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How to plan for an adventure vacation

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.
Island camping at Cape Lookout National Seashore.

You know how when you are in love with someone, they are always in the back of your mind, and thinking about them makes you happy. Yeah, that’s how travel makes me feel. I am always researching and planning trips. Planning for an adventure vacation is not exactly the same as planning for an urban vacation.

Here is the process, and some mistakes, that I go through when planning for an adventure vacation that involves camping, backpacking, hiking, kayaking, or the like.

1. Start your adventure vacation planning early

I generally start planning for a July adventure vacation about the first of the year. So right now, even though it is mid-December, I have started thinking about where to go and what preparations need to be done for my trip this coming July.

When starting this early, it is hard to get a grasp on what to expect from the weather. Most national park’s list typical weather by seasons. You can also call the park and ask how the weather usually is during the time of year you will visit.

2. Consume as much literature as possible

Like I said I am constantly thinking about where to go, what to do when I get there, and how to make it work. I not only love travel, but I love planning for travel. I think about it all the time, and because I do, I’m always researching it.

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.
Hiking in Olympic National Park.

We are really blessed in our day and age, because we have blogs (like this one!), Pinterest, Facebook, and other social media, to get advice and opinions from others who have been there. Before the internet, if you did not know someone personally who had traveled to the destination on your wish list, you were limited on information about it. You had to rely on a travel agency. Or travel magazines, and even then you had to remember what month the story ran. You also had advertising from the park, which isn’t as honest as your friends on social media.

But now we can crowd-source on Facebook by creating a post asking who of our 700 friends have been to the park in question and what did they like about it.

3. Peruse the internet for images

As a photographer, I love looking at photographs. I am also a visual person so reading about a trail is not as effective to me as seeing pictures of it. You can do an image-only search on most search engines. So for example search for Glacier National Park under images. When you see a beautiful place you want to go to, see where that is in the park and plan accordingly.

Blogs are a great way to find images from places too. I also search hashtags on Instagram.

4. Find out park policies

Each park is different on what they allow visitors to do and what their policies are on things like reservations. Just because you can take you pup on a trail in Hot Springs National Park, does not mean Glacier National Park will allow it.

Fortunately the National Park System has an excellent website for each park that provides you with these details. Most state parks have similar sites. Finding information online for less popular destinations, like campgrounds in the U.S. Forest Service or Army Corp of Engineers, can be harder. But a simple phone call could clear up your questions. You can find contact information on their websites.

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.
Grizzly bears viewed from a safe distance at Glacier National Park.

Researching the park’s website can also help you identify dangers and how to prepare for them. For example, how to hike in grizzly country. Or how safe is it to camp on the Mexican border at Big Bend National Park.

5. Making front country reservations

Many national park campgrounds are first-come-first-serve basis. Some parks will have a few campgrounds that are reservable. One problem with having many first-come-first-serve campgrounds is sometimes they fill up quickly. So if you are driving a long distance and will not get to the park until late, this can be a problem.

I usually make a reservation for the first night so we are guaranteed a spot and then try to get to a first-come-first-serve campground the next day by mid-morning.

However this did not work as planned three times. The first time was when Lagena and I traveled to Olympic National Park and flew into Seattle. We landed about 3 p.m. and had a three-hour drive to the park. I did not factor in complications with the airline and rental car, nor how tired we would be from traveling all day. We ended up eating our reservations and getting a hotel for the night.

The second time was when Lagena and I traveled to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We had a 14-hour drive and lost an hour to a timezone change, so we did not get to the park until after 10 p.m. None of the front country campsites are reservable at Pictured Rocks. I knew we would not find a spot that late within the park. I called to ask about campground located in the state forest outside the park, but was told they fill up quickly too. Lagena and I opted for a hotel near the park for our fist night instead.

The third time, Crystal and I traveled to North Carolina. But because of a wreck on the interstate we didn’t get to the park until midnight. The gate was locked and we had to sleep in the car outside the gate. How’s that for an an adventure vacation.

6. Making backcountry reservations

If you want to backpack at during your adventure vacation, you may need a backcountry permit. Most national parks require one and many only have limited number available. This is a little easier in national forest and other public lands as they are not as strict.

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.
A backcountry waterfall at Glacier National Park.

But in national parks it can be little tricky. Some parks only make a few permits reservable by mail and leave the rest for those who obtain the permits in person. Also with most parks, you have to snail mail or fax your permit request. And they require them a few weeks in advance before your trip. You also have to pick three possible itineraries in case your choice is already full. This can be kind of hard if you don’t know the park and where you would like to hike and camp.

For Glacier National Park, Lagena and I decided to get our permits in person and chose a trail and backcountry site that was available. We simply asked the park ranger which trail she would recommend, and we got an awesome hike. The trail I would have chosen had we mailed in for a permit was actually closed when we arrive because of snow. And this was mid-July!

At Olympic and Big Bend national parks, we had no problem walking in and getting the backcountry sites we wanted. But at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I chose to mail in for reservation because the website advised they go fast. I also had to make reservations for a shuttle, so I wanted all my ducks in a row before we arrived at the park.

But beginning in 2017, Pictured Rocks will no longer take reservations by mail. They will only be accepted online. That will make it much easier. Be sure to check the backcountry reservation policy of the park before making your plans.

7. Plan for driving time

One mistake I’ve made is underestimating how big national parks are. I have also underestimated how tired I would be from traveling.

Yellowstone National Park is huge. We camped in the center of the park and still had hours to drive to get to destinations. At Pictured Rocks, we almost missed the shuttle to our guided kayaking tour because it took us longer than expected to get to it.

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.
Driving in Big Bend National Park.

And like I said in Making Front Country Reservation, at Olympic National Park, we were exhausted from traveling all day. We did not make it to our campsite that night.

I love maps, and I love planning. So when I have moments of downtime at work or home, I plot out road trips. This helps in the planning on how long it will take us, where we might want to stop to eat, etc. But make it flexible, you may not be hungry when you come to that town where you wanted to eat at Panera Bread Co.

Once Lagena and I wanted to eat at Purple Cow, I found one in St. Louis so we stopped to eat there. Unfortunately that Purple Cow ended up being an antique shop. But we found a very cool lunch counter nearby.

8. Be flexible with your adventure vacation

I am a pretty spontaneous person, so being flexible doesn’t bother me too much. But even if you are type-A and have your whole trip planned out to the minute, it is important to be flexible with your itinerary. Things don’t go as planned, especially during an adventure vacation. Or you get to a spot you only wanted to drive by and realize you want to spend much more time there. Being flexible in your trip planning will insure you have the be trip possible.

Eight tips and tricks on how to plan for an adventure vacation.

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