How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Nothing says adventure like a person, a backpack, and the open country. Whether you want to backpack through the Pacific Crest Trail or cross the mighty Alps, this step-by-step guide will prepare you the most properly. You will be blazing your own trail before you know it!

Step 1: Backpackers Need to Know What They Want & When They Want It

You need to know your ultimate goal in order to map out a backpacking trip properly. Is backpacking all about the miles for you? Or are you craving a trademark Thoreau adjourn to your own Walden? Maybe a little bit of both?

The world is your oyster when you think about a backpacking trip destination. It feels as though the whole world is like a globe in your hands and it all lies within reach. While this is mostly true, certain parts of this green Earth can only be accessed within a specific time of year. Therefore, to set a date in stone, you first need to choose the destination that offers the setting for the trip you desire.

Think about natural landmarks you would like to visit, geographic structures you would like to camp next to, and even the kinds of foliage you would like to see. Some places, like Olympic National Park in Washington, can offer a bit of everything for your first hiking trip!

How to Know for Sure

Once you have your heart set on a destination, put it through this series of tests to ensure the backpacking trip will go smoothly:

  1. Do you have enough time to cover the distance you want to at the speed you can travel? Be skeptic of your hiking ability; it is better to schedule too much time than too little. Whether you are a confident backpacker heading out on a multi-day hike or it’s your first trip, plan accordingly. 
  2. Is the time of year correct? Some trails grow dangerous because of yearly extreme weather conditions. Make sure that your availability matches the appropriate visiting dates for your destination.
  3. Do you have enough time to prepare? Many backpacking trips require specialized gear, like rock climbing setups, for example. Many more trips require backpackers to secure permits and round-trip transportation. Make sure you have enough time to prepare and the budget to do so.
  4. Can the destination accommodate your entire group? The last thing you want is to turn around because the destination is too extreme or otherwise inaccessible to group members. If you plan to trek with partners, make sure to consider them in the choosing process.

PRO TIP: If you plan to backpack in the summer, try to choose a destination with multiple water sources. Water is one of the heaviest things you can carry. Choosing an arid place means you will have to carry crippling weight.

If your chosen destination passes the tests, the time is now to start planning!

Step 2: Secure those Permits Before Heading into the Backcountry!

Anything longer than a day-hike will probably require some kind of permit, especially in the popular regions of North America. Make sure to find out whether or not you need one as soon as possible. Permits sell out just as quickly as camping reservations and nothing feels worse than red tape ruining the trip of a lifetime. Some of the most common permit types include:

  • Backcountry. In some of the most popular United States National Parks, backpackers need backcountry camping permits to sleep anywhere outside of established campgrounds. These permits often entail short safety classes and special regulations, such as the distance from a trail at which you can set up camp.
  • Base camp. Climbs that last longer than a day require base camp permits. Some extreme hikers tackle these in a day but the average backpacker should secure a place to rest on the mountain. For some it’s not just about speed…it’s about enjoying the trip and the view.
  • Capacity. Some protected areas limit the number of backpackers allowed to visit at once. Zion National Park’s Virgin River Hike is famously hard to secure permits for due to the high volume of applying backpackers.
  • Shuttle. Trailheads that can only be accessed by special shuttles require permits as well. These shuttles usually exist for safety and legal capacity purposes.

PRO TIP: If you get unlucky in a permit lottery, some places do have weird rules that let you circumvent permit requirements. Some trails, for example, only require permits if you enter from one trailhead and not the other.

Step 3: Secure Transportation for Your Backpacking Trip

Unless you live by the trailhead where you want to start your backpacking adventure, you depend on somebody else for transportation. Whether you get a ride from a plane, a train, or your parents, secure it immediately after you obtain any necessary permits. Procrastinating on this step will only lead to trip-ending trouble.

It is a good idea to invest in insurance for public transportation tickets. Regardless of how well you plan out this trip, life remains unpredictable. You will want to get your money back in the event of unforeseen changes and cancellations.

Step 4: Scout the Best Route for Backpackers

Not all trails are created equal. Some routes are friendlier to people on foot, while some favor bikers or drivers. There are several important items to map out in your route plans:

  • Campsites. Some of the most famous trails came to be that way because of their waterside or tree-covered campsites. This also means that most backpackers aim to occupy the same prime spots, so make sure to have alternatives. If you are planning a backpacking trip in colder conditions, try to map out campsites that allow campfires.
  • Water sources. Plan your route to visit as many water sources as possible. The human body succumbs faster to dehydration than to starvation so water is a must. Furthermore, the more water sources you reach in a day, the less water you have to carry with you. The weight of large volumes of water can be critically fatiguing on a longer backpacking trip.
  • Elevation changes. Schedule longer walking days for flats or downhills and shorter ones for uphills. The body craves homeostasis, which means it is a great idea to use the same amount of energy every day. The easiness of your trip depends greatly on how much you can keep constant.
  • Terrain. The fastest way between two points is not always a straight line. Make sure you understand what each route entails as far as effort and required gear. Sometimes, going around a rocky peak is safer and faster than trying to go directly over it.
  • Seasonal Hazards. Backpacking trip destinations that experience all four seasons usually throw hazards at backpackers. The same Virgin River Hike in Zion National Park that sells out of permits quickly, for example, is also very dangerous. Parts of the canyon you hike through on that trail can flood in minutes during flash rains. Ensure your safety by understanding the dangers you will face on your trip.
  • Resupply and exit points. You might find yourself in emergency situations, regardless of how well you prepare. Pay special attention to the location of resupply and emergency exit points. Hopefully, you will never need to use them – but it is best to know where they are.

Route Resources

When it comes to trip planning, many websites and resources exist to help you with scouting a route. Websites such as Hiking Project and AllTrails provide detailed, user-contributed information on thousands of trails worldwide. Some of the most famous trails, such as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, even have dedicated informational websites.

PRO TIP: When all else fails, talking to locals is an excellent way to learn about a trail. Call a local hiking organization or sporting goods store and ask!

Step 5: Packing List for Your Backcountry Backpacking Gear and Grub

Time to hit the sporting goods store! Getting your hands on the right backpacking equipment is essential. The ideal backpack will be both light and well-prepared (and even save money!).

The Gear

A seasoned backcountry lover always packs the absolute essentials first. Try to purchase the most lightweight backpack and sleeping accommodations you can:

  • Ultralight backpacks. Invest in a quality, well-fitting backpack made of ultralight materials. These packs play a crucial role in lightening the load on your back. When it comes to hiking dozens of miles, every ounce matters.
  • Tent alternatives. Most backpacking trips do not require traditional tents. Ultralight tents, trekking pole tents, cots, tarps, an all-in-one sleeping bag, and hammocks are all great alternatives, if the weather permits. If you cannot go without a sleeping pad or bag, try to pack the lightest one possible (usually inflatable or down-filled).

Choosing the right backpack and sleeping gear is usually the easiest part of packing for a trip. The tricky part lies in other gear and figuring out whether something is essential or just dead weight. Thanks to the trial and error backpacking experience of adventurers past, however, backpackers today have an easier time determining which gear to pack.

Below is a list of common gear sorted into three categories: must-have, nice-to-have, and please-leave-at-home. This is by no means a perfect list. It is, however, the best starting point you can get. Amazon and REI sell almost everything below!

Must-Have:

  • Trail-runners or hiking boots
  • Bear canister (if encounters are expected)
  • Water filter
  • Collapsible water bottle
  • First Aid kit
  • Knife/Multitool
  • Flashlight
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • Two sets of clothes and underwear
  • Lighter
  • Special hiking equipment (crampons, ice spikes, climbing spikes)
  • Sunscreen

    Nice-to-Have:

  • Combo stove/food canister
  • Headlamp
  • Clothes-hanging line
  • Degradable soap
  • Card games
  • Kindle/E-reader
  • Rope
  • Satellite GPS
  • Mosquito net
  • Bug spray

    Please-Leave-at-Home:

  • Books
  • Heavy stoves and cooking equipment
  • Full-size hygienic substance containers (conditioner, shampoo, and body wash bottles)
  • Extra shoes
  • Accessories
  • Bulky electronics
  • Bedding

The Grub

Forming the right menu also plays a crucial role in packing lightly and effectively. Dry foods should be at the core of your backpacking diet. Nuts, granola, protein bars, jerky, and dried fruits all make excellent trail-ready foods.

Fruits, vegetables, and meats carry too much liquid weight. Additionally, raw foods require cooking equipment that can add even more weight to an already heavy backpack. Try to limit any foods that require cooking to what will fit inside a thermos-size all-in-one stove. These foods include coffee, oatmeal, dry soups, dehydrated goods.

PRO TIP: If you plan to hunt or fish on your backpacking trip, consider using hot stones to cook the meat. This method saves you the trouble of having to carry cooking equipment and gives the food a natural taste.

Step 6: The Finishing Touches

Step six focuses on ensuring you give yourself the best shot at a once-in-a-lifetime backpacking trip. The best way to deal with potential hazards and unforeseen obstacles is to think proactively. Doing as such is a lot easier said than done for beginning and first-time backpackers, but fear not! Simply follow this process to make sure you are as prepared as you can be:

  1. Inform relatives. Make copies of all your travel plans and inform your closest relatives about where you will be and when they can expect to hear from you. It’s hard to think about getting caught in a life-threatening situation but backpackers die every year. Sharing your plans gives you the best chance of surviving a tough moment. In fact, some backcountry permits cannot even be received without first sharing your backpacking plans!
  2. Travel insurance. There is no excuse for traveling without it, especially when going abroad. Medical expenses cost thousands of dollars almost anywhere you go. Hopefully, you will never need to use insurance. If the moment comes where you do, however, you will be very glad to have it.
  3. Contact the Ranger Station. They will be able to give you any last-minute updates on trail conditions and inclement weather. Better to have to cancel your trip than to suffer through hazardous conditions. Most trail deaths occur due to sheer ignorance. Do what you can to avoid being another stat.
  4. Check your gear. Give it all one last check! Make sure your ropes are taut, straps are sturdy, and First Aid kits are full. Few things feel worse than finding out your gear does not work mid-trip.

The last check is over, the bags are packed, and the plan is in order. What do you do now?

Step 7: Go!

You worked hard to get to this point; time to reap what you have sown. Backpacking trips go on many bucket lists but only on a few passport pages and you are one of the few that made it. Whatever your destination might be, an adventure awaits. Happy backpacking!

Sam Brooks

Sam Brooks

Hi, my name is Sam Brooks and I'm a huge hiking, fishing and camping enthusiast. I bring my dog Max as often as I can because he also loves the great outdoors. Although I consider myself a private person, I really want to share my passion and knowledge with the readers here at outdoorcommand.com