How to Plan a Backpacking Trip: Backpacking Guide 101

As a passionate hiker, I love the joy of losing myself in the woods, carrying only what I need and powering myself forward with nothing but my own two legs. Still, spending a couple of days to a few months in the wild is a big deal! And, ensuring that you have exactly what you need for the trip is essential not only to staying safe and getting home in one piece, but also to finishing the trip as you intended from Day One. 

In this backpacking guide, I have put together a checklist to help you know how to plan a backpacking trip, whether short or long, so that you can enjoy the full experience of life on the trail.

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

  1. Choose a location and research the geography, weather, and laws.
  2. Plan your route and test your endurance with a short hike ahead of time.
  3. Get your gear in order: cooking, camping, hiking, and clothing.
  4. Pack the right food to fuel your body.
  5. Prepare your mind and body for an incredible (and challenging) adventure!

Getting Started

Choosing A Location

The first step is to know where you are going to hike, both where you will start and where you will end up. It’s very easy to find inspiration on Instagram and in movies, but if you are new to backpacking, then you should exercise some caution. 

Wherever it is you would like to go, consider the time of year you plan to hike. Some regions would not be safe for hiking during the winter, and if you are planning an extended hike over several months, the weather will change from start to end.

Another factor to take into account when planning a backpacking trip is your finances. How long will you be able to support yourself while away? Can you leave your responsibilities for a while? And will you have a sufficient cushion of funds in case your trip lasts longer than expected, or you are injured en route?

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FAQ: What’s A Thru-Hiker? 

In case you don’t know, a thru-hiker is someone who is hiking a well-known (and usually quite long) trail from one end to the other. Some famous examples of long trails in the US would be the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

Geography

In addition to the time of year, 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, so if you are driving yourself to the trailhead then you might not need to arrange for transportation. But, most backpacking trails are point-to-point, so you will probably need a way of getting to the trail or getting home. 

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 trail route 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. (Like it or not, you should expect to encounter many non-human critters on your trek, and sometimes the tiny ones are the most dangerous!)

mosquito sitting on a leaf

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. 

PRO TIP: You can dial 112 anywhere in the world in the case of an emergency, or 911 in the USA.

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 – make sure you know how to read them!

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.

cup scooping water from creek

PRO TIP: If planning a hiking trip that will last several days, try to set your campsites around dependable water sources. Water will be necessary not only for drinking, but also for cleaning and washing.

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.

dense pine trees on the side of a steep mountain

FAQ: How many miles can i hike in a day?

The answer to this question depends on a number of things, such as your physical fitness, the elevation gains of the trail, the weather, and the total amount of time you have allowed for the trip. 

In general, you can plan to hike about 5-10 miles a day. If you get up early and push, you might cover 20 miles, and most long-distance backpackers would be happy with that. But, you will also have days where you cover zero miles, for any number of reasons – too many blisters on your feet; it’s raining too hard; you decide to spend a day in town – so it is important to account for an average of the two extremes, and give yourself some wiggle room. 

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 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 North America.

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.

Backpacking 101: 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.

Definitely take an extra pair of socks. Of course, how many pairs you take depends on the length of your hike, but even a short hike may involve a stream-crossing or mud, each of which may soak your shoes. Keeping your socks dry is critical for avoiding blisters. 

PRO TIP: Take three pairs of socks. You’ll wear one pair the first day, and then you’ll alternate these with a second pair every other day. The third pair is for an emergency.

You will also want to take a hat. Hats are better than sunglasses when hiking through the woods because they block sunlight and allow your eyes to see in the shade of the forest. Sunglasses will protect against direct sunlight as well as light reflected off snow or ice. If you can carry both, do so, but if you have to choose one or the other, I would recommend the hat for sun protection, cover during rain storms, and for use as a fly swatter. 

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.

rain gear

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 several days, you will 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. And, for long-distance backpackers, a night in a shelter can bring welcome relief! The Appalachian Trail, for instance, has quite a few shelters along the way, some of which are free to use, and some that are owned privately and have bunks for rent.

Also, regarding sleeping bags, consider the region and climate before buying one, and be sure to research a bag’s temperature rating and performance. 

You might want to take a sleeping pad, but your backpack or jacket can usually make a good pillow. Remember that you will be limited by the amount of weight you can carry, so try to prioritize items that can serve more than one purpose. 

And of course, If you plan to take a cell phone or camera, you might want to invest in a portable solar charger.

Hiking

Trekking Poles

For hiking, you may want trekking poles. Trekking 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. Some backpackers will tell you not to bother with them, however, since they will add extra weight. 

Personally, I don’t like trekking poles because they seem to get in the way, and I don’t use them for stability since I’ve developed strong ankles over years of hiking. For a different perspective and a little more research on the subject, you might want to check out Jacob Payne’s post for The Trek

Shoes

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

Backpacks

And your backpack should fit your frame well while also providing ample space for your supplies. The best backpack will be a good balance between padding (in the back and straps), support (internal structure), capacity, and weight.

Emergency Gear

Here is a list of essential emergency gear you should take:
Mirror & whistle (for signaling in case you get lost)
First aid kit
Map of the area (hard copy, topographic)
Insect repellant
Compass
Sunscreen & lip balm
LED headlamp (with fresh batteries)
Light rope (at least 10 feet)

Backpacking 101: 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 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.

dense pine trees on the side of a steep mountain

FAQ: What’s A mail drop?

A mail drop is when a thru-hiker mails him or herself a package containing important supplies, such as food, clothing, batteries, or new shoes, so that they can retrieve the package at a predetermined point and time along the trail. 

Before setting off on the hike, the thru-hiker can mail the package to a post office or to a business along the trail (make sure you check with them first). Or, they can have a friend or family member mail the package on a set date so that it arrives in time for the thru-hiker to get it.

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 and 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 importance 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 way home if you get lost.

Finally, 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. Also, short hikes are 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.

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FAQ: How do you train for a backpacking trip? 

In addition to taking short hikes, you might choose to incorporate a calisthenic routine into your daily activities in the weeks and months leading up to your hike.

Final Preparation

As you assemble your gear and supplies, use a backpacking checklist to ensure that you don’t forget something. 

Here are three important points to remember: 
  • 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 now you have a much better sense of how to plan a backpacking trip. If you have never backpacked before, you will discover that few things are as rewarding as the completion of a long hike. It tests your endurance and self-reliance, and it is a great way to find out what you’re made of.

The world is just waiting to be explored, and every trail is an adventure. And, when you get back, I’d love to hear about it!

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