Ten Step Process for Planning a Backpacking Trip
Trip planning can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. The process of researching a destination for backpacking can help you to feel more comfortable with exploring new places. Even with thorough trip planning, there’s still plenty of discovery left for the actual backpacking experience.
The goal is to be properly prepared and to avoid unexpected conditions or situations. The ten step planning process outlined here will help you to plan a trip based on your capabilities and interests.
Video: Trip Planning for Backpacking
This video was recorded during a Zoom presentation I did in July 2021 for a Meetup group.
Step 1: Determine Trip Location
Before choosing a destination for a backpacking trip, start with the basics. What time of year are you planning to go backpacking? There are many options in the Pacific Northwest for backpacking year round… or at least most of the year.
TIME OF YEAR
In the spring, low elevation locations are usually snow-free, but this time of year can also be quite rainy. It helps to have some flexibility in your schedule so you can take advantage of good weather when it happens. The high desert, which can be too hot for summer trips, is a good option in the spring since it gets sparce rainfall compared to the rest of the region.
Early summer will likely still have a fair amount of snow at higher elevations in the mountains, but mid-level elevations can be snow-free in May or June depending on the year’s snowpack level.
Summer is prime backpacking time, usually mid-July through September. Most people prefer to backpack in the summer, as it’s the only time of year to experience higher elevations without snow cover. Early summer is also when mosquitoes can be a problem (usually the first several weeks after snow melt), so know how to deal with them or where to go to avoid them.
As the weather starts to change in the fall, so do the colors of foliage, making this time of year great for trips to areas with brilliant fall color. There are fewer people on the trails this time of year as well.
Backpacking is also possible in the winter, although it can require special skills and gear to deal with snow and colder conditions.
RESOURCES FOR INFO ABOUT DESTINATIONS
How do you know where to go? Hiking and backpacking books are a good source for ideas, although you may find just as many possibilities searching online.
Public Land Managers: Since the places we backpack in are public lands managed by government agencies, their websites are a great place to start when planning trips. See my Rangers Stations in Oregon and Washington post for links to land management agencies.
Online Resources: For Oregon and Washington, two comprehensive resources for hiking are the Washington Trails Association and Oregon Hikers websites. Both offer extensive information and trip descriptions, and although they are geared more to hiking than backpacking, they can still provide helpful info needed for planning a backpacking trip. Additional websites that offer hiking and backpacking destination info are the Outdoor Project, REI’s Hiking Project, and Clever Hiker.
Social Media: Seeing trip reports from other people’s trips can be a great motivator for finding out more about a destination on your own. There are many groups on Facebook dedicated to hiking, with the active groups getting updated with posts every day. It’s also a good way to learn the current conditions for specific areas.
Step 2: Set Trip Parameters
Before you determine the type of backpacking trip to plan, take the time to think about what you want out of the trip. Just as in the mantra “hike your own hike,” you should “plan your own plan.” While others may influence where you choose to go, you should plan the trip according to your needs. Attempting to stick to a plan that is unrealistic for you can be frustrating, or worse, lead to a trip that makes backpacking seem like a miserable chore. Instead, learn how to plan the type of trip that fits your backpacking style.
Recognizing how you like to backpack can help you plan the most enjoyable trip for you. Before starting out, take some time to consider your goals and interests.
For many backpackers, especially beginners, a balance of hiking and spending time in camp is an enjoyable way to backpack, as well as being less strenuous. Setting up a basecamp will allow you to hike fewer miles with a heavy pack, have a leisurely breakfast, and then head out on day hikes before returning to camp each night. If you are spending more time at camp, you might want to bring a backpacking chair, extra cookware, or reading material.
Others might prefer to do more hiking, covering as many miles as they can before stopping to camp for the night. In this case, bringing as little as possible is the goal, keeping pack weight to a minimum so that you can hike longer distances. This approach will allow you to see more of an area, and would be suitable for longer loop or shuttle trips.
For those interested in photographing scenery and wildlife, a trip plan might include shorter hikes to allow for carrying camera equipment and more frequent stops for photo opportunities. Photographers usually have a different type of schedule on backpacking trips. Capturing the best light of the day often means getting up before dawn, or being in the right location as the sun sets. And if you are into night photography, that could mean shooting at 2am in order to capture the star-studded sky.
Perhaps you have young children and are hoping to share the outdoors as a family. Your style, at least for the first several trips, may be to plan single night trips accessible via easier hikes, stopping often for breaks.
Regardless of which style you prefer, spending time in the wilderness is an amazing experience. Over time, your style will likely evolve as you gain more profiency with your gear and the skills needed for backpacking.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY
Parameters that determine the difficulty of a trip include the number of nights spent, miles and elevation gain per day, and the type of terrain that you’ll be hiking in.
Consider how much distance and elevation gain to cover on each day. In general, plan on a pace of around two miles an hour, adding an hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Hiking speed can vary considerably based on your individual fitness level, the weight of your pack, and the terrain. For example, does the trail have any steep and rocky ascents or difficult water crossings? Or is it a well-groomed trail with gradual elevation gain?
It’s a good idea to start with an easier approach on trips until you are comfortable with your gear and the skills needed for backpacking. Even seasoned backpackers should consider beginning each backpacking season with an easy trip to test new gear and get familiar again with the processes of backpacking.
TYPE OF ROUTE
For planning a route and campsites, do you prefer to do an out-and-back, a shuttle, or a loop hike? Out-and-back trips are often the easiest since they offer the opportunity to set up a basecamp and day hike from there instead of hiking with a fully loaded pack each day. Loop hikes offer the ability to cover more miles, requiring moving campsites from night to night in order to complete the loop. Like loop trips, shuttle trips allow you to cover more miles but require more planning, with a need to shuttle cars to both trailheads.
To determine the optimal group size, consider area regulations and campsite availability. Most wilderness areas limit group size for hiking and camping to 12 people. However, it would be very difficult to find campsites suitable for such a large group. Backcountry campsites vary greatly in size, with most being optimal for 1-4 people. It is possible to find sites suitable for groups of 6-8 backpackers, but it’s not as common.
Step 3: Permits, Passes, and Regulations
When you are considering a backpacking destination, you’ll need to know what type of passes and permits are required and what the regulations for an area are. Check online or contact ranger stations at land management agencies for your destination to learn more.
Permits are required for backcountry camping in many national forest, wilderness and national park locations. Each area has different regulations for backcountry camping, so it’s important to understand what they are when you are planning a trip.
Self-issued permits are the most common type, with self-registration boxes located at trailheads or at wilderness boundaries on the trail. Some areas have become so popular and overused that advance permits are required. It’s often possible to obtain these types of permits via walk-in registration the day of or before a trip, but others may require submitting an application. The most coveted areas may be permitted via a lottery system and can be quite difficult to obtain. Knowing which type of permit is required is a crucial part of the trip planning process.
Also determine where the permit should be displayed. Self-issued permits filled out at trailheads (common in national forests and wilderness areas) are for hikers as well as backpackers and should be carried with you at all times. Permits that require online or in person registration are often required to be displayed on the outside of your tent so it can be checked by rangers on patrol in the backcountry.
Passes may be required for entry and/or parking at trailheads, depending on the location. The Northwest Forest Pass is the most common type needed for backpacking locations in Oregon and Washington, although a National Park Pass may be required at national parks. While some areas have pay stations for passes, many do not so it’s good to know before you go. Many of the required passes can be purchased online, at retailers, or at ranger stations.
Wilderness areas have regulations that vary by location. The regulations cover rules about group size, campfires, food storage, campsite locations, length of stay and more. Be familiar with what the regulations are for the area you plan to go to and be prepared to follow them.
Step 4: Prepare and Print Maps
Maps are critical to have once you are on the trail, but they are also an essential part of trip planning. By thoroughy reviewing a map before your trip, you’ll become familiar with the trails you plan to hike, identify potential campsite locations, water access, potential hazards, and more.
Start by locating the trailhead you plan to begin your trip at, then review the trails you’ll travel. Also familiarize yourself with the trails that cross your intended route in case you need to find an alternate way to exit the trail in an emergency.
Large multi-fold maps for national forests, wilderness areas and national parks can be purchased at outdoor retailers, ranger stations, or online. These maps provide a big overview of an area, which is great for getting familiar with a new destination, but they usually cover more area than you need on the trail and the scale may not provide enough details for your trip.
Smaller format paper maps that are more suitable for backpacking include National Forest Service maps, USGS maps, and Green Trails maps. Available for purchase at some outdoor retailers or online, these maps provide more detail than large scale maps and are easier to use on trail due to their portable format. Green Trails maps contain current trail and access info, point-to-point mileage, and points of interest, as well as local contact information. Some also provide established campsite locations. Green Trails also offers ultralight folding maps for popular destination areas that are waterproof and tear-resistant. USGS maps are printed on larger paper and don’t provide as many details but are available for all areas within U.S. Forest Services boundaries.
Create a custom map
Online mapping tools such as Caltopo, Gaia, and TopoMaps+ offer the ability to create custom maps. Add line segments to highlight your route, and waypoints for trailheads, campsite locations, destinations, or other features. After adding trail segments, you’ll be able to view data for mileage, elevation gain, terrain, exposure, and more. Keep in mind that the data for distance and elevation gain from online tools may not be as accurate as guidebooks. After creating your map, you’ll be able to share it with others and save files for printing. Gaia also has a smartphone app for use on trail.
Step 5: Planning for Groups
When planning a group trip, consider the experience level of the participants. Trips for beginners may need to be based on an easier style than a trip planned for experienced backpackers. Find out whether the group prefers to hike long days covering many miles, or whether they prefer to spend more time at camp relaxing… or a mix of both. Ask about previous backpacking experience, first aid training, or other expertise. And discuss the type of gear needed for a trip and whether or not anyone prefers to share gear with others to help lighten their loads.
Clear communication is key for success on group trips. When everyone has an understanding of what a trip will encompass, misunderstandings are less likely to happen. Share the trip itinerary with everyone and hold pre-trip meetings to go over logistics and discuss trip expectations. Group trip plans should also include carpooling logistics and a list of any necessary fees.
Step 6: Document the Trip Plan
Documenting a trip plan may seem like an unnecessary step, but there are several benefits to doing so. You’ll get a better sense of the level of difficulty required for the trip you are planning, have a clear way to communicate the plan to other trip members, and you’ll have a detailed trip itinerary to leave with someone in case of an emergency.
To begin documenting a trip plan, create a daily itinerary that includes trailheads, hiking trails, campsite locations, and the mileage and elevation gain for each day. Additional data to document can include information about permits, passes and regulations, and links to maps, weather reports, and land manager websites.
For longer distance trips, include travel logistics in your documentation. For example, longer drives to trailheads may emcompass planned stops for meals, stopping at a ranger station for permits, or spending the night at a hotel or campground before beginning a trip.
Step 7: Prep Gear & Food
Before you head out on a trip, take the time to check your gear. Fix anything that needs repairs and replenish consumable items such as spare batteries, toilet paper or wipes, toothpaste, and fuel for your backpacking stove.
Create a packing list that includes everything needed on a backpacking trip. While there are many lists online that can be utilized, creating a custom list based on your gear will help make sure that you don’t forget anything. Once you have a complete list, do a practice load with your backpack and try it on… sometimes you may need to re-pack to get the load balanced properly.
For meal planning, start by creating a list of the number of meals needed. It’s easy to over or under estimate the amount of food needed, so it can be helpful to lay out all of your food in rows for each day of a trip. This way, you can visually see how much you have.
To save space, replace bulky packaging with lightweight plastic bags. Also consider the food storage method you’ll need to use and plan to bring the appropriate gear for it.
Step 8: Weather Forecasts & Current Conditions
It’s important to know what your preferences are regarding weather conditions. Some people don’t mind rain on a trip, while others prefer to go when it’s much less likely. The same goes for hot weather, or colder conditions. Knowing the expected daytime high temperatures, overnight lows, and chance of rain or snow can make a trip more enjoyable for all.
For weather forecasts, one of the most reliable sources is the National Weather Service website. For the most accurate forecast for your destination, click on the desired area directly on the map, or by entering latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. This method will take in account the elevation and specific conditions of the location. Forecasts are continually updated, with the most accurate info available a few days in advance, so keep checking to see if conditions have changed before leaving on a trip. It’s also a good idea to check the forecast for the nearest city. Sometimes these forecasts will be more accurate when researching more than a few days in advance.
For higher elevations, another resource for weather is Mountain Forecast. Select the range, then a specific peak, and finally, the elevation you’ll be at to see expected conditions for your location.
CURRENT CONDITIONS: Throughout the year, many trails experience changes due to storms or other conditions. To find out the current conditions for a specific area, contact a ranger station for information about trail or road closures, wildfires, or other conditions that may impact your trip.
WILDFIRES: Wildfires are a common occurrence during the Pacific Northwest’s dry summers, and some years, they can impact vast areas not just with fire, but also with widespread smoke. New fires can start unexpectedly, especially during thunderstorms. Know what the current fire dangers are by checking with ranger stations. In addition, there are many online resources for tracking current wildfires and air quality. Inciweb has info on current wildfires in the U.S.
INSECTS: Biting insects such as mosquitoes and black flies may impact when you choose to schedule a backpacking trip. Generally, the annual hatch happens within the first few weeks after the snow melts in higher elevations. In Oregon and Washington, this tends to be anytime from June to August depending on the elevation and location. Early to mid-July is typically when most hatches occur in the mountains.
COASTAL TIDES: If you are backpacking along the coast, tides should be taken into consideration since some areas are accessible only at low tide. Check online sources (such as tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov), or pick up a printed tide table at locations along the coast, including state parks and ranger stations.
BACKUP PLANS: Have a backup plan in case you need to cancel or reschedule a trip due to weather or other conditions. The Pacific Northwest has many types of climates and it is often possible to choose another location with better conditions if your original location doesn’t work out. For example, in the spring, the high desert is often rain-free while western locations are drenched. Or, later in the season, wildfires may impact one part of the region but not another. Having multiple locations to choose from can make the difference from being able to go on a trip versus cancelling.
Step 9: Safety & Emergency Planning
Prior to departing on your trip, be sure to leave your itinerary with a trusted person. This individual should be given the date that you plan to leave, the date that you plan to arrive back to the trailhead, and the date and time that they should call emergency officials if you have not returned. Itineraries should include the names and contact info for all trip members.
You should also include details of where you will be hiking and where you plan on camping, and leave a copy of a marked map when possible. Additional details including the make and model of the vehicles that will be left at the trailhead can come in handy should search and rescue become necessary.
Finally, remember to contact your trusted person when you return from your trip. Having a search team go out after you because you forgot to make a phone call is an expensive and embarrassing error.
To be prepared for emergencies, have each person on a trip fill out an emergency contact form. Optional medical info that is provided could be critical in case first aid or rescue is required.
Also consider taking a personal locator beacon, such as the Garmin InReach or Spot. These types of devices have SOS buttons that can be pressed in case of an emergency and will send a message to the authorities with your location. Some allow two-way texting so you can communicate with emergency responders, or for staying in touch with loved ones.
Step 10: Final Logistics
Forecasts can change overnight, so check the weather again before you head out. If wildfires or other conditions exist, check those as well.
Don’t forget to take printed driving directions. Cell service is usually not available on the way to the trailhead, and directions from apps are not always reliable, especially on Forest Roads.
Now it’s time to get out into the backcountry, stay safe, and most of all, have fun!