We’ve already discussed guides for rivers and watertrails. We’ve discussed maps and charts, different types, where to find them, and how to use them. Perhaps we’ve also gathered some additional information to suit our taste, like points of interest, cultural events, history, and so on. We are now ready to put it all together into a trip plan. By putting it all together, I mean that this plan tells us virtually everything we will do during the duration of our trip. Here we will determine how many days the trip will take, and thus how many supplies and provisions we will need, where and how we will resupply, what and where we can find any and all resources we will need from water, food, laundry, camping, boat ramps, and road access where others may get to us or where we can find transportation, showers and restrooms, drug stores, post offices, and the list goes on. When I started this discussion, I referred to the saying about there being more than one way to skin a cat. This is never truer than when we make decisions about putting all the aspects together into an actual operational trip plan. The nice thing about the process is that it can easily be tailored to any trip, whether backpacking, expedition paddling, or sailing. This will be long enough that I’ll break it into two posts.
1. The first thing you need to do is inspect your maps for the entire trip. You want to make sure you have indeed left no lapses in coverage. You want to double check areas of greater interest or greater difficulty to decide if you need to supplement what you have with any maps of some larger scale. It is also important to check the scales of all maps to insure there are consistent references, whether these are for mileage, lat-long, elevation, soundings, or any changes in symbols or abbreviations. If there are any inconsistencies, be sure to highlight them so that in your fatigue or confusion during the trip you don’t mistakenly begin using an inaccurate scale of reference.
2. Then take all the maps and mark them for mileage. Some maps and charts come already referenced for mileage. Mississippi River maps and charts, for example, use mileage to reference everything. Hazards, confluences, locks, ramps, even things like marinas, campgrounds, and restaurants are referred to by the mile marker they are near. In radio communications, you’ll call a tug according to what mile marker he is near and whether up or down bound on the river. Mileage is not only the easiest way to reference things, but also the fastest way to calculate a day’s run, how far we need to go to find the next rest stop, campsite, or any type of facility.
3. If the maps aren’t already marked for mileage, there are three common ways of proceeding. The simplest is to take a mile’s span and walk it off on the map, making a tick mark or dot for each mile. You can use a pair of dividers, if you have them. You can use the scale on the edge of your compass if it matches the map scale, or you can take a piece of scrap paper and mark several miles on it from the mileage scale, and transfer those miles to the map as you slide the marked paper along your route. The second method is one I don’t recommend, but it has been used by some that have become accustomed to it. Here, you take what you feel is your normal cruising boat speed, and walk the map off in intervals of time, expressed as the distance made good through the water during each hour. We will have hereby reversed the normal process. Instead of measuring by miles of travel, you are measuring by the number of expected hourly runs you can normally accomplish. This method fails in not allowing for the effects of wind or current, whether they are adverse or beneficial to your progress, or even how fatigue, nutrition, or state of mind are affecting your performance. A mile is consistent. Making bets on how fast you can paddle regardless of conditions is not. The third method is accomplished with Google Earth, which I’ll get to momentarily, but has to do with maintaining a running distance plot of every point along the path.
4. You need to decide on the depth or detail that your written plan will take, or if you need to even use one. Some paddlers feel a prepared plan takes the adventure, excitement, or the sense of discovery out of the trip. That is a decision we each need to make for ourselves, but for me a written plan brings with it much greater safety, convenience, and confidence, and there is so much that goes on during any trip that I’ve never found that it detracts from any sense of adventure or discovery. Even with a plan, I find surprises around every bend.
5. Another issue concerns your navigational style. Some use a mapping GPS, and at the other end of the spectrum is the paddler that uses a map and compass. There are benefits to both. When I do a trip plan, it is peppered with a lot of GPS positions. However, I’d strongly encourage you to learn traditional navigation or orienteering with map and compass. A mapping GPS is mindless. There are times when that’s the way to go. If it’s pouring rain, or fog is beginning to close in and visibility is approaching zero, such a navigational aid can be a true blessing. However, they tempt the paddler to become lazy, as their traditional skills become rusty, and then nonexistent. We also need to remember that a GPS is nothing more than a radio receiver. They are much more reliable than ages past, but they can still give inaccurate information due to interference, weak signals, solar flares, poor programming, or indeed when transmissions are intentionally degraded or turned off. Maps are reliable, and assuming precautions are taken to prevent induced deviation, a compass is foolproof. If your gizmo packs up while you’re in the outback, unless you carry a spare, you could be a week or a hundred miles away from getting it replaced. It only takes a couple minutes to pull the map and compass out of the pack.
6. If you want a reasonably accurate plan to permit you to anticipate the timing of everything to be encountered during the trip, allow a lay day every fifth day. The lay day could be for time lost due to being weatherbound, doing laundry and provisioning, visiting some historical or cultural point of interest, anticipating when another paddler can join or leave the trip, recovering from an injury or illness, visiting with friends, or just having a nice dinner ashore that you don‘t have to eat out of a pouch or used Country Crock tub. If trying to paddle continuously, you will get pretty sick of the routine if there isn’t an occasional break to recharge your own batteries and smell the roses. That usually comes out to about once every five days. Even though you are still working on moving the trip forward, like shopping, repairing, or managing logistics, the change of pace will work wonders for improving your attitude and enhancing your enjoyment.