How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

When my friend asked me how to plan a backpacking trip, I was surprised that I could not give him a quick answer. I have been hiking almost my whole life, and the process of planning and preparing for a hike comes naturally to me.

It wasn’t until I thought about what goes into a hike that I realized how many factors there are to consider. For someone like my friend, who has gone on only a few hikes in his life and never a serious one, the task of planning a hike was daunting. I realized how many other people don’t hike because they might not know where to begin.

In this article, you will find the essential know-how for taking those first steps into the woods.

Getting started

Choosing a Location

Once you have decided to plan a backpacking trip, you must first choose where to go. This decision depends on the time of year, since some regions would not be suitable for hiking during the winter.

Also, consider your finances. How long will you be able to support yourself while away? Could you leave your responsibilities for a while?

Geography

Next, consider the type, distance, and terrain of trails you want to hike.

There are three kinds of trails: loop, out-and-back, and point-to-point. Unlike point-to-point trails, loop and out-and-back trails end where they begin.

hikers on rocky trail with overlooking mountains

Think about the terrain, too. Geography shapes the trail, and a rocky, mountainous area will be more difficult than a flat, sandy one. But don’t let this deter you – mountain vistas are certainly worth the extra effort!

Regional Rules

Some regions carry different regulations. In the United States and Canada, for example, many areas require a special permit for primitive camping or thru hiking, and others have restrictions on campfires. Research your destination before you get there and apply well in advance for permits.

International Backpacking

If you are planning to go abroad, remember to get the appropriate passports and visas, and research immunizations for each country you will visit.

Travel insurance can also provide a greater sense of security while away. Some policies will cover only transportation and luggage, while others will include health insurance and insurance on your belongings at home.

And in most countries you will need to get a temporary SIM card. Even if you do not plan to use your phone while deep in the wilderness, it would be a good idea to have an international SIM card just in case. Remember, you can dial 112 anywhere in the world in the case of an emergency, or 911 in the US.

On this note, you might also want to make sure you download some offline maps. There are several great apps made for this purpose, but you could also take hard copies instead.

Planning Your Route

Trails & Pacing

Avoid going too far too soon. Keep in mind that the terrain will likely slow you down, and you’ll hike slower than your average walking speed.

If your trip will last several days, try to plan your campsites around dependable water sources. Water will be necessary not only for drinking, but also for cleaning and washing.

cup scooping water from creek

And make sure you take detailed maps. The best maps contain elevation contours, as in the topographical maps produced by the US Geological Survey. These maps will help you better understand the terrain ahead of time.

Transportation

Many trailheads lie far from vehicle access and the nearest airport. And since many hikes are point-to-point, you might also need to arrange for pick-up at the trail end.

Learn from the Locals

Research the local hazards of the environment where you will be hiking. Look up the local plants and animals and pay particular attention to those things that could be dangerous.

Rapid changes in the weather, from hot to cold or dry to wet, can also create precarious situations for under-prepared hikers. The Sierras often have snow in July, and Mt. Washington in the East experiences some of the most extreme weather changes in the US.

Many hikers also overlook the change in elevation that they will face, and this can be a fatal oversight. When hiking well above sea level, altitude sickness is a serious danger. It can result in dehydration, vomiting and fatigue, which can lead to death.

Invite Friends

The best way to get started with a hike is to invite friends. When you hike as a group, it is easier to stay motivated and committed to the journey you have planned.

Groups can also share gear and responsibilities, making backpacks lighter and planning easier.

Basic Equipment

Clothing

The weather may change rapidly during your outdoors adventure. Dressing in layers will help you adjust quickly and comfortably to changes in temperature and humidity, while also providing barriers against pesky bugs.

It may also help to have an extra pair of socks or two, depending on the length of your hike. Even a short hike may involve a stream-crossing or mud, each of which may soak your shoes.

A hat is best for hiking through the woods, but sunglasses will protect against direct sunlight as well as light reflected off snow or ice.

rain gear

And wherever you go, be sure to take some kind of rain gear. If going on a short hike, a cheap poncho will do, but you may want to invest in more durable rain gear if hiking for a long time or in an area known for rain.

Food

Long-distance hikers rarely cook over a campfire due to regional regulations and the trouble of hauling supplies. However, you may want to consider a lightweight cooking stove. I have found that a hot bowl of oatmeal is an especially nice treat on those mornings I don’t want to roll out of the sleeping bag.

Don’t forget the water! Two liters a day is recommended, but I always carry a water purification device as well.

Camping

If hiking for many days, you may want to carry a tent. Bivy sacks are an excellent alternative for individual hikers. In some situations, you may have the opportunity to sleep in a lean-to, cabin, or yurt. For long-distance backpackers, a night in a shelter can bring welcome relief!

Consider your destination when choosing a sleeping bag, and be sure to read the temperature rating before buying.

You might also want to take a sleeping pad, but your backpack or jacket can usually make a good pillow.

If you plan to have a phone, I would also suggest taking a solar charger.

Hiking

For hiking, you will want trek poles. I find them most useful when hiking downhill. Trek poles offer added stability, and they help to engage the rest of your body. This way, your legs don’t have to do all the work.

You will also want to have a good pair of shoes. There is some debate whether you should wear trail running shoes or hiking boots. Hiking boots tend to be clunky, sweaty, and constrictive, so my personal preference is trail running shoes.

If you decide to hike in cold weather, or in an area where ice or snow might appear, you will want crampons to add extra grip to your shoes. In some situations, you may also need snowshoes.

man with snowshoes hiking toward mountains through snow

And your backpack should fit your frame well while also providing ample space for your supplies. Depending on the duration of your hike, you may want more padding within the pack.

Finally, here is a list of essential gear you should have no matter where you go, or for how long:

  • Mirror & whistle (in case you get lost)
  • First aid kit
  • Map of the area (hard copy, topographic)
  • Insect repellant
  • Compass
  • Sunscreen & lip balm
  • LED headlamp
  • Light rope (at least 10 feet)

Food

Planning Food

For hikes more than a couple of hours, you should always plan to carry some food with you. Hiking is one of the best ways to get in shape, but it will demand a great deal from your body, and you want your body to have the right fuel at the right time. This means that you should pack high-calorie foods and plan each meal.

If you are hiking with a group, you may also have to plan for special diets and allergies. Avoid duplicating foods and divide the burden among yourselves.

And don’t forget a few spices and sweets. During long hikes, snacks can be a huge morale booster.

Packing Food

The type of food you carry will determine how you store it, but consider the following factors:

  • Food might get hot.
  • Food might get wet.
  • Food might get crushed.

With this in mind, small plastic baggies provide a cheap & lightweight solution. They can be reused for trash and waste, but remember to practice Leave No Trace whenever possible. You might also want to consider dehydrating your food for long hikes.

Furthermore, I would recommend a bear canister or bag, for hanging food at night while you camp.

Preparation

Mental Preparation

No matter how experienced a hiker you are, you should never underestimate the power of basic navigational skills.

Before heading out, make sure you understand how to read topographic maps.

Also, brush up on your skills with a compass. If you haven’t hiked in a while, you might have forgotten how to adjust the compass for declination or how to take a bearing. Knowing these things may save you a lot of time in your journey, and they might also help you find your location if you get lost.

Let’s not forget that every hiking enthusiast can enhance his or her experience with easy to learn knots. Dave Collins has compiled an excellent list of essential knots here:

Physical Preparation

If you are a beginner, go on shorter hikes before embarking on a multi-day adventure.

Short hikes are a great way to get fit and build the stamina you need for a much longer hike. You will learn how to pace yourself. And, they’re a great way to break in your shoes and test your gear. Of course, I recommend inspecting your gear first to ensure that you have all the necessary parts.

Final Preparation

As you assemble your gear and supplies, use a checklist. The hikers at REI have already created a complete checklist for you.

Also, remember to balance your backpack. An unbalanced pack can be awkward to carry, and it can lead to increased muscle soreness in the neck and back. Keep heavier items low and close to your center of gravity.

Check the weather before you go. Keep in mind that forests are generally cool, and the weather on mountains can change by the hour.

Share your itinerary with someone. Tell them where you plan to go, what trails you expect to take, and when you think you will get back. When you return, remember to follow up with them.

Summary

I hope that after reading this article, you have a better sense of what you need to do to get started hiking. Few things are as rewarding as the satisfaction that comes from a difficult hike. The world is just waiting to be explored, and every trail is an adventure!

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