Decision Making in the Backcountry

I think one of the most important things to establish before setting out on an outdoor adventure is what to do when things go wrong. There are a lot more factors that go into backpacking or other activities in the backcountry than you may think, and being prepared is the number one way to ensure a great time in the even greater outdoors! A lot of people don’t think about an emergency plan when heading outside, which often times can hurt the land, those around you, and potentially yourself.  Here are some tricks that I’ve found help me prepare the best I can before I hit the trail!

1. Have a backup plan (and a backup to the backup plan)

Recently, I did a backpacking stint in the Mahoosuc Range in Maine. Considered the “hardest section” of the Appalachian Trail (AT), it’s filled with stunning views of all that nature has to offer and lots of rocks!

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“Where’s the trail??” – A lot of what the Mahoosuc trails look like! Photo Courtesy of John Hayes

Therefore, it was critical for my group to be able to identify exit points along our route in case the going got too tough or too treacherous due to rain or other environmental issues. During our hike, it got fairly slick due to rain and these boulder sections became real dangerous and slow-going. While we started out with a group of seven, two of our members had to pack out early due to some medical concerns regarding the terrain ahead. We all sat down, talked about their evacuation plan, our plan as we continued hiking, and what communication would look like between our two parties. They spent the rest of the day resting, and then went back to the nearest hike-out point. Thankfully, they got out safe, and so did we!

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Getting ready to start on the Peabody-Brooke Trail to the AT!

2. Comfortability is a Non-Negotiable

Another non-negotiable in group-decision making is everyone being comfortable with the plan. It’s always good to push yourself outside your comfort zone occasionally, and I’m a strong believer in that! However, safety should always be the top priority, and if anyone is concerned about moving forward, the plan needs to be reevaluated and agreed upon.

Once, when backpacking in the North GA mountains in August, my dad and I were (unknowingly) hiking into a flash-flood area around Springer Mountain. Upon realizing this from hikers headed the other way, we sat down, pulled out the maps, and had to make the tough call whether to evacuate or push-on.  After assessing all the variables (how tired we were, hunger, water availability, campsites, etc.), we made the decision to evacuate out on a shuttle back to Amicalola Falls. In the end, it ended up being the right decision. The sky opened up immediately after we got in the car, mudslides would have been a serious issue if had we continued!

3. Maslow for the Win

When making a big decision about your plan as a group in the backcountry, it’s always a good idea to make sure you’re level-headed. After a long day of hiking or other activity, it may be difficult to think clearly. Sometimes on the summit attempt of a major mountain, you have to call it off if it isn’t safe. By satisfying the basic needs of your team members (food, water, shelter, warmth, etc.), it’s a lot easier to make a smart decision about a situation. You’d be surprised what a bottle of water, a protein bar, and a jacket (rain or otherwise) can do! Simply put, bad decisions are made in bad environments.

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Our group working up Speck Mtn. in Maine!

Plans can always change. They rarely ever go off flawlessly in the backcountry. There are many variables that tend to knock you off-course, so it’s a good idea to make sure you know what your plans are when things inevitably change! I always recommend WFA (Wilderness First Aid) or general first aid training, and LNT (Leave No Trace) practices if you want to be a superstar. All in all, preparation and adaptation are the keys to success for a fun and enjoyable time in the backcountry!

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Settling in for lunch snacks with a view!

– Will Harrison

Edited by Emma Anne Moody 

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