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Trail Tales

Plan Your Hiking Life, Live Your Plan

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Three years ago, I was staring down my fiftieth birthday and didn't have a clue how to pull of a multi-day backpacking trip. Hell, it wouldn't have even occurred to me to go backpacking. Even though I'd spent my youth trolling the wilds of Harriman State Park in upstate New York, the decades that followed were spent growing my career, raising kids, and, yes, golfing.

But something funny happened right around the time I turned 50. Specifically: Zion happened. Two friends and I completed the 50-mile Trans Zion Trek, from Lee Pass to the East Rim entrance. The adventure changed my life by rekindling a love of the outdoors and inspiring me to maximize my time outdoors.

This year, my Zion crew (plus two others) and I are hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), an ambitious endeavor that requires planning and preparation. Here's what I've learned about planning your hiking life in the past few years.

Permits
Some of the most beautiful wilderness trails are also the most popular and require permits to access. The JMT is no exception. The competition for permits can be challenging and nerve racking, especially when you want to hike a popular trail during peak season.

So on January 21, 2015 (six months prior to our desired departure) at exactly 9:00 a.m. CST, I clicked the permit button at recreation.gov and typed at a feverous pace to complete my application for the requisite permits. I got lucky and snagged all six permits for my hiking group.
Tip: Research the permit requirements for your destination long before you want to go and set your alarm to make sure you're among the first (of many) putting in your request.

Logistics
With permit secured, it was time to move on to planning the logistics of the trip:

Transportation
I began by thinking about where we would park. Unless you use mass transit or are doing a loop hike, you need to figure out what to do with your vehicle, one the most challenging aspects of your trip planning details. Will you leave it at the trailhead or at the end of the trail? If you leave it at the trailhead, are there shuttles or buses to take you back at the end of the trip? Is it worth finding a driver to move your car?
Tip: Often shuttle services exist for popular routes. If you can't find them online, call the local gear shop and they'll be able to recommend transportation solutions.

Packing
Next, I create a spreadsheet—my wife calls this my "OCD Hiking Bible"—that helps me analyze gear and food. My spreadsheet contains information from past trips—gear I brought that I didn't need; gear I wished I had, and how the gear I brought performed. I weigh each piece of equipment and note the weight on my spreadsheet. I set a pack weight goal and aim to get as close to that weight as possible.
Tip: Weight matters, especially on long trips. Be diligent about scaling down the weight in your pack long before you hit the trail.

Gear
To me, the two most important pieces of equipment are your footwear and pack. If either don't fit right and aren't broken in and well tested before your hike, you significantly increase your risk for aches, pains and the dreaded blisters. I know this firsthand. Before I discovered Oboz, my previous boots turned my feet to hamburger. Were it not for the Oboz Wind Rivers I came across at a shop in Springdale, Utah, I might not be hiking today. Seriously. I have put nearly 200 miles in my Wind Rivers and haven't had a blister yet.
Tip: For the best deals, check out gear sales—both online and in local shops—throughout the year.

Training
It's no fun to spend the first few days of a big trip suffering from lack of fitness. That's why I hike year-round. I'm usually on the trail 3-4 days a week, putting in 30-40 miles on various terrains.
Tip: On a regular basis, hike your training hike with your backpack loaded with all your gear (minus food) so your body gets used to carrying a heavier pack.

Philosophy
Everyone has his or her own systems and processes when it comes to trip planning, but one thing is sure: planning pays off.
Tip: Be flexible, re-evaluate and make sure you double and triple check everything.

Rich Van Antwerp is retired fund raising executive based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He's now a full-time hiker, skier, snowshoer and aspiring fly fisherman working his way through his "bucket list" of adventures.


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