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Don’t Forget Your P’s:
The Art of Expedition Planning

By Trevor Deighton, NOLS Instructor
© Deborah Sussex


There are two types of adventures out there, expeditions and epics. There is a subtle difference between expeditions and epics: Expeditions are planned and epics are not. It all boils down to Leave No Trace Principle #1: Plan Ahead and Prepare.

One of the most valuable parts of living and recreating in an outdoor community like NOLS is how much you learn from others. Paul Petzoldt once said, “good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” What Paul didn’t expand upon in this statement is that your good judgment can stem not only from your personal first hand experience but from other’s “experiences” or “epics” as well. Never pass up the opportunity to listen to someone’s story of an adventure. You will be surprised at how much you can learn and it is always more enjoyable to listen and imagine being wet, cold, hungry and tired then it is to actually experience being wet, cold, hungry and tired.

Overlooking small details can have enormous consequences. Here are a couple of my favorites. I planned an early season backpacking trip into the Wind River Mountains and decided not to take snowshoes because it was a low snow year and the snow pack was only 40 percent of normal. Oops, I misread a poor quality fax that actually said the snow pack was 140 percent of normal and we post-holed to our waist for 10 days.

“Fast and Light” is all the rage these days, but with less gear the consequences of poor planning increase. Underestimating the time a long multi-pitch rock climb would take them, some friends of mine spent three days and two nights equipped with only shorts and t-shirts (wet and cold), and 1 liter of water and no food (hungry and tired).

The first step in planning an expedition is choosing an objective. You must dream up a trip whether it’s a weekend or a month, close to home or around the world, a well-trodden trail or a new route. Your friends may tease you for being an “armchair mountaineer” but reading books, magazines and journals or listening to the stories of others are the seeds of any great expedition. Once you have an idea, you must get a preliminary idea of the costs, logistics and skills required for your proposed trip. It will be easier to find partners for your dream if you have a grasp on reality.

The second step is getting partners or putting together a “team” for the expedition. This is a key step in the success of the trip. Consider how many members, what base level of skill is or isn’t needed (like experience camping on snow), how the group will mesh and, of course, everyone’s goals for the expedition. The goal of summiting Denali is very different from going climbing in Alaska, having a good time and all returning friends. Both goals are compatible but it’s the order, or priority, which can come back to haunt an expedition.

Again, the devil is in the details, or so they say. Sit down with the group and discuss the expedition and the team’s goals. As the creator of the dream, there’s a tricky transition you must allow for here, which is to let go and let your plan become the group’s expedition. This switch is also the point where the group must carefully divide responsibility for the logistics, agree on a preliminary budget, and schedule the timeframe for the expedition to take place. It will be important that members continue to check in with one another as questions arise and the group begins to make decisions, but it may not be necessary for the entire group to meet again before the expedition leaves.

Research, research, research: Talk to everyone you can, read every book, journal and magazine, call the tourist bureau for the local area you will visit, scour the internet for invaluable tidbits such as weather sites with average temperature and precipitation. Armed with information, you will make better decisions regarding the logistics of the expedition.

Here are the logistics broken down into more digestible categories:

Personal Equipment: This category includes clothes, packs, boots, toiletries, and any personal technical gear like a harness, helmet, ice axe, etc. It is important to make sure that everyone has similar personal equipment. If I decide not to bring gloves and everyone else does, that may limit the days that the whole group can climb.

Group Gear: This includes items that will be shared or used/carried by the entire group such as tents, stoves, pots, fuel, first aid kit, repair kit, maps/books, emergency communication device (cell phone? radio?) and technical gear such as ropes and racks or canoes or rafts. Since most, if not all, of the “group gear” will actually belong to individuals, it is important to come up with an understanding of how everyone will share the cost if gear is damaged or destroyed.

Food and Fuel: You first must decide if you are going to plan meals or bulk rations. Meal planning works well for short trips, but for anything longer than a few days bulk rationing is the way to go. For specifics, the “NOLS Cookery” is invaluable. It will help you decide how many pounds per person per day to bring and the break down of breakfast, lunch and dinner foods you need. And of course it has lots of great recipes for either method. It also has fuel calculations. Food shopping for any long trip is an enormous job, so make a list before you go, don’t shop hungry and don’t take on this task solo. Remember to repackage the food before you leave.

Permits and Regulations: In the research phase you should have discovered if you’ll need permits. If not, look on the maps for the land management agency and then find a number (internet is the easiest) and give them a call. The local ranger may have some invaluable advice. Make sure to find out about regulations such as fire bans, bear storage, how to properly dispose of waste, etc.
Transportation: Where will the group meet? How will you travel to the area? How will you get to the drop off, to the pick up? Are any re-rations necessary? Driving is often the easiest but isn’t always practical. Here are some of the methods I have used: hitchhiking, driving myself, getting a friend to drive and drop us off or meet us, commercial flight, charter ski, float, or wheel plane, charter helicopter, horse packers, U.S. postal service, and boat. The options are endless.

Miscellaneous: Is this an expedition worthy of trying to go through the effort of writing grants? Asking for equipment sponsorship? Making and selling t-shirts? Creating a web-site? Fund-raising for a non-profit?

While it is impossible to guarantee that an expedition will be successful and not turn into an epic, Paul Petzoldt said it best when he said “follow the 7 P’s: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” Having spent the last six months planning the biggest expedition of my life, I certainly hope Paul was right. I’ll let you know when we return from the “Greyskull Valley.”

Trevor Deighton, a NOLS instructor since 1997, will put his expedition planning skills to the test this August when he joins fellow instructors Andy Rich, Laura Schmonsees and Dave Anderson on an attempt of an unnamed and unclimbed peak via a 2,000-foot vertical granitie wall in the Coast Mountains of northern British Columbia.

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