Coordinated Chaos: The Logistics Behind Backcountry Trips
Outfitting more than 40 backcountry trips over a few months takes organization, patience, and innovation. Logistics Coordinator Rick Beckel relies on spreadsheets and volunteers to keep his cool in the heat of volunteer vacation madness.
If you've ever arranged a group trip into the backcountry, you know logistics get complicated quickly. Who's bringing the stove? How are we doing meals? Do I need to borrow gear? If so, when can I pick it up and drop it off?
Now imagine doing that all summer, for nearly 500 people going to 28 different places all over Washington.
That's Rick Beckel's job. As the logistics coordinator for WTA's volunteer vacations, he ensures that all of our adult and youth volunteer vacations have the gear and food they'll need during their week of trail work. Getting that gear where it needs to go takes some serious planning.
IN gear transport, Less is more
"I was looking at some numbers, and last year we put in 12,000 vehicle miles outfitting the volunteer vacation program."
That's a lot of miles, but each trip requires a gear drop and a pick-up. WTA's packing facility is in North Bend, and last year we outfitted 42 trips from the Olympic Peninsula to Eastern Washington. In the high season, WTA might have as many as five trips in the field at once. But we try to keep the number of truck trips low. Rick's background in sustainability helps here; he's all about efficiency.
"I want to make the transportation part of my job as efficient as possible. The more efficient I can make it, that will mean less staff time, less carbon emissions, and less cost."
He's a mastermind of coordinating routes to remote locations.
"If we have a Pasayten trip at the same time as a crew will be working out near Leavenworth, we put gear for both trips in the same truck and do a gear drop in Leavenworth on the way to the Pasayten. I'm constantly trying to weave together gear pickups and dropoffs."
Unlike a large corporation that has a fleet of trucks, Rick gets creative to haul gear on a nonprofit budget in the busiest parts of the season. Usually, gear gets transported by logistics staff using their two trucks, but sometimes, WTA staff members or volunteers going on the trip might be asked to get the gear where it needs to go. Some volunteers even go the extra mile, using their personal vehicles to transport gear for crews they are not a part of.
Though he's not always the one doing the gear drops, he's done his fair share. Originally from Wisconsin, he's gotten to know Washington well thanks to this aspect of his job.
"Because of the volunteer vacation program's statewide presence, I know where things are because I'm looking at paper or digital maps, or I'm behind the wheel of a truck. The other day I realized when someone mentions iconic places in Washington, I don't have alpine lakes or peaks in mind, I have cells in my spreadsheet.
"For me, all these romantic-sounding locations are associated with the gear needs the trips have. But I think that's cool — I know the answers to all these detailed questions that prevent people from getting in to the field."
Helping people get outside, Optimizing the System
Those detailed questions can be stumbling blocks for a lot of people trying to get out backpacking or camping.
"Planning logistics for trips can be difficult, so I think it's valuable that WTA invests in a staff member to figure out trip logistics so they go as smoothly as possible and take stress off of the crew leader and volunteers. That's really important, particularly for the youth trips, since there's so much else for the crew leader and WTA staff to arrange."
Rick likes that his job makes it easier for other people to experience and give back in the backcountry, sometimes for the first time. He ensures the food is ample, and all the gear WTA provides is in good shape. To keep tabs on volunteer satisfaction, he sends a survey out with the supplies, which the crew leader fills out and returns at the end of the trip. They can indicate if they had too much of a certain type of food, a piece of gear broke or if something was missing. Then the packing facility staff know what to replace and what can go straight into bins for the next trip.
Each trip starts out with packing lists for gear and food, and packing facility volunteers do the initial packing. Rick then knows what he needs to order each week based on what doesn't get checked off the lists. In the height of summer, this is really important, since WTA is running multiple back-to-back trips, and packing needs to be fast and efficient. But it can be a waiting game.
Rick explains, "We might be waiting until Thursday morning to get gear, but then it has to be ready to go back out Thursday afternoon so it's important to be organized. But even when we're waiting, there's a lot of maintenance like cleaning that needs to be done. There are facility improvements, too and administrative work. With all that, I'm particularly excited to have help from the logistics assistant and the new volunteers."
Hiring a logistics assistant and doing trainings for packing facility volunteers is the newest investment WTA has made in this thriving program. Two years ago, Rick took over from Becky Miller, who worked with Tim Van Beek on volunteer vacations.
"It used to be that Tim (now one of WTA's Field Programs Managers) was doing everything. He grew the program. It's where it is today thanks to him and Becky. But they built systems they could hand off to other people."
Having new insight is key to making a strong program. Julia Rutledge, the 2018 logistics assistant has deep connections with WTA. She was an intern with the youth volunteer vacation program for two years, and a youth participant before that. Rick is also scaling up the volunteer operation at the facility, and he's curious to see how having new folks involved in the packing process brings new ideas to the table.
"It's important to offer these opportunities. I'm sure there are efficiencies I haven't thought about, and having Julia and the packing facility volunteers with different life experiences will be illuminating."
Finding a Balance
Efficiency and innovation are key when packing for these trips. Rick's responsible for ensuring 12 volunteers have all the gear and food to be well-fed and able to work in the backcountry for a full week. There are dietary restrictions to consider, what sort of project the team is working on, and how the gear is getting into the backcountry.
Volunteer vacations often have stock support (meaning the supplies are packed in by horses or llamas) but that also has limitations. Even strong pack animals have weight limits, so Rick has to hit just the right balance of nutritious food that won't take up too much space or weigh too much.
The packing facility does adjust the menu depending on dietary restrictions or how many volunteers are on the trip, but Rick tries to calibrate the standard quantities of some food items to avoid waste, and he experiments with reducing plastic waste. The goal is to leave the smallest impact possible on the places we camp, so Rick thinks a lot about food waste and how much the trips produce.
"If the crew wasn't eating with us they'd be eating in town for a week and you'd have all the waste associated with that. The difference is that eating in the backcountry has potential to leave a much larger impression on the land."
Like providing just the right amount of food, figuring out how to send less single-use plastic into the backcountry is a challenge. Concerns about contamination mean we still send single-serve chip bags, but Rick's tried sending fewer Ziploc bags on trips, encouraging volunteers to use the same bag all week for trail mix or your sandwich at lunch.
The surveys he receives have given other insight that's helped with efforts to reduce impact while in camp. Last year, surveys noted that we weren't capturing the grey water from the handwashing station in camp. Now, crews capture that water and manage it even more responsibly in camp.
All together now
With 17 volunteer vacations completed this year, we're halfway through the year. Already, hundreds of volunteers have worked on trails from the Olympic Peninsula to the Pasayten wilderness. It's thanks to Rick's hard work that those trips have gone off successfully. But he knows that it takes partnership work to really make the trips happen.
"It's incredible when you step back and think about how many people it takes to maintain our trail system. WTA staff, agency partners, volunteers on crews and in the packing facility, our stock support teams ... we're lucky to have a wide network of people who care so much about maintaining our public lands and creating experiences for other people. I feel lucky to be a part of this team."