For the last eight years I've embarked on a wide variety of hikes. Most of them have been easy, quick treks less than five miles in length near or in well-traveled areas. Some hikes, on the other hand, have been fraught with danger. Long distances, remote locations, and difficult off-trail sections are all issues that can create a tough situation. Oh, and stubbornness. My own bull-headed stubbornness has put me in more than one difficult situation.
There was that time when I got lost in the Herman-Nestoria overnight, then I suffered heat exhaustion above Mulligan Plains, and most recent a combination of injury and fatigue kept me stuck in the Peter's Canyon long after sunset. A friend of mine fell and cracked some vertebrae near Marquette, another friend fell through the ice on the Little Huron River, and there was that one time I had to carry an over-tired German Shepherd over a Sugarloaf Mountain in the middle of winter. Yes, danger and risk is part of being outdoors. With two sons, though, it's past time for me to get smarter about my hikes.
That Peter's Canyon incident happened over a month ago now. It was a long and risky hike, twelve-plus miles off trail, and while I was technically okay when I decided to wait out the night my wife had no way of knowing what was going on. We have a basic plan - I tell her the general area of where I'm going and when to expect me back - but two hours after the expected check-in time and she didn't have much to go on. Luckily Chris (brother-in-law) figured out the route I would have taken, was able to find where I parked the car, and provided the search and rescue folks with a lot of useful information. After this misadventure Katie and I put our heads together and decided to set up some basic protocols based off of the difficulty of the hike.
Tier One - The Most Dangerous
Of course, we focused on the most extreme situation first. I haven't gone on many truly dangerous adventures (though the Malapais/Peter's Canyon Loop is definitely up there, as is the Superstition Ridgeline), yet they do and will happen. Even something as well-traveled as the Grand Canyon could fall into this tier if I end up doing a rim-to-rim over two (or even one!) days.
Tier One hikes are characterized by remote destinations, off-trail routes, poor weather conditions, and excessive difficulties. A full write-up of the outing is needed before going out with the planned route, milestones, check-in times, and acceptable leeway and alternate exit plans. There is some minimum required equipment as well, including water filtering devices, emergency blanket, basic first aid, and some sort of location beacon.
This is not too different from what I already do. I put in an obsessive amount of planning before going on any hike more than a few hours long, poring over the terrain, water reports, forecasts, and alternate routes. The biggest difference is now I'm sharing more of this information with Katie in a document that she can use if something goes wrong. Eh, the equipment is new. I usually bring the bare minimum and need to get better at packing basic survival stuff.
Tier Two - Not Terrible, Just Not Great
This is where most of my adventures fall in these days. They aren't necessarily dangerous, there's just a good chance that something could go wrong. A good example are the lands up by Four Peaks - a minimum 30 minute drive away from main roads and some of the routes are better suited for Bighorn Sheep than humans.
Since they are watered down from the first tier, putting together a trip plan isn't necessary, only recommended. I'm about to go out on a 'Tier Two', an overnight backpack in the Mazatzal Wilderness, and did a write-up for both my own planning and for Katie's peace of mind. The only really required piece of gear is an emergency blanket and venom extraction kit (yay Arizona) - the other basic survival stuff is recommended.
On an aside, I brought up a location beacon earlier. Right now I use either a topographic map or a GPS unit (or both), and sometimes will bring along a compass as well. The GPS unit is definitely a luxury, and I try to leave it at home, even if it can be incredibly useful for pre-loading off-trail routes that avoid some tricky terrain. Anyways, none of this helps my wife or rescuers help to locate me, especially if I'm out of cell phone range. Plus the thought of sending 'YESOK' messages is very tempting - I could ping Katie that I'm alive and okay but won't be able to make it back that evening. We're still researching different brands (they can be quite expensive) and hope to get one before I head out on anything too dangerous.
Tier Three - Easy Strolls
On the other end of the spectrum are the easy hikes, the city limit hikes up Camelback Mountain (1200' climb over 1.5 miles) or Garden Valley Loop (rolling 5 miles through a well-traveled section of Superstition Wilderness). The plan for these is to keep to what we've been doing - inform someone where we're going and when we'll be back - and take what makes sense for the trip. Having this tier is mostly to keep everything nice and classified before going out.
That's the main reason we put together these tiers: to keep things classified. It's much more succinct to tell Katie that I'm going on a 'Tier Two' this weekend instead of rambling on about the elevation profile and remote location and how things 'should be fine' yet 'could go wrong'. And the trip plan makes her (hopefully nonexistent) role simple in case of an emergency. I should be back in cell range by 5PM, but she shouldn't worry until 8PM. My full route is listed, with expected water sources and campsite options, as well as the gear I'll have with me.
This might be a bit overkill for other hikers. As I stated earlier, though, this doesn't add much extra work to my planning process. Much of the information for these plans have already been pulled together -this is just adding a formal step of writing it down. I'm more interested in keeping my wife informed then anything else. And staying alive, I guess.