How to Plan a Backpacking Trip in 12 Simple Steps
Whether you are a beginner backpacker or have been tramping around the woods for years, there’s a number of questions to ask when you are planning an overnight backpacking trip. Where should I go? Do I need a permit? What should I eat? …to name a few.
In this blog post, we break down how to plan a backpacking trip into 12 simple steps so you feel more organized and confident (and less overwhelmed) as you get ready for your adventure. By following this step-by-step backpacking guide, you will be able to easily plan your backpacking trip from start to finish, knowing that you aren’t forgetting any important details.
#1: Pick a date for your backpacking trip
Figuring out when is the first step in how to plan a backpacking trip. Your dates will dictate where you can go due to weather (unless you want to snow camp). If you want to go in January, then you’ll be limited to places like So Cal, Arizona, and Florida (luckily we have itineraries in those spots!). If it’s summer, then you’ll want to hit the mountains.
If you are a newbie, 1-2 nights is good for you to get a trip under your belt. You’ll be able to answer a lot of questions after that first hike. What gear worked. Whether you brought the right amount of food. What pace you like to hike at, etc. If you are more seasoned and have the time off, then consider going for longer. The longer you’re out there, the more time you have to decompress and reap all the benefits of being in the wilderness.
#2: Pick a trail for your backpacking trip
When you plan a backpacking trip, picking a trail can be a little overwhelming with some many awesome places to choose from. Ask yourself:
- How far do you want to hike? If you are new to hiking, 5-6 miles a day is a good target. Remember, if you aren’t used to carrying a lot of weight, then backpacking will be more challenging than a regular day hike. The average confident backpacker can usually cover somewhere in the range of 8-12 miles depending on how much elevation gain there is.
- How difficult of a trail do you want?
- What major features are you looking for? Big mountain landscapes? A lake? Waterfalls?
- Is solitude a MUST?
Get an idea in your head of what kind of experience you want to have. Then start checking out trail descriptions and plan a backpacking trip that aligns with your requirements.
Here are a few good beginner backpacking trails:
Get more backpacking trail ideas with our favorite trail finder apps
#3: Check permit requirements & get a permit if you need one
So you found a trail that looks awesome for the time of year you want to hike. Before you get too excited and start making plans, check to see if a permit is required. Many trails, especially popular trails in National Parks, require wilderness permits that need to be reserved months in advance. Many of the more popular backpacking trails (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc) are allocated by lottery up to 4 or 5 months in advance. If you google the trail, you can usually find permit requirements on the federal or state agency’s website. We’ve also put together a post about permit deadlines for the most popular hikes we’ve written about.
Depending on where you are backpacking, your permit may have additional requirements. For instance, if you are traveling in bear country (Sierras, Montana, Wyoming etc), it’s likely that you’ll be required to carry your food and scented items in a bear-proof container or bag.
#4: Invite your friends (or commit to going solo)
If you want company, try to round-up a few friends who want to join you. Give them a call or put a note out on Facebook. If that doesn’t work and you are unable to find anyone you know to go with, you have a couple of options.
Check to see if there are any Facebook groups in your area for hikers or outdoor enthusiasts. In Utah, there is a Utah Outdoor Women’s Alliance group and there are always folks looking to link up. MeetUp can also be a great website as well for finding like-minded friends who love outdoor adventures and trips. Are you part of a yoga studio or climbing gym? Those are also great places to meet active people, and maybe you can make a new friend who might be interested.
If you can’t find anyone, don’t let that discourage you. Backpacking alone is an empowering experience and is worth trying at least once. Check out my favorite solo hiking tips here.
#5: Make your transportation plan
Do you need plane tickets? A recent study by one of Momondo, which is one of my favorite sites for finding good deals on airfare, determined that 58 days before your intended travel is the cheapest time to buy plane tickets.
My other favorite site for cheap airfare is Southwest Airlines. They offer very competitive prices on flights, have a great rewards program, a no hassle cancellation policy, and you get 2 checked bags for free. If you fly Southwest frequently or want to start flying more, check out my post on how to fly free on Southwest using their credit cards.
#6: Get the Gear for your first backpacking trip
Maybe you already have your backpacking gear dialed. If so, great. If not, a good place to start is with my 3-day backpacking checklist. In addition, we’ve got a several of great outdoor gear guides here on Bearfoot Theory, like:
- How to Choose a Sleeping Pad
- How to Choose a Tent
- How to Choose a Sleeping Bag
- What to Wear Hiking
- How to Choose a Water Filter
- The Best Lightweight Bear Canisters
Ok, so what if this gear is way too expensive? Don’t let that deter you. Ask your friends if anyone has gear you can borrow. The key is making sure the backpack fits comfortably before you set out. You local REI store and your local university recreation center are also places you can check out to see if they rent backpacking gear. Other places to shop for discounted outdoor gear are:
- Gear Trade: a site where you can buy and sell used gear
- The Clymb: a flash sale site that features different gear every day
- Backcountry.com: not always the cheapest, but they often have stuff on sale\
- REI Outlet: the sale section of REI’s website
Discover our favorite places to get outdoor gear on the cheap
#7: Test your gear
Make sure you know how to use all of your gear before you set out. Set up your tent in your living room and take your backpack and hiking boots for a spin up your local hill before setting out on an overnight trip. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. If your pack is the right size but it is still giving you trouble (it’s weighing down on your shoulders or seriously hurting your back), you probably need to make some simple adjustments to the straps. Or perhaps you need to make some adjustments to the way you pack it. For a detailed guide on how to pack a backpacking pack, check out this blog post.
As far as your hiking boots, unless you choose a heavy duty leather pair that is suited for mountaineering, most standard trail hiking boots should be fairly comfortable right out of the box. If you take them for a short hike and you are coming home with blisters, they might not be a good fit. The point of testing it all out beforehand is to get everything dialed, so faulty gear doesn’t ruin the epic backpacking trip you’ve been planning.
Testing your gear beforehand also offers the opportunity to build cardio and muscle strength before the real trip.
#8: Shop for Food
Food is a big deterrent for people getting outdoors. You want to eat well, but you also want it to be easy. I’ve posted a detailed post on some of my favorite easy backpacking food options. I also recently discovered Good-to-Go. Their Thai Curry may be one of the freshest and healthiest dehydrated backpacker meal I’ve ever tried. It is filling, yet vegan and gluten-free, and it has half the sodium of most backpacker food brands.
Learn how to choose a backpacking stove for your trip
#9: Brush up on Leave No Trace Principles
Leave No Trace is the set of guiding principles to help you reduce your impact when you are in the wilderness. Leave No Trace covers everything from pooping and carrying out your toilet paper to campfires and where to set up your tent. If you are not familiar with Leave No Trace, make sure you brush up on how to be a good camper before you hit the trail.
#10: Get a Map & Check Water Availability
Don’t want to get lost? ALWAYS bring a map and check out these navigation tips while you’re at it. Even if you think the trail is going to be straight-forward and well-marked. I am a huge fan of the National Geographic Maps which exist for most National Parks and other popular hiking areas. If you can’t find a map to purchase online, stop by the nearest rangers station on the way to the trail and see if they have a map.
A map will also give you an idea of how far water sources are spread out. Be aware that water sources on the map might dry out during summer months. If there is any question about water availability and how much you should carry, call the rangers station and ask.
#11: Tell a friend or your family your plans
It’s important for safety to share your plans with a friend or family member. Ensure they know the date and general time you plan to check-in with them at the end of your trip.
I also like to carry some sort of backcountry communication device if I’m hiking solo or going somewhere really remote. The SPOT Gen3 and the Garmin InReach are the top devices for sending texts to family back home and calling emergency responders if you get into trouble
#12: Check the weather
It’s important to check the weather. Kim, Bearfoot Theory’s Content Director, once drove 10 hours to hike the Lost Coast only to learn there was a large storm front rolling in that closed the trail. It’s also important to ensure you packed the correct clothing and gear.
AND FINALLY, GO!
Hit the road and have a good time. Know that most people experience a couple of minor mishaps on their first backpacking trip. On my first backpacking trip, I forgot my hiking boots and ended up hiking 20 miles in Chacos (with a lot of blisters to boot), and I didn’t pack nearly enough food. It also made me realize I was a little more out of shape than I thought. But watching the sunset over that lake where I camped was a turning point in my life. That first backpacking changed my whole relationship with the outdoors….so get ready 😉
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