Consider these points before heading out
So you’ve decided to give scrambling a shot and may already have a particular mountain in mind. Great! But in order to set yourself up for success, what are some of the steps you should take before you head out the door? The following checklist will help you to arrive at the trailhead informed and equipped for a successful day.
1. Research your objective
Whether scrambling or merely heading out for a hike, you should never assume that things “will be obvious” once you get there. Mountain regions are wilderness, and even the simplest of outings can challenge you with unsigned forks or vague sections with no clear direction to follow. You will often encounter points where you need to figure things out on your own. In those situations, do you really want to base your decisions on nothing? Of course not.
Three resources you should try to consult before heading out on any excursion are:
Guidebooks are particularly helpful for identifying objectives of interest from a pool of hundreds and can also provide vital information that will help in your preparation such as knowing how long an outing may take, how relatively difficult it may be, how to get there, and advice on tackling its various dangers. Quality guidebooks will also provide mapping or illustrated route lines, which can prove invaluable to navigating objectives. Alan Kane's seminal work, Scrambling in the Canadian Rockies, is a great place to begin before building out your library with books from the likes of Nugara, Jones, Daffern, Nearingburg and Coulthard.
Trip reports can be invaluable by providing alternative perspectives on the challenges of a particular outing or by illustrating how those challenges can change due to seasonality. Most guidebooks write about a particular trip under ideal conditions, but with reports, you can learn what the same area is like in different seasons and weather conditions. Unconstrained by publishing requirements, trip reports often provide more information and can be accompanied by a large number of photos, providing a visual progression for a trip and potentially giving a series of landmarks to watch for in the field. If multiple trip reports are available, reading them can give you a comprehensive knowledge base to work from. For example, you may notice disagreements about difficulties or learn of a great alternative route. As a bonus, many trip reports these days come with downloadable GPS tracks that can help you greatly with navigation in the field. My Resources page provides links to numerous websites with reports covering hundreds of mountains across Western Canada.
Consulting a quality topographic map, such as those produced by GemTrek, and knowing how to read them can help you envision your entire route, investigate potential extensions, and learn the names of mountains and landmarks in the vicinity of the trip. One of the most common questions asked while scrambling is “What’s the name of that over there?”. It’s nice to know the answer to such questions while having a solid feel for the local geography.
Why is this important?
In wilderness survival literature they often talk about the importance of having an accurate mental model of your surroundings. It’s this model that drives your “gut decisions” anytime you need to route find or make a correction. The more informed this model is, the more likely you are to head in the right direction rather than compounding a mistake that could cost you time or place you in danger.
While this may seem like a lot of work at times, the thing to note is that this is exactly what experienced scramblers are doing. It’s very rare that we’ll just show up at a trailhead and “wing it” on an objective, and even then, it’s usually to an objective we know the general details about (such as its difficulty and the basics of its route). Taking an hour or so to research this can make all the difference in the success and enjoyment of your day.
Also, note that you should still do this work even if you’re not leading the outing in question. There’s no guarantee that the leader’s going to do their homework, and even if they do, an informed second opinion can be a huge help to that person in a moment of doubt.
2. Check the weather and related conditions
This should go without saying, but you definitely want to know what the conditions are likely to be during the period you’ll be outdoors. Normally I’ll check a variety of weather sources (see the Resources page) looking for a consensus. Each service has its strengths, but I look to Mountain Forecast for wind and temperatures at elevation and SpotWX for cloud cover and precipitation. There’s also a number of other forecasts and advisory pages you should check depending on the time of year. If it’s winter, you must check out the avalanche forecast and know how to interpret it. In early spring or late fall, you should check various Facebook groups to see what’s still dry, what’s snow covered, and what terrain you may wish to avoid completely. During the summer, it’s a good idea to check the National Parks’ website for bear advisories, group restrictions or other potential closures, and you may also want to keep an eye on websites tracking forest fires and their smoke.
Again, this can take a bit of time to go through but will help ensure that you’re prepared for what the day holds. If you’re torn between a variety of objectives, consulting these forecasts can often make the decision for you.
3. Let someone know
While this isn’t a pleasant thing to contemplate, if you get into trouble in the backcountry and can’t return without assistance it could be a very long time before someone comes looking for you. It could take days for someone to file a missing person report, it could take days for someone to locate your vehicle, and then, it could take searchers a lot of time to deduce your path from that point to where you’re awaiting help. The simple act of letting someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return can dramatically shorten the response period in case of an accident or becoming lost.
Once you've determined that backcountry adventuring's for you, you should consider investing in a portable satellite communications device such as the Garmin InReach, which allows for 2-way text-based communications in the field with friends, family, and potentially rescuers.
4. Bring essential gear
While this isn’t intended to be exhaustive, here’s the minimum gear I’d recommend bringing with you into the field:
A headlamp (nobody really expects to be caught in darkness, but it happens)
Sunglasses (especially if you anticipate snow travel)
Sunscreen (any time of the year, UV ratings are higher at elevation)
Compass, map or GPS unit (route confusion can happen anywhere, have a reference)
First-aid supplies (you can be a long way from help; have materials to stop bleeding, treat minor injuries, and medicines to treat pain and any existing conditions you may have)
Trekking poles (a personal preference item for some, but makes a massive difference if you know how to use them)
A helmet (if you expect rockfall, challenging scrambling, or plenty of boulder-hopping)
5. Bring essential clothing
Whether through sheer elevation gain, a rapid change due to an advancing front, or simply the presence of strong winds, it’s not unusual to encounter substantial changes in temperature during an outing. In one particularly notable outing to Tangle Ridge in Jasper National Park, it was a balmy 26°C at the trailhead and near 0°C (with windchill) a few hours later at the summit. On that day, I needed to put on every bit of clothing I had in my pack and was thankful to have it!
At a minimum you should have:
A shell jacket to protect against wind and rain (Goretex or equivalent)
A warmer layer (wool, fleece or down)
A hat (sun protection) or toque (warmth), or both
Gloves (with a backup pair and/or liners in winter)
Depending on the time of year, forecast, or activity type, you may want to be carrying even more. The key is to anticipate what your needs will be before you can regret not having it with you. Be particularly careful not to wear any clothing that becomes wet easily, such as anything that's cotton-based.
6. Bring food and water
Speaking from experience, crashing from a lack of energy or running out of water, becoming dehydrated, and knowing that you’re far away from a water source is really not fun. While food needs can vary wildly between individuals, for a day-trip, I strongly recommend taking a “grazing” approach to food by bringing a selection of high-quality, high-energy snacks that you can eat on the go whenever you begin to feel “empty” or your energy starting to sag. I’ve seen people prepare entire meals that they ate in picnic style at the summit and that’s a very ineffective approach to fueling your body. As for water, I rarely head out with anything less than 2L and will increase that amount depending on temperatures, trip length, and the availability of water along the route.
If you’re just starting out in scrambling, it’s better to bring a bit too much of both until you get a better feel for your needs.
Other than taking measures to improve your physical conditioning, these are 6 of the best steps you can take to ensure that you’re properly prepared for a backcountry hike or scramble. Be safe out there and have fun!
Speaking of Physical Conditioning
When preparing for a scrambling trip, keep in mind that a typical mountain ascent in the Canadian Rockies involves 12-14 km of travel with a pack where you’ll gain over a thousand metres of elevation (the equivalent of climbing up and down the stairs in a 200-storey building!). Even the easiest objectives out there are still likely in the 7-8 km range with about 600m of elevation gain (still about 120-storeys!). This isn’t an activity to take lightly, and it often requires a year-round commitment to fitness to get the most out of it.