Trail Logistics: Transportation to your Backcountry Destination

So you’ve mapped out your route on Caltopo, crunched numbers on the aspect ratio and elevation per mile for your route, and you’re ready to go. But wait. . . how do you even GET THERE? It’s in the middle of nowhere!

A frequent sight: me, a duffel, outside an airport terminal.

Yesterday a friend of mine was talking me through her plans to hike the Colorado Trail this summer and mentioned that she was having trouble figuring out ways of getting BACK to civilization after finishing her hike. I quickly began rattling off some ways I had dealt with the similar problem on previous trips. As I continued to talk and talk as we walked back to our respective homes, I began to realize more and more that these small tidbits of knowledge that seemed normal to me might be a good blog post. LIGHTBULB!

|| Overview: Travelling to/from your Backcountry Destination ||

Unless your trip is in your backyard, you will need to travel somewhere. For me, this almost always involves a plane flight and a car ride of some sort. The hardest part with organizing travel to a backcountry destination is often minimizing costs: an easy solution is always to hire a private shuttle or taxi service to whisk you away from the airport and dump you right at your trailhead. But you will spend a pretty penny. And for me as a college student on a budget, that’s not often an option. I’ve organized what I’ve learned into three main sections: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. 

|| Planes ||

All of my big trips involve a plane flight. Living in Atlanta, with the world’s busiest airport in my backyard, makes the availability of flights easier than other cities. That doesn’t change how I plan, however.  In preparing for any trip, I try to separate all of my tasks into high, medium, and low-level, descending in detail and precision. For transportation and travel, air travel is my highest level, the first step in getting me from my bed to my backcountry destination. 

So two questions: (1) WHERE do I start looking for plane flights? and (2) WHEN do I start looking for plane flights?

WHERE?

There are so many different search engines nowadays to search for air travel, from KAYAK to Orbitz to proprietary airline websites. 

My first stop is always Google Flights. It’s user interface is simple and easy, and allows me to get a general sense of the average prices of flights, common times for departure/arrival schedules, and which airlines fly regularly to my destination. There are some really neat features in Google Flights: 

  • You can adjust your trip type to “Round Trip” (default), “One Way”, or “Multi City.” I’ve used Multi City many times when my route is most easily accessed from two different cities

  • You can track the prices for a certain flight, or even a general route. For example, I can track Delta flight 255 from Atlanta to New York departing Atlanta at 8:30 AM and arriving JFK at 10:50 AM, or I can track all flights departing Atlanta and arriving JFK on January 3rd. I will often track prices for a week or so very early on in my planning process to get a sense of how volatile the prices are on my particular itinerary of interest. 
Notice the two callouts: (1) tracking the entire route in general, (2) a Google Flight meter telling you if prices seem normal for your dates.
  • You can add in the price of checked bags in your search, which differs from airline to airline. This will help you get a sense of what you will actually be paying. Some airlines have lower fares but charge through the roof for baggage. 

  • You can see an interactive “Price Grid” for your itinerary, which shows you how the date of travel you are looking at compares to similar dates. Sometimes the day before or day after is much cheaper, and seeing this Price Grid may convince you to move around your start and end dates. 

There are so many features to Google Flights I could be writing for hours, but I’ll stop here and let you explore more for yourself. There are a few things I do NOT like about Google Flights, however, the biggest of which is that it does NOT show flights for Southwest Airlines. 

NOTE: The Google Flights search matrix is based on the ITA travel search engine, which can display much more data if you are into that. It’s less user-friendly and much more complex, but full of information. 

My next stop is almost always Southwest Airlines‘ site. Whenever possible, I try to fly Southwest, in particular for my backcountry trips. Reasons being: 

(1) There are NO CHANGE FEES, so if for some reason I am delayed or by some miracle I finish my trip early (rare), I can adjust my travel easily and without panic of paying a $200 change fee (Delta, American, United, etc.). 

(2) Many of my trips hinge on good weather, which in the mountains can be extremely unpredictable. With Southwest, you can cancel your trip at any time and receive a full travel credit for what you have paid that can be used for another Southwest flight within the next year. This is not the same as a refundable ticket, but pretty close, and is not nearly as ridiculously expensive as refundable tickets on other airlines. 

(3) On Southwest you get TWO FREE CHECKED BAGS. For almost any backcountry trip I take I need to check a bag, mostly because I often carry a knife of some sort or other sharp object (trekking poles, tent poles, etc.). It annoys me when I look at a flight that is marked as $250, but in the end is closer to $300 after paying for checked bags. 

Some other travel websites I use include: 

  • Momondo, similar to Google Flights
  • Secret Flying, which lists cheap flights from random airports. It’s not very useful if you have a specific itinerary in mind, but if you’ve got some time off and are looking for inspiration, it can be fun. 

WHEN?

If possible, I try and start researching flights as soon as I begin planning a trip, which often 4-6 months out. This allows me a few weeks to study the flight prices as they fluctuate throughout the week. If possible, I try and book my flight no later than 2 months out from my start date, as the closer you get to your date of travel the higher your flight prices will get (generally). I’m sure there is a lot of research and statistics out there about when the best time to book your flight is, but I’ll spare you the numbers and say that around 2 months has generally been pretty good for me. 

|| Trains and Automobiles ||

So you’ve landed in some far away city and now you need to get to the middle of nowhere. Here’s where the real challenge begins (sometimes). 

My first step in researching transportation for a particular trip is always to rely on the knowledge of others. Why reinvent the wheel? If possible, I search Facebook forums, Reddit, or guide books which often explain how others have transported themselves in the past. This is common sense, I know, but always a good starting point. 

Forums, like Cascade Climbers, can be a great resource for looking for rides, partners, etc.

My next step is always to see if I have any connections in the area, anyone I can ask for a ride or convince to join me for the first few days of a trip. Even if you don’t have friends in the areas, sometimes Facebook forums or other group platforms can be helpful in this regard if someone else is trying to organize a similar trip as you are. (See Cascade Climbers as an example) 

NOTE: For many long-distance trails, like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail, there are networks of “Trail Angels” who may be willing to help you out. 

My next step is what may (or may not) be the useful bit of knowledge in this post: Rome2Rio. A few years back, in researching the JMT and how to get from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley, I stumbled across Rome2Rio, a search engine that scours the internet for train and bus schedules and displays options for getting from A to B. 

My favorite part about Rome2Rio is its user interface, one that is very similar to Google Flights. Simply input where you want to go and where you are leaving from and click “Enter.” 

Rome2Rio then scours the internet, searching Greyhound, Amtrak, local public transportation, and tries to link together possible bus and train routes. It then displays a dollar estimate of how much that travel will cost you. If there are no public transport options, it will quote you an estimate of how much a taxi or Uber might cost. 

If you hover over the different options in the left sidebar and click on one, it will give you more detail on the specific schedule and bus/train route it has selected for you, and will often link you to the bus/train website for more details. 

I always use Rome2Rio because it does the research for me. Rather than having to search Amtrak/Greyhound schedules and piece together where one train lets off and the other picks up, Rome2Rio tells me what is even possible. Once I’ve done a Rome2Rio search, I then go to the Amtrak/Greyhound websites and search for the particular days I am travelling (to make sure the hourly schedules aren’t different on weekends, for example), or to finally book a ticket. 

|| Next Steps ||

My final step in preparing for a trip is to print out what I call a “cheat sheet” (remember I’m still a college student) with all the available bus times, train schedules, bus/train station addresses, etc. This way, if I need to call an audible and change up my travel, I have everything I need. 

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