Navigation: The Joys of Not Planning

by Phil Romig Jr


I grew up a “townie” in a small Indiana farm community surrounded by cornfields. On those rare occasions when our intermittent Boy Scout troop went camping, it was in some farmer’s woodlot. Those “wilderness areas” typically were about 600 yards long and 300 yards wide. All of the roads went north-south or east-west on a 1-mile grid, so backcountry “navigation” meant driving “x” miles west and “y” miles south.


When I was in high school, the troop was reactivated. Although I never advanced past third-class, I was one of the few boys old enough to drive, and so I was appointed Junior Assistant Scoutmaster. Our high-adventure trip that year was an overnight campout at Brown County State Park. To make it interesting, we three JASMs were to leave early, hike in, make camp, and wait for the rest of the troop to use their newly-acquired tracking skills to find us. I was in command of the “quarry” because I was the only one with a car (a 1941 Chevy coupe that usually ran and whose brakes worked a lot of the time).


We arrived at the trailhead late in the afternoon, carried our tent and bedrolls about ½ mile in, and set up camp about 50 yards off the trail in a small clearing surrounded by brush and almost invisible from the trail. We pitched the tent, ate our sandwiches cold (no smoke or light to give us away), and climbed into our bedrolls. When I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it was raining, so I rushed into the nearest bushes and back to the tent as quickly as possible.


The next morning we could hear the rest of the troop looking for us in the rain, so we stayed in the tent till they passed, then prepared to make a dash for the trailhead without being seen. We slipped quietly out of the tent only to discover that we now were on an island in the middle of a small river. To make matters worse, the bushes where I went to the bathroom were poison ivy. The editor said the rest of the story wasn’t suitable for a respectable family magazine.


Twenty years later, in Colorado, I met Leonard, who would be my fishing and llama packing buddy for the next forty years. Early on, it became clear that Lennie had a special fondness for “Lost Lakes.” The first time an acquaintance told him of a Lost Lake teeming with fish, the directions were: “Hike uphill from the campground for an hour or so, then turn left.” We followed those directions till the sun started to set, at which time we realized the lake wasn’t the only thing that was lost. Fortunately, the road went along the bottom of the valley, so we went downhill till we found it and made our way back to camp. The lake didn’t fare as well; it still is lost.


Another friend first took Lennie to another Lost Lake on a long, strenuous trail. After they returned, Lennie checked a topo map and discovered a forest service road within a couple of miles of the lake. We loaded our backpacks, parked at the “X” on his map and started bushwhacking to the lake. Half a mile in we encountered endless deadfall. After two hours of climbing over, under and around dead trees, we were ready to turn back when Lennie announced that the lake was in a clearing just ahead. He was partly right; it was in the clearing—200 feet straight down a sheer cliff. Fortunately, we were able to find a way to climb down. Unfortunately, our truck still was on that road, so we had to return the way we came.


The most recent Lost Lake was above timberline. The lake, the trailhead and trails were on a map, so it looked like a piece of cake. However, a fork in the trail was not well marked, and we didn’t realize we had missed it until the main trail stopped at the end of a narrow, deep valley. The walls were too steep for the llamas to climb, and it was too late to go back, so our only option was to camp in the bottom of the valley, then climb 1,000 vertical feet to the lake the next day. The result was mostly hiking and climbing and very little fishing.


On these trips, the “Joys of Not Planning” were memorable experiences (evidenced by the fact that I still remember them up to sixty years later). On the other hand, each of them easily could have resulted in disaster. If it had rained harder in Indiana, the river could have washed us away. If one of us had fallen while descending the cliff, it might have been impossible to get help in time. The terrain and weather in Colorado create enough life-threatening hazards without making it worse by not planning. We owe it to our families and loved ones to do everything possible to ensure that we return safely from our backcountry adventures, and that means careful and thorough planning before the trip.


Years ago, planning meant obtaining a map of the area. Today, the availability of paper and online resources such as maps, trail guides, and satellite photos has made planning an enjoyable part of every pack trip. They allow us to find trails, lay out routes, locate destinations and waypoints, measure distances and compass bearings, evaluate terrain and identify hazards. By the time the plan is finished, we almost feel that we have been there before. Thorough planning increases anticipation, instills confidence, and provides detailed information for those back home in case of an emergency. It should be the starting point for every backcountry trip.