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Expedition Planning

Written by  Lance Blair
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Racing legend Rod Millen has said “Preparation is key, the event is just a formality.” This holds true for a race, a job, or a long distance trip. Another great anonymous quote is “There are no big problems in life, just small ones that didn’t get dealt with”. I am quickly learning the difference between a week-long, free spirited, camping trip and an expedition that is time-line dependent, goal oriented, and multi-vehicle. Jump in the passenger seat and come along for the ride!

It's hard to know where you're going and what you should be doing along the way without a “why”. When it comes to a weekend trip you might just want to get out of town for a bit. However, when it comes to a longer expedition style trip there is usually a goal in mind. That goal is your “why”. It could be to transverse Death Valley, visit Copper Canyon in Mexico, or even retrace the Baja 1000 route. No matter what the goal, it influences time-line, fuel needs, food choices, water supply and more. The goal will direct your planning and without a clear goal there isn’t a clear plan.

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My Continental Divide Expedition has the goal of gaining attention for Disabled Explorers, so there are several points that I need to keep in mind. One is to contrast the standard paved handicap ramp Vs. the freedom of vehicle dependent back country access by traveling on dirt as much as possible. Another is to show the beauty of the back country and the peace it provides. As an added complication, the FJ Summit is right in the middle of our trip. The largest FJ Cruiser gathering in the country certainly makes it a worthy stopover.  Meetings with Park Rangers, media outlets and 4x4 clubs also have to be arranged in advance. Even if your trip was simply to explore the wilds of Utah, you need to know about park entrance times, camping locations, fees and fuel availability.
Another challenge of my goal is how to document my trip. If all I plan to do is post trip write-ups and pictures, then a pocket digital camera and journal would suffice. However, if I plan to film the trip and create resources or public awareness messages, then I have to plan.  Everything from locations, times, interviews, permits and more. The goal impacts you every step of the way.

Once I have corralled my goals, route planning is the next beast to wrestle. I can’t decide much until I know where I will be and when. Sun Tzu said in the Art of War “know your enemy and know yourself and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. In the expedition world that translates into “know your rig, yourself, and your companions, and you need not fear a journey of hundreds of miles”.  Some key questions to ask yourself are: What is your realistic trail mileage? What is your likelihood of breakdown? How long can you drive and still be sharp, aware and not crabby? What does everyone like to eat? Anyone have medical issues? All of this goes into your route planning.

In my case, the Continental Divide has been traveled for years by hikers, bicyclists and dual sport motorcyclists. I was even lucky enough to score the waypoints and track for the route from Mark Sampson of www.bigdogadventures.com, who did an excellent job documenting his trip. However, there are still differences that have to be factored in. Fuel stops, camping locations, side-trips to Glacier, Yellowstone and other national parks all have to be considered, not to mention that my FJ Cruiser is a wee bit wider than a cycle. I have the info of how many miles a day and how many hours of drive time the cycle guys make, but the question is, will that be the same for me?
A subset of route planning is where to camp, refuel, and resupply. Luckily there are plenty of towns along the way, but with the goal of being on dirt as much as possible, I’m trying to minimize town contact. Also don’t forget that route planning has an importance not only to you, but to your loved ones should anything happen on the trail. They need know where to look for you.

Once I have the route planned and dates laid out, I can begin making contacts. There are so many variables and people to consider.  Beginning with meeting Park Rangers to compare standard handicap options with my choice of vehicle dependent back country access. Next, arranging meet & greets or trail company with various 4x4 clubs along the way, finding camp sites, lastly and most importantly; getting media attention by contacting media outlets that are along the way. I also look for amateur radio repeaters, cellular coverage, internet access and other communication methods I might need.

Route planning naturally leads into navigation and that opens the flood gate of questions about gps Vs. paper maps, standalone gps Vs. laptops, compasses Vs. sextons. Well maybe no one uses that last one anymore, but you could spend some time thinking about it! Of course what ever you choose, there is the need for a backup plan, as well as time to test your ability to navigate in unknown areas. Ideally, that should take up a few weekends before heading out.

The next beast from the planning jungle that I must attack is that monster named “budget”. Although short in name, he puts up a long fight, and can stop you in your tracks anytime. Summer fuel prices are higher than winter, regional prices range also.  Small towns often garner a premium for fuel and food, not to mention that we will be close to major national parks (with associated tourist pricing). The cost rises with in-town meals, but the bulk of supplies and need to restock is greater with make-your-own camp meals. Fuel range has to be realistic and based not on my highway mileage, but on my trail averages. In addition, getting your budget in order early gives you a chance to cover cost of pre-trip service and modifications while you still have time to bank a few paychecks. Without proper planning I could find myself in a small town at a Western Union office, paying hefty fees just to get back on the road.

Of course there will be gear to choose and finding the best way to stow it. Short weekend trips help work out the kinks and that takes time. Driver ability has to be up to task as well, especially if you will be covering terrain that is unusual for you, such as snow, mud or sand. There is plenty to do before you get to the actual trip.

Having a large event like the FJ Summit in the middle of my trip is both a help and hindrance. It helps by giving my son’s and I a hotel for 4 nights to refresh and relax,  providing a short break from the road. It is a hindrance because I have a fixed arrival date and time, since my wife will fly in to meet us for the Summit. Also, there is the risk of trail damage while enjoying the Summit. This concern will not keep me off the trails, but it will keep me from obstacles that I would attempt under different circumstances.

Last and perhaps most important is to start thinking about my “expedition habits”. These are the daily rituals that will keep me in motion, on track and enjoying the trip as much as possible. These include assigned tasks for all of us regarding camp setup/teardown, cooking, cleaning, navigation, battery charging, vehicle inspection and supply management. In addition, it’s important to set aside time for these chores. There’s a huge difference between checking the vehicle over in the evening when you have time for possible repairs or looking it over before you pull out of camp in the morning. Not to mention the stress relief of going to bed knowing your planned route and events for the next day instead of pulling out of camp and not knowing which country road to take or when the national park closes.  Most important to me is each person having a task, then no one is lounging around incurring the wrath of others!

By the time the actual trip arrives it should be just a simple drive down the trail. You are ready for any unplanned breakage, road closure, station out of gas or other little problem, because you’ve taken care of all the big issues before you ever left home.

I look forward to meeting you on the trail and seeing how each of our planning efforts paid off, or the consequences of not planning well enough.
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