(photo by Donna Kallner)

In my part of northern Wisconsin, outdoor activities are woven into the social fabric. Folks step up to help kids and newbies learn to hunt and fish and take care of themselves in the woods and on the water. But things can go sideways when least expected – even for people with good skills and experience. My uncle once slipped on the ice at a boat landing while duck hunting. Breaking both wrists made his drive home interesting. 

My husband has hunted and fished all his life. He’s pretty confident about his skill sets and has nothing to prove where there are gaps in his knowledge. Still, for as long as we’ve been married, Bill has let me know where he plans to hunt or fish. For that, I thank one of our old neighbors – a retired farmer used to hopping in his truck to do this or that without a word to anybody. When a tree dropped on him, he was pinned for hours before his family went looking. 

That experience didn’t change our neighbor’s habits much, once his injuries healed. But Bill sure took it to heart. He made it his habit to leave a note on the kitchen table – often just a location name and the time he was leaving home. Enough for my peace of mind. I wish I had saved those scribbles and tied them up in silk ribbon like the love notes they really were. Now he texts me, which leaves a trail of digital breadcrumbs that also attest to love and consideration (with or without heart emojis). And I appreciate it.

After a recent Trout Unlimited meeting, Bill came home with a story shared by the group’s work foreman for habitat projects. The guy was wading a section of a tributary, scouting for beaver activity, when he sunk into muck a foot deep. He had to work one foot free of the suction, take a step, work the other foot free, take a step, and repeat – all while trying not to fall over in hip-deep water. 

This was just a few weeks after our volunteer fire department responded to a call for a missing fisherman. We’ll never know exactly what happened to cause that death, but with help from multiple agencies including a dog team and a helicopter crew we located and recovered his body for the family. Not something you want to repeat – especially with folks you know. So Bill said he took the floor at that TU meeting to talk about trip plans.

Trip plans make good sense for hunters, trappers, hikers, bikers, horseback riders, off-road vehicle operators, snowshoers, backcountry skiers, firewood cutters, foragers, and others, too. They make sense for people of all ages, those who live with others as well as those who live alone, guides as well as greenhorns. So here are things to keep in mind.

On the fridge. Some information changes seldom enough that it makes sense to post a master copy in an accessible location (like your refrigerator) and send digital copies and photos to your trusted contact(s) (more on those below). This info set might include things like:

  • your name, date of birth, physical description, cell/satellite phone number(s)
  • medical history, allergies, and medications
  • emergency contact information
  • vehicle make, model, color, license plate
  • description and registration numbers for equipment like ATV, boat, canoe or kayak
  • location trackers (i.e. OnStar, onXHunt, Map My Run, Google Maps)
  • GPS coordinates and common names of frequent destinations like tree stands, hunting blinds, boat launch sites, and trailhead parking areas
  • typical kit for regular activities (i.e. type of rod/gun/bow, drinking water, fire starter, bear spray, personal flotation device, and its color)
  • similar information about regular partners in outdoor activities and their vehicle(s) and kit.

Review this information seasonally to keep it up to date, and more often as needed. For example, when you move a turkey blind after a bear makes itself at home in your preferred location (the fruity smell of Gatorade really must be washed away thoroughly before it becomes a pee bottle). 

Trip-specific stuff. These details narrow down that general information to what’s most pertinent on a given day, and might include:

  • who is going, and in which vehicle(s)
  • planned activity with enough detail to infer more (i.e. instead of just “hunting” specify grouse hunting vs. turkey hunting, still hunting vs. run-and-gun)
  • planned parking area
  • trails or routes you plan to travel
  • specific features or risks (i.e. public land, marl bed, tornado blowdown)
  • when you expect to be back (more on this below).

Trusted contacts. Information left on your fridge or kitchen table won’t do much good until somebody goes there looking for you and finds it. So leave trip information with one or more responsible people you can count on to a) notice and b) act if you are overdue or need help because of a breakdown or other situation. Bill and I are listed as contacts for several friends who don’t have other household members or family nearby. We all survived being teenage drivers with parents who expected us to check in (before cell phones). Sending a quick text is simpler than finding a pay phone. It’s even easier if you set up “quick response” phrases in your messaging app’s Settings. When Bill texts me “off the water” I know he’s safe and planning to sip a beer and swap stories with his fishing buddy, but I can go to bed.

In the vehicle. Keep a copy of your info in the vehicle, as well. Trusted contacts may not begin to worry for hours, unaware that a storm cell ripped across the lake shortly after you launched. But if a concerned local calls 911 and deputies checking out the report can access your particulars it can save valuable time. Also, keep  ICE (In Case of Emergency contacts and medical information) in your phone. Stuff happens on the road, too, and emergency responders may look for that information if you are unable to communicate it yourself.

Plan A… and B. There are times when you don’t deviate from the plan – for example, when hunting with permission on private farmland and need to stay clear of fields they’re working. Other times, plans change. When Bill hunts ruffed grouse on public lands and there’s another truck where he planned to park, he sends me a quick text naming his alternate choice. 

The name game. Names of locations and features may be different from one user group to the next. Bill and I learned names of rapids on the Wolf River years ago from a paddling guidebook that didn’t use the same ones as USGS maps – which is what most local fishermen have always used and what most mapping apps now are based on. So we use certain names with each other and have to “translate” when communicating with others. Like many couples, we talk in shorthand and riddles (the Maze, the Death March, where that barbed wire is…). I knew right where he was the time he called to tell me his truck blew a tie rod because he told me to go to where we cut our Christmas trees. But, as many long-married couples know, it’s risky to assume our exchanges impart perfect understanding. Last summer he took friends fishing on a spring pond, and I followed along. On my own I totally would have gone to a different place. Neither location gets a cell signal.

When you plan to be back (sort of). This may be the trickiest item to guesstimate. If you plan to fish a White Wolf hatch that doesn’t generally start until dark, your return may be considerably later than “normal” for fishing that stream. It also takes longer to walk out in pitch darkness, and there’s a greater chance of getting hurt. You don’t want loved ones to worry needlessly and you don’t want to find a search and rescue team staging by your truck. So don’t assume your trusted contact knows as much about the White Wolf hatch as you do. Or that they know what shooting hours are for the deer hunt and how long it might take to track, field dress, and haul out an animal you shot at dusk. Instead, commit to a specific time by which they can expect to hear from you or assume you need help. Then trust them to use their best judgment. They may be worried sick about you after a storm cell passes but not send out a search party until well after the designated time because they expect you to wait for lightning to stop before you wade back across the river.

No one said “lost.” Most of our volunteer fire department search and rescue team’s missing hunter calls come from family or other members of a hunting party. In one case, a guy came to scout land greatly altered by our 2019 derecho, got confused, and called relatives on the other side of the state for help. The relatives drove several hours to get here and look for him and then they called 911. In 30-plus years, I only recall one time where a hunter self-reported as lost. He, too, got into the blowdown from the derecho, couldn’t find a way through or around, and called 911 after it got dark. But generally, hunters don’t see themselves as “lost.” Turned around, maybe. Missed a mark, okay. Dark snuck up, sure. But a trusted contact asking a hunter when to call for help if you get lost is not likely to get a blue-ribbon trip plan from them. It’s not just about getting lost. Stuff happens, and you may not see it coming in time to leave a trail of bread crumbs.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department. While working the 2020 Census, she left daily written trip plans.

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