January 10, 2020 5 min read

As winter makes one last stand with a few more inches of snow and some blustery winds, we sit back to reflect on lessons learned from this season's outdoor adventures. One of these lessons is the methodology of deciding whether or not to cut a trip short. We experienced this scenario in real time during a two-day (planned as a three-day) weekend backpacking trip on the Black Forest Trail near Slate Run, Pennsylvania.

When it comes to a hiker having to insert their feet into frozen boots, the first time is the hardest. We’re talking really frozen boots. The type of frozen that requires warming them in the hiker’s armpit for several long minutes until they are pliable enough to allow the feet to be forced into the cold trap. Seasoned winter backpackers call this the icebox incident, and it happens to every adventurer who delves into the world of winter backpacking. This icebox incident can lead to several outcomes for the hiker: an early trip back to the car, a refusal to ever go backpacking again, or the beginning of a winter backpacking addict: is 30 minutes of frozen toes really that bad?

Plenty of circumstances, not including emergencies, exist which may call for a bailout trail back to home base. These include general discomfort, poor trail conditions, poor weather conditions, any one, or several, small changes that culminate in a decision to call it quits. So how does one decide when it’s time to change plans and go home? We’ve listed five steps to take when you’ve found that you need to consider changing your route and going home early.

Callahan Run Black Forest Trail Tiadaghton State Forest

1. Take a break

Make yourself comfortable before accessing the situation and making big decisions. Of course you’re going to want to go home while your toes are stuck in frozen shoes. Of course you'll want to cut the trip short when you are hungry and thirsty. Get yourself warm, eat a snack, drink some water, catch your breath, and get comfortable before deciding to examine your next steps. You'll want the benefit of a clear mind to consider all your options.

Taking a Break in the Snow

2. Check your goals

Why are you out here? What is the goal for this weekend’s trip? If you came out to test the limits of what you can physically and emotionally handle…well then maybe you should keep going. If this was supposed to be a moderate adventure weekend…maybe it is time to go home. In our specific case, we were out to enjoy being off the grid for a few days and to experience the high volume of freezing water rushing down the local mountain streams. Could we succeed with these goals without completing the entire Black Forest Trail? Think about your goals for the trip, both your goals and your partners’ goals. Can you still reach some or most of your goals even if the plans change? 

Winter Camping

3. Plan a route

Open your map and look at options to shorten or update your trip (typically called, "bailout trails" or "bailout options"). Off trail options are almost guaranteed to take more effort, so try to stay on known and/or popular trails. Be sure to identify any steep climbs or descents, along with water crossings. Are there camping opportunities along the way? Are there secondary bailout options along your primary bailout route? If you need to get out of the woods soon, look on your map for trails leading to paved roads, where you may be able to hitch a ride back to your vehicle.

Bailout Trail Options in Wintertime

4. Decide a time to decide

Here’s where you talk it out and think it over. Consider the pros and cons to all of your possible routes and options. Again, consider the original goals for the weekend; can you uphold those goals while updating the route? Lastly, allow group members time to contemplate the decision privately. Set a time to decide, for instance at the next trail intersection. We agreed to make a decision while eating a warm sandwich and drinking coffee at Wolfe's General Store (brilliant!). Don’t rush the decision and don't impose a severity that may not be necessary.

For example, suppose you had a cold, sleepless night and awoke to your first icebox incident. Making breakfast proved more difficult and far less satisfying than you envisioned. You're feeling demoralized. Do you quit now and bailout to the parking lot to be in a warm car and headed home within 90 minutes? Or do you say, well, I'd rather not do a second night in the tent but let's put together a nice loop hike that will take us to some scenic waterfalls and vistas and then end up at the car later this afternoon. That seems to be a reasonable approach which will let you have a solid adventure with a good story to tell. 

But change that scenario with the addition of your rough night sleep and morning icebox incident, and add the unexpected snowfall of 3 inches and a slight warming trend that brings a smattering of frozen rain on your tent. Now you have, in addition to your demoralized state, an increased difficulty factor in the actual hiking process. Are we having fun yet? This may change your decision to suggest a quicker retreat to the car is in order, and you can laugh about it a few hours later sitting in a cozy diner enjoying a hot breakfast that you didn't struggle to make over a frozen camp stove. 

Waterfalls Black Forest Trail Tiadaghton State Forest

5. Make it a positive adventure

Don’t let a day in the woods become a disappointment. You’ve taken the time and effort to get yourself out here, which is something to be proud of. Enjoy the day, even if it is cut short due to random circumstances. Sing a song. Tell a story. Put a smile on your face knowing that you're not stuck inside. We decided to cut our trip short by exploring a shortcut trail that no one in the group had previously experienced. Among other treasures, we found a couple excellent backcountry campsites, and several waterfalls and cascades! Even if the trip is cut radically short, once you are in the car you may have an afternoon to explore driving around the area, which is a great opportunity to check out some of the small towns nearby, stop at the boat launch sites and find other trailheads you can return to later in the season. There are always a few lizards on your map to find, even by car!

Snack Break

Adventures almost never go completely as planned, which is the point of an adventure to begin with. But in today’s world of perfect instapics and FB posts of smiley people, we sometimes forget that plans and goals constantly change in the backcountry. Frozen shoes, wet gear, and a rugged itinerary can all cause a trip to end early. Be prepared for this to happen, and be sure to come out again and again to explore your public lands!

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