Planning a Hiking Trip: Getting Started

by Julien Heron
Last Updated: September 23, 2021
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Spontaneous hiking trips can be an adventure, but only if you don’t plan on staying out too long and you stick to trails you know. Otherwise, you’ll need to plan out your journey, not only for the sake of logistics, but to keep yourself and any of your travel companions safe. After all, when you plan well, you’ll be prepared for any eventuality.

Here are some questions to consider: 

  • What kind of terrain will I be traveling through? 
  • Is it hot or cold? 
  • Will there be streams or river crossings along the way? 
  • Do I need to save weight for a long hike?
  • How far am I hiking each day, 
  • Will I travel with a group? 
  • Am I taking two cars or are we cramming our packs into one?
  • Do I need to consider elevation gain?
  • What time of year will I be hiking?
  • What are my water filtration and treatment options?

Once you have the above considered, you can start to plan accordingly. After all, hiking when there might be a chance of snow is considerably different than hiking through an Arizona desert on a hot autumn day. 

Planning the Route

When planning a good trip, either hiking solo by the beach or in a group through the backcountry, you first need to plan your route from starting point to end point. If you've never been to your destination before, you will want to carry a map and compass or GPS receiver to plot a course for yourself. 

Be sure that the map has contour lines on it to see how steep each section of land is since this will play an essential factor in which of the many trails and paths you take (or avoid). Remember to stay on your planned course because one wrong move can turn a happy vacation into a nightmare! 

Once you reach each destination, take note of what is in front of you and how long it took to reach this destination from your last one. This will give you an accurate idea about how fast or slow you traveled over terrain, which should help with future planning and have a better overall understanding of the area itself while you're there.

Hiking trips can be very tough on a person's joints and muscles, so being in shape is very important. You want to ensure that you are physically fit enough to withstand the terrain you plan to hike through while climbing up mountains and hills with a full gear pack and hiking gear.

Finding Reasonable (But Exciting) Nearby Trails

On your first backpacking trip, you may want to start in an area close to home or a nearby park. For example, you could visit a nearby mountain or head out into the woods and go on a short hike to get started. Check a local backpacker magazine for details on backpacking ideas and tips, the average rating for different trails, permit requirements, or potential campsites.

Estimating Your Capabilities

You must take into account your physical limitations while planning. These limitations may include the after-effects from an accident, injury, or other previous condition that limits the amount of exercise you can do. If this applies to you, consider a less strenuous hiking route and personalize the advice listed below to meet your needs.

Mileage Limits

How far you can comfortably walk each day will be significantly influenced by your fitness level and by the level of accommodation, as well as the type of trail and local conditions such as altitude and food availability at stops.

If you need to take rest days during your climb because of sore feet or exhaustion, then you should plan shorter mileage days into the route.

Estimating Trail Time

If you are new to hiking and your fitness level is low, choose an itinerary that gives you adequate time to complete the trail. Also, allow some extra day's leeway if things don't go as planned or there may be delays such as bad weather. A good trail map can help you decide where to spend your time.

As a general rule, the daily distance listed in most guidebooks assumes a slow pace, good visibility during daylight hours, no injury or illness, and generally being in good shape.

Locating the Perfect Backcountry Campsite

One of the things to figure out while planning your hiking trip is locating the perfect backpacking destination. To do that successfully, here are some things to keep in mind during your search.

Check If There Is Water Available

Remember that you cannot live without water, so locating a campsite near a flowing stream or lake is best. If you don't have access to water, you'll have to bring enough to last for the duration of your multi-day hike trip. The same applies to carrying food – just leave no trace behind for wild animals! 

Check the Area’s Climate

Research the climate of the area beforehand. It will help you determine if you need to bring rain gear or a waterproof tent. If there is a big chance of precipitation, finding an area with good drainage would be best. Otherwise, you may end up spending the night in your car.

Check What Vegetation and Ground Cover to Expect

Landscapes with thick vegetation and abundant ground cover offer an increased level of protection against the elements. If you need to build a shelter, this feature will also help provide you with all the necessary materials.

If possible, position your campsite on higher grounds to prevent flooding or rising water levels from affecting you.

Additionally, look for an area with a wide, flat terrain, as this will make it easier to pitch your tent or set up your shelter and avoid standing water and rocks that could potentially poke holes in your tent. Plus, it will be much better for your sleeping bag.

Check for Dangerous Animals and Other Natural Hazards

This tip is essential but often overlooked, especially if you are a beginner backpacker. If bears or mountain lions are likely to be on your hiking trail, it would be best to avoid camping near those areas.

Also, check if any venomous snakes are present in the area. Depending on the season, their population could be higher than average and could cause problems that would end your hike and send you back to the car. Your life is more important than finishing a hike.

Finally, it would be best to be mindful of landslides, avalanches, and flash flooding. These are pretty common occurrences in any mountainous area, and they can make parts of the trail inaccessible, so you might not get to your intended destination.

Last Minute Logistics

When planning a hiking trip, the last thing you want to do the day before is to ensure that all your solo or group gear is accounted for and ready to go. Before leaving home, make a checklist of everything you plan on taking with you in addition to any other detailed information, such as boarding pets or arranging public transportation).

Additionally, here are a few things you should take care of right before heading out on your hiking adventure.

Check the Forecast

While you might have planned your day hike or camping trip months in advance, Mother Nature can stop your plans instantly. A day before leaving, check the weather forecast for any potentially dangerous weather conditions (such as snowstorms or extreme cold) and prepare extra gear just in case.

Verify Trail Conditions

If you're going on a trail that's outside of the city, chances are nobody will have maintained it like a popular city park. So before heading out, check with the local ranger station, hiking club, or Google Maps to see if they've had any problems with specific trails in the recent past. The last thing you want to do is find yourself slipping and sliding on a muddy trail with no way to get out.

Leave a Copy of Your Itinerary with a Friend

Friends should know about your hiking plans. If you get injured or lost, this person can alert authorities and start the search process if necessary. Also, they can contact family members in case of an emergency.

Pack Everything the Day Before

Always pack your backpacking gear before going on a backpacking trip so that nothing gets left behind at the last minute. When packing for a hike, people will throw everything into their bags and leave without really thinking about what they need to bring with them.

While experienced backpackers may be able to get away with this method for hikes less than a week-long, most people who are newer to hiking should try taking the time to put some thought into what they're packing before their hikes. Experience has shown that a hiker might not always have access to everything they need out in the wilderness.

Don't forget the essentials:

  • Food
  • Clothing (multiple layers, including pants and a hat to limit sun exposure)
  • Shoes fit for the occasion 
  • Hiking equipment – water bottles, first aid kit, maps, and a water filter
  • A journal for keeping trip reports and trip planning

Conclusion

Planning backpacking trips or a multi-day trip can be challenging, but you can enjoy a fantastic backpacking trip with a little bit of thought and effort. By taking the time to plan and using these tips, you can focus on enjoying your backpacking trip and nature itself rather than worrying about what might go wrong while living life on the trail.

Julien Heron
I’m passionate about all things outdoors, bridging the gap between generations and sharing my passion for hiking and camping. My goal is to spread the endless benefits of being outside, always striving for better performance, new challenges, and ways to explore responsibly.
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