Bruce Kirkby walks along a ridgeline, looking down at his feet and the steep drop to the cliffs below.

How to plan an expedition

Ever wanted to go on an expedition? To climb a far-off peak, paddle an unexplored river or bike across a country?

Canadians have been pushing their boundaries in the outdoors for more than two decades with help from MEC Expedition Support. Whether you’ve got a bucket list of trips you’d like to take, or you’re just beginning to explore the possibilities, you could plan the trip of your dreams. To help you get started, we asked eight seasoned explorers to share their best expedition planning tips and tricks.

Two men push a canoe through a rushing river.

Frank Wolf and Peirson Ross guide their canoe through the wilds of Nunavik, QC.

How did you first learn about expeditions?

Frank Wolf, a filmmaker, writer and adventurer who rowed the Northwest Passage with three teammates: I was always aware of people doing long, challenging journeys for discovery and exploration. Though most of the world’s population has settled into communities, there’s still a nomadic part in all of us that expeditions satisfy.

Taylor Maavara, a Canadian post-doctoral fellow at Berkeley National Lab in California, whose last two expeditions have been in the Indian Himalayas: I grew up camping on weekends with my dad, so it was a natural progression to get into longer trips.

Travis Foster, a footloose and fancy-free climber based in his van parked outside the climbing gym in Cranbrook, BC: Chris Bonington novels! In an time where sponsorship was almost unheard of, climbers had to write about their expeditions to use the proceeds from those books to fund their next trip.

Ben Haggar makes a friend during his expedition in Greenland.

How do you define an “expedition”? How is it different from any other type of travel?

Martina Halik, an avalanche technician and professional photographer based in Fernie, BC, who completed a 5-month ski traverse of BC’s Coast Mountains with her mom: An expedition is something you decide on, and it changes from person to person. When I planned to travel along the Coast Mountain range, I didn’t even think of it as an expedition, it was more of a journey or a series of traverses.

Frank: For me, an expedition is a unique, challenging journey through a remote wilderness area where you are completely self-sufficient. You have a beginning and an end, but everything in between is unknown to you. The adventure lies in working your way though this unknown environment, dealing with the daily challenge of moving through obstacles and landscapes as they unfold before you.

A woman holds a food box aloft while standing in the middle of a snowfield, surrounded by mountains.

Tania Halik holds up a food drop during a 5-month ski traverse of BC's Coast Mountains.

What was your first expedition?

Taylor: I went to Pemberton, BC, on an Outward Bound Canada course as a teenager. We did 11 summits on that trip.

Reuben Krabbe, a professional adventure photographer, skier, mountain biker and MEC Ambassador based in Squamish, BC: When I was 23 I did a winter camping trip in the Yukon’s Tombstone Mountains, and when I was 25 I went to Svalbard, Norway, in the Arctic. Both trips were centered around skiing and trying to create beautiful pictures along the way.

Ben Haggar, a freelance photographer and writer from Squamish, BC, who has tackled expeditions in 50+ countries on all 7 continents: My first actual expedition was in 2007 when my friend Micha Forestall and I traversed the Valhalla Range in central British Columbia in summer. I was 25 at the time and climbing a lot, but the scale of this trip really surprised us.

Frank: Back in 1995 when I was 24 years old, my canoeing partner and I became the first people to paddle across Canada in a single season. The 171-day, 8000 km journey from Saint John, NB, to Vancouver, BC, got me hooked on doing expeditions and I haven’t stopped since.

A man leans out of an orange tent perched on a snowy mountain, with a view spread behind him.

Reuben snaps a photo of his friend in a MEC Nunatak tent near Valemount, BC.

How do you come up with an idea for an expedition?

Reuben: Hunt for that thing or place that’s too cool, too beautiful, and then go chase it. That will put you in the head space where the rest begins to evolve naturally.

Martina: My trip was inspired by an article I read in Coast Mountain Culture magazine. I was becoming ski guide and I wanted to get a few more trips under my belt.

Frank: I generally look for blank spaces on the map and then figure out a way to travel through them self-propelled.

Ben: Find a sport and an area you’re passionate about, then think up something that seems to be just beyond the realm of what you think is doable.

“I generally look for blank spaces on the map and then figure out a way to travel through them self-propelled.” – Frank Wolf

A man and his mountain bike sit outside a small red house in a remote area.

Ben Haggar takes a break during a solo bike expedition around Greenland.

Two women curtsey while wearing shiny, flamboyant tutus in the middle of an alpine snowfield.

Martina and Tania Halik model the latest trends in ski gear.

How do you motivate yourself to take on these challenges?

Bruce Kirkby, an MEC ambassador who has travelled to 80 countries and amassed more than 2000 expedition days, including lengthy wilderness journeys with his young family: That’s like asking if I need motivation to breathe. Finding time is generally the bigger challenge in today’s busy world, but that just comes down to prioritization. What are you gonna remember later, crossing the Patagonia ice cap or having a clean bathroom?

Martina: It’s about taking hold of your excitement and not letting fear and negative self-talk get in the way.

“What are you gonna remember later, crossing the Patagonia ice cap or having a clean bathroom?” – Bruce Kirkby

A woman and a boy leap out of their canoe into the water as another boy watches from a second canoe.

Bruce Kirkby's family takes a break from paddling to swim in the Churchill River.

What’s the most disastrous or funny mistake you’ve made on an expedition?

Ben: I’m a huge fan of exotic street food and have a pretty solid stomach. But when street food experiences go bad, they can sideline you for days. I have a despairingly large number of “pooping my pants” stories. [Editor’s note: Pack spare underwear.]

Frank: We were washed down the Babine River Canyon in a spring flood, lost all our gear and almost drowned. That was a long, long time ago, and it taught me to respect and learn deeply about the power of nature.

Two men guide a canoe through shallow water.

Frank Wolf and Peirson Ross slog through the shallows in Nunavik, QC.

How do you manage stress while on a big trip?

Reuben: I wish someone had asked me this before these trips, because I honestly didn’t manage stress well. I also had a weird hero complex where I thought stress was something that affected weak-willed people, but it’s obviously something that affects everyone to varying degrees.

Try to get good at recognizing stress. It’s somewhat sneaky, and you’ll find yourself stressed out trying to think and make decisions. If you can recognize it, you can manage it better.

Reuben Krabbe takes a selfie with Black Tusk in Garibaldi Provincial Park.

A man rides a bike along a grassy ridge at sunset, with mountains in the background.

Photo by Ben Haggar in Greenland.

What qualities do you look for in an expedition partner?

Martina: It’s important to travel with someone who won’t take things personally. When I was in a bad mood or snappy, my mum knew I was just tired and it didn’t have anything to do with her.

Reuben: Stable, not conflict averse, speaks their mind, and can manage emotional situations clearly. I also look for people who are crafty with their hands and keep their gear working well, so we don’t have individual problems that become group problems.

Travis: They have to be down for bumpin’ heaps of tunes while big wallin’.

Ben: I look for people with similar goals, ambitions, ethics and risk tolerance. It’s good to be on the same page with these major things, but having different personalities in a group is a good thing.

Understanding the expectations you have for other team members and what they have in mind for you is a key element. It’s better to have uncomfortable conversations and get everyone on the same page than it is for ill feelings to fester and strain meaningful relationships. The most difficult aspect of my solo Greenland expedition was the loneliness and not having a partner to help me through the darker times of food deprivation and physical and mental exhaustion.

Self portrait by Ben Haggar

Taylor Maavara and her expedition partner, Karn Kowshik, in the Indian Himalaya.

Where did you learn how to plan an expedition?

Reuben: Mentorship is the biggest thing. I didn’t have a formal mentor, but friends had much more developed skill sets in the areas I wanted to learn more about. For example, my friend Tobin Seagel took time to relay knowledge to me as we went on a trip.

Taylor: When I was 12, my dad and I attended an MEC clinic on how to plan a canoe trip. After high school, I took a NOLS course to learn about leadership in the backcountry.

Ben: If you’re completely new to expedition planning and aren’t sure where to start, Alistair Humphreys has a great book titled “Grand Adventures,” which is kind of a “how to” guide.

A woman pores over maps in a cozy living room.

Martina Halik plans her route through BC's Coast Mountains.

What tools do you use for expedition planning?

Frank: I use Google Maps to do the initial planning, then fine-tune it with topographical maps, which are available for free online.

Ben: I made a basic spreadsheet detailing all the projected costs and details, everything from the cost of a taxi to the airport in Nuuk [Greenland] to the maximum and minimum number of kilometres of unknown terrain I’ll be able to cover each day.

Bruce: Maps, Google, books, often Lonely Planet for general background. If a region isn’t mentioned in Lonely Planet, then I know it’s worth researching more.

Taylor: I spend hours on NASA satellite photos and on Google Earth. There’s a historical feature so you can go back in time and see how glaciers have changed; we use it to tentatively plan our routes.

160 days' worth of dehydrated food packed into jars and zip-closure bags.

160 days' worth of food to fuel a 2300km ski traverse.

Sometimes the bugs get to your meal before you do. Photo by Frank Wolf.

How do you handle meal planning for this kind of trip?

Drew Leiterman, a journeyman carpenter with a strong passion for photography who lives, works and climbs in BC’s Kootenays: We did a lot of calorie counting while trying to get the least weight to most calories.

Taylor: Some people say you should make all your own meals, but at high altitude I don’t have any ego about it. My favourite dehydrated meals are mac and cheese or pad Thai.

Frank: I keep it light and simple. I usually have oatmeal for breakfast, PB and honey on tortillas for lunch, a freeze-dried meal for dinner, and energy bars, pepperoni sticks and GORP for snacks.

A climber far above the viewpoint shakes the orange ropes so they wave away from the rock face, silhouetted against a blue sky dotted with clouds.

Drew Leiterman looks up, way up, at Travis Foster as they rappel back to camp in the Daniels River Valley, BC.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone planning their first expedition?

Taylor: Start small, figure out things like how heavy a pack you can carry and how much food you need to eat, and eventually you’ll gain confidence. It helps to go with someone who knows what they’re doing, so consider taking a course or lesson.

Reuben: It’s important to have both a good plan, and the ability to change and modify that plan as the trip evolves. You need to have contingency plans for injuries, weather and equipment failures.

Frank: Don’t let the distance or time overwhelm you. Take the expedition one day at a time.

“It’s important to have both a good plan, and the ability to change and modify that plan as the trip evolves.” – Reuben Krabbe

A bike lies next to a tent in a mountain meadow.

Ben Haggar camps out above the Arctic Circle in Greenland on a solo expedition.

Taylor Maavara hops over a river of glacier meltwater in the Himalayas.

What tips do you have for sourcing funding or sponsorship?

Taylor: The MEC Expedition Support program has helped me go on two expeditions.

Frank: You need to have something to offer. It’s not enough to just go on a cool trip – you need to give back to your sponsors through social media, published articles, published images, gear reviews, film and speaking engagements.

Reuben: You can really ask anyone for funding; the difficult part is finding a good contact and figuring out how to be valuable. Remember that most sponsors and grant funders are thinking about what value you/your trip offers to the company, not simply how cool or difficult it might be.

A hand holding a spoon pokes at a fish grilling over an open fire.

Frank Wolf grills the catch of the day in Nunavik, QC.

How do you plan epic expeditions when you have school-aged kids?

Martina: One of the easiest things you can do with small children is go on canoe trips (mellow ones, not whitewater).

Bruce: Pack three sets of clothing, along with a favorite stuffy, blanket or water bottle… anything that will remind your children of home, even on the other side of the world. Work in downtime every day. Kids need big chunks of time to explore beaches, play with pine needles and watch ants crawling across blades of grass.

Let the kids know your plans for the next day, and even give them some options. Having them responsible for the itinerary can drastically reduce whining. And a pedometer is a great way to encourage walking.

“Work in downtime every day. Kids need big chunks of time to explore beaches, play with pine needles and watch ants crawling across blades of grass.” – Bruce Kirkby

Two boys and their mother hike up a rocky trail carrying their canoe paddles and camping gear.

Canoe tripping is a family affair for Bruce Kirkby.

What are your must-have pieces of gear?

Taylor: My whole sleeping situation needs to be dialed. I bring an extra-warm sleeping bag, and a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pad that packs down really small.

Drew: My gear must-haves are rock shoes, a harness and rope.

Reuben: The DeLorme InReach is a great 2-way satellite communication device that lets you download weather and text for emergencies, or if you’re lonely. I used to have a simple satellite beacon and accidentally almost called in the Navy once, so I’d recommend 2-way communications. Also, a good tool kit. Your preparation is only as good as the stuff you can fix.

Frank: Pretty much any journey involves my MSR Whisperlite International stove, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm sleeping pad and my Garmin GPS.

Travis: The Patagonia Houdini windbreaker, Bluetooth wall speakers and a heap of Toblerone and hot chocolate.

Drew Leiterman looks out over the Daniels River Valley near Powell River, BC.

Thanks to Martina, Travis, Taylor, Drew, Reuben, Bruce, Ben and Frank for sharing their advice!

If you’re feeling fired up and ready to tackle your own epic trip, check out MEC Expedition Support. Want to brush up on your outdoor skills first? Sign up for an MEC clinic to learn more about navigating by GPS or compass, backcountry cooking, knot tying, gear repair and more.

Top photo by Bruce Kirkby.

Missy Shana
Missy Shana

A social media specialist, Seinfeld-quoter who repeatedly travels vast distances for good food. Has probably creeped your Instagram profile.