How to Plan a Backpacking Trip
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
When you've got all your gear, broken in your boots and packed your pack it's time to plan your backpacking trip. You can wing it but a little pre-planning will go a long way in making your trip enjoyable and safe.
If you are going car camping you can just throw a bunch of stuff in the car and head out but when you are heading into the woods on foot you need to make sure you have everything you need for the duration of the adventure you have planned.
There are a number of factors that go into planning out your trip. Each time I go on a trip I use this list to work out what I need. By taking a little time and working the checklist I make sure I don't forget anything. Nothing is worse than not having batteries for your headlights or bringing the wrong clothing for the temperatures you can expect to see.
Where are you going?
This will lead to the rest of the questions you need to answer. Where you go and the environment in contains will dictate what you and the concerns you will need to address.
For instance, if you head to the deserts of Utah then you probably aren't going to be running hammock as you sleep system as trees are few and far between.
When researching where to go will depend on how you are going to get there. I have a list of places I can drive to and dream locations I have to fly into.
How long you are willing to drive will dictate what might fall into the catchment area. An easy way is to figure out how far you are willing to drive and draw a circle of that distance from your location. Depending on where you live this can mean a wealth of cool locations or a whole lot of flat if you live in the middle of the continent.
I like to limit it to 7-8 hours which translates to about 750 kilometers or about 500 miles. Where I live in Ontario, Canada near Toronto means I can go north in Ontario with Michigan to the west, New York and Pennsylvania to the south, and the Adirondacks in upstate New York to the east.
For those in my area in southwest Ontario, here is a list of destinations I can recommend:
La Cloche Trail, Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario
Highland and Western Uplands Trails, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario
Rock City State Forest, New York
Black Forest Trail, Slate Run, Pennsylvania
Hammersley Wilderness Area, Cross Fork, Pennsylvania
Tracy Ridge Trails, Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania
Adirondack High Peaks, Lake Placid, New York
These are some of the areas I've backpacked that are within driving distance. Do some research and make yourself a list. If you are in the U.S. then search for state and national parks and forests as well as Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas. A simple Google search of "best backpacking in (your state or province here)" will help get you started.
Generally in the U.S., any national or state forest has free camping while you have to pay at parks. In Canada, it is similar but free camping is on crown land. If you are looking for free camping to go with your backpacking, you will find a lot more of it in the U.S.
When looking for backpacking areas, I also like to spend time looking at maps which as become a lot easier with online maps such as Google Maps and www.Openstreetmap.org
Starting with Google Maps I will look for the areas of green and then zoom in. Once you know the name of the park or area you can then check it our on Openstreetmap to see if there are trails. From there do a search to see what government agency is responsible for it to see what the rules and regulations are.
Another useful tool is the Alltrails app. You can use the app on your phone or the website to see the trails in a given area. You can check out other people's routes and see what they thought of a trail. It serves double duty as you can load the maps and use it on your phone for navigation when in the field.
From there you can see if there are any guidebooks or websites that give in-depth detail about hikes in the area. For instance if you are in the northeast then check out www.midatlantichikes.com which covers Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. There are many sites like this that can help you find a great hike you haven't done yet.
How long and how far are you going to hike?
Often this is the one that comes first. You have a certain number of days free and then you need to figure out what to do with them. The time you have will have a bearing on where you go. If you are only doing a weekend then a long point to point hike or loop is out of the question.
When figuring out a route you need to figure out how long you are planning on covering per day. If you are new to backpacking is smart to choose an area that has a lot of smaller loops so you can cut it short if you need to. It takes the experience to know how far you can cover per day. On your first backpacking trip, I would suggest short days, limiting your distance to 5-10 kilometers per day.
Once you've done a few trips you will be able to estimate how much is reasonable to hike per day. If you are going in a group then you will need to plan the distance based on the slowest person. Communicate openly about what your capabilities are and let others know what you are aiming to accomplish with the trip. Whether you are the fastest or slowest, talking about it ahead of time will save a lot of conflict on the trail.
Always give yourself a buffer as most workplaces aren't sympathetic that you miss time because you ended up out an extra day.
When planning your trip you need to keep in mind that travel time takes up a chunk of the first and last day. We often leave right after work on a Friday to maximize our trail time but that will often mean a late-night drive with your hike starting with less than adequate sleep. When I was younger this wasn't a problem but as I get older I don't run off of adrenaline as well now we often have an Airbnb booked so we don't have to find a campsite at 2 am.
I try to limit my drive to 3 hours if we are just going for the weekend and save the long drives when we have 4 days or longer. This helps maximize your time on the trail.
Where are you going to camp?
Once your day of hiking is done you need to make camp. Most areas with developed trails have established campsites so it is good to have it worked out by checking the map or other online resources. If you are backpacking in an area that doesn't require reservations then have a backup plan as the campsites in these areas are first-come, first-serve. For parks that require you to book your site then it is just a case of getting there. Don't be too optimistic as far as distance goes because on a busy weekend you might not be able to find an empty site before you get to the one you booked.
Depending on the regulations of an area you can also wild camp which means choosing and preparing your own site. A good rule of thumb for these occasions is to be 200 feet from the trail and water sources. You want your site to be relatively flat unless you are using a hammock.
Whatever your sleep system you need to always look up and around to make sure there are no dead trees or branches that can fall on you if the wind picks up.
If you are planning on hitting a provincial or national park you will often have to book campsites ahead of time. Depending on the area you might need to reserve months in advance. Research the park and trail you are looking to hike as some will limit the number of people they allow on the trail per day.
Parks that require reservations aren't the best for last-minute trips unless it is in the offseason. Since most have online booking, you can check availability before heading out.
What season are you going?
Each season has its challenges. In Summer it's bugs and heat, while in winter it is the cold and traction.
Research the coldest temperature on record for an area and bring the clothing and sleep system to manage it even if you won't get that cold.
In late fall into early spring always bring micro-spikes or trail crampons as you don't know when you might come across icy trails, especially if you are headed into the mountains.
If the snow is more than 8 inches deep then you will want to have snowshoes with you as well. Don't be the person who creates potholes on the trail. They harden and become a hazard for hikers coming after you.
Check the weather forecast before you head out as a cold snap or heavy rain can change your gameplan. If they are projecting thunderstorms then stay off of high areas such as ridges and summits.
Flash floods can be a danger as well so check with local rangers or park authorities
You can get both paper maps and digital maps for both GPS and your phone. Local outdoors stores often have a selection maps for the region while you can find just about anything online.
You can download Openstreetmap.org maps for Garmin GPS for free. The maps available cover the whole world but are most detailed for North America.
National Geographic has a collection of quality trail maps for many areas in the Canada and U.S.
Unlostify has great maps for Ontario, Canada.
When you head out you should have a check-in buddy who know where you are going, your route, when you will check in with them and who to contact if you don't check-in.
I also recommend carrying a satellite communicator such as the Garmin Inreach or Spot X, which allows you to call back to civilization even if you don't have cell service. These units also have an SOS function that will mobilize a rescue if are injured or in a situation, you can't rectify yourself. These devices require a service plan to be activated before you go out.
Gear Check List
- coming soon!
Food and Fuel
When hiking the average person needs at least 3000 calories per day to maintain their energy. This can go up or down depending on your size and how long and fast you hike. A good rule is to take your weight and times it by 15 for an approximation of how many calories you will need per day. If you stick to dehydrated and calorically dense food this will translate into 1.5-2 lbs of food per day.
As far as fuel goes, it will depend on what type of stove you use, how many people you are cooking for and how many times a day you cook. Your stove will have a listing for how much fuel it uses to boil a liter of water. From this you will be able to figure out how much you will need per meal. Once you've calculated how much fuel you need, I suggest adding 20% as a buffer.
I only cook breakfast and dinner so a 4 oz can of iso-butane is more than enough for a weekend trip and an 8 oz can will do me for a week.
By working through this list it will help you be better prepared for your backpacking trips. Regardless of how experienced you are work through your checklists because it is easy to forget something that can take a trip from being fun to being a dangerous epic.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard