Trip Planning and Research – Revisited

One of my more popular blog posts early on was about trip planning and research.  Since then the blog has grown leaps and bound.  Rather than just simply repost the article (which would be easy) I figured I would revisit the topic.

Adventure begins where the pavement ends…
Hopefully we can help you plan your next adventure.

If you’re new to the blog I highly suggest reading the “Planning your next journey” article as well as the “Let’s talk maps“article.  Truthfully even if you read them it won’t hurt to reread them.  My goal this time around is to build off those articles with some pragmatic tips.

Inspiration

Our overland adventure trips are inspired by a lot of different things.  Personally speaking, many of my trips are a compilation of things I’ve read about, places I’ve driven past, and of course bucket list locations.  My 2015 No Highways Tour was a list of many places I had driven past while growing up but either had never stopped or never stopped long enough.  My 2016 NHT was a list of bucket list locations since I had never been out west.

The BDR series has provided me with a lot of great ideas.
On the 2016 NHT I pieced together sections of the Utah, Colorado, and Arizona BDR’s.
Someday I hope to run each of them in their entirety.

Another source of inspiration are trips other overland adventures have done.  There have been more than a few cool locations I’ve seen in a YouTube video, read in a magazine, or seen on a forum that has lit the fire for me.  Case in point, the “Trans-Pennsylvania Trail.”  The TPAT is a 300-400 mile route that goes from the PA/MD line to the PA/NY line.  The best part, for me at least, is that it starts in Michaux State Forest which is not far from my house (if you haven’t guessed that by now).

Start Loose

I was a competitive swimmer growing up and I had a coach that would yell “START LOOSE!” at us. The implication was to make sure we stretched before we started our workout or a race.  If you don’t start loose then you tighten up prematurely and get bogged down; or worse yet hurt yourself.  Same goes for trip planning.  Don’t start off planning mile-by-mile or turn-by-turn.  Even if you’re able to download a pre-planned route (like an adventure trail or BDR) you want to start with a loose plan.

Maps of all kinds a great for planning.
When doing my planning I often have a stack (or two) of maps beside me.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked was how I plan the NHT book trips.  I’ve hinted at it before but I always say I start with a very general idea.  The 2015 trip started off as a PA to Key West trip on all backroads with the goal of hitting dirt every day.  It was eventually extended to start in Maine at the Easternmost Point of the Continental US since the Southernmost Point is in Key West.  It made for a nice literary framework.

With a clear idea of my starting and finishing locations I peppered a map of the east coast with all the various locations I wanted to visit.  Places like Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Skyline Drive in Virginia were a must for me.  Once the map was covered in high priority “must visit,” mid-priority “maybe visit,” and lower priority “would be nice to visit” locations I was able to start playing “connect the dots” and start fleshing out a route.

Establish Your Range

The most obvious variable in range is how far you can drive before you run out of fuel.  Before adding the 31.5 gallon GenRight Safari Tank, my range was limited by the 19 gallon factory tank and the two 5 gallon fuel cans.  At a conservative 12 miles-per-gallon (given the large tires, low gearing, and 4wd time) my old range was roughly 228 miles in the primary tank and 120 if both auxiliary cans were full.  So, if I was lucky, I could go 300 miles with a little bit of reserve.  Truthfully the LJ averages around 13-15 depending on terrain, but I like to use 12 as a worst-case-scenario.

My only regret was not doing this sooner.
31.5 Gallon Safari Tank by GenRight Off-Road.
Not everyone has this kind of capacity to extend their range.
Full writeup ont his install here.

The second variable in range is going to be speed.  You can cover a lot of distance going 70mph down a highway.  You cover a fraction of that when you’re snaking your way through back roads.  Even less if you’re off pavement.  Spending all day in 4-low creeping along at 5 mph is going to limit your range more-so than fuel.

The other variable is time.  Although overlanding is vehicle based travel you really don’t want to spend all day in your rig.  Your vehicle should be a means to an end, not the end itself.  Hopefully you’re getting out and hiking, exploring, and seeing cool things while on your own without your vehicle.  As such you need to establish your threshold for “time behind the wheel.”  This can also limit your range more-so than either speed or fuel limitations.

Case in point: if you’re going to split your day in half (12 hours mobile and 12 hours in camp) you honestly don’t want to spend all 12 hours driving.  You might want to split that in half: no more than 6 hours of driving with the remaining 6 hours set aside for out-of-vehicle exploration.  So if you take that 6 hours and multiple it by your estimated speed you’ll get a rough estimate for range. For now let’s use 35mph.  So 6 hours at 35mph puts us at around 210 miles.  That’s right on the edge of the fuel range for my LJ.  Obviously something smaller and more fuel efficient could go further; or something with a larger tank. Something to consider when route planning is where you can fuel up.

The last variable for establishing your range is where you can sleep.  In some areas out west it’s just as simple as pulling over and setting up camp.  On the east coast it’s not so easy.  Often the limitation on the east coast is established campsites either in public parks or forests.  If you want to camp primitively there are often marked sites in state and national forests.  If you prefer a campground with facilities then state and national parks, or privately owned campgrounds, will be your location of choice.  Finding a place to sleep along your route may often dictate your range and sometimes your range will dictate how soon you need to stop.

When you stack your limitations (fuel, speed, time, and sleep) they add up quick.  They can also impact each other.  A short drive day spent hiking rather than driving all day will leave more fuel for the next day.  A long drive day may require one or two pit-stops for fuel.  Needless to say, planning a trip takes a lot of variables.  That said, don’t get lost in them or let them discourage you.  After you get a few short trips under your belt you’ll learn your habits and preferences for how you travel.  Take notes.  Did that 8 hour drive day suck or could you handle more?  Would you rather drive every other day and take days to explore, hike, or boat?

Digital Exploration

In the old days you’d have to let your fingers do the walking as you thumbed through piles and piles of paper maps, gazetteers, and topo’s.  Now you can plop down in front of the computer, fire up Google Maps or Google Earth, and explore the virtual world.

Other online sources like forums and blogs are a great place to not only get trip ideas but to get actual trip routes.  There are countless trip reports and travelogues out there (present company included) which great information as well as GPX and KML files.

Online resources like the DeLorme (now Garmin) Earthmate site (and mobile app by the same name) are a great way to do some digital exploring.

I’m not going to go into too much detail as to the difference between a GPX and KML file because honestly I’m not 100% sure myself.  I know Google Earth works with KML files.  I know my GPS app on my phone likes GPX files.  Neither likes the other.   So let me give you a basic rundown of an easy workflow importing a GPX file to a GPS phone app like Gaia.

On the 2016 No Highways Tour one of the things I wanted to do was hit some of the iconic Jeep Trails in Moab.  Jeep has a program called the “Badge of Honor” series.  Basically you can “check in” to a series of trails all across the country and once validated Jeep will send you a cool badge commemorating your accomplishment.  I knew I couldn’t go to Moab without scratching a few of these off my list.  One was the “Top of the World Trail” just east of Moab near where I camped along the Colorado River at Dewey Bridge.  The other was the “Elephant Hill” trail located within the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  While doing research on both trails the website for the TrailDamage club popped up with a lot of great information about each trail as well as a downloading GPX file.  Further digital exploration on the site yielded a treasure-trove of all kinds of trails.  Anyway, for the purposes of this example I’ll give you a quick rundown of how to download a file and importing into a GPS app.   In this case I’ll use the “Elephant Hill” trail.  (If you’d like to follow along you can start at traildamage.com and go from there).

A great source for GPX files is traildamage.com
They have a listing of trails in and around the Rocky Mountains.

Clicking the “Trails” tab opens up their listing organized by state.

On the 2016 trip I used the TD site to download a GPX file for the “Elephant Hill”  Jeep Trail in Canyonlands NP Needles District.

The beautify of the TD site is not only do you get a rundown of the trail…
…not only do you get a rating…
…not only do you get links to photos, videos, and trip reports…
…not only do you get a map of the trail…
…but you can download a GPX file of the trial!
(See top link on righthand side of page)

When you click the link it will automatically download.
At least it does on my iPhone.

Once the file is downloaded you can choose which app to open it up in.
I’ve grown to like Gaia GPS for both it’s in-app GUI as well as its online webportal.

Once the app loads it will take a second for it to load the new file…
(It loaded too quick for me to get a screen grab of the splash scene logo #firstworldproblem)

Once you get the notification it’s loaded, you can scroll over to where the trail is.
(Again, the app was too quick in processing the file and I missed getting a shot of the “loading” screen message.)

BOOM!
There you have it.
One GPX file ready for adventure.

This same process works with longer routes (like the BDRs) too.  If you visit a forum like Adventure Rider you’ll find lots of people sharing routes like the Trans-PA Trail, the Kentucky Adventure Trail, and all kinds of other fun dual-sport routes.  Most (but not all) are 4wd friendly.  Just remember to be respectful and share the trails.  You can also find things the like Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway that local clubs have put together.

Working with Google Earth and a KML is a little more involved.  In my next post I’ll go over planning a route in Google Earth and how to go from a KML to a GPX file and how to get the file from your computer to your phone.  If there is enough interest I’ll also go over how to do it the other way around (go from a GPX file on your phone to opening it up as a KML on your desktop).