How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Photo credit: Gideon Haden ChomphosyKnowing how to plan for a backpacking trip can mean the difference between having a fun and memorable experience, and putting your pack and boots up for sale. Backpacking itself is a fairly simple activity, but if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into it can be more trying than pleasant. Here are a few things to know when planning a backpacking trip.

Before you start tossing socks and trail mix into your pack, you have to do a little preparation. Some people love an adventure, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared. If you want that sense of discovery, don’t read a step-by-step account of the trail, but it’s important to be prepared to handle the unknown if that’s what you’re looking for. You need to find the right balance between planning and discovery.

If you want to be prepared, you need to research the area that you’re going to visit. Get a sense of the climate and wildlife activity for the time of year you are going to visit. It’s also a good idea to familiarize your self with the terrain, flora, and available water sources that can be found around your destination.

There are other things to think about when researching the area other than nature. Is there an outdoor gear store? Is there a grocery store? What about a restaurant for after you finish your week-long trek through the woods? These things don’t necessarily matter while you’re on the trail, but they can help you when planning your backpacking trip.

Find out about any rules, restrictions, regulations, or required permits. For example, national parks typically require backcountry permits for campers and backpackers. It’s important to know about these things before you set out on your trip. Check websites to see if there are any alerts in effect such as mating seasons, trail closures, flooding, etc.

How are you planning on preparing your food? Are you going to eat nothing but Peanut butter and trail mix for a week straight, or are you going to cook your food? Do you have backpacking stove? Can you build a cooking fire? Are you allowed to build a cooking fire? Ask yourself these questions when planning out your meals for your trip.

Get a general structure for your trip. Some people like to have everything planned to a T, but you don’t have to draw up an exact itinerary and follow it to the letter. It is wise, however, to have a basic idea of what you want to do and how long it will take to do those things. For example, you can’t knock out a 100-mile hiking trail in a weekend. Give yourself enough time, and let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to be finished. If you are set on going with the flow and avoiding plans, give them a range for when you will be finished (ex. “We’re hiking the (whatever) trail from (some trail head) to (the other trail head). We will be off the trail by the 15th at the earliest and the 17th at the latest. I’ll call you when we’re back in town.”).

Go ahead and train. Unless you’re an experienced hiker who’s currently in shape, it’s a good idea to train before tackling an extended backpacking trip. While it may not be necessary, it will definitely be beneficial. Hike, run, exercise – the more training you do, the more capable you will be, and the more enjoyable your experience.

Work your way up to multi-day trips. Start with day hikes before trying overnight trips. Once you’ve mastered overnight trips, advance to weekend outings, and soon you’ll be ready for mulitple day backpacking trips.

Make a packing list early on. You don’t want to be loading up the car the night before your big trip only to realize that you don’t own half of the things that you need. Make a packing list in advance so you can identify what you own, what you need to borrow, rent, or purchase, and it will give you the time to get those items.

It’s also smart to practice packing. Taking a few practice runs through packing will help you get more efficient at it, and it can also help you find the most optimal places for your backpacking gear. This can help you better distribute weight, access gear more easily, and make your backpacking trip much more enjoyable. Make a list, lay out those items, and pack them efficiently.

Know how to navigate. Refer to a map, guidebook, or online resources to get a sense of the trail. Again, you might be the type that loves discovery, and you don’t want to spoil that by doing research. You should at the very least, however, know where the trail is going.

You don’t need to be a mountain man in order to go on a backpacking trip. You do need to know a few basic things, however. Educate yourself on a few basic survival facts and basic survival skills before hitting the trail, especially if going on a solo trip.

Get your shuttles worked out. You don’t want to walk 80 miles in one direction only to realize that you are now 80 miles away from your vehicle with no means of getting back except for retracing your steps. Take two cars, have your buddy help out, or contact a shuttle service to make sure that you get picked up at the end of your journey.

Get mentally prepared. Backpacking isn’t always comfortable, and it isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes it’s taxing, difficult, and uncomfortable. But it’s always rewarding. Don’t look at it like a walk in the park, look at it as a challenge, and be prepared to push yourself.

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