California Topographic Maps Planning

Half the fun of climbing a mountain is preparing!

I love maps. I could read, study, ponder them for hours. In fact I’ve lost hours on the couch to trail connections and loops and summits, joining maps together and devising epics and oohing and ahhing at contour lines. One day I want to stick all our topographic maps on a wall, like wallpaper, to be perused and admired as many single page story books. 

In the meantime however, the maps are highly practical and serve a better purpose stuffed in the top of my backpack. You see, being in mountains is fun, however I like the planning just as much!

Some of the maps we’ve picked up for two legged adventures in California

To me, there’s two parts of preparation – questions I ask myself (answers sought from within) and questions I research (answers all around us through online and in guidebooks and via word of mouth etc.).

Questions I ask myself when I’m looking at a mountain include:

  • Is this a realistic goal but also a challenge?
  • What’s drawing me to do this climb?
  • Do I feel good about this mountain?
  • How is my fitness at the moment/what’s the lead time I need?
  • Can I visualise myself in the environment wearing a grin?

Questions I might seek to research include:

  • What are the snow/rock conditions and weather patterns?
  • Can I find previous documented ascents (not hard with my level of ability!)
  • What permits are required, are there other paperwork or costs involved?
  • Does my climbing partner share a similar goal?
  • How far, high, long is this beauty?
  • What equipment do I need? How does that impact the overall experience?

My penchant for lists is also satiated with climbing planning! Lists of equipment, lists of elevations, lists of training peaks, you get the list, I mean picture! Smartly, my husband always checks out our trusty dog eared book, Freedom of the Hills to make sure we haven’t overlooked anything obvious. Better safe than sorry.

Interestingly, I’ve never felt my level of organisation has been detrimental to climbing a mountain. Once I’m there the planning is purely in the moment – when I’ll eat next, what looks like a good camp, how to cross that river, putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the real simplicity of moving, sleeping and eating in the mountains that makes it so beautiful. You still plan, but it’s only for essentials, the ‘right here, right now’. Everything else is forgotten.

Nothing wrong with starting to pack a week out!

I’ve been to New Zealand a few times and climbed with minimal luck from that wonderful maritime weather. In New Zealand there were no permits, no bears, no livestock conditions, well built mountain huts and multiple flights in planes and choppers to get there. Now, in California, there are permits coming out of my ears, bear canisters, tent ranger stations, more stable weather and just a four hour drive to reach Eastern Sierra trailheads. The planning has been quite different but nonetheless, just as fun.

As always, a mountain may have other ideas on the day and the altitude, weather, physical or mental fitness may all play a part. However, even if I don’t reach a summit, I’ve learned an awful lot about the area and myself during the planning. Plus there’s usually a map or two on the coffee table, just waiting to be unfolded and laid flat, to start the process all over again for next time!


  1. Liz -  31 May 2013 - 11:17 pm

    Currently overwhelmed by the options! Need to cull, need to cull.

  2. KD -  3 June 2013 - 7:26 pm

    Good luck Liz – our list just keeps getting longer!


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