Nerd Session: Ice Age Trail

This winter I am going to attempt a self-supported thru-hike of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. The 1,100-mile route consists of equal parts designated trail and undefined connector (i.e. road walk) as it snakes directly through 31 counties and nearly 33 resupply-worthy towns.

To prepare for this hike, I spent hours upon hours of researching gear lists, weather conditions, resupply options and trail contacts. After compiling my data and making a plan, I came up with what may seem like a chaotic mess at first, but has become my obsession. After all, I don’t want to freeze to death in the middle of Wisconsin (the record low along the length of the trail was -45 degrees in Cornell, WI on February 2, 1996).

Click to download the most recent version of the Ice Age Trail Worksheet

The different parts of the worksheet had to be slowly completed together, as they are all intimately linked. For example, I couldn’t figure out distances between towns before I wrote in mileages on the maps using the Ice Age Trail Data Book. I wasn’t able to look up weather conditions until I knew the how far my resupply stops were and how long it might take me to travel between them. I couldn’t finalize my gear list until I know the weather conditions I was likely to encounter. So, slowly but surely, I am nearing completion on this document.

Here is a look at how I made this thing and how it will help me on my hike.

 

Resupply Itinerary

 

I started scanning my maps, entering the various towns that the trail passes by into a spreadsheet. I then search each town in Google Maps, searching for the amenities I desire (grocery stores, gas stations, post offices, restaurants, and hotels, etc.) and listing them as options on the spreadsheet. I then determine the distance between each town.

Next, I decide how many miles I can cover each day and how much food I want to carry between resupplies. For example, I plan to average 15 miles per day and would like to carry no more than 6 days of food. Therefore, I will limit my resupply distances to less than 90 miles when possible. 

This helps me determine which towns I should resupply in. Other things that determine which towns I choose for resupply: proximity to trail, abundance and quality of amenities, planned zero days, etc.

Typically I prefer towns that the trail runs through so I don't have to walk far to resupply. Also, I would much rather resupply at a supermarket than a tiny gas station as I would most likely have more options and better pricing (although I like to shop at Co-ops when possible). If I am planning on taking a zero day, I want to choose a town with affordable lodging and amenities close to each other so I don’t have to travel far to take care of chores.

 

Weather Conditions

 

After I chose the resupply towns, I was able to find weather data in those towns. I divide the distance between towns by my decided average daily distance of 15 miles per day. This gives me the number of days between resupplies (I always round up to give an extra buffer) and after entering this info and adding in zero days, I know when to look for weather conditions as well as where.

I used weather.com’s almanac (located along the right side of the page among advertisements after you search for a particular town’s weather) to find historical record high/low temperatures and average precipitation. All other data was found at weatherspark.com using their historical averages data (make sure the town you gather data from is actually near the town you searched initially; not all towns have weather data).

 

Gear List

 

I have never gone on such an extended winter trip before, so I had to compile data from other sources. Mainly I used Andrew Skura’s Alaska/Yukon and Ultralight/Ice Box gear lists along with Trauma and Pepper’s Pacific Crest Trail winter gear list.

Essentially, my gear needs to be functional 60 degrees down to -45 degrees even though most of the time it will probably be between 30 degrees and 10 degrees. This made for lots of pondering as I sat behind my computer this past summer trying to imagine all the different weather conditions I might encounter. I aim to keep my gear systems versatile so that they can be used in many different situations.

One thing I did on this gear list that I never did before was add in a budget column. This way, I could determine what gear I still had to buy and how much it would cost. This was valuable as I began saving for this trip nearly 10 months ago and it gave me a clearer goal to shoot for.

 

Contacts

 

The Ice Age Trail has a different chapter for each of its counties and in turn, each chapter has a coordinator. I could email each of these folks before I leave to begin the journey, letting them know when I plan to be in their chapter and inquire about typical weather patterns, trail conditions, and any other information they have that may be useful to someone who has never hiked in Wisconsin. Or I could not and just see what it's like when I get there. 

Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to get first-hand beta from the people that live near the trail and have spent their time building and supporting the trail. One can only imagine what sort of help they might offer to a winter hiker.


So that’s how I compiled my trip information. Now I just finish gathering the gear, weigh it all, and count down the days until the trip. How exciting! A few more shakedown hikes will be in order to work out any bugs I can find in my system. If you’d like to follow along on my journey, I will be posting on the following:

instagram.com/homelessmike

facebook.com/improbablebutpossible

More info about the Ice Age Trail winter thru-hike here.