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.

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.”

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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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