How to Plan a Hiking Trip
Camping is one of the safest ways to escape this eternal pandemic. If you love nature and are particularly ambitious (read: weather resistant), try planning your fall or winter backpacking hike.
Compared to a regular vacation, hiking in the mountains is fraught with other challenges because you have to carry all the food and equipment you need to stay safe and happy. Here’s what you need to know.
First, the logistics
The first step to a successful tourist trip is choosing your location and planning your itinerary. Ask yourself a few questions to narrow down the questions:
- When are you going?
- How much time do you have and how long do you want to leave?
- Is there a specific trail you want to walk, a park you want to visit, or a site you want to see?
- How many miles do you want to travel? (Related question: Are you ready to physically travel the planned distance?)
- Are you going alone? Who is coming with you?
Narrow your route
Once you know when, where (usually) and with whom, it’s time to choose a specific route and explore it. Perform a search on the site such as AllTrails, to compare guides and general information about the routes. Reports paths and mapping platforms like CalTopo, can help you better understand the profile heights of danger (snowfields, fights and high river crossings) and possible locations for camping in remote areas.
A few more things to consider:
- Water sources
- Emergency access (e.g. road crossings)
- Replenishment points
- Impact (sun and elements)
- Daylight hours
- Navigation / route search
Request permissions if necessary
Certain parks, deserts and popular trails require permits for backpackers or overnight camping. Some permits are more formal – although you have to apply and pay for them, you will have no problem getting them when you arrive – but others require you to participate in the lottery months or even years in advance. Do your research before you travel to avoid disappointment.
Your comfort and safety during the hike depends on basic equipment. Obviously, you’ll need a backpack – you can borrow or buy, but it’s probably worth having one that fits well and has the right capacity for your trip. REI has a helpful packaging guide . Other essentials include a stove (with suitable fuel), a tent or hiking bag , a sleeping bag and pillow, a headlamp, a water filter, dishes, shoes or boots, and many layers of clothing.
Of course, the specifics of what you need depend on where you are going and for how long. If you are backpacking during the colder months, you may need more padding and gloves and a hat. Also a raincoat in humid climates. Also, think of any additional equipment you need on your particular route, such as a bear canister and bear spray.
As long as your shoes and backpack fit you, you don’t need to buy everything new. Ask friends if you can borrow their gear, look at used gear stores, or search on Craigslist.
Pro Tourist Andrew Skurk has a customizable gear template to help you select and organize your gear list, and REI has a PDF printable gear checklist . r / Backpacking is another resource for anything you might want to know.
Make a menu
There are many pretty delicious freeze-dried dishes out there that only require hot water, so you don’t need to cook if you don’t want to. If you’ve been away for more than a few days, you probably don’t want to carry a lot of extra weight. In this case, however, you may want to prepare one or two fresh meals at the start of your trip to avoid eating freeze-dried foods three times a day for several days in a row.
If you’re looking to cook your own food, Fresh Off The Grid has a long list of easy walking recipes. And don’t forget the snacks: jerky, dried fruit, muesli, and bars are great hiking food. Also M & Ms.
Use this Outdoor Backpack Meal Planning Guide to ensure you have enough food to cover your entire trip.
Plan your safety
Having as much information as possible about your route can help you prepare for any potential hazards, but it’s also a good idea to take some extra precautions. First, you have several ways to navigate: paper maps and a compass, as well as offline maps on your phone (assuming you can solar-powered on the go). Gaia is one of the best offline mapping apps.
Then consider using a satellite device, such as a Garmin InReach tracker or SPOT, that will allow you to communicate in an emergency.
Check the weather in the days leading up to your trip so you have time to buy something at the last minute. Also, brush up on Leave No Trace (LNT) principles to keep nature the way you found it. Finally, share your detailed plans with friends and family and let them know when you plan to go astray.
Of course, if you are not into mountain climbing, you can go hiking by car. For the most part, the preparation is the same – you still have to pick a date, plan meals, and pack your gear. But you can rent a hut or yurt at your state park or campsite instead of pitching your tent, especially if you’re heading into the middle of winter.