How To Plan a Backpacing Trip

How To Plan a Backpacking Trip: 10 Key Steps

The good news is that if you can hike, you can backpack. In many respects, it’s the simplest form of outdoor exploration: Just put your things in a pack and start walking. But when you think about what it means to be self-sufficient in the wilderness—planning your shelter, food, water, navigation, and more—it can start to sound complicated. We’ve broken the planning process down into 10 steps to help you get started, get organized, and get out there.

This guide will cover:

1.  Where to start: length and timing

2.  How to find a backpacking partner

3.  How to pick a route and get maps

4.  How to get permits

5.  Deciding where to camp

6.  Safety considerations

7.  How to plan transportation

8.  Understanding Leave No Trace principles

9.  What to pack for a backpacking trip

10.  Last-minute checklist

Where to start: length and timing 

When it comes to planning a backpacking trip, the first thing you should consider is length. A good general rule is to plan for five to 10 miles per day when you’re starting out. 

The next consideration is time. If you’re new to backpacking, consider a one- to three-night trip. For your first trip, start with an overnight along a loop or an out-and-back with well-marked trails, plentiful water sources, and established campsites.

How to find a backpacking partner

Planning your first backpacking trip ever? It’s best to go with an experienced friend (or several). There’s nothing better than learning from others. Plus, you’ll benefit from camaraderie if the weather gets rough, and have extra minds to help make decisions.

Meetup groups, affinity groups, local hiking clubs, and other community organizations are great ways to meet new adventure buddies. However, before you go on a multi-day trip with someone, make sure you feel safe and comfortable—both in their outdoor experience level and in your own ability to voice concerns and opinions that you know will be heard. 

How to pick a route and get maps

Start scanning through guidebooks or online trail recommendations for parks, national forests, and other public lands near you. Look for payoffs. Is there a lake or waterfall? Are there overlooks with incredible views? Is it the right season for wildflowers or fall color? Does one route form a loop or an out-and-back that would save you from having to park two different cars at different trailheads? Use these questions to whittle down your list to routes that also meet your length and timing criteria. Scan through a description or a few online trip reports for each route.

Check for challenges as well. Does one route feature way more elevation gain than the others? (About 1,000 feet of vertical gain per day is a good ballpark limit when you’re starting out.) Are there any red flags like lack of reliable water sources, tricky route-finding, or burned zones without shade or shelter? What about seasonal hazards like mosquitoes or deep water crossings?

Finally, do a quick online search to make sure permits are easy to get. Some backpacking trips, like those in Washington’s Enchantments region or along Mt. Rainier National Park’s Wonderland Trail, are so popular that you have to enter a permit lottery many months in advance. 

Next, find a topo map of your route (and brush up on map reading skills). You can either find one online (try a mapping program like Gaia GPS or CalTopo) and print it out, or buy a paper map. USGS.gov is a great source for custom printed maps, and many gear shops sell maps. When you leave for your trip, it’s best to have both a paper map and compass, and a GPS-enabled map either on your phone or on a handheld GPS unit.

How to get the right permits

In popular areas, land managers permit only a certain number of backpackers in an area each day to prevent overcrowding and environmental damage. Before you leave for your trip, make sure you get the appropriate permit. Some are available on demand, while others require reservations.  

First, locate the website of the land manager involved. If your trail is on US Forest Service Land, for example, do an online search to find the ranger district in that area. Navigate to the permits page for that district to find out if you need a permit for overnight trips (many are free and self-issue at the trailhead, but national parks generally charge a fee). Every agency—national parks, BLM, state parks, and others—is different, so contact the appropriate ranger station.

Deciding where to camp   

Say you’ve picked a route that’s 20 miles long, and you have three days and two nights to complete it. In an ideal world, you could walk about seven miles each day and camp wherever you end up. That’s possible in some areas, but many trails have specific designated camping sites. Even in areas where dispersed camping is allowed everywhere, there are advantages to staying in certain places—like next to a water source.

Consult your map. Is there a huge climb on day one? You may want to camp earlier that day. Look for flat ground and a good water source. Online trip reports and guidebooks are great places to get camping suggestions. Maps often feature a little tent icon to indicate designated camping spots. 

In some popular areas, you might need to make reservations for specific campsites, which will determine your itinerary. In many areas, you’ll have more flexibility, so it’s smart to have a few back-up campsites marked on your map in case you go slower (or faster) than expected.

Safety considerations

Always leave word of your plans with a trusted friend or family member. They should know your route, when to expect you back, and who to call if you don’t return on time. In the event of an accident, this information is vital for search-and-rescue teams to do their job. 

Research any hazards that are specific to the route. Do you need to take precautions with food because of bears? Is there a river crossing that could be dangerous due to high water? Are thunderstorms predicted? In general, the riskiest thing about backpacking is driving to the trailhead, but you should be aware of any potential hazards and plan accordingly.

How to plan transportation

Most backpacking trips fall into one of a few general shapes: loop hikes, lollipop-shaped loops, out-and-backs, and point-to-points.

The first three start and end at the same trailhead, so transportation is easy: Simply park your car and be careful not to lose the key on your hike. For a point-to-point trip, you’ll need to shuttle a car or convince a friend to pick you up and bring you back to your vehicle at the end of the trip. Regardless, be sure to remove all valuables from your parked vehicle. Also remove any food or scented items from the car if you’re traveling in bear country. (Though it’s a good idea to leave drinking water in your car.)

When you’re planning transportation, also be sure to double-check that your car can handle the roads between home and the trailhead. Four-wheel-drive required? Make sure you have an appropriate vehicle, or change routes.

What to pack for a backpacking trip 

Download a list of what to pack for a backpacking trip and adapt it to your personal preferences. Here are the key factors to consider.

1.  Group gear: A great way to save weight is to divvy up gear between you and your partners. Decide ahead of time who will bring the stove and cook gear, who will bring the tent, and who will bring the bear canister or other safety equipment, like a first-aid kit.  

2.  Apparel: Make sure you have what you need for the conditions, including warm layers, rain gear, traction for your shoes, gaiters, or a sun hat and UV-proof shirt.  

3.  Tent: Pack appropriate shelter for the group and conditions. Pitch it ahead of time to make sure you have all the poles and stakes, and to familiarize yourself with the setup. You want to be able to pitch your tent in the rain or the dark.

4.  Sleep system: Check the temperature and make sure you have a sleeping bag rated to at least 10 degrees below the coldest temperature you expect. Don’t forget the sleeping pad.

5.  Food and fuel: Make sure you have enough food for your whole trip (3,000 to 4,000 calories per day is a good ballpark for many backpackers, though you might need more on extremely strenuous or cold trips.) Also ensure your group has enough fuel for cooking and boiling water for everyone.

6.  Water: Check your map. If you’ll be going long distances between water sources, make sure you have enough bottles or a big enough water reservoir to carry what you need. Also make sure you have adequate water filtration or purification gear. 

Understanding Leave No Trace

As a backpacker, you’re a steward of the land you explore. When you’re out there, savor the fresh air, mountain streams, and pristine forests. Then, make sure the next person to come along can have the same experience.

What does being a good steward mean? Read the seven principles of Leave No Trace on LNT.org. Make sure you remember things like how far from water sources you should pitch camp, what kind of ground it’s best to camp on, and how to go to the bathroom outdoors.

Also take time to read through the land manager’s website to get a feel for any local ecological or cultural issues like invasive plant species, fragile cryptobiotic soil or alpine tundra, or sacred sites for indigenous people. Bonus: With a deeper understanding of the land, you’ll appreciate your time out there that much more.

Last-minute check-list

Right before you leave, ask yourself these questions;

  • Do I have the right permits?
  • Am I fully packed with enough food and water?
  • Is there any personal medication I need to remember?
  • Is my phone or GPS fully charged? Do I have an extra power source?
  • Do I have extra batteries for my headlamp? 
  • Have I left word with a friend or family member of my whereabouts, and a time they should call the authorities if I’m not back?
  • Have I done a final weather check within 24 hours of leaving? If you’re new to backpacking, consider rescheduling if the forecast is bad. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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