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:
- Define the trip parameters: Where, when, with who, and why?
- Research the conditions, like temperatures and bug pressure.
- Select gear that is appropriate for the parameters and conditions.
- Plan snacks and meals.
- Collect or create navigational resources like maps and guidebooks.
- Gain the requisite skills and fitness for the itinerary. And,
- Complete a final systems check just before hitting the trail.
Let me go into more details.
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:
- Why, in terms of hiking versus camping?
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:
- Navigational aids
- Sun exposure
- Water availability
- Wildlife & insects
- 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.
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:
- A time-tested and well designed gear list template;
- Examples of completed gear lists for similar trips; and,
- A copy of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Workout more intensely, to maximize the potential of the time you have available. Personally, I run 60-70 miles per week. Alan Dixon has a training plan that’s more hiking-oriented and probably more realistic.
- Read and watch skill tutorials, such as my series on navigation, pooping in the woods, finding great campsites, packing your backpack, and knot-tying.
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.
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