Step 4: Preparation: Route

Picture of Preparation: Route

The route you choose can make or break your entire trip, depending on how well you plan ahead of time for surprises along the way.  My friend David and I made the mistake of choosing the Ortega Highway (California State Highway 74) as the first highway we'd walk on before making it out of Orange County.  For those who are out-of-state, the Ortega Highway is well known for its spectacular car crashes owing to its ruthlessly narrow two-lane ways and bridges.  At one point in time, we had to sleep during the day until midnight came to wait for the traffic to die down, so that we could pass a bridge with no shoulder.  That night also happened to be the coldest we'd ever experienced.  So we trudged our cart uphill for nearly ten miles in the dark, letting cars pass when they'd pass.  Every hour, we switched so that one of us was always looking backwards for cars.

Then, a few miles up, we got pulled over by the police.  David, being the open-dialogue superstar, calmed the situation, and the cops just told us to pull up to a candy store up ahead to sleep for the night.

Needless to say, research your route ahead of time.  Be familiar with the following key elements, and your journey should be less rough than ours, at least in the beginning:

 - Terrain

If you have a better idea of what kind of general terrain you're dealing with (sandy, rocky, rivers, forests, etc.), you can make good assumptions about what kinds of challenges you'll face in the upcoming months or years.  Trekking through hundreds of miles of desert requires different gear from climbing through the Appalachian mountains.

 - Weather and Seasons

I chose to walk the Southern Tier route through the Southwest into the American South.  I have two best friends on the road: sunblock and shade.  Even in the winter, the sun is ruthless and I've been sunburned numerous times without mercy.  On the other hand, I don't have to deal with rain or wind so much on this route (so far), so there is a balance of upsides and downsides.

Your basic weather layout will be: sunny, windy, raining, snowing, and cloudy.  Each has their own benefits and challenges.  With sun, you have to be aware of sunburns and dehydration.  With wind, you will want a wind-breaker.  When raining, you'll have to waterproof all of your gear and wear a rain-jacket.  In cloudy weather, temperatures can drop quickly without sun, depending on elevation and terrain.  Also, the sun can still burn your skin even in cloudy conditions.  I haven't yet dealt with snow, but I've heard from other travelers that it is a pain to deal with and can slow you down significantly.  These are just general ideas to take into consideration; there is far more to understand when you experience it yourself.

Be familiar with the weather along your chosen route, and how it changes based on the season.  Remember that your first initial months are your acclimation period; you do not want to face poor weather simultaneous while adapting to living on the road.  Be kind to yourself.

 - Road Conditions

The condition of the road, by far, can make a day miserable or blessed.  There are "roads" out there that are just soft sand banked by rocks, which makes pushing a cart a Herculean challenge.  Others lack shoulders, so the distance between you and an oncoming car driving 70+ mph can be nothing more than a few inches.  I've had the pleasure of walking on roads that were completely eroded by rain and sun, which led to a bumpy ride down hill.  But I'm grateful for the roads nonetheless; walking across straight desert has had its memorable difficulties.

You can never avoid the worst, but its always useful to have an idea of what you're up against while you're on the road.  Prepare yourself mentally and energetically on what you'll have to experience during each month of the trip.

 - Food and Water

Sources for food and water are critical.  If you've been conditioned through fasting rituals, this section may be less crucial.  However, many of us probably quickly fatigue after a day or two without food, especially during strenuous exercise.  Know the distances between cities and towns, so that you can estimate how much food and water to carry between them.  Be prepared to have the skills to hunt if emergency necessitates it.

When I was walking through the Mojave Desert, I had planned for a 70 miles stretch between two small towns, Twentynine Palms and Rice, CA.  I was only able to carry 3 days worth of water because I had a 5 gallon jug with me.  I stopped by a Vietnamese restaurant just before I left (I don't know how on Earth there can be a Vietnamese restaurant in a desert town), and luckily, I met up with a guy who was biking from Florida to California.  He'd just come in from that desert stretch.

So we sit down together for some dinner, and tells me that the small town on the other side of stretch, well, it's an abandoned gas station.  The desert stretch between towns is actually 110 miles Every map that I had told me that Rice existed, but it seemed to have disappeared into oblivion over the years.  Serendipity saved me, and I was able to get an additional 5 gallons of water before I got on my way to cross the Mojave safely.

 - Wildlife

Coyotes.  Bears. Snakes. Scorpions. Mountain lions.  Get to know the bestiary of the areas you'll be walking through.  Be prepared to take a gun, pepper spray, anti-venom, whatever you need to deal with the potential hazards along the road.  I made the mistake of walking empty handed.  A fellow traveler handed me a can of bear spray and told me that I'd need more than he would.  Now I sleep a bit better at night.

 - Distance

Obviously, where you decide for your final destination will change the distance you'll have to travel through the country.  If you're on a strict timeline, like myself, you'll want to have an estimation of how long it will take for you to cross the country.  Granted, each journey is different, and each day is different, so contingencies, breaks, and emergencies can't be easily calculated into your walk.  However, you can have some relative idea based on your walking mileage.

I'm about to walk an average of 15 - 20 miles per day.  I was able to cross California and parts of Arizona in about a month, giving me approximately 450 miles per month.  The route I've taken is a 2,800 mile span, so a quick estimate tells me that it should take 6 - 8 months to walk the entire country.  By no means is this definitive; I may stay at in a city for a few days, or even a week, if I like.  For some time, I was taking care of a newborn mouse, so my walking mileage dropped to 10 miles per day.  Life sends surprises in droves.

 - Elevation

Unless you're dying to cross mountains, they're best to avoid.  Climbing up elevations poses significant challenges.  Pushing a heavy weight up a hill is hard stuff, and mountain roads tend to be narrow and pedestrian-unfriendly.  Also, the increased elevation changes weather conditions drastically.  Nights can drop below freezing, snow and rain are more abundant, and winds can chill to the bone.  Plus, you can lose reception in the mountains, which could pose some difficulties in the event of an emergency.

I've chosen a route that's few in mountainous regions, although I can't avoid them all.  I've been lucky in that I've avoided snow along the way, with only minor rains in the mountains.

 - Sights

Always wanted to visit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco?  How about the Grand Canyon in Arizona?  Maybe you'd like to see that Zen monastery in New York sometime in your life.  This is your journey.  It might take you off your path and increase your distance, but it might just be worth it to say, "I walked to Mt. Rushmore.  From Florida."

 - Amenities

Depending on your needs and desires, you'll want to look into the type of lodging that your route has.  Hostels, motels, and hotels dot the United States and can be found in most large cities or towns.  However, smaller places will require more creativity.  I recommend CouchSurfing.org and WarmShowers.org, and can personally attest to CouchSurfing.org as an excellent way to meet people and get a nice place to sleep, although I haven't had the chance to use it for my current walk.

Old run-down houses are always nice places to sleep too.