Tutorial: Plan a backpacking trip in these 7 steps

Preparations for my earliest backpacking trips were clumsy, and I made every mistake possible. I recall carrying way too much stuff for an overnight in Yosemite, shivering all night in a too-light sleeping bag in Tennessee, stomaching an unpalatable couscous dinner in the Adirondacks, struggling to find topographic maps of eastern Montana, quitting a trip in Colorado for which I wasn’t fit enough, and making terrible route-finding decisions on my first trip in Alaska.

But over time my trip planning skills improved, which increased my safety margins and trip quality, and which created more potential for adventure — by solving foreseeable problems beforehand, I was more able to respond fully to the true unknowns.

My guiding program forced me to step up my skill level even more. In 2021 I must plan forty-four backpacking trips. They are scheduled June through October, run three to seven days, and are scattered throughout North America in the high desert, eastern woodlands, mountain West, and Alaska. In addition, I must also prepare our 368 clients, who span the spectrum of ages, gender, physical fitness, and backcountry experience — and who have rightfully high expectations.

To pull off trips efficiently and without mistakes, I rely on a seven-step framework that is applicable to any trip and that can be used by any backpacker.

7 steps to plan a backpacking trip

The process goes like this:

  1. Define the trip parameters: Where, when, with who, and why?
  2. Research the conditions, like temperatures and bug pressure.
  3. Select gear that is appropriate for the parameters and conditions.
  4. Plan snacks and meals.
  5. Collect or create navigational resources like maps and guidebooks.
  6. Gain the requisite skills and fitness for the itinerary. And,
  7. Complete a final systems check just before hitting the trail.

Let me go into more details.

Looking north over Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy towards Apache Peak, Lost Tribe Lakes, and the west ridge of Lone Eagle Cirque

1. Define the parameters

The “Five W’s” is a journalistic device, but it’s also a good starting point for trip planning. I don’t need definitive answers to every question right away, but I want to start narrowing my options.

Start with these questions:

As your research, add more specifics like:

  • What length of time?
  • What trails, routes, landmarks, or campsites?
  • How many miles or how much vertical?
  • Who else will join me, if anyone?

Also, consider the logistics:

  • Do I need permits? If so, how, when, and where?
  • How will I get there and back?
  • Are there unique or notable land use regulations or requirements?

I take all these details and drop them into a “Trip Planner” document that serves as a “parking garage” of information and that can be shared with my emergency contacts just before I leave.


2. Research the conditions

Once I have a reasonably defined trip plan, I start researching the conditions that I will likely encounter so that I can prepare properly, mitigate risks, and rule out baseless “what if” and “just in case” scenarios.

I’m only interested in conditions that will influence my selection of gear and supplies, or that will demand particular skills. I look at:

  • Climate
  • Daylight
  • Footing
  • Vegetation
  • Navigational aids
  • Sun exposure
  • Water availability
  • Wildlife & insects
  • Remoteness
  • Natural hazards

For more details on this step, read this post.

I compile the findings of my research in a separate document, and I cite my sources so that I can easily re-find them if I find contradictory information elsewhere.

A wet trip in West Virginia in May, the wettest month of the year with an average of six inches of rain in this location.

3. Select your gear

For a beginner backpacker, the task of gear selection is usually the most time-consuming, certainly the most expensive, and unfortunately also the most frustrating — it’s very easy to go down the rabbit hole here.

To make this process easier for our clients, I give them:

These resources help direct their attention and cut through the noise.

Clients also have email access to their guides and their group, so that they can get advice specific to them. If you don’t have an immediate contact who really knows their stuff, utilize a community forum like r/Ultralight.

Clothing, footwear, and a few other items for the winter months of my Alaska-Yukon Expedition

4. Plan your food

We’re vulnerable to “packing our fears.” If we fear being cold at night, we bring a sleeping bag that’s excessively warm. If we fear bears, we sleep in a full-sided tent (which won’t help but may make us feel better). And if we fear being hungry, we pack too much food.

I’ve given in-depth meal planning recommendations before (read this or the food chapter in my Gear Guide), so here I’ll provide some basic pointers:

  • Plan for 2,250 to 2,750 calories per day, or 18 to 22 ounces assuming an average caloric density of 125 calories per ounce.
  • If you’re older, female, petite, or on a low-intensity trip, go with the low end of this range. If the opposite is true, go with the high end.
  • Variety is the spice of life, so pack foods with varying tastes (spicy, sweet, salty, sour) and textures (chewy, crunchy).
  • Early on in a trip, treat yourself with real food — like a ham sandwich, avocado, or apple — that will also delay on the onset of culinary boredom.

For breakfasts and dinners, try these field-tested options, instead of spending your hard-earned money on exorbitant freeze-dried meals or punishing yourself with thru-hiker fare like Ramen noodles or Lipton Sides.

Food for a 9-day yo-yo of the Pfiffner Traverse. Six days fit in my BV500, and I ate through the “overflow” prior to entering Rocky Mountain National Park where the canister is required.

5. Create or collect navigational resources

For my earliest hikes, I utilized whatever resources were conveniently available and that seemed sufficient. Before thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002, for example, I purchased the ATC Data Book and downloaded the ALDHA Thru-Hikers Companion. And to explore Colorado’s Front Range the following summer, I bought a few National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps that covered the area.

But when I started adventuring off the beaten path, I had to create some or all of these materials from scratch. Through this process, I developed what I believe to be an optimal system of maps and resources that includes:

  • Large-scale paper topographic maps,
  • Small-scale paper topographic maps,
  • Digital maps downloaded to a GPS smartphone app,
  • Route description and tips, and possibly
  • A datasheet, which is a list of key landmarks and distance along a prescribed trail or route.
A complete navigation system

6. Gain fitness and skills

There’s no better way to gain hiking fitness than by hiking!

And there’s no better way to develop backpacking skills than by backpacking!

But who has the time and ability to do that? Not me, and probably not you.

The next-best option is to:

A low-risk “shakeout” is also very valuable. It can be done locally, like in a nearby park or even your backyard; and it will give you an opportunity to use your gear, practice some skills, and identify room for improvement before you undertake a more committing itinerary. Your goal is to replicate the elements of a real trip: hiking with a loaded pack, refilling your water bottles, changing layers, setting up your shelter, cooking a meal, etc.

A training hike in Boulder’s foothills, carrying the Osprey Aether Pro 70 pack loaded with with 50 pounds of bricks.

7. Final systems check

In the final days before your trip, there is a list of housekeeping items to complete, including but not limited to:

  • Packing up all your gear, using your gear list as a checklist, plus your maps/resources and permit;
  • Buying any necessary perishable foods like cheese, butter, and tortilla shells;
  • Looking at a 5-day weather forecast and adjusting your gear accordingly; and,
  • Proof-reading your Trip Planner and leaving it with your emergency contacts.

This trip planning checklist has a more definitive list.

Questions or comments about my trip planning system?

First published May 2, 2020

Posted in on February 3, 2021
Tags:

6 Comments

  1. Colin on November 6, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    I’m wondering what strategy you use for plotting out each day’s itinerary on longer trips. Do you plan the route day by day starting at the trailhead? Work backwards from the end? Divide into equal chunks and adjust based on possible campsites? For example, if you know you have obstacles to get through such as a particularly tough climb or long waterless stretch, do you start by deciding how long that should take you and split the remaining mileage up based on what you think you can handle in a day?

    • Andrew Skurka on November 6, 2020 at 4:39 pm

      At the start of each day, I usually have in mind a range of miles that I could hike, and some campsites within this range. As the day goes on, I narrow in on one.

      For tomorrow and the day after, I’m looking just at total miles (or vertical, for some routes) to the end, and assuming I’ll cover my average distance or vertical in getting there.

      Overall, I don’t think it’s realistic to plan out your itinerary exactly, because all it takes is coming up a few miles short on the first day and the whole plan is wasted. The only exception is when backpacking in area with established camps like Rocky or Yellowstone, where sticking to your itinerary is required.

      • Colin Justin on November 10, 2020 at 10:16 am

        Thank you, that is very helpful!

  2. Bryan H. on February 4, 2021 at 10:49 am

    I have a bunch of questions, but I’ll stick to two for now. 😉

    1. How do select campsites from the navigational resources? Are you just looking for flat(-ish) spots with water nearby, or do you have better ways to select sites if you’ve never been there?

    2. I’ve found a bunch of backpacking checklists around the internet including your fine checklist, but I haven’t found any that do a good job separating personal gear from group gear and give an idea of how much group gear to take. I can use common sense on a lot of the items (you only need a couple stoves for a small group), but I get a little tripped-up on other things like pocket knives, first aid kits, maps, GPS/smart phones, etc. Obviously, it’s a waste of weight and space for everyone to bring those items. Any advice?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 7, 2021 at 10:18 am

      Here’s a full tutorial on campsite selection, https://andrewskurka.com/tag/five-star-campsite-selection/.

      The way in which you find great camps varies with the location and your shelter. If you are backpacking in, say, the White Mountains of New Hampshire with a ground shelter, you’re going to struggle to find places where you can camp if they’ve not been developed by others before you. So at that point you put yourself in the mindset of everyone else: on the map, look for flat spots near water. In contrast, if you have a hammock, then you can camp in many more places. And if you’re backpacking in the High Sierra, nearly every flat spot is camp-able because you don’t have the undergrowth issues.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 7, 2021 at 10:25 am

      In a group setting, it’s still best for everyone to have one gear list, because so many items are needed by everyone. For the few items that can be shared, decide who is going to carry what, and specify that in the correct row in each gear list. For example, under the “Shelter” section, if one person is going to carry the fly and another person the poles and stakes, that’s how it’d be reported on their respective gear lists.

      In regards to the specific things you mentioned:
      * Stoves: a 2-person group can use an upright canister stove with a ~1.3L pot, but a 3-person needs to move to a remote canister stove and 2-liter pot.
      * Pocket knives: One knife in the group should be fine
      * First aid: One group kit with most of the supplies, and then maybe each person has an individual kit with oft-needed items like ibuprofen, blister tape, and butt salve
      * Maps: At least one set for the navigator
      * GPS apps: Everyone who has a smartphone should have the maps on their phone, as redundancy and safety

Leave a Comment