How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking

By Michael Lanza

You can find abundant information online offering advice on how to plan a backpacking trip (including my 12 expert tips)—some of it good and some, frankly, not very thorough. But there’s little advice out there on how to choose where to go backpacking—and many backpackers fail to consider key aspects of trips that greatly affect their experience: They follow an essentially backward decision-making process. The tips below explain the thought process I follow that make my trips better and will do the same for you.

I’ve developed these trip-planning strategies over more than three decades and thousands of miles of backpacking all over the United States and around the world, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and now even longer running this blog.

That experience has not only convinced me that much of the success of any outdoors adventure comes down to everything you do before the trip—but it has also refined how I choose each of the numerous multi-day hikes I take every year.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A backpacker on the Tonto Trail above the Colorado River, Grand Canyon.
Mark Fenton on the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

Here’s what I mean by saying many backpackers follow a backward decision-making process: They pick a place they’re eager to explore—say, Yosemite, Glacier, or the Grand Canyon—and the dates that work for them. I do essentially the opposite: choosing from my long list of trip ideas (which now exceeds 21,000 words) by first considering which of them are best taken during the dates I can go.

See my All Trips List for a long menu of adventures you can read and learn about at this blog, my expert e-guides to numerous five-star backpacking trips, and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can give you a personalized plan for any trip you read about at The Big Outside. And click on any photo below to read about that trip.

Got questions about my tips or any of your own? Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

Gear up smartly for your trips. See a menu of all my reviews and expert buying tips at my Gear Reviews page.

 

A backpacker hiking over Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.
A backpacker hiking over Park Creek Pass in North Cascades National Park.

1. Pick the Right Time of Year

This seems obvious and yet many backpackers get it wrong. My advice: Choose either a place appropriate for your dates or dates appropriate for where you want to go.

You can often find information online—such as at the website of the public land of interest to you—about climate and seasonal variables such as:

  • Average high and low temperatures for each month, sometimes at multiple elevations
  • Average monthly precipitation and times of year when thunderstorms or snowfall occur
  • The hours of daylight on your planned dates
  • When snow melts out at higher elevations
  • When creeks and streams may be dangerous to cross
  • When biting insects are thickest

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.

 

A campsite in Painter Basin below 13,538-foot Kings Peak (right), High Uintas Wilderness, Utah.
Our campsite in Painter Basin below 13,538-foot Kings Peak (right), High Uintas Wilderness, Utah.

For instance, in the bigger mountains of the U.S. West, snow normally lingers at altitudes above roughly 8,000 feet until around mid-July, while lower elevations may be snow-free by mid- to late spring. Mosquitoes and other biting insects emerge right after the snow largely melts out and linger for several weeks—as do the wildflowers. Late summer often brings moderate temperatures, dry weather, and few bugs—and increasingly, as climate change worsens, wildfires, widespread smoke, and poor air quality and visibility. Foliage color arrives by early autumn and snow may return anytime between September (infrequently) and November (more lastingly).

In the desert Southwest, prime seasons for backpacking are spring and fall, but even within those seasons are micro-seasons that bring changes: temps reaching the most comfortable range and snow melting out by sometime between late March and early May (varying with elevation) and often growing hot by mid- to late May or early June; and pleasant temperatures returning by late September or early October. Late October and early November bring foliage color—accompanied by short, cooler days and sometimes scarcer water sources.

My expert e-guides offer detailed advice about the best times of year for each trip and my Custom Trip Planning can help identify the very best time to go for the experience you’re seeking.

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A backpacker on day two on the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.
My son, Nate, backpacking the Ruby Crest Trail, Ruby Mountains, Nevada.

2. Pick a Trip That’s Right for Your Party

A primary consideration in choosing where to backpack comes down to who your companions will be. An appropriate trip looks very different for a group of experienced, strong backpackers versus relative beginners or a young family.

Choose a trip that not only fits into your schedule—including travel time—but also whose length in days and miles matches the abilities and desires of your party.

The length of a multi-day hike will dictate the cumulative fatigue everyone feels (see my tips on training for a hike and on recovering from a hike) and possibly increase your chances of encountering bad weather or developing problems like blisters (see my tips on avoiding those).

See my “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

 

A backpacker on the Teton Crest Trail.
Todd Arndt backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

The number of days you’re on the trail also dictates how much food weight you must carry—and at typically about two pounds of food per person per day, that adds up, especially if you will carry more than your share of your group’s gear or food weight, for instance, if you’re backpacking with young kids.

Backpackers admiring a big bear poop in Glacier National Park.
My friends Todd and Mark admiring a big bear poop in Glacier National Park.

Research any logistics specific to a place or trail, like a scarcity of water sources that may require you and others to carry extra water—which, at two pounds, two ounces per liter, gets heavy very rapidly—and whether bears pose a major concern and hard-sided canisters are required for food storage, which also adds weight and bulk to your pack.

Some places are relatively beginner-friendly, like southern Utah’s Coyote Gulch, Washington’s Olympic coast, and even some trails in Yosemite. In others, multi-day hikes tend to be moderately difficult overall but can have strenuous days, including Grand Teton, Glacier, Yosemite, and Zion national parks, Utah’s High Uintas, Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail, and Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains (lead photo at top of story).

Still other destinations present consistently strenuous and rugged hiking, such as Grand Canyon, North Cascades, Sequoia, and Mount Rainier national parks, Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail, and most of the High Sierra, Colorado Rockies, Wind River Range, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

See my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

 

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Backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

3. Is it Still Possible to Get a Permit?

Most national parks and some other public lands (like national forests in the High Sierra) issue a limited number of backcountry permits based on quotas and have systems for both reserving a permit weeks or months in advance of your trip dates and for acquiring a first-come or walk-in permit right before your trip (including Yosemite’s innovative system for reserving a permit two weeks in advance). An advance reservation obviously provides more assurance, while a walk-in permit is riskier and you may not get the itinerary you want.

A tip: When acting far in advance, consider applying for permits and trips in more than one park for the same dates—the cost is relatively low and that improves your chances of securing at least one assured trip.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

 

Backpackers hiking to Island Lake in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Backpackers hiking to Titcomb Basin in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

If you fail to reserve a permit, plan a trip that doesn’t require a permit reservation or where there are no limits on the number of people in the backcountry, as is true in many national forests and federal wilderness areas. You’ll find many options on the All Trips List at The Big Outside, including Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and almost all of New England, Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, and Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness and Mount Hood’s Timberline Trail.

See my stories “10 Tips for Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit,” “How to Get a Last-Minute National Park Backcountry Permit,” and “15 Great Backpacking Trips You Can Still Take” this year.

I can help you plan any trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

 

A backpacker hiking the Timberline Trail over Gnarl Ridge, Mount Hood, Oregon.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the Timberline Trail over Gnarl Ridge, Mount Hood, Oregon.

4. World-Class or More Obscure?

Besides the competition for limited backcountry permits, national parks are often busy places with more visitors, hikers on trails, services, amenities, and traffic. Still, they are national parks for good reasons—these are deeply inspirational places that everyone should experience, and hiking for days through the wilderness offers the best way to do that.

On the other hand, the more-obscure, out-of-the-way wildlands offer unique qualities like bigger, more rugged, wilder character and genuine solitude along with national park-caliber scenery—plus no permit hurdles to clear.

Hike more than a day into the backcountry of places like the High Sierra, Wind River Range, and Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains—especially in terrain that demands significant effort—and the numbers of other people encountered declines dramatically. And some places—such as Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, the wild and remote Idaho Wilderness Trail, and certainly largely off-trail routes like the Wind River High Route and Sierra High Route (both of which demand expert skills)—remain remarkably lonely.

Start out right. See “8 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners
and “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”

 

A backpacker descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
Todd Arndt descending from Panhandle Gap on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park..

5. Consider a Lesser-Known Area of a Famous Park

Competition for permits in the most-sought-after areas of flagship national parks—or for trails like the John Muir Trail, Wonderland Trail, and Teton Crest Trail—is so high that a large majority of applicants get denied.

A backpacker below Dawn Mist Falls in Glacier National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm below Dawn Mist Falls in Glacier National Park.

But even in popular parks, some backcountry areas see far less demand for permits, such as northern Yosemite, numerous trails in Glacier including parts of the Continental Divide Trail, the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop and Escalante RouteMount Rainier’s Northern Loop, Yellowstone’s Bechler Canyon, and a gorgeous swath of the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park, to name a few examples.

I even enjoyed solitude on most of a solo, 34-mile loop in the Great Smoky Mountains—during the October peak foliage season.

See “Big Scenery, No Crowds: 7 Top Backpacking Trips for Solitude” and “12 Expert Tips for Finding Solitude When Backpacking.”

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. 
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A backpacker hiking to Burro Pass above Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt backpacking to Burro Pass above Matterhorn Canyon, Yosemite National Park.

Lastly, Follow Your Heart… to a Point

What place are you really excited to see? Make it happen—if at all possible.

But accept reality if it’s just not going to work out this year—you didn’t get a permit, the travel logistics don’t work, you don’t have enough time, it’s not the right time of year—and switch to a better plan.

You’ll still have a very enjoyable adventure—and the place you’re dying to see will be there next time.

Looking for the right gear for your backpacking trips? See The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.

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11 thoughts on “How to Decide Where to Go Backpacking”

  1. Hi Michael. I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you. With your love for backpacking and all of your experience, I’m curious as to the reason you prefer multiple shorter trips every year instead of longer thru-hikes or section hikes of the major long trails such as the triple crown trails for example?

    I understand completely the time constraints of thru-hikes. But I’ve always wanted to ask you why you prefer several national park trips yearly to say several 1-2 week section hikes of the longer trails? The reason I ask is because as you know, I’m torn between the two types of trips. I’m just curious for your personal reasons for choosing multiple trips in the same parks every year versus section hiking point A to B over several years until completing the trail.

    Both types of trips have massive appeal for me. Since I’m taking 6 months off for adventure starting next year, I just would love to hear your thoughts as to why you prefer multiple shorter trips.

    Thank you so much for your time,
    Slade

    Reply
    • Hi Slade,

      Good to hear from you, as always, and thanks for the thoughtful question. I’ve been asked it before and have thought about that a lot.

      As with anyone else, much of my answer comes down to personal circumstances. My wife and I have only recently become empty-nesters (or mostly, with two kids in college). Before that, for the past 20+ years, a months-long trip would have been impossible and even more than a week or two away without my family was always challenging to schedule, as many of us can appreciate.

      That said, I have done many section hikes of some major long-distance trails (AT, PCT mostly) up to a week or more and I enjoy that distance. I have an 11-day trip through the High Sierra planned for this summer (my son will join me on it) that will overlap parts of the John Muir Trail (which I’ve thru-hiked completely before) and the Sierra High Route (which is mostly off-trail).

      More philosophically, I’ve always favored hitting highlight sections of long-distance trails over thru-hiking a trail that may require four to five months. That’s not to say that I believe I’ll never thru-hike the PCT or perhaps the Pacific Northwest Trail (the two that hold the most appeal for me, personally). But I suspect there are sections of any really long trail that would not excite me and may seem like just a slog from point A to point B. A months-long thru-hike is more about the experience of living on the trail for an entire season or longer rather than it is about enjoying every mile of a backpacking trip. I suppose that’s where I might always draw my personal line.

      And lastly, I have also met many, many thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and on the PCT who were nearing the end of their journey and clearly had stopped enjoying it long before—they were, by that point, only pushing themselves forward on the energy of determination to finish what they had started, not out of joy. I recall two thru-hikers I encountered on the very last (northernmost) section of the PCT in the Pasayten Wilderness just last September. Typical of too many thru-hikers I’ve met, they were mentally done with the trail—and this couple were both young and very fit, so they weren’t struggling physically as much as many others obviously were. When I asked about their hike, they looked at each other, laughed, and recited together a line they’d obviously repeated many times: “Just say ‘no’ to thru-hiking.”

      I’m sure there are many thru-hikers who enjoy it and even take multiple thru-hikes. But it’s not a small number of people I’ve met whose experience was not as positive.

      I hope that answer helps. This obviously comes down to personal tastes. Good luck with your own adventure plans. Keep in touch.

      Reply
      • Thanks for responding Michael. I knew that was going to be your response but just wanted to hear it. I’ve always wanted to do long thru-hikes, but I also know my personality. I have many outdoor obsessions and trying to fulfill all those needs in a single year is hard enough. Let alone not devoting any time yearly to each passion because I’ve used all my time hiking a single trail for the length of the time I have available. Like you, I’m also not saying that some day I won’t thru-hike those trails. But with a 3 year old that always wants to be outdoors with his daddy, I keep coming back to the most reasonable and diverse planning would be to use my time off doing all the things I love on as many shorter trips that I can yearly instead of only doing one trail for a long distance. Thank you for the advice and your personal thoughts.
        Have a great summer,
        Slade Smith

        Reply
        • Yes, that little guy wants to be with you and you want to be with him (and your wife). I always planned age-appropriate adventures with my family and that has paid off with kids who are now young adults and love taking trips with us. Your priorities are well-placed.

          Reply
  2. Hi Michael. One more question. I bought a cargo van last fall and took it for its inaugural trip to Nantahalla Outdoor Center in North Carolina and did some day hikes summiting some peaks on the Appalachian Trail. Do National Parks in US and Canada allow you to just show up in your van and sleep in the van in order do spend time in the park doing day hikes, trail running, and swimming? Or do you need permits and reservations to use the parks that way also even if you aren’t planning on backpacking into the backcountry.
    Thanks,
    Slade

    Reply
    • Hi Slade,

      Good question. Generally, you can find places to legally get off the road, park, and van camp or pitch a tent in national forests, especially larger ones. That’s usually not the case in national parks in the U.S. or Canada. The parks tend to have regulations dictating where you can and cannot park and camp legally—and, often, nowhere you can actually pull a van off the road to camp, except in designated campgrounds. Many of those require reservations in advance or fill up very quickly if they’re managed first-come, first-served.

      Some parks, including Yosemite and Glacier, have instituted a system requiring a daily pass to enter the park, reserved in advance, in order to control the numbers of people driving into and around those parks each day, particularly in summer. They’ve become that popular.

      In fact, even in some national forests in the East, like the White Mountains in N.H., you cannot just pull over, park, and camp anywhere; there are designated campgrounds for that. Given the larger and higher-density populations in the East, allowing random roadside camping could become a problem quickly, I imagine. Consider the trash and human waste alone, not to mention other problems, like large numbers of people drinking alcohol along roadsides.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Reply
      • Thank you very much. That’s very helpful. Hope you and your family enjoy the rest of winter and have lots planned for 2022.
        Stay safe,
        Slade

        Reply
  3. Hi Michael,

    Hope you’re well. It’s been a while since I’ve reached out. We’ve been busy getting ready to move back to Toronto in May.

    I’ve read every article you’ve ever written and honestly as bad as I want to backpack in all the national parks, I’m concerned it might not be possible. Mine and my wife’s life is extremely hectic, both with work and our personal life. My work just doesn’t allow for me to make park reservations months in advance and apply for permits for “specific” trip dates. I don’t know if I’ll be free and able to get out of town from week to week with my work schedule. Every time in the past when I’ve made detailed plans months even years in advance, something has come up most of the time that prevented me from being able to go.

    I’m spontaneous and have always gone on spur of the moment trips at the last minute when I had a few days and needed to get away. That has always worked better for me with both work and my personality. Do you have any suggestions around the permit and planning months in advance for me? If I reserved dates in any of the major national parks and couldn’t go when the dates arrived, are you allowed to transfer those dates to the following year? If that is allowed, do you know if the same thing works in parks in Canada like Banff, Jasper, Yoho, etc?

    Also, where we are moving is only a 5-hour drive from the Adirondacks, and 7-8 hour drive from both the Green Mountains and White Mountains. Is it possible to show up to those places and hit the trail?

    Thanks for your consideration and thoughts. I greatly appreciate you.

    Thanks,
    Slade Smith

    Reply
    • Hi Slade,

      Good to hear from you again! I’m sorry to hear your work schedule is too hectic to plan trips months in advance. The bad news is that national parks in the U.S. and Canada do not allow you to transfer a permit to other dates; if you can’t use the permit, it expires and you have to reapply for other dates.

      Given that many backcountry permits are not terribly expensive, I would consider still trying to apply for one, two, or three on dates you think you might be able to take a trip and see if you get lucky.

      The good news is that the Adirondacks in northern New York, White Mountains of New Hampshire, and Green Mountains of Vermont are all national forest lands without any permit-reservation system—you can just show up and hit the trail in any of those places. I’ve hiked very extensively throughout the a White Mountains, my favorite range in the Northeast, and I get back there just about every summer at least for a dayhike. I’ve backpacked most of Vermont’s Long Trail and in parts of the Adirondacks, too (though I haven’t written about either at The Big Outside), and I really love the mountains of Maine. This story describes my favorite hikes all over New England.

      For someone with your schedule, you’ve moved to a good place. The Northeast isn’t like the West but I love the rugged, rocky trails there and the alpine summits, in every season, including winter.

      Explore and enjoy. Good to hear from you.

      Reply
      • Hi Michael. Thanks for the prompt response. I figured that’s the way it would be for the National Parks but wanted to ask the expert. I love the Northeast as well and am looking forward to living in close proximity to many beautiful mountain ranges within a days drive. Ontario is a wilderness paradise as far as cycling and paddling but just lacks mountains. The Northeast ranges seem to be my best bet for spur of the moment trips. I’m already eyeing the peak bagging opportunities in the Adirondacks and the Whites.
        Thanks again for the great advice,
        Slade

        Reply