Prepping for the Backcountry
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Midway through a linkup of Buck, Albright and Static peaks in Grand Teton National Park, Kelly Halpin’s partner convinced her to go off course, for a more-involved route. Hours later, Halpin was alone on an overhanging snowfield, without crampons, in a hail and lightning storm, having lost track of her “faster and riskier” partner.
Halpin is an experienced mountain athlete, with more than ten expeditions on her resume as well as top-five finishes at the 2016 North Face Endurance Challenge Series Marathon and 2016 Dead Horse Ultra 50K, but didn’t have a plan for what to do in this situation. She dug herself a shelter to wait out the storm, and, with a stroke of luck, had enough cell service to call friends.
She notified them of the situation and her location in case she didn’t arrive home by the end of the day. Luckily, the storm abated, she found her partner and made it back to the car unscathed.
“That was definitely an adventure where one wrong turn dominoed into a whole mess of bad situations,” she says.
Whether you’re out for an afternoon summit bid on a well-defined trail, an all-day adventure linking peaks and passes, or a multi-day fastpacking excursion, mountain running is about preparedness just as much as it is about fitness. What you do before your trip is just as important as how fast or fit you are once you get to the trailhead.
Here are some tips to guide you as you prepare to head into the mountains this summer.
Study your route
Spend ample time with topography maps to learn about your route, including elevation gain and descent, terrain features, water sources and potential bail points. If you’re planning a desert trip, note potential flash-flood areas. If you’re headed into the high mountains, be aware of areas where rockfall is a threat.
Park rangers, online forums and guidebooks are good resources for information on unknowns like secret water sources, shelters, trail conditions, route finding, wildlife and weather patterns.
Break your route into chunks, and estimate the number of hours/days it will take you to complete each section. If a crew is meeting you or dropping bags, coordinate them to be slightly earlier than needed, to anticipate delays.
Ensure you’ve got passes or permits for the correct number of people in your party. If you have a crew, they may need their own permit and a copy of yours. Obtaining overnight permits/passes within Bureau of Land Management, and National Forest Service land may take weeks. National parks and state parks require passes that can be obtained at the park entrance. Find out what land designations your route will cover and do your homework before you go.
“I like to be prepared for bad weather, dehydration and pain management,” Halpin says. “Bad weather is a major factor. I’ve definitely been caught in a number of unexpected thunder and hail storms. I like to keep a super light, usually waterproof, windbreaker in my pack and an extra layer if I can afford to carry one.”
Like thinking about food when you’re full, it’s tempting to look up at a clear morning sky and think you’ll be able to push through a couple of chilly hours or a brief thunderstorm without extra gear. Don’t give in.
Bring a base layer (next to the skin, light warmth), mid-layer (looser fit, medium warmth) and shell (for wind and rain protection), or some combination of the three. Additionally, consider packing a warm hat, gloves or extra socks.
>>In your pack (in addition to your nutrition, water and supplements)
A headlamp is essential even if you don’t plan to be out after dark.
Trekking poles should be a serious consideration for all-day adventures and can be used as a variety of tools in a pinch (shelter pole, digging tool, arm splint)
Duct tape can act as blister protection and is essential for quick repairs. Wrap several feet around the shaft of one of the poles.
Chafing lubricant should be available at all times – don’t save this one for the drop bag.
Compression gear can help injured or stressed muscles perform better over long distances.
Permit, map and cash. Store in plastic bags to stay dry.
Compass. Know how to use it.
Satellite phones or beacon, to alert mountain rescue in case of an emergency, and a space blanket or shelter to keep warm in case you have to wait it out.
A whistle, if you’re going to be in true backcountry for an extended period of time.
Water purification tablets or light water purifier.
A multitool and lighter.
Extra batteries for your headlamp.
A complete first-aid-and-blister kit.
A change of clothes and shoes.
Extra plastic bags.
Updated weather information.
Handhelds typically aren’t big enough for long runs. Hydration packs carry more fluid, store gear and allow you to run hands free.
The right pack is all about preference. You’ll want to fit yourself, and do some real training, with a full hydration pack before you go. Think about accessibility versus weight distribution and comfort. Do you want water bottles, gels and a camera up front in chest pockets or do you want the weight distributed around your hips and back? Consider possible chafing and impact points.
Store just-in-case items—like your extra layer, trail pass and lighter—at the bottom, and commonly used items—like gels, food, map and sunglasses—within easy reach.
Plan for an emergency
Make an emergency plan for yourself and stick to it. Mark your map with bailout points and know how to get from the trail to your crew or car. If you’re falling behind schedule, commit to exiting at the next available point, or turning around. If you’re running completely without a crew, notify at least one person about where you are going and when you expect to return. Set an agreed-upon time at which that person should alert mountain rescue, if you aren’t yet back.
For crewed runs, set benchmark locations and times, and if you haven’t arrived by the predetermined time, have a specific plan for how and where they will find you.