Adirondack Adventure 2014, Part 3: Planning for Backpacking

Planning for backpacking requires checking and rechecking the map until you are sure of every detail.
Checking out my map one last time before we begin.

This is Part 3 in a series on my recent adventure in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.  In this section, I will discuss planning for the backpacking trip.

Planning for base camp is very easy compared to planning for backpacking.  When you are backpacking, you rely much more on your planning and your wits than you do on your gear. It is very important to have a route mapped out and to understand the terrain, climate, and local restrictions.  It is also very important to have a good understanding of the capabilities of your group, as I found out the hard way.

Planning for Backpacking Requires Good Maps

There are not a lot of great maps available for the Adirondacks.  The Adirondack Mountain Club supplies a few purpose made maps and guide books, but relies heavily on National Geographic Maps.  I find that these maps are too bulky and cover far too large an area with too small a scale.  Instead, when traveling to the Adirondacks, I have custom  maps printed from  This is truly a great resource that let us you select the exact area, scale, size and features that you want for your map.  You can get an 18×24 inch waterproof map covering the exact area that you plan to hike  for just $9.95.

Maps from MyTopo typically come with trails marked out, but I like to add in extra information from local sources.  When planning trips in New York State, CNY Hiking offers a lot of great information.  Their page on the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness has several maps showing various details, such as shelter locations, that I find very helpful.

Route Selection

I have backpacked now for several years, and having adopted a lightweight philosophy, my pack only weighs about twenty pounds with food and water. Hiking ten to fifteen miles in a day is a chore, but it is manageable.  When I plan a backpacking route, I try to cover a variety of terrain features to make things interesting.  That means passing by several lakes, going over a few big hills or small mountains, and possibly trudging through some bogs.

I try to keep all of my backpacking equipment organized.  I lay it out like this at home before heading out, and then again each night of my hike.
I try to keep all of my backpacking equipment organized. I lay it out like this at home before heading out, and then again each night of my hike.

My friend Evan, who has also been backpacking for several years, is a bit less ambitious.  He’ll be sure to include at least one great viewpoint, but is not as worried about covering long distances or passing through varied landscapes.  When we first started planning our route, he laid out a plan that would cover six miles one day and seven miles the next.  We would go over Pharaoh Mountain and camp on Pharaoh Lake at one of the shelter sites.

Planning for backpacking requires communicating your route and any possible hazards you may face to your companions so they me be prepared.
We met for a final logistics planning meeting a few days before departure.

During a day hike a few weeks before the trip, I managed to convince two of our other hiking partners that Evan’s plan was too short.  They applied a little pressure, and we ended up changing the route.  Now, we would do eleven miles the first day and five the second day.  The new route had the advantage of starting off at our base camp, forgoing the need for a car.  It would also pass by several very cool lakes, and near an interesting ridge.  On the way back, we would walk through a lush valley teaming with life.

My plan probably would have been the better option if we were all as experienced and as lightweight as Evan and I. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case, and I should have taken that into consideration. I will discuss this in further detail later in this report.

Weather & Climate

Having selected a route, it was now time to pay attention to terrain and climate.  When you are planning a short trip in the immediate future, near home, you pay attention to weather.  When you are planning a trip that is a few weeks in the future and further from home, it is more important to understand climate.   Climate is a long term average of weather and it helps to explain what you should expect during any particular time of year.

Planning for backpacking requires an understanding of both climate and weather. Cumulus clouds rising over the hills are a sign of possible storms later in the day.
Cumulus clouds rising over the hills are a sign of possible storms later in the day.

Climate in the Adirondacks in May is generally wet. You can expect at least some drizzle every day, with a high chance of a quick thunderstorm or two.  Thick vegetation does not allow the ground to dry off.  Temperatures during the day are typically in the 60’s or 70’s but can range into the high 80’s.  Night time temperatures are typically in the 40’s or 50’s, but may drop below freezing.

Selecting Clothing and Shelter

Knowing this, rain gear is highly advisable.  I carry Campmor’s Ultralight Poncho that I can throw over myself and my pack, drooping down to my knees.  Rather than carrying rain pants, I wear zip off hiking pants so I can simply remove the bottoms. I prefer a poncho over a raincoat in warmer weather because it offers superior breathability, and serves dual use as a tarp. In addition to the poncho, I carry a wind shirt. A wind shirt is a very light jacket that blocks sun, wind, and bugs.  Mine is a Patagonia Houdini, which is a little pricy, but extremely handy. A wide brim hat is also advisable.

In warm weather, I hike most of the day in a running shirt.  If it is sunny or rainy, I wear a wide brim hat, otherwise a bandanna.
In warm weather, I hike most of the day in a running shirt. If it is sunny or rainy, I wear a wide brim hat, otherwise a bandanna.

Given the temperature range, I planned on wearing a short sleeve synthetic running shirt most of the day, possibly throwing on the wind shirt if it got chilly.  In addition, I brought along my long sleeve wool base layer for when it got cold at night. For the last six months, I have carried along or worn my Icebreaker Oasis Long Sleeve Hoodie for all of my outdoor adventures, ranging from skiing to backpacking.  Wool has tiny fibers that help to wick away moisture. It is a highly effective insulator, even when wet. The half zip is a must-have for mechanical venting when you work up a sweat. The hood is great for keeping your ears and neck warm.

For this trip, I planned on sleeping in the shelter, using a bivy/quilt combo.  With nightly temperatures averaging in the 40’s, my 30 degree Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt would do just fine.   For bug protection and a little extra warmth, I brought along my Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy.  I also carried a my 8×10 flat tarp from Campmor, Just in case the shelter wasn’t available.

 Route, Distance, and Terrain

There are many stream crossings in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.
There are many stream crossings in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.

The route we chose would start at a trail head on Putnam Pond and traverse a small hill to Clear Pond. Then, we would cross a saddle between Big Clear Pond Mountain and Little Clear Pond Mountain to arrive at Big Rock Pond. Going around Big Rock Pond to the west, we would continue along the Swing Trail past Lilly Pad and Crab Pond, and then along the Glidden Marsh, generally losing elevation the entire time.  Arriving at the Pharaoh Mountain Trail, we would turn South and begin our ascent up the 2556 foot Pharaoh Mountain.  Having reached the summit, we would continue south until we arrived at Pharaoh Lake, and then hike along the shore until we reached the short trail to Shelter # 5. This entire route would be completed in one day, covering 11.3 miles and gaining 2317 feet of elevation.

Day 1 Elevation Profile
Day 1 Elevation Profile

The second day, we would hike around Pharaoh Lake’s North Shore, past Pharaoh Mountain Trail, Short Swing Trail, and Shelter # 4, before heading west along the Long Swing Trail.  Then, we would hike north around Wolf Pond (really a swamp) and past Grizzle Ocean, finally arriving back at Putnam Pond.  Somehow when planning, I neglected to take into account the hike around Pharaoh Lake and estimated this length at five miles.  The real length was just over eight.  If you like having friends, do not make this kind of mistake!!!  The total elevation gain for the second day was correctly estimated at 609 feet.

Day 2 Elevation Profile
Day 2 Elevation Profile
My Trail Running Shoes
My Trail Running Shoes

Terrain conditions would vary from very muddy to very rocky.  We could count on the ground being wet and slick for the entire hike.  I chose to wear my trail running shoes as an experiment.  Over the last two years, I have been migrating to lighter and lighter footwear.  At this point, I had been on a few day hikes in the trail runners, and was confident they would hold up to a short backpack.

In Part 4, we go from planning the hike to carrying it out.  In that section, I will discuss some of the gear used by my companions, as well as the real-life conditions we faced on our adventure.  I also plan to include further considerations on planning hikes for beginners.

Photo Credits: Evan Marchesini, David DiGregorio, Paul Gebhardt, Chris Puglis

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3