How do you know ahead of time which hikes you will enjoy? Particularly whether the hike is the right difficulty, too crowded, or boring. If folks have different comfort levels I remember sometimes you split up such as when some like caves and some don’t. Is that something you do often? Do you prepare tons of back-up options?
A lot of my understanding of which hikes will be good for us comes down to experience hiking with everyone. Since we’ve grown into this hobby together we’re fortunate that we’re all at about the same level of ability and confidence. It’s only through experience that I’ve come to know that a 15 mile hike is probably OK if there are only 1,000 feet of gain, but that it will be a very long day (and should probably be reconsidered) if that 15 miles involves climbing 4,000 feet. You’ll have to get to know the limits of everyone in your group to determine what is right for you. Start small and build up to your goals.
As I alluded to above, we’ve learned that distance and elevation change are the two factors that are primarily responsible for difficulty. We’re just beginning getting into cross country or off trail hiking. As we do more I expect that terrain and route-finding will play an increasing role in difficulty as well. For as much as we complain about stupid people and crowds, it’s usually pretty easy to avoid them. Other than some classic routes like Angel’s Landing in Zion or the Mist Trail in Yosemite, most trails are empty after the first mile or two. If we really want to hike one of those type routes the key is to begin early in the morning. We had the Zion Narrows mostly to ourselves at 7 AM, but the time we returned to the mouth in the early afternoon there were so many people we could barely walk through without squirming around them.
We hardly ever split up. At Oregon Caves NM last year Molly did decide she’d rather hike on the surface than enter the cave. The only other time I can think of was when the girls hiked Mt. Sherman while I was in bed at a hotel with a fever. I don’t maintain any kind of written list of back-ups. As I’m researching though, I inevitably come across many possible destinations so I tend to be aware of options. Sometimes we do opt for an alternative hike because of how we’re feeling on a given day.
We get ideas for hikes from many different sources. Things we’ve heard about on the road, blogs, magazines, websites, books, and more are sources for insparation. For planning hikes I’ve found Hiking Project to be a great starting point. If there is a GPS track of the hike available there it makes it easy for me to study length, elevation, and terrain to decide whether it’s a good fit for us. I use Garmin’s free Basecamp program to edit GPS tracks and Caltopo to print them. For summit hikes Peakbagger is an awesome resource for GPS tracks and trip reports.
No matter what source your hike ideas come from the key is learning from your experiences. The trails we enjoy very well might not be the ones that you will. The more you hike, the better you’ll understand what your capabilities and limits are.