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Intro | Content | Resources | Opinion & Disclaimer | Q & A


by Phil Romig Jr.

For me, planning has become an essential - and enjoyable - part of every pack trip. I start with paper (a collection of maps and trail guides built up over the years) to get an overview of the planned trip, then I switch to the online resources mentioned above for actual planning. The most important feature is to be able to switch between a topographic map, shaded relief map, trail map and satellite photo - all covering the same area and at the same scale - to develop a mental picture of what we will encounter on the trail. Then I search for online trail guides that provide photos and descriptions of current conditions on the trail and help to evaluate possible campsites and alternate routes. Once the route and stopping points are set, I record compass bearings and distances between waypoints to make it easier to use dead reckoning on the trail.

The end result is a high degree of comfort with the plan for the trip, detailed information for those back home in case of an emergency, and information necessary to be prepared for contingencies on the trip.

Be aware that I am a Mac user. There are many other resources available on Windows computers, but I have not used them. If you use Windows, spend some time searching the web for software and data bases that might be better or less expensive that the ones I use.

When searching for computer/mobile applications or web sites, be careful about reading the reviews. Some of the negative reviews are by people who didn’t take the time to understand the capabilities and limitations of the application or to learn how to use them properly. Some of the positive reviews are by representatives of the creator and essentially are paid advertisements. Focus on those reviews that indicate whether the application is likely to do what you want to accomplish. Some software and web sites can be used free for a trial period; it’s a great way to find out whether it suits your needs.

Finally, be aware that back country navigation resources (maps, trail guides, GPS units, compasses, pedometers, etc.) are not perfect. There are both instrumental limitations and geometric issues (such as the difference between map distance and slant distance on a steep hill) that can lead to significant differences in distance and direction measurements. A future Backcountry Llama column will go into more detail, but a traditional rule of thumb is to assume there can be up to 10% error in routes and tracks. In the end, there is no substitute for knowing what to expect, being observant, using common sense and having the necessary survival skills and equipment to deal with the unexpected.

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