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7 tips to plan a route in the mountains

SuuntoRun — 30 January 2020

Solid preparation is more likely lead to a safe and enjoyable trip. 

The better prepared you are the more likely the trip is a success.  © Arc'teryx / Piotr Drozdz

While deep in the mountains you are on your own. Take a wrong turn and you might be waiting awhile for the cavalry to arrive. That’s why respect is so important, and one shows that respect for mountain terrain by preparing well. 

In the first article in this series on how to navigate in the mountains, we looked at map reading and location awareness. In this second post, our resident navigator-in-chief Terho Lahtinen takes us through the steps of planning a route. 

Start somewhere familiar

For the purposes of practice, consider starting somewhere you are familiar with. That way you won’t be afraid of getting lost and will have more confidence to navigate by map and compass. “Another attribute of a good training terrain is it offers enough features to study on the map and in the terrain,” Terho says. 

Choose your destination

This seems obvious, right? But it’s important to be clear about this and not have a vague idea. “Choose an area, a specific destination, some other target to visit,” Terho says. “Then consider how much time you have available and what kind of distance you can cover within that time.” 

Be realistic

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Consider the fitness and skill level of your group, and make sure you factor that into your planning. It’s always good to be a little on the cautious side.

Explain your trip plans to the group so you are all on the same page. © Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

Study the map

Ok, you’ve chosen a destination and considered your group, now it’s time to channel your inner nerd by studying the topographical map of where you intend to go. Notice we said “topographical map”; no tourist maps allowed – they don’t offer enough detail. Here’s what to look at on your trusty topo map:

Terrain features: First get an overview. In mountain areas, it’s essential to recognize the ridges, valleys, passes, rivers and other big formations. 

Trail difficulty: If you intend to follow trails, find out what level of difficulty they are. Trails are often rated as easy, medium and difficult, and marked with different dashes on the map depending on the rating. 

Trip options: What are the options on the map? For example, is there an easier versus more difficult route? Is there more than one way in and out? Is there a route that offers more shelter? Is there an easier plan B if plan A turns out to be too challenging for the group?

Distance: Measure the distances between points. You can do this by knowing the scale of your map. Every 1 cm on a map in 1:25 000 scale represents 250 m of terrain. Every 1 cm on a map in 1:50 000 scale represents 500 m of terrain. The average walking pace on flat terrain is 4 km/h, and can halve in difficult or steep country. What distance is possible for your group? Remember, the slowest in the group sets the pace!

Ascent/descent: As we mentioned in the previous article, look at the contour lines on the map. Where do they stack together, indicating steepness, and where are they spaced further apart, indicating more level terrain? 

Calculate the total ascent and descent sums to estimate how hard or easy certain routes would be. It’s advisable to calculate 300m/h for ascents and 500m/h for descents. Consider the time available and the fitness of your group, and choose a route that ensures you avoid pushing people too far beyond their comfort zone. 

Technical difficulty: Look for areas that might prove challenging, such as exposed trails above the treeline, snow cover in shadowed places, ground covered in rocks or tree roots, steep ascents or descents, river crossings, dense forest, or narrow trail. To help understand, research the area online. Try to find trip reports people have written about the area. 

Shelter: In the event the weather turns nasty where on your route can you find shelter? This might be natural or manmade shelter. 

Water: For overnight or multi day trips, look for water sources on your map. 

Accomodation: If it’s on overnight or multi day trip, look for where you will sleep. If you’re camping, find where you are allowed to pitch your tent. If you want to sleep in a mountain hut make sure there are enough beds available and book early. 

Be generous with time

On longer day trips or overnight trips, remember to factor in breaks in your planning. “Breaks are not only for resting, they are for enjoying and observing nature, for relaxing and immersion,” Terho says. “They are an essential part of the experience.”

So make sure you are generous in affording break time. Terho recommends to plan a five to 10 minute break each hour, or 10 to 20% of your moving time.

Allow for delays

Take into account the potential for unplanned delays along the way. A sudden lightning storm, torrential rain, a snow-covered trail, a dangerously swollen river, or a flooded trail – there are many things that could slow you down. 

“The bigger the group, the more delays there will be as people adjust their gear, change clothing, or have pee breaks,” Terho says. “Factor this in.”

Practice makes perfect

Time for your homework! Using a local topo map, plan a route at home by following the above, and then go out and test the plan in the terrain. When planning, pay attention to the details and terrain features on the map that you should look out for on the trip in order to know you’re staying on the right course. Make a game of trying to identify as many of these features as you can when following the route.

Keep track of time, the degree of difficulty, delays you encountered, and once you are back at home compare how the trip unfolded in comparison to how you envisioned it based on your planning. What was different? What took more time than expected? What was easier? 

Stay tuned for the next article in the series: Staying on course in the mountains!

Lead images: 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

© Dean Leslie / Red Bull Content Pool

Read more articles:

How to find your way in the mountains

7 tips to find a safe track up the mountain

8 avalanche safety checks to tick off before the ski season