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How to Plan a Backpacking Trip: 10 Critical Steps

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip: 10 Critical Steps

It’s an exhilarating experience. You have walked into the woods carrying everything you need to survive and are now going to eat, sleep, and live outdoors. The backcountry is now your home. But there is a lot to consider before you can safely savor a night in the woods.

Whether you’re new to backpacking or if you’re a seasoned backpacker looking for trip planning ideas, here are ten steps to help you plan and organize your next (or first) multi-day trip.

Before you go…

It’s worth saying, be sure you are in proper physical condition before heading out. This is not a day hike, and you will be carrying significant additional weight. There are numerous exercise plans/recommendations out there, so just find one that works for you. Consider doing a day hike with your full gear load and see how it feels. If you’re not ready, keep training until you feel confident. The mountains will wait for you.

How to plan a backpacking trip in 10 steps:

1. Decide where to go

There are innumerable beautiful places to camp, and your destination will tell you a lot about what you’ll need for your trip. State and National Parks offer excellent backpacking opportunities, with plenty of information and support for visitors. A good place to go for your first outing.

Is camping allowed? Some popular day hiking routes are day-use only and may not allow overnight camping. If camping is allowed, check the specific rules like how far to camp from a trail or water source, or whether you are required to use established tent sites or shelters.

Popular area? This can be a mixed blessing. If you are new to backpacking, staying near other people can be helpful as hikers often share stories and advice. However, if you’re looking for solitude, you might consider going midweek when the trails are quieter.

On a trip to a very popular spot in the Adirondacks with my brother, we stayed at a tent site a short distance from the crowded group site. We had the benefit of people nearby if we needed them, but we also enjoyed a quiet moment when an owl visited our site.

 2. Gather Intel

Whatever your destination, get a copy of the latest edition guidebook and map for the location. Some of these will pinpoint tent sites and shelters, water sources, or special views or features.

Next, speak to local experts. Consider calling the local park ranger or outdoor specialist in the area to get further guidance. This can save you a long drive if your destination is off-limits due to storm damage, or may tell you what animals are active in the area.

3. Decide when to go

If you’re just starting out, definitely start in a milder season like summer or early fall. Spring can be icy and wet, and winter camping requires specialized expertise and is definitely not for first-timers. Also, depending on your region, you may encounter more bugs at certain times of the year, or limited water sources in the hotter months. Fall is a lovely time in the northern U.S., but it can get cool at night, even freezing.

Be sure to check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Consider going on a weekend or a time when you are likely to meet other backpackers. It’s a great community and I have learned so much by chatting with others.

4. How many nights

If it’s your first time out, begin with a shorter trip for one night. There are plenty of interesting trails out there where you’ll get the sense for the wilderness without trekking too far. Multi-night trips are super fun, but require a little more planning as you’ll need extra food for each person/day.

My daughter and I began by hiking a short section of the Long Trail in Vermont. In less than 2-miles we arrived at a shelter for the night, had plenty of energy left to explore the area, and had a short walk out the next day. We have since hiked a little further each time.

5. Tent, shelter or hut

There are several options for shelter systems, and which you choose will depend on your interest, location, comfort level, and budget.

Tents – These are the most common option for shelter, and with many varieties to choose from. Consider the number of people using the tent, and how much it weighs. Some folks like to use a tent rated for one extra person (2 people using a 3P tent) to allow ample room for gear inside the tent.

This means a slightly heavier tent, but can give you a little comfort at night or on a rainy day. There are also one-person tents if you and your friends want to do your own thing. (Or if your teenager refuses to share a room with mom or dad!) Backpacking tents are also designed with minimal structure and lighter fabrics to reduce the weight and pack into a smaller space.

So, before you reach for that old tent in your basement, consider how much weight it will add to your pack. Chances are you may want to invest in a new system.
Adirondack Shelter

Shelters – Fixed, permanent shelters are found on many trails and in state and national parks. These are 3-4 sided rustic structures that typically sleep 4-8 people. Most are built from logs and natural materials to fit-in to their surroundings, and some are considered historic. They are usually located near a water source, and may have a fire ring.

Just be aware you may be sharing the shelter with strangers, and possibly rodents. And before you leave the tent at home, check and see if the shelter has been reserved already, or if it’s a popular hiking weekend. Most shelters are first-come, first-served, so you may want to leave earlier on Friday to reserve your spot. But if it is full, you’ll need that tent.

Adirondack Shelter

Huts – These differ from shelters in that they provide a fully-enclosed lodging facility with beds, meals, staff, and running water. Huts are found in many states like the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Hut system in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Huts do require reservations and can be costly depending on the season and how long you stay.

But they can be a great way to introduce you and your family to the fun of trekking overnight into the mountains.

6. Plan your route

There is a lot to consider when selecting your route, like the distance, topography, difficulty level, and water sources. Other considerations include the type of trail and any unique views or features.

If you’re just starting out, try choosing a shorter, easier trail, then work your way up to the longer hikes. Also consider the topography, hikes with a lot of elevation gain (or loss) are far more challenging, especially with a heavier pack. If there is a mountain or feature to explore, consider camping at the base and exploring from there.

See if the trail has a documented difficulty rating, which typically include: easy, moderate, or strenuous. Again, try for that “easy or moderate” rating in the beginning. Also note if the trail makes a loop, or is an out-and-back, or point-to-point trail. Loops are great because the views are always different, but an out-and-back trail can be helpful as the return route will be somewhat familiar to you.

Water is critical on the trail, and remember you will be using much more than on a typical day hike. You’ll need drinking water for each day, cooking water, hygiene water, and dishwashing water. Finally, are there any unique or fun views or features you won’t want to miss? If you’re bringing the kids, find a fun destination like a lake or waterfall to keep their spirits up.

7. Decide on what to bring

In addition to your basic day hiking essentials, here is a list of some specific backpacking items you will need:

  • Tent/shelter
  • Tent footprint
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Food storage system (bear canister or sack)
  • Food for all meals/snacks
  • Water carried or sources identified
  • Water purification system (and a back-up)
  • Change of clothing (socks!)
  • Waterproof/resistant bag for clothes
  • Camp shoes (sneakers or Crocs)
  • Cooking system
  • Dishes & utensils
  • Bio-degradable dish soap
  • Hygiene items
  • Small sack for short adventures

Backpacking burns a lot of energy, so you will need a solid menu of carbs and protein to keep you going. Pre-packaged freeze-dried backpacker meals are great because they are lightweight and have a lot of the calories you’ll need. They come in a wide range of meals, including vegetarian and vegan options.

They can be pricey, so consider preparing your own trail meals. Remember they typically require boiling water, otherwise you’ll be crunching your way through that Mexican rice dish like we did one time!

Cooking Dinner

8. Food & Water

Snacks are key, too. These will keep you going on the trail and fill-in between meal times when you can’t stop and cook. Dried fruit, nuts, cookies, cheese sticks, Pop-tarts, and granola bars are all good. Dried seaweed is a good vitamin/salt boost and weighs almost nothing. Hiking with kids? Let them pick the snacks and they’ll be happier.

Water is critical and you will definitely need to treat any water you find in the backcountry. Do not leave home without a water treatment system like a filter, and have a back-up option like tablets in case the filter breaks of clogs. These options allow you to carry only the water you’ll need for the day, then collect what you need for camp as you go.

9. Safety / contingency considerations

Safety is first and foremost, so when you know your backpacking destination pay special attention to things like weather and animals, and have a contingency plan. What is this location like in your hiking season? Is it overly wet, or exceedingly dry? Is there still ice and snow in the higher elevations in early summer? Can I expect a snow squall or sudden sleet?

The weather in the valley is not the weather on the ridge, so be sure to get the most accurate forecast for your location and route. Check with your local ranger station or hiking club to get the current trail conditions and forecast before you head out. On the Presidential Range of NH, frigid northern air currents can eclipse warm, moist valley air to create winter-like conditions, even in summer.

Hypothermia can happen any time of year. Animals are beautiful to see, but less so when they’re in your tent. So be sure to find out what animals are active in your hiking area, and take proper precautions. This might include using a bear canister, carrying bear spray, or avoiding certain areas altogether.

Prepare for contingencies. In addition to 911, write down the numbers for local emergency services and print out the route to the nearest hospital or medical aid. Your phone may not work in the backcountry, so having this information ahead of time is one less thing you’ll have to think about. Lastly, have a safety call person.

Choose someone who will be available and in a position to seek help in the event you are not in contact with them by a certain date and time.

10. Plan it. Write it. Share it.

Now that you have your detailed backpacking plan: write it down. Document the who, what, when, where, and how of your trip. Include the start time, the route, the gear you’re carrying, navigation equipment, which map edition you’re using, to the estimated end time. Identify all people in your party, who the leader is, as well as any alternative routes or destinations you might explore.

Include all of the contingency information and the cell numbers of each member of your party.

Finally: Share your plan with your safety call person, other trusted friends or family, and consider leaving a copy in your car and at the local ranger station or hiking club, or hotel where you stayed. This information is invaluable to rescue personnel.

You can do this!

You’ve planned, trained, practiced, made a contingency plan, and loaded your pack. Now you can head-out with confidence, an eye for the conditions you’ll meet, and most of all – a keen sense for adventure. Happy backpacking.


Up Next In Backpacking:

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