I get it we are all busy, someday's it feels like we are just putting out one fire and moving directly to the next, the dog needs food, I need to prep for that huge meetings, need to pay the credit card bill, go grocery shopping, get a workout in....the to-do list is never ending. And it can feel exhausting, daunting, even intimidating. to start thinking about your next adventure.
I used to think adventure was a luxury and that I needed to deal with what was going on at home & work before I could tackle planning a trip. But in the last couple years I have learned that this thought process is backward. Taking time out of my week to plan for a trip gives me the opportunity for my mind to relax for awhile while I focus on something I enjoy and makes me excited for the future. Not to mention that when I don't take the time to plan for a trip, I don't get to go on the trip, and that is when I start to get burnt out.
So, without further ado, below I have outlined my 5 easy steps to planning a backpacking trip. You can also apply these methods to planning a camping or hiking trip. I like to think of all these items each as a piece of a puzzle, coming together to in the end to create something amazing.
1. Set Your Goals
Be specific on your intentions for the trip. Do you want to break a record hiking distance, maybe climb a 14-er (climb above 14,000 feet)? Maybe your looking to practice a specific outdoor sport or skill, such as climbing or photography? Do you want to go with friends or solo? This step doesn't have to get too detailed, you will figure out the specifics when you get to step 2. But before I jump into the planning process, I like to have a goal in mind, this helps you focus your trip and can make the whole planning process much more efficient.
Tip: Don't try to fit too much in
This is a very common mistake with most backpackers. I get it, you've taken all this effort to get to a remote location that your not sure you will visit again so you want to try and see everything. But unfortunately with backpacking we are limited by what is our pack and time. So be specific about what you want to accomplish, this will also help you with our next step, to create a killer itinerary.
2. Develop an Itinerary
What is the first step you take when starting a puzzle? You find all the boarder pieces and starting creating an outline, right? I like to think of your itinerary as the boarder pieces of your puzzle, it gives you an idea of what your working with and gives you lines to work within. I like to break my itinerary into four main components: date, location, route/mileage, and contingencies. Ok lets break down the specifics of each component:
Date is pretty straightforward, determine when you want to go and for how long you can go. I usually try to determine my date first because it can influence your location. I have also found this to be the best strategy when planning with friends. For example, my friends and I go on a yearly backpacking trip, we knew we all were available in June, so areas like Montana or Colorado were out as they would probably still have snow on the ground.
This is the fun part because this is where you can really daydream. Some of the coolest places I have visited have just been via word of mouth, so start talking about your trip with everybody, your friends, co-workers, maybe even strangers in the grocery line (I love multi-tasking, lol). Get the word out, you never know what the universe will put in your path. Some other useful tools for determining a location include:
Pinetrest is a great resource to find inspiration, I always have multiple inspiration boards going. I like Pinetrest over other social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook because it works more like a search engine and you can save ideas easily in categories or boards. Also, I have found a lot of areas are misrepresented on Instagram and Facebook, just to make the shot look good. Also, if the big travel bloggers have posted a picture of it chances are by the time you get there it will have exploded with people. I still seem to be able to find known gems on Pinetrest though.
Google maps, I will just turn on the satellite imagery and look for large areas of green, then zoom in and Google will tell you what national forest it is, this is actually how I found a little known trail system in the Umpqua Forest, Oregon.
Online resources, there are some pretty good online resources, however, be warned because this can be a bottomless pit and there is a lot of bad information out there. I really like this trip planner tool on Backpacker magazine, you can filter by state, city or they have roundup lists by activity. I also plan on coming out with a blog post of some of the top women adventure bloggers I follow, so stay tuned.
Now that you have your location and for how long you want to go, you can start to get specific on your route. Make sure to figure out a few key items:
Mileage - One big thing to determine first is how many miles do you need to go to reach your destination, how many miles can you go per day, and do you want to incorporate any rest days into your trip. I always suggest buying a map of the park you are exploring at this stage, it's a good way to find potential trails, easily see the elevation, and find key features such as summits, waterfalls, scenic points etc. For me searching trails online is a bit of a bottomless pit, so I like to look at a map first to narrow my search. Also, I love loop hikes, so it can be kind of fun trying to figure out how to fit all the places you want to visit into a loop, like the jigsaw puzzle.
Figure out permits, transportation and accommodations - Transportation is always tricky, sometimes specific parks will have a shuttle system built into the park system. If you are hiking with friends you can always bring two cars. If you are hiking solo, bribe a friend :) I don't recommend using a rideshare service such as Uber, it sounds like a great idea but most Ubers won't go to the remote locations trailheads are located, believe me I have tried and learned the hard way. Also, start making campsite reservations and acquire permits early, as this can really hinder your plans. If you are camping in the backcountry you may not need a campsite reservation but you will most likely need a permit. Some hard-to-score permits require early application.
Tip: Some parks have built-in loopholes, like starting at an alternate trailhead, that make it possible to do your desired hike even if you don’t get your desired permit.
Get the most recent trail conditions - Honestly the best and easiest way I have found to confirm trail conditions is to call the Park Ranger. You can check directly with an expert in the area to see if they think your planned route is feasible/good and confirm that you are not missing any cool features to the park. You can also usually confirm your reservation or permits during this step. Many people skip this step, but honestly this will make your trip so much better. My friends and I were planning a hiking trip around the rim of Crater Lake in June, I had it all planned, gave the park ranger a call to make sure the trails were passable, and found out they were having a late snowmelt and there was still tons of snow on the ground, needless to say we changed our plans. Sometimes you can also find trail cams on the park website to see if things like snow or flooding are still impacting the area.
Plan for contingencies -
There are always contingencies, in 2018 almost all the hiking trips I went on had some type of contingency. But none of them were fatal trip flaws as I was prepared and I was willing to adjust. A good exercise is to take a look at the map and identify any hazards, are there river crossings (insert bad Into The Wild crack here), or maybe higher summits that may have snow. Plan for alternative routes and emergency exit points. You never know what is going to happen back there and the more prepared you are the safer for you, the people you are hiking with, and potentially the other people out there hiking you may run into.
3. Pack the RIGHT Gear
Nothing is worse then lugging around a huge pack on a long backpacking trip (check out my tips on how to lighten your load in my Art of Backpacking Light post). But since you got specific about your goals in Step 1, you don't need to lug around a bunch of unnecessary gear. I like to pull all my gear out before my trip and make sure everything is working and in good order. Is there specific gear you will need to get for the trip, or maybe you need to restock on batteries or fuel. Also, will your gear need any type of treatment, such as water or insect repellent. Do this now so you are not running around frantic the day before the trip trying to pull everything together.
If you are hiking with friends let them know of any specific gear they will need to bring and coordinate common gear you will be sharing to save weight (fuel, water filter, first aid kit etc.) Also, this would be a good time to start coordinating food, I find it easiest to just divvy up meals and that person carry's that meal for everybody.
4. Train and Acclimatize
There are two key elements to bakcpacking that make it different than a lot of other sports and those are, constant weight and elevation gain. So, even though you have the cardio down, you will want to also make sure you are ready to carry your pack up hills for long distances. And the best way to do this, drum roll please, is to climb some big hills with your pack on, duh. Even better is to use the gear you will take with you on the trip. Also if you know you are going to be hitting some high altitudes it is good to start hiking at altitude, altitude sickness is a real problem and can completely ruin a trip, so make sure to get your body used to the physical stress at altitude.
5. Before You Leave
Please don't be that guy from 127 Hours, tell somebody where you are going! Share your itinerary with somebody responsible (such as a family member) and maybe even the park ranger you called earlier. Also, some people who are hiking solo will buy a SPOT satellite device with which they can send out automated messages at pre-determined times of day letting somebody know they are still okay, if the message doesn't get sent that is the message receivers cue that something may be wrong.
Also re-check everything. I like to have a list of important items, and check them off the list, food, water, important gear, permits, maps etc. Also you will want to check the weather, road, and trail conditions conditions again before you leave.
And you are now ready to hit the trail, you can leave for your trip now confident that you are ready and you can assure your friends and family that you will be safe. After all that though remember that once on the trail stay flexible- some of my favorite trips have been when nothing worked out according to plan, but you have contingencies, you are trained, and have the right gear, so just go with the flow and see where the trail takes you.