For many well-seasoned, outdoor oriented travelers planning a ground up trip to an unpublished, unknown objective is a bucket list peak experience. As our National Parks and outdoor spaces get more and more crowded, the experience can feel more curated than ever. Antelope canyon has escape ladders bolted in the walls, Half Dome has cables up the steep part, folks are literally getting sentenced to jail for being off trail in Yellowstone. Sometimes to experience the restorative effects of wild places you really need to get out there away from the crowds. In addition to solitude, there is a personal reward in planning and executing your own trip… often in life the reward is proportional to the amount of effort put in.
In the era of Google Earth, it can seem like the whole world is mapped out down to the last pine needle, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find there are still plenty of wild and untouched natural places as well as yet to be discovered historical human artifacts. Less than one year ago an 8-mile long prehistoric rock art mural was discovered in the amazon. As new sports (like packrafting) evolve, first descents are getting documented on the daily. Space exploration is just beginning. While such grandiose “firsts” may be unattainable for the typical weekend warrior, there is still plenty of adventure to be had.
“Adventure” is a polarizing and subjective word which means different things depending on who you are and what you do. Most would agree that true adventure requires some unknown, some risk, some unpredictability, novel surroundings, maybe a bit of physicality. This post outlines a few considerations for the traveler who wishes to forgo the guidebook and plan a trip which meets the aforementioned criteria.
Start with something you’re interested in and familiar with. Are you a birdwatcher? Are you a Norse history buff? Love hiking in the high alpine? Maybe you’re a chef with a passion for obscure seafood? Planning this type of trip is going to take time, research and dedication so maximize your chance of success by planning it around a subject which has personal significance to you and which you already have deep knowledge of. Don’t choose an objective based on your newest interest… choose one based on your oldest interest.
Select an objective. Start to narrow down the scope of your adventure. Use all your resources and everything you know about a given subject to imagine where other people won’t be. Why won’t they be there? Maybe the travel logistics are a bear. Maybe it’s not as interesting as other high-profile objectives. Maybe there are access issues. Are these hurdles something that you’re willing to deal with and overcome to get there?
Keep Googling and researching until you find nothing… well maybe not nothing, but less is better. If you’re trying to find off-the-grid and novel travel objectives Google is your friend. Maybe you want to bushwhack your way to the top of a rarely summitted mountain. First call up a topo map of the area you’re interested in and then start searching for placenames followed by “mountaineering” or “hiking” or “summit”. The less results the better. Eventually you may find a mountain with no summit accounts published online.
Access. Once you’ve decided on your objective, familiarize yourself with the land managing agencies that you may be dealing with. Well in advance of your trip figure out where the private land is and where the public land is. Research what type of public land you’re dealing with(BLM, Forest Service, National Park, Wilderness etc.) and what red tape you’ll need to navigate. Try Caltopo’s “public lands” overlay as a starting point. Get maps directly from the land managing agencies when planning for permits and read the actual rules and regs, not a 3rd party’s interpretation of them. Get permits well in advance. When you trespass on private land or poach public lands you put everyone’s access in jeopardy… areas get closed permanently when visitors don’t play by the rules.
Special Hazards. Author Craig Childs famously proclaimed, “There Are Two Easy Ways to Die in the Desert: Thirst and Drowning”. If you’re not intimately familiar with the American southwest the “drowning” part of that truism may not make sense… he’s referencing the flash floods that rip through desert washes like clockwork every summer during the monsoon season. This is an example of an objective hazard that is not readily apparent to folks visiting the area. Every year people park their camper vans over inviting dry creek beds on clear nights only to get washed away by water that fell from the sky 20 miles away. Hazards like this exist all around the world and if you’re not a local it can be difficult to forecast what is most likely to kill you in an unfamiliar place. Do your research on objective hazards unique to the area.
Itinerary. If something goes wrong your loved ones may have to initiate a search and rescue effort on your behalf. Do them a favor and take the guess work out of it by leaving a turn-key plan. The more info they have the higher likelihood that any SAR operation will end in a happy reunion. Provide them with things like:
- Names, and emergency contacts for everyone on the trip.
- License plate numbers of all cars on the trip coordinates of key waypoints. Go to Google Maps and right click any point to get the coordinates.
- Phone numbers of emergency services – you already know the various land managing agencies you’ll be dealing with, do a little research and get their direct emergency contact info and leave this in your itinerary.
- Specific SAR initiation plans – “If you don’t hear from us by ____time on ____ date you should call ____ agency and initiate SAR”.
- Call out any specific hazards that you foresee – “There will be two particularly risky obstacles on this trip, first is the river crossing at ____ coordinates and second is the ridgeline at ____ coordinates”.