By Michael Lanza
Wilderness backpacking opens new worlds to us. While dayhiking can bring you to many beautiful places in nature, walking for days through the backcountry, carrying all you need on your back, inspires a liberating sense of self-sufficiency and solitude as you escape the crowds to explore places most people never see. This article lays out in 12 detailed steps all you need to know to plan a wilderness backpacking trip that’s safe and enjoyable for everyone on it.
Three decades (and counting) and thousands of miles of backpacking all over the United States and around the world have convinced me that most of the success of any backpacking trip depends on how you plan and prepare for it. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for planning a backpacking trip of any length from this article, which draws from my experience as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and many years running this blog.
Having made just about all the backpacking mistakes you can make when I was a newbie years ago and read about countless accidents, I will tell you this: “Epics” and accidents often result from bad planning or a simple lack of awareness of potential problems and hazards. That’s entirely avoidable.
I’d love to read what you think of my tips or any tricks of your own that help you plan your trips. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
1. Pick the Place
Where do you want to go backpacking? That’s the first question to consider, and the answer often draws the inspiration from a specific destination. Like many novice backpackers, one of my first trips was in Yosemite (and my most popular e-guide is “The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite”).
But new backpackers commonly commit the error of choosing a destination for their fixed vacation dates without considering the many factors that determine not only the ideal time of year for that trip, but also when you cannot take it. For example, many mountain ranges are inaccessible (without advanced skills and technical gear) for most of the year because of deep snow—trails may not become passable for hiking until June or July. Many also consistently receive a lot of rain and have thick clouds of mosquitoes at certain times of year, either of which can put a real damper on the experience.
Flip that flawed thinking around: Choose dates appropriate for your desired trip, or if your dates are not flexible, choose a trip appropriate for your dates. Do some research on the most special aspects of a destination and what times of year are best to see them, such as wildflowers, waterfalls, foliage color, or simply better weather.
Find ideas for your backpacking adventures in my All Trips List.
2. Plan Ahead
I can’t remember the last backpacking or hiking trip I took without planning months in advance. Some destinations—particularly close to home, if they don’t require a permit reservation—may not require much advance planning. But the more complicated your life, the less likely you can pull off a last-minute getaway that entails multiple logistics and people.
Plan and make all needed pre-trip arrangements, from reserving any required backcountry permit to arranging any needed transportation and lodging.
• When and how to apply for a backcountry permit if one is required—which may be months in advance of your trip dates, and has to be reserved on the first day possible for popular parks like Grand Teton, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Glacier, and Grand Canyon. See my “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit.”
• Topographical trail maps that and a good description of your route, including section distances, difficulty, and details about any sections that require special skills or a comfort level with scrambling, exposure, water crossings, or other challenges and potential environmental hazards.
• Current trail and road conditions and seasonal or temporary closures due to unmaintained roads, wildfire, washouts, or other causes (often available at a park’s website).
• Travel logistics.
• Important regulations such as backcountry camping and party-size restrictions.
• Seasonal recommendations or restrictions.
• Seasonal climate and weather information.
• Water sources: If they are limited, know where they are and how much water you have to leave each source carrying—including whether you’ll need extra water if your next campsite lacks water.
• Wildlife concerns (more below).
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3. Choose a Route That’s Right for Everyone
Whether a family, your favorite person, or a group of friends, the group’s pace and some choices will inevitably be dictated by the slowest and least-comfortable person—who may be a child or an adult. If your trip plan isn’t designed with that person in mind, you will likely have problems.
I typically plan trips following one of these two strategies, and they usually—by intentional design for the benefit of everyone—result in very different experiences:
- If the trip involves is a specific, challenging adventure—climbing a mountain or backpacking a challenging route, for instance—choose partners who have the physical stamina, skills, and comfort level for everything you will encounter.
- If the trip’s goal is a fun adventure for a specific group of people—your family or any mix of people with a range of experience, stamina, and abilities—choose a destination and plan an itinerary that’s going to be enjoyable for everyone, including the slowest, least-experienced members of the group.
Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my downloadable, expert e-guides.
Choose a destination and daily hiking distances that everyone can handle—keeping in mind that the cumulative elevation gain and loss affects the difficulty at least as much as the distance. (See my expert tips in my story “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”) Consider how trail quality and conditions—whether it’s extremely rocky or muddy or steep—or places with difficult scrambling or significant exposure will affect everyone in the group, weighing both their emotional comfort and their safety.
Plan a trip that’s appropriate for everyone in your group and you’ll all enjoy it more.
Insider Tip: Whether it’s family or friends, to avoid the pitfalls that can arise related to tip no. 3, get everyone’s buy-in by involving them in the planning.
4. Craft a Sensible Itinerary
Create an itinerary that’s appropriate for the time you have—trying to cram too much into too short a timeframe can force you to overextend yourself and compromise everyone’s enjoyment.
Avoid these mistakes:
• Squeezing your travel time so tightly that your entire trip could be ruined by a delayed flight or bad traffic. When traveling to remote locations, taking multiple flights (especially in winter, when delays due to bad weather are not uncommon), plan for delays.
• An itinerary that entails hiking more miles each day than is right for your group.
• Travel plans that deprive everyone of adequate sleep. When traveling across several time zones, expect to need sleep when you arrive at your destination.
Tap into my experience planning your next trip. See my Custom Trip Planning page.
5. Talk to Someone Who’s Done It
Even after four decades of hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, and paddling, I always try to tap into the knowledge base of someone who’s either done the specific trip I’m planning or something similar or in the same park or general area.
Every time I do that, I learn something unexpected.
That person could be someone you know, or any number of people with experience on the hike you’re planning: a backcountry ranger, a member of a hiking club, or an employee at a local outdoor-gear shop or another business near the destination. Ask questions and you’ll often get useful answers.
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6. Have Gear That Works
Many of us get by with more-affordable gear when we’re starting out. But it still should meet a minimum threshold of functionality: It must perform well enough not only to survive more than one trip—otherwise, you’ve wasted your money—but to ensure against an unpleasant or even dangerous experience. An uncomfortable backpack can morph into a despised object. Inadequate or poorly fitting boots or a sleeping bag lacking sufficient warmth might make your trip a misery. A tent that fails poses real risks. You get the idea.
Are you taking a first trip with new gear—or your first-ever backpacking trip? Don’t head out for several days without giving new gear a test drive:
• Walk around in new boots, even on short, local hikes or around town, to make sure they’re not going to cause blisters, that they feel good—adequately supportive, not too hot—and to help break them in if needed. See my “8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking.”
• Pitch a new tent in your yard to familiarize yourself with it, just in case strong wind or steady rain greet you the first time you pitch it in the backcountry.
• Assemble all of your gear and food for the trip at home and load your pack the day before you depart, to get a sense of how best to organize everything in your pack and how it’s going to feel on your back once loaded. See my “Video: How to Pack a Backpack.”
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight backpacks.
Insider Tip: Loading your pack pre-trip helps you see whether you’re overpacking. See my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.”
See my expert gear-buying tips in these stories:
“The 10 Best Down Jackets”
“5 Expert Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack”
“5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent”
“How to Choose the Best Ultralight Backpacking Tent for You”
“5 Expert Tips For Buying a Rain Jacket For Hiking”
“Expert Tips For Buying the Right Hiking Boots”
“Pro Tips For Buying Sleeping Bags”
And don’t miss my “10 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”
Read all of this story and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!
7. Bring Clothing Layers for the Expected Weather
If the best weather forecast for the area where you’re backpacking provides conditions for the valleys, know that it will likely be at least 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in the mountains where you’re hiking. On average, the air temperature drops three to four degrees Fahrenheit for every thousand feet of elevation gain (or nearly 10 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 meters). The sun gets more intense at higher elevations, too, which means it feels warmer when the sun is out, but also cools off quickly when the sun sets or disappears behind clouds.
See my reviews of:
8. Don’t Overpack Food
This may seem counterintuitive, but the fact is that for the vast majority of backpacking trips, whether for a weekend or a week or more, we plan a specific number of days and finish when expected. These trips don’t generally turn into survival epics. You don’t need to carry several pounds more food than you intend to eat.
Over more than three decades of backpacking, I’ve underestimated how much food I needed only a few times. Like probably most backpackers, at least when we’re relative novices, I have far more often carried an unneeded surplus of food the entire length of a hike.
Follow these two tips from my story “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking:”
• Bring enough, of course, but plan exactly what you’ll eat every day and weigh your food. Most people won’t consume more than two pounds a day, and some will eat less; by weighing and experimenting, you’ll quickly learn how much you need.
• Think of your food both as a steadily diminishing weight and something you’ll carry at least a portion of every day. Eat your heaviest dinner the first evening. You will carry your final meals for days—the pound you carry for 50 miles before eating it demands roughly five times as much energy from you as the pound you consume within the hike’s first 10 miles. Make those last meals as light as possible.
Bring foods everyone will want to eat—which is especially important with young kids. You can put together simple, satisfying meals with a combination of non-perishable and perishable food (avoiding anything that will spoil within a day). My wife and I would plan backpacking meals that were simple but satisfying and that our kids would eat, like cooking real pasta and adding a store-bought pesto that’s portable in a pack and keeps for a couple of days, mac ‘n’ cheese, and burritos. We also brought plenty of snacks our kids would eat, to ensure they’re getting enough calories, including lots of chocolate.
Get the right tent for you. See “The 8 (Very) Best Backpacking Tents” and “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Backpacking Tent.”
9. Know the Environmental Hazards
Many accidents in the backcountry result from what may appear to be a grievous and obvious misjudgment, but really come down to people not understanding the environmental hazards. In fact, blaming accidents on “stupidity” runs the risk of assuming that “smart people like us” could never make such a mistake.
But all of us who venture into wilderness enter unfamiliar environments at some point. Knowing the environmental hazards one can encounter in them looms critical to recognizing them and taking necessary precautions to keep yourself and your companions safe.
Common hazards encountered in certain environments include:
• Extreme heat
• Extreme cold
• Severe weather such as heavy rain, snow, wind, thunderstorms, and whiteout fog
• Firm, frozen snow and ice on steep terrain
• Difficult and exposed terrain
• Water crossings
• Flash floods or rising rivers due to heavy rain or daily temperature swings accelerating upstream snowmelt
• Getting swept downstream or over a waterfall from wading into a river or standing on smooth rock at its edge, where a pulse of the current can sweep you off your feet
• Rockfall from above in steep terrain, possibly triggered by other people
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
10. Have a Plan Every Day
The notion of letting every day simply happen however it unfolds has a certain appeal when you’re going out to spend several days in nature—after all, it’s not supposed to feel like work, right?
However, not giving any thought to how you will structure each day, and how much time is needed for each day’s hiking distance, is really a conscious decision to hand over the day’s plan—and how well each day goes—to the people in your party who are the least likely to understand what makes a trip go smoothly. They are typically the least experienced, slowest moving (in camp as well as on the trail), least motivated, and most likely to sleep in as late as possible.
The frequent outcome of having no plan is that the people who determine your fate—who may be children or adults—are simultaneously the least likely to understand the consequences of having no plan and the ones most likely to be unhappy with the trip unfolding in ways they did not expect and do not enjoy.
Get my expert help planning your next trip. Click here now!
11. Be Aware of Wildlife Risks
Virtually any backcountry destination has animals that represent some kind of threat, from the remote but highly consequential chance of a bear attack down to mice and other small critters getting into your food.
On many public lands, a bear canister or other appropriate backcountry food-storage system may be required. Some national parks, like Glacier, require all parties taking multi-day hikes to view a video on backpacking in bear country, or read or listen to safety precautions regarding other potentially dangerous wildlife, such as rattlesnakes and large animals like moose.
The fauna varies with the environment. While I have never had a dangerous encounter with a bear or other predator, I’ve definitely come closer to grizzly bears than felt comfortable, and I have lost food to black bears in mountains, ravens in the desert, and mice and other rodents just about everywhere. Find out which animals are of concern wherever you’re going.
See my blog post “Ask Me: Should I Hike or Backpack Solo in Bear Country?”
12. Start Small and Easy
If you’re new to backpacking, don’t attempt a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail or Appalachian Trail as your inaugural trip—even a week is a lot of days when you’re testing out your gear, your packing system, and your skills for the first time.
Take at least one or two short, first shakedown trips for one or two nights. Discovering what you forgot to bring and really need, or everything you brought that you don’t really need and is making your pack too heavy, or that your sleeping bag isn’t warm enough or your air mattress isn’t comfortable, loom as relatively small problems on a short outing compared to a week or more in the wilderness.
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