As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Route Planning

Proper route planning can make the difference between success and failure on long mountain movements. Careful map reconnaissance, knowledge of the enemy situation, terrain analysis of the operational area, and an accurate assessment of the unit’s capabilities are all key parts of the planning process.

a. Map Reconnaissance. Topographic maps provide the primary source of information concerning the area of operations. A 1:25,000 map depicts greater detail than a 1:50,000 map and should be used whenever possible. Because examination of the micro-terrain is so important for mountain operations, even larger scale maps are desirable. Civilian 1:12,000 maps can be used if available. Aerial, oblique angle, photographs give details not always shown on maps (crags and overhangs). Sketch maps supplement other sources of information but should not be relied on for accuracy since they are seldom drawn to scale. Along with sketch maps, verbal descriptions, documented information gathered from units previously in the area, or published sources such as alpine journals or climbing guides may help. Forest service and logging and mining company maps provide additional information, often showing the most recent changes to logging trails and mining access roads. Standard military topographic maps are generally accurate graphic depictions of the operational area.

(1) When conducting a map reconnaissance, pay close attention to the marginal information. Mountain-specific terrain features may be directly addressed in the legend. In addition, such facilities as ski lifts, cable and tramways are often found. Check the datum descriptor (for foreign maps) to ensure compatibility with entered datum in GPS units. Along with the standard topographic map color scheme, there are some commonly seen applications for mountainous terrain. White with blue contours indicates glaciers or permanent snowfields. The outline of the snow or ice is shown by dashed blue lines while their contour lines are solid blue. High ice cliffs which are equal to or exceed the contour interval will be shown. Low ice cliffs and ice caves may be indicated if they provide local landmarks. Brown contour lines on white mean dry areas without significant forest cover. Areas above tree line, clear cuts, rock or avalanche slide paths and meadows are all possible. Study the surrounding terrain and the legend for other clues. An important point to remember is that thick brush in small gullies and streambeds may not be depicted by green, but should still be expected.

(2) Obstacles, such as rivers and gorges, will require technical equipment to cross if bridges are not present. Fords and river crossing sites should be identified. Due to the potential for hazardous weather conditions, potential bivouac sites are noted on the map. Ruins, barns, sheds and terrain-protected hollows are all possible bivouac sites. Danger areas in the mountains; isolated farms and hamlets, bridges, roads, trails, and large open areas above tree line, are factored in, and plans made to avoid them. Use of terrain-masking becomes essential because of the extended visibility offered by enemy observation points on the dominant high ground.

(3) Helicopter support, weather permitting, requires identification of tentative landing zones for insertions, extractions, resupply and medevac. The confined nature of mountain travel means that crucial passes become significant chokepoints and planners should designate overwatches/surveillance positions beforehand. Alternate routes should be chosen with weather imposed obstacles in mind: spring flood or afternoon snowmelt turns small streams into turbulent, impassable torrents. Avalanche danger prohibits travel on certain slopes or valley floors.

b. Enemy Situation. Route selection should only be done after reviewing all available information about the friendly and enemy situation.—Is the enemy force on his own ground? Are they accustomed to the terrain and the weather? Are they trained mountain troops with specialized equipment?—Only after answering these and other questions can an effective route plan be completed. If the enemy force is better prepared to maneuver in the mountains, they have a marked advantage, and route selection must be scrutinized.

c. Analysis of the Operational Area. Not all mountainous terrain is created equal and not all movement plans have the same expectation of success. Planners must undertake a thorough analysis of the general terrain to be crossed, including the geology, mountain structure and forms, and ground cover.

(1) Heavily glaciated granite mountains pose different problems than does river-carved terrain. The U-shaped valley bulldozed out by a glacier forces maneuver elements down to the valley floor or up to the ridge tops, while the water-cut V-shape of river valleys allows movement throughout the compartment.

(2) Routes through granite rock (long cracks, good friction; use of pitons, chocks and camming units) will call for different equipment and technique than that used for steep limestone (pockets, smooth rock; bolts, camming units).

(3) Operations above tree line in temperate climates or in the brushy zone of arid mountains means that material for suspension traverse A-frames must be packed. The thick brush and krummholtz mats of subalpine zones and temperate forested mountains can create obstacles that must be bypassed.

(4) Heavy spruce/fir tangles slow progress to a crawl, therefore planners should ensure routes do not blindly traverse these zones.

d. Unit Assessment. When assessing unit movement capabilities the key indices are training and conditioning levels. Soldiers who have received basic military mountaineer training, who know how to move through rough terrain, and who have been hardened with training hikes through the mountains, will perform better than troops without this background.

e. Time-Distance Formulas. Computing march rates in the mountains is extremely difficult, especially when there is snow cover. The following rates are listed as a guide (Table 8-1). Rates are given for movement over flat or gently rolling terrain for individuals carrying a rifle and loaded rucksack.

Unbroken Trail Broken Trail
On foot (no snow cover) 2 to 3 kph (cross country) 3 to 4 kph (trail walking)
On foot (less than 1 foot of snow) 1.6 to 3.2 kph 2 to 3.2 kph
On foot (more than 1 foot of snow) .4 to 1.2 kph 2 to 3.2 kph
Snowshoeing 1.6 to 3.2 kph 3.2 to 4 kph
Skiing 1 to 5.6 kph 4.8 to 5.6 kph
Skijoring N/A 3 to 24 kph
Table 8-1. Time-distance formulas.

(1) March distances in mountainous terrain are often measured in time rather than distance units. In order to do this, first measure the map distance. This distance plus 1/3 is a good estimate of actual ground distance. Add one hour for each 1,000 feet of ascent or 2,000 feet of descent to the time required for marching a map distance.

(2) As Table 8-1 indicates, snow cover will significantly affect rates of march. Since snow can be expected in the mountains most months of the year, units should have some experience at basic snow travel.

(3) Individual loads also affect march rates. Combined soldier loads that exceed 50 pounds per man can be expected to slow movement significantly in mountainous terrain. Given the increased weight of extra ammunition for crew-served weapons, basic mountaineering gear, and clothing for mountain travel, it becomes obvious that soldiers will be carrying weights well in excess of that 50-pound limit. Units should conduct cross-country movements in the mountains with the expected rucksack and LCE weights in order to obtain accurate, realistic rates of march.

(4) In the harsh environment of the mountains, helicopter support cannot be relied on. The process of transporting extra equipment and sustainment supplies will result in vastly increased movement times. The heavier loads will exhaust soldiers mentally and physically. Tactical movements, such as patrolling or deliberate assaults, should take this into account.

Route Selection

Many variables affect the selection of the proper route. The following guidelines apply to all situations.

a. Select a Current Map. Check the date of the map for an indication of the reliability of the map in depicting vegetation, clearings, roads, and trails accurately. The leader should use all the latest topographic data he can find.

b. Gather Intelligence Information. The most important consideration in every leader’s mind when plotting a movement is "where is the enemy?" The latest intelligence reports are essential. Additionally, weather reports, snow condition reports, avalanche probability, aerial photos, and any past or recent history of operations in the area may be of help.

c. Select a Route. Identify the starting point and determine the movement objective. Plot start and end points. Carefully scrutinize the area in between and begin to select the route. Consider the following:

(1) Trafficability. This includes degree of slopes, vegetation, width of trails, snow depth, avalanche probability, and the likelihood of crevasses.

(2) Time-Distance Formula. Time allotted and distance to be covered must be considered.

(3) Required Equipment. Carry enough equipment to move along the route and to survive if an extended stay becomes necessary. Do not plan a route beyond the means of your equipment.

(4) Location of Enemy. Plan a route that allows maximum use of the masking effect of the terrain. Avoid danger areas or areas of recent enemy activity unless required by the mission. Use vegetation to mask your movement if possible (especially coniferous forests). Avoid silhouetting on ridgelines.

(5) Communications. Communications will be severely limited in the mountains. Dead spaces or communications holes are common. Use all available information and plan accordingly.

(6) Conditions/Capabilities of Unit. The unit must be able to negotiate the route chosen. Take into consideration their present health, as well as their training level when selecting your intended route.

(7) Checkpoints/Control Points. When plotting a route on the map, utilize prominent terrain features on either side of the route as checkpoints. Ensure that when you select your checkpoints they are visually significant (elevation) and that they are easily identifiable. Avoid the use of manmade features as checkpoints due to their unreliability and lack of permanence. Select features that are unique to the area.

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