacker die, due in part to not having a Trip Plan and therefore, not getting rescued in time.

Finally, even if you don’t do it for yourself (or your loved ones!), make a Trip Plan as a courtesy to the Search and Rescue Personnel that may need to come look for you. These folks are mostly volunteer and it’s not respectful to have them spend countless days and hours searching for a missing person with little or no information.

What’s in this Article

The main purpose of this article is to make it fast and easy to make an effective Trip Plan. That way you’ll always do it!

What’s not in this Article

The 3 Most Important Elements for a Trip Plan

It’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. In that vein, a Trip Plan needn’t be a lengthy or complicated.

Here are the 3 Most Important Elements for any Trip Plan:

  1. The Route
    • Time and location of your trip start, and time and location of your trip end
    • Your route between the trip start and trip end (and where you plan to camp each day)
  2. Notifications
    • The time and method you’ll notify your trip-tracking-emergency-contact that you are out safely
    • The time your trip-tracking-emergency-contact should notify the authorities that you are a no-show/missing (providing local emergency contact info, Park, SAR, Sheriff etc. very helpful)
  3. Emergency Contact: Leave the Trip Plan with a trusted person (your trip-tracking-emergency-contact)

For Aron Ralson, communicating this minimal amount of information via an email, text or phone call to a friend (in all of 1-2 minutes) would have likely had him rescued within 24 hours.

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

When you’re traveling off-trail in terrain like this it’s good to have a Full Trip Plan Document. On the Southern Sierra High Route. [photo Don Wilson]

Example Trip Plans – for you to fill out and use

Below is how to create your own Trip Plan from a Simple Trip Plan (“low risk” trips. e.g. hiking on the Appalachian Trail) to a Full Trip Plan (“high(er)” risk trips, e.g. dropped into Alaska by bush plane a zillion miles from anywhere). Note: Everybody has their own take on what is a risky trip. A low risk trip to one person may seem crazy risky to another person. As such, “Low Risk,” “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” are in parenthesis for the rest of this article.

A Simple Trip Plan

When might you use a Simple Trip Plan?

As stated previously, it’s far better you make short Trip Plan than to not make one at all. But here are some instances where a Simple Trip Plan might work well:

  • Local weekend trip on good trails or other familiar, relatively safe area that you know well
  • Usually less than a day to hike out if you have a problem, and usually a lot of other hikers around
  • A more adventurous, higher risk day hike
  • Your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts know you well and know your skill-set/abilities. They are already be familiar with tracking your previous trips and use of standard communications protocols for inReach, SPOT, mobile phones etc. (So no need for a lengthy reiteration of this.)

Example Trip: Section hike of the Appalachian trail with a friend (not solo) in seasonable weather

Example of a Simple Trip Plan

The following is an example of a Simple Trip Plan. It takes the form of a short email to your trip-tracking-emergency-contacts. Obviously, if you want to include more information you can certainly use the more detailed template document, Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips (next box below), and fill it out with the information you feel is necessary and important for your trip.


To: Trip-tracking-emergency-contacts
Subject: Monitoring of our AT Section Hike, Harper’s Ferry to Harrisburg PA. Low key trip. Not expecting problems.

  • ITINERARY: May xx to May yy. Hike on the Appalachian Trail from Harper’s Ferry WV (starting evening of May xx) to Duncannon PA (late in the day May yy) where we’ll call to let you know we are out safe by dark.
  • Approx. route is mapped here: http://caltopo.com/m/xxxwe’ll be taking the inReach (in 10 min tracking mode) here https://share.delorme.com/xx and our cell phones which should have intermittent coverage most of the way.
  • If you don’t hear from us by 11pm last day (May yy) notify local authorities that we are a no-show.

[Note that this quickly covers all of the “3 most important elements for a Trip Plan” in an email format]

 

A Full Trip Plan for “Moderate Risk” and “High Risk” Trips

A Full Trip Plan is a lot more work! It includes things like the gear you are bringing including pictures of your shoe tread & tent; detailed information about each party member including wilderness experience, skills (including medical), personal medical history, etc.; extensive information about the communications electronics you are brining (including communication protocols between hikers and the emergency contacts), URLs for a map of the route, etc., etc. As such, you might not want to include all this information for a basic trip.

When might you use a Full Trip Plan?

The following are some things to contemplate when you decide how “risky” your trip is and how much information you want to include in your Trip Plan:

  • You are traveling solo
  • Backpacking in a more remote area that you are not as familiar with
  • A longer duration trip 4-7 days or more
  • Likely 2 or more days to hike out for help if you have a problem
  • Might have off trail travel, scrambling, skiing, technical climbing, whitewater river travel, winter conditions or other features that significantly increase risk vs. walking on good trails in fair weather
  • May use an SOS/Tracking Device (inReach or SPOT)
  • And for very remote and/or technical trips might include a Satellite Phone in your kit

“Moderate Risk” Trip Example: Week-long hike in the Sierra Nevada with a mixture of some on-trail travel and some off-trail side trips with sections of up to class 3 travel (scrambling on rocks using hands as well as feet—no rope needed).

“High Risk” Trip Example: 1) A week-long technical canyoneering trip (class 5 rock climbing) in a remote and mostly untraveled desert canyon system. 2) Getting dropped in by float plane to white water pack-raft and climb in Alaska above the Arctic Circle. In these cases there will be more detailed trip information and likely use of a Sat. Phone.

Full Trip Plan Document for Moderate to High Risk Trips – a template to fill out and use

Template document – Full Trip Plan for Moderate to High Risk TripsThis is a link. Click to open Template.

  • Note to user: This is a Template Document. Copy the text from this Google Document Template and paste it into your own document editor (MS Word, Google Docs, etc.) . Then fill it out (edit it) to contain the correct information for your trip.
  • The information in this Template is extensive and intended for a “high(er) risk” trip
  • For a more “moderate risk” trip some of this info may not be needed. Omit/modify at your discretion.
  • This covers integration of your Trip Plan with a DeLorme inReach or SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger – and also uses of a  Satellite Phone

Selecting an Emergency Contact to Give Your Trip Plan to

Here are some important factors to consider when selecting an emergency contact (trip-tracking-emergency-contact):

  • Level headed and reliable. For me this is usually a close family member or one of my trusted hiking/climbing partners. I trust them to seriously monitor my trips and in an emergency do the right thing without drama.
  • Familiarity with the area. If I am pack-rafting in Alaska I want someone that is familiar with the terrain and challenges of white water packrafting and land travel above the Arctic Circle. If I am on a Technical Canyoneering trip in Utah, I want someone experienced in canyon travel to be my emergency contact. With less specialized and technical terrain, there are far more people eligible to be emergency contacts.
  • Responsiveness. In this day and age, especially for higher risk trips we might be communicating  indirectly or directly with our emergency contact. This could be indirectly via location-check-ins or tracks from devices like a SPOT or inReach. Or it can be directly like text messages from an iReach or a call form a Sat. Phone. I want my contact to closely monitor these communications and quickly respond to things like an emergency, or if my trip track hasn’t moved in 24 hours and I haven’t notified them as to why. Or just to reply to my request for a weather update before climbing, etc.

The limitations of a Trip Plan and SOS Devices

Sometimes a timely rescue is not possible. A Trip Plan and/or a SOS Device like the DeLorme inReach and the SPOT Satellite Messenger is not the solution to everything. I have been in some extremely bad situations where rescue was not feasible even if I had sent out an SOS. As they say, the best rescue is self-rescue. And to state the obvious, Goal One is not needing rescue in the first place. So be sensible and safe out there.

Finally, a SOS device should never be considered a license to do silly things or take unnecessary risks.

Why You Should Make a Trip Plan

A shoe tread picture for a Trip Plan Document. My Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail running shoes.