Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: When to Plan Your Travels

When aircraft first became suitable for long distance flight, pilots usually relied on compasses and other instruments as well as detailed flight plans to navigate the airways. Around that time in 1938, Douglas Corrigan made a transatlantic crossing in piece-of-junk plane with a broken compass and apparently no instruments, flight plan, or radio. After the flight from USA to Ireland a newspaper described him as a pilot who “flies by the seat of his pants,” meaning he relied solely on perception, intuition, and skill to fly successfully. Sometimes as travelers we should emulate Corrigan and use our instinct to navigate amazing experiences, and sometimes we need a detailed flight plan.

Based on our personalities, we all lean towards being either spontaneous decision-makers or planners. This definitely holds true when dealing with travel. Some people will plan a three day trip a year in advance down to the minute while others may take a spur-of-the-moment two week road trip without knowing where they’ll sleep the first night. As with all things in life, most of us fall somewhere between the extremes. However, sometimes we find ourselves questioning our choices. Should I have planned more? Could I have gotten more out of that trip? Was my itinerary too restrictive? Did my schedule cause me to miss a cool opportunity? Instead of dwelling on these potential regrets in hindsight, consider these four factors when determining how much planning your next journey needs.

1) What is your goal?

Ultimately this may be the most important factor to consider when planning or choosing to wing it. Ask yourself, “Why am I going to this place?” To enjoy culture? To relax? To check off a hike, mountain, or environmental experience (Machu Pichu, Great Barrier Reef, etc.)? To discover unique, exquisite food and drink? The list of goals is endless, but they all fall somewhere on the spectrum of planning requirements. If your goal is to experience Alaska’s wilderness by backcountry camping in Denali, you have to submit a detailed itinerary to the backcountry station to even receive a permit, not to mention pack in all the essentials needed for survival. However, if your goal is to escape work for a week and relax at the beach, all you have to do is reserve some kind of lodging and get there, no plan required. Want to experience culture in Cuba? You won’t find it in the resorts. Instead you have to stay in “casas particulares,” BnB’s ran by private citizens. This actually requires some planning; you have to have proof that you are staying in a hotel or a casa particular the first night of your stay to enter the country. After the first night, spontaneously traveling around the country and staying in a casa particular wherever you end up is a wonderful way to explore Cuba.

2) How close is your destination?

This one is simple to evaluate. Are you visiting a place nearby (within a short or moderate drive) that will be easy to return to? If so, then don’t worry about plans. Just go check the place out. Explore. Ask locals what you should do and where you should eat. If you fail to find the experiences you were hoping for, you can easily try again later with a solid plan. If you’re flying somewhere far away, maybe you should consider creating a plan because it could be a long time before you have the chance to return. For example, I’ve had several day trips or one night excursions to Asheville and Nashville, both of which are just over two hours from Knoxville where I live. These trips require little more planning than having a general idea of what you want to do in the city. For anyone whose long-distance travel may be limited to once every year or so, a two-week excursion to Scotland may require more planning than just showing up and asking locals where to start.

3) What will this trip cost you?

Like proximity, cost is major factor in my planning strategies. Detailed plans can be used to keep costs low in the first place. However, if your costs are high—maybe an expensive flight is necessary—then I suggest developing a plan to get the most out of your trip. Create goals and a plan to accomplish them so that your trip is definitely worth the price. If you’re able to cut out major expenses for a cheap trip or have some free time to explore a new place, getting lost in a city and finding your way around by talking to locals and making new friends can be the experience of a lifetime. And for some people, this is even the most rewarding way to enjoy any adventure.

4) How much time do you have?

Lastly, I listed time as a factor to consider. Do you have three weeks in France, or three days? Personally I would spend my three days on a carefully considered itinerary of my must-do goals. But with three weeks, there is a ton of time to see where conversations, connections, and your instincts take you while exploring.

Remember, while I have listed these concepts separately, they are all interconnected and meant to be considered together. One’s personality and personal preference should also be taken into account, but I urge everyone to take a look at methods different from your usual. You may find ways to incorporate them into your preferences or maybe even adopt them completely.

Denali, a Park Like No Other

I can’t fully describe the excitement I felt when the plane began descending, and through the clouds I could make out the distant mountains surrounding Anchorage. I’m getting chills and a sudden craving to return—a powerful magnet drawing me back—just from writing this. We landed sometime around midnight, but the sun was still out, settled just on the horizon line like a tiny, far-off ball crossing a tight rope, refusing to fall and allow darkness to take over.

Five-ish restless hours of attempted airport-bench sleep later we crammed into a taxi headed to the Anchorage Walmart which opened at 6:00 am. 40 lb packs in tow, we located bear spray, a backpacking stove, and fuel—the only things not allowed on the plane or checked baggage. After an initial fear of missing our bus to Denali, we arrived 15 minutes early. Failing to find an open coffee shop, store, or restaurant in the area, we boarded the bus eagerly but sleepily. Another five hours, featuring endless mountain views and broken up only by one stop at a lodge, separated us from Denali National Park and Preserve.

The boys and I stepped off the bus, caught our bearings, and found our way to the park’s backcountry station. We watched the required video on bear safety and environmental stewardship (essentially “Leave no trace”) and then repacked all our food in the park-provided beer cans. Wait. Bear cans. Beers and bears are a bad idea. Packs ready, we almost missed the last shuttle into the backcountry. We hastily bought our tickets and scrambled onto the bus, feeling exhilaration replace our rushed anxiety.

An hour or so and a little park history later, we stepped off our second bus of the day and watched it drive away. Then, turning toward Cathedral Mountain and our backcountry unit, we walked into the sparse brush. Denali has very few developed trails, so most backpacking in the park is through “untouched” wilderness. We hiked for several hours through spongy moss and scattered trees with questionable visibility, yelling “HEY BEAR” most of the way to avoid any grizzly surprises. The trek was tough, especially with 40-50 lbs on our backs, but we eventually came to the Teklanika River and found a way down the small bluffs to its banks. This river would provide a point of reference for the rest of our Alaska adventure.

Crossing a braided stream like the Teklanika can be a challenge, and a frustration. While some braids were shallow and slow, at least three or four were close to knee deep and flowing swiftly. These rapid-filled braids required some teamwork, the three of us crossing in line parallel to the stream. Daniel bore the brunt force upstream to break the current while Peyton and I provided support. There were some sketchy moments when the river threatened to drag us down and pull us into its rush. We didn’t fear serious injury or drowning, but any fall meant we would have to deal with soaked clothes and packs which would make backpacking unbearable. Wet socks and boots that never dried out were bad enough.

We picked a flat and relatively rock-less spot to pitch the tents; then we stepped off a hundred yards downwind to mark our cooking spot. Another hundred yards away we marked a place for food storage. This is all a system taught by the park and by Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance to keep bears away from the tents. We cooked, ate, put away our food, and hung up wet clothes on scraggly little bushes in a futile attempt to dry them. By the time we went to sleep, it was nearing 1:00 am, and the sky was still bright in early twilight.

Day two in Denali started at about 9:00 am after the best 8 hours of sleep I had on the trip. Freeze-dried breakfast would do for fuel. Thoroughly awoken from the unpleasantness of wet boots, we set out on a day hike up the Teklanika to a distant foothill we planned to climb. I have no words that can truly communicate the sheer majesty of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, mystic alpine forests, and winding glacial streams of the Denali backcountry. No trails, no sign of human presence mar the landscape. As I said in an article for Travel Channel about Denali, “No amount of day hikes or manmade hiking trails can compare in wonder to the vast wilderness and profound solitude of the Denali backcountry.”

We experienced this solitude and wonderment along our trek to the distant hill with many river crossings, forest game trails, and abundant signs of wildlife. Boot-sized wolf tracks and bear prints could be found every few hundred yards. The day waxed late when we finally arrived at our destination, so we climbed half the hill, about 600 ft. up, and rested. After the two mile hike back to our campsite, we watched some passing caribou lumber alongside the far stream-bank while eating our supper.

Due to unexpected bus scheduling complications we had to leave the backcountry a day early, so we played tourist on our last full day. We packed up and hiked out to the Teklanika River Bridge where an inbound bus picked us up. We rode to the Eielson Visitor Center to check out some park history and watch a short film about climbing Denali. Sadly, cloud cover obscured the mountain the whole time we were there, but that’s just another reason to go back. From the bus we spotted Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and a huge brown bear who hijacked the road from us for a short stretch.

When, exhausted, we finally arrived back at the park entrance we paid for hot showers and bought a campsite at the nearby developed campground. Then we settled into our tents for a rainy night. I was sad to leave the next day and dreaded the last remaining bus ride back to Anchorage. This was the beginning of the end of the road trip. We were officially homeward bound.