Backpacking Tips: Getting you to the Trail on the Right Foot

Pre-Planning Your Next Backpacking Trip

Planning for your next (or first) outdoor adventure is usually met with equal parts anxiety, anticipation and planning_balanceexcitement. For some the excitement so far outweighs the other two that important gear or details are lost or overlooked. While others get so caught up in the anxiety and focus so hard on making sure everything will be perfect that they forget to enjoy the process. And finally the anticipation has a way of clouding realistic expectations of your coming adventure.

During the planning stage of your backpacking trips the best advice I can start with is try to balance out your emotions and enjoy the process from this very beginning stage up to and including the safe return from your adventure.

Truth be told, I really enjoy planning our adventures and obsess over the details leaning towards the side of anxiety; which can lead to packing everything including the kitchen sink, and if I could justify the need for it the only question would be, who’s pack does it go in?! However experience carrying extra weight in the form of books never opened and extra batteries not needed has taught me to find the balance previously discussed.

But really, I do enjoy the planning stage of an adventure. Pouring over the maps, planning routes and laying out gear in rows gets me excited for the adventure soon to come.

Initial Planning

Before diving in and getting serious about the finer details of your coming adventure and the actual building of your backpacking checklist, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

(Don’t forget to poll the other participants and involve them from this beginning stage. Getting everyone involved now will help to ensure the success of your backpacking trip. Plus as an added bonus, if things go comically wrong they can also share in the blame when stories arise around future campfires with the call, “do you remember that one trip?”)

  1. How many people are planning on going?
    – You need a headcount in order to be sure you arrange appropriate transportation, required permits, and            distribution of gear, etc.
    – Keep in mind Leave No Trace principles when considering the size of your group.
    – If your group is of considerable size consider breaking up into smaller subgroups in order to limit the impact on the backcountry terrain you will be visiting.
  2. What is the physical condition of everyone going?
    – This is not to single any one person out but instead to build a successful trip that everyone will enjoy.
    – Even if you have a “weak” hiker consider balancing out those weaknesses by distributing heavier gear to “stronger” hikers.
  3. What are your goals of the trip?
    – Are you just looking to get away from it all with no agenda in mind?
    – Do you have your sights set on an out of the way wilderness location? Maybe a soothing backcountry hot spring, a killer crag you’re hoping to send, or the summit of a majestic peak.
    – Is your trip being organized for a Boy Scout troop, a company team building experience, or simply an outing with friends and family?
  4. How much time do you have available to put aside for the trip?
  5. Weather. What time of year are you going and what are the weather conditions you are likely to encounter?

Narrowing Down Your Options

Now that you have some initial data gathered you should look at all of it and set up your distance and time budget. In other words based on time available and physical condition of the group as a whole, how long of a trip can you tackle?

One of the first things to consider is how many hours a day you will be hiking for. Most beginners will only want to attempt 4-6 hours of actual “on-the-trail” hiking a day. Remember you are doing this for fun and enjoyment not some kind of masochistic test of endurance; that is unless that was one of your goals listed in #3 above!

For sake of example and let’s make a mock plan.

We have five friends going on the hike. A couple of which have done numerous trips and a couple have been car camping and one has never done anything more than explore the local city park on a nice afternoon. All of the people are going are in average physical shape. The group has four days to travel with no specific goal other than to simply get away from the rat race of daily life for a few days.

A lot of backpackers, hikers and trail runners use Naismith’s Rule as a starting gauge to determine how far they can travel in a given day. The basic formula is as follows:

3 miles / hour + 1 hour for every 2,000 ft of elevation gain

Of course there are a lot of factors that go into this formula such as trail conditions, physical ability, weather, weight of pack, etc. I would suggest since we have a beginner, to take the miles/ hour down to 2 and at this stage we do not know what our elevation gain is going to be . Remember this is not a hard rule just a basic idea that has been used by a lot of hikers worldwide and will give us a starting point to begin our planning.

Therefore we have 4 days at 6 hours / day = 24 hours = 2 miles x 24 hours = 48 Miles total.

Remember that is our total miles for all 4 days; you have to make it back to the car by the end of day 4! So therefore we will be looking at a trip that is less that 24 miles one way if we don’t want to take any days off. As a personal preference because it is only a 4 day trip with a beginner this stage of planning would look like this:

Day 1: Hike 12 Miles
Day 2: Hike 6 Miles
– (Begin hike back) –
Day 3:  Hike 6 Miles
Day 4: Hike 12 Miles back to the Trailhead

This plan would give us long afternoons on day 2 and 3 to enjoy our surroundings and take in the beauty that surrounds us. Also keep in mind that this is based on actually hiking for 6 hours per day. Breaks will happen along the way so your six hour hiking day will actually be more like an 8 to 10 hour day before arriving at your first camp. Also keep in mind that you can adjust this according to your own personal preference. I am simply giving you insight to my thought process based on a fictitious trip so that you can plan according to your own comfort level. If this seems like a lot simply take your total trip length down.

For the record I still believe that this is a fairly aggressive example for beginner backpackers and would probably cut it down to 30 miles total for initial planning in this example. Remember if you hike faster you can always add miles to your trip.

It is a lot more difficult and less pleasurable to try and make up miles that are taking longer than expected.

Finding Where to Hike: Fine tuning your plans

For beginning and inexperienced Backpackers this can prove to be the most discouraging stage of the planning process. Try not to let it frustrate you but understand that that this phase can even be frustrating for experienced outdoorsman when looking to explore new areas let alone beginning hikers.

If you choose to begin your searching online, as most of us do; you need to be aware that there are a lot of sites that contain only partial information and leave out important details that can prove critical to planning a successful trip.

Use the internet only as a starting point, and be sure to read comments, take them with a grain of salt and don’t forget to look at how long ago a comment was left so that you can be certain the information isn’t outdated.

In my opinion one of the best places to start narrowing down your trail choice is from local guide books. You can find many available online but better than that, take a trip to your local outdoors store and while you’re there ask the advice of the employees. More often than not they will prove an invaluable source of information and can help you pick out a good guide book that will get you started.

After you have your area narrowed down and maybe even a couple trails you are looking at, I cannot recommend enough the National Geographic Illustrated trail maps. They are durable and weather resistant. If they have one available for the area you are going to be visiting I suggest picking one up. My collection is getting rather large and they have lasted through my abuse, which says a lot especially when you know they have been packed in the same pack as the kitchen sink!

The next stop would be to visit the governing bodies website responsible for managing the areas you plan on visiting. For example the National Forest Service or the National Park Service sites will be able to give you details regarding when the trail is open and more importantly who to call to get the most up to date information straight from the source.

My advice here is to make a call and be prepared to ask questions. These questions will help you move to the next step when gathering equipment and supplies for your trip. Don’t be afraid of calling the wrong person. In my experience i’ve found most people very helpful in giving me advice and directing me to the correct office so that I can speak to who I need to in order to accurately get my questions answered.

What to ask when you call:

  1. Ask about trail conditions, this includes any trail maintenance that may be going on during the time you plan on going.
  2. What camping regulations are in place?
    – Where can you camp and what kind of permits are required if any. Do they limit group size?
  3. Do you want to take your four legged friend? Ask if they are allowed.
  4. Recent animal sightings that have been reported.
    – On this note many areas require that you store food in a Bear Vault or know how to properly store a bear bag.
  5. Is there water available to collect at your destination or along the trail?
  6. Are campfires allowed and if so what are the rules regarding wood harvesting.
  7. How busy is the area for the time of year you are traveling?
  8. What parking is available at the trailhead?
  9. What are some good nearby alternative trails to look at as a back up?
  10. How difficult is the trail?

Final Thoughts

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong”
-Yvon Chouinard

Armed with all of the knowledge and research you have done, hopefully you have found a trail that will provide the adventure you are looking for and fit the criteria that has been laid out. Also i’m sure that you are now armed with more than a couple backup ideas and/or future adventures.

Having gotten this far, keep in the back of your mind that the backpacking game is full of surprises and I can guarantee that unplanned situations will arise. The good news is that the more thorough you are during this pre-planning phase the better equipped you will be to make adjustments to your plans as the need arises.

I completely believe that the better you can learn to take the unplanned surprises in stride, the more you will be able to confidently adapt, continue on, and enjoy what the wilderness has planned for you.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Backpacking Tips: How to Pack for Success Part 1 – The Outside Voice

Comments are closed.