There’s nothing quite like spending days, if not weeks, surrounded by nature. Nothing compares to covering miles and miles powered by your own legs during the day and camping at night. If you want to make the most of your upcoming adventure, knowing how to plan a backpacking trip is essential.
One of our big goals here at The Adventure Junkies is to be there for you when you need advice on how to get outdoors. In this article, we’ll show you how to pick a destination, gear up, plan your meals and pack your pack your backpack so you can get off the couch and on the trail quick!
1. PICK A DESTINATION
The first step to planning a backpacking trip is picking a place to go. What are you interested in? Do you picture yourself climbing slopes and conquering mountain summits? Or are you drawn to the woods? Or perhaps you like being near water, including lakes and seas?
You’ll want to consider which trail fits within your budget and skill set. Also consider how much time you have available to go hiking.
If you live in North America, you’re never too far from a great backpacking destination, whether it’s the Appalachian or Rocky Mountains, the New England or Pacific Northwest coasts, or the deserts of the Southwest.
Websites like Alltrails.com and TheOutbound.com are great resources for finding trails near you. You can read outdoor magazines like Outside and Backpacker to get inspiration. Also check out our articles about some of the best trails in the world:
2. CHOOSE THE TYPE AND LENGTH OF TRAIL
Now that you have an idea of where you might want to go hiking, you’ll need to pick the type and length of the trail.There are many options, from loop hikes to point-to-point hikes and out-and-back hikes.
The terrain also plays a vital role in planning your trip. A mountainous trail will take much longer than a flat coastal trail. Keep in mind that rougher terrain means that you’ll cover less distance per day. A strenuous five-mile hike in the mountains can take a whole afternoon while an easy hike of similar distance will take only a couple of hours.
The trail you choose, of course, also depends on how much time you have to complete it. Do you have a weekend or a week, maybe even a whole month? This greatly affects where you can and/or want to go. Depending on your destination, you should count on five to fifteen miles per day.
Additionally, it’s always a good idea to buy local guidebooks and trail maps. Make sure to check local rules and regulations. Figure out if it’s ok to wild camp, if there are bears around, and if you need a hiking permit.
3. DECIDE WHAT TIME OF YEAR TO GO
When you’ve figured out your preferred destination and trail, you should find out the best time of year for backpacking in that specific region. For instance, California’s High Sierra mountains are perfect for backpacking trips in summer. Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, on the other hand, are glorious in the fall. If you are planning on hiking in tropical regions, make sure you don’t plan to go in the rainy season.
It’s also important to take into account wildlife activity in your destinations. When are bears most active/hungry? Are there any annoying black flies or mosquitos around?
The climate, wildlife activity and terrain will all influence things such as the gear you’ll need and the amount of water you might have to carry.
4. CHOOSE YOUR GEAR
Assuming you’re figuring out how to plan a backpacking trip sometime in spring, summer or fall, these are the three gear groups you need.
Fleece or hoodie
Besides these basic gear groups, you will most likely also want to bring other equipment as well. This, depending on the type of backpacking trip you’re doing, you might bring multi tools, a GPS for hiking and a compass. A first-aid kit is an absolute necessity, too. For a comprehensive checklist of everything you need, check out our multi-day hiking packing list.
5. GET IN SHAPE FOR HIKING AND BREAK IN YOUR GEAR
The key to backpacking success is making sure that your body is up for the challenge. Don’t leave for a long trip through the wilderness if you still take the elevator instead of the stairs. Get outside and get active. Prior to your trip, get into an exercise routine.
During a backpacking trip, your muscular stamina and leg strength are what you will rely on. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of success as well as your own comfort on the trail.
Try to do at least 3-4 workouts every week prior to your trip. Alternate between cardiovascular workouts such as walking, running or cycling and muscle-building exercises. According to this superb infographic by Backcountry.com, squats, wall sits, planks and dumbbell step-ups are great ways to build muscle.
It’s also critical to break in any new gear you might have bought. There’s nothing as bad as getting blisters from wearing brand new hiking boots two days into your backpacking trip. Test out all your equipment. Pitch your tent in your backyard—even sleep in it once—and cook with your cooking gear.
6. PLAN YOUR MEALS
Food is as important as, if not more important than, your gear. It’s what fuels your body, the only means of transportation you have on the trail. Therefore, planning your meals is an essential part of how to plan a backpacking trip.
Consider drawing up a table with your daily meals—days in the columns, meal times in the rows.
REI advises to choose freeze-dried food. This type of food is exceptionally lightweight and requires only a couple of cups of hot water. It’s ideal for backpacking dinners and includes a huge variety of dishes, from lasagna with meat sauce to pad thai. Freeze-dried breakfasts are available as well.
Popular trail snacks are typically dried foods as well. Trail snacks include dried fruits, nuts, M&Ms and chocolate bars.
After you’ve assembled all meals and their ingredients, put them into separate zip-lock bags. Use your daily meals table to label all your meals—breakfast 1, dinner 3, etc. Doing this will keep your bag organized.
In terms of water, which is obviously vital, you’re recommended to carry at least two liters per day. If you’re hiking for an extended period of time, a water purifier is without question a useful piece of gear to have.
Also, make sure to inform yourself about any bear activity in the region you’re hiking through. If there are bears around, you must store your food in a bear canister.
7. PACK YOUR BACKPACK
Lastly, after you’ve prepared mentally and physically for your backpack trip, geared up and planned all your meals, it’s finally time to pack your backpack.
The size and type of your backpack depends mostly on the length of your trip. The longer the trip, the more food you’ll have to carry. Hence, the larger your backpack has to be. We have compiled a guide about how to choose a backpack for hiking, so be sure to check it out if you need a new pack.
When it comes to actually packing your backpack, we have a useful post about that, too. Check out the article about how to pack a backpacking for hiking, the smart way.