Ultimate Guide to Planning Hiking Trips
Adventures are unpredictable by definition. However, careful planning is the key to having a safer, and more enjoyable hiking trip. Whether for an overnight trip or a multi-week journey, you will reap the greatest rewards by preparing for your adventure.
Experienced hikers know very well that “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. In its simplest form, planning means packing your gear and setting off with no prescribed route or goal in mind. This is what you can sometimes do in areas you know well, especially when the weather might affect any route plans you made. You can even do that in areas you’ve never visited before, especially if you have an affinity for the unpredictable. However, a reasonable hiker prefers to plan his trip, including the route and his timing; check the weather forecast (decisions based on historical temperature data are not often bad or wrong), water availability and sources, terrain features, vegetation and wildlife and dangers related to them; select proper and tested equipment, including comfortable hiking footwear, clothing, and gear; know the potential hazards and consider all other small details that can turn an adventure into a disaster.
There are three main questions you need to answer during the planning stage of your hiking adventure. They are the following:
- Who will be joining you?
- Where will you go?
- When will you go?
Answering these questions will allow you to fine-tune your gear and food selection, develop a realistic timeline, and anticipate potential problems.
It will be best for you if your partner is more experienced backpacker than you. This will help you become more proficient in route finding and avoid common mistakes. Partnering up is easy if your soul mate also enjoys backpacking and has a similar level of fitness. But it gets more complicated if your physical preparation level isn’t similar or you have different goals.
Be critical and don’t make any compromises if something in your partner’s attitude or manners really irritates you. Try to discuss any problems and woes you might have and solve them. You need to sort out potential issues in advance and relinquish unrealistic expectations.
How to plan a hiking trip - essentials
Evaluate your experience, skills, and knowledge. What are your goals?
Pick realistic goals, and save the ambitious projects for when you have the experience and fitness to pull them off. Especially before doing a long hiking trip, it is wise to do a couple of shorter trips such as day hikes or two-day trips to evaluate your fitness, your hiking boots, your gear (hiking pants, shirt, rain jacket, sleeping bag, pad, shelter, etc.), and your partners. A big trip may quickly be cut short by a pair of ill-fitting boots or bad physical condition.
Many backpackers dream of hiking a long-distance trail in one continuous journey which is a major undertaking. Sometimes, people set off on one of these with just a hazy idea of the route yet they complete the whole trail. But far more give up within the first few days or weeks - and this includes those who do some planning. There are various reasons for failure. Heavy packs (full of irrelevant things), sore feet, exhaustion, unexpected weather, rough terrain, and trail conditions are among the most common. Detailed planning is advisable for a long-distance hike, especially one that will take several weeks. A gradual progression should precede a really long trip. First, try hiking shorter but still challenging trails, and then you will have enough knowledge and determination to finish a long walk.
Preparation for a long trek means dealing with logistics, picking proper footwear and gear as well as knowing the specific hazards related to the trail you’ve chosen. Thus, preparation can be one of the most challenging parts of the whole hiking experience yet it’s very important that you not only prepare for your trip but you do it properly. You need to be realistic about how the demands of the trip you are considering align with the reality of your physical ability.
The first step in planning ahead is choosing a trip that is appropriate for your skill level. Too often people get into trouble because they underestimate the challenge of their route or overestimate their individual capabilities. Keep in mind that men and women are different in many ways and have different perceptions. Moreover, they communicate differently to one another. This is a possible explanation to the question why men and women deal with hardships differently. Anyway, the ability to overcome troublesome situations is often directly connected with the experience and not that much with certain biological traits and genetics.
Select an area
You can do that with some help from the Internet, guidebooks, maps, magazine articles, outdoor websites, hiking blogs, trekking agencies, local outing clubs, and guides and outfitters. First, of course, you have to decide where you want to start and finish. Most people have their own preferences based on the nature of the terrain, great stories they’ve read or heard, even on some stunning pictures and photos.
Once you have chosen your partner(s) or decided to solo hike, pull out the guidebooks and pick a trail. In addition to trail descriptions, better guidebooks will include time estimates, elevation gain and loss, and warnings about less-obvious hazards. This way you’ll get some valuable preliminary information. If you are going into less-traveled areas, you may have to glean this information from Internet blogs or topographic maps. A Web search with Google is a good place to start. Once you’ve selected an area, you can obtain up-to-date information from the land managers, fellow hikers, Internet or state/local agencies and institutions.
Obtain up-to-date information
Weather and average temperaturesPart of your research should include prevailing weather patterns for your destination. As mentioned above, you can first examine historical temperature data and base your decisions on it. As your departure date gets closer, start following the weather on the Internet - get the most reliable and comprehensive weather forecasts. Nowadays, forecasts can be extremely punctual especially for 4-5 days ahead (specialists reliably predict the weather up to seven days in advance, though keep in mind that this might not be relevant for the mountain weather) and getting caught unprepared is foolish.
DaylightHow many hours of daylight do you expect? If there will be night hiking, you’ll need lighting (a headlamp or a flashlight) and warmer clothes. On summer trips, there is enough daylight for up to 14-16 hours of hiking per day. This means that you need only a low-powered headlamp/flashlight for camp chores unless you decide to go on a night hike. Additionally, you don’t need warm clothing to have a good sleep. In contrast, you need a high-powered light for hiking after dark and warmer equipment for your winter hikes.
Sun exposureSunburn is easier to prevent than treat. Keep in mind that direct solar radiation can be very dangerous, especially between 10 am and 2 pm. The amount of sun exposure is a function of various factors such as cloud cover, vegetation, elevation, surface reflectivity, and the strength of the sun. These details can be obtained from different sources.
Terrain (including elevation gain and loss)The terrain is among the most important factors when choosing proper footwear for your trip. For rough and rocky terrain (especially if you go uphill) you can play it safe and pick up hard-wearing hiking or backpacking boots. They offer better ankle support, more control, and stability in comparison with light low-cut shoes such as trail-running shoes or standard hiking shoes. However, they’re too heavy and need to be broken-in before your hike; otherwise, they can ruin your trip. Additionally, trail-running shoes today are lightweight, more durable and reliable than before and provide enough comfort on most kinds of surfaces. Your clothing also relies very much on the terrain you choose for your hiking trip. If trail quality, signage, and maintenance are poor, you should bring better navigational aids and more protective clothing. You can get familiar with your planned route by looking at pictures and reading descriptions of it.
Time estimatesIf you don’t have experience with mountain trekking, you will be surprised that going uphill can take so much more time than hiking on even terrain. But it’s true as it is true that walking in snow is harder and more time-consuming than summer hiking. You need to take details like these into consideration when planning and estimating your timing. Having an idea of how much to lower your time and distance expectations is important, and - in case you’re wondering - your personal experience is a huge factor in determining this.
Hiking HazardsDo your research and make sure you know what kind of hazards you may encounter during your trip. Remember that preparing for a disaster does not mean that you can always avoid it; however, you’ll have a much better chance at dealing with almost any extreme situation you encounter on the trail. If you are a complete novice to the outdoors start with learning the essentials for beginning backpackers. The outdoors is not as dangerous as typically portrayed by sensationalist media stoking fear of the unknown. Nonetheless, people do get sick and injured out there, sometimes fatally. Natural hazards include unpredictable mountain weather, technical rock faces, rockfalls, crevasses, contaminated backcountry water sources, river crossings, flash floods, wildfires, and avalanches.
VegetationIt can be among the last things most backpackers check out when planning their trip, but don’t be fooled by that fact - it’s not the same to hike in an arid area with a few cactuses and crossing thick forests (with thorn bushes) or fields lush with grass. For information about vegetation density and types, check topo maps, analyze satellite imagery, find pictures and descriptions posted online.
Wildlife and insectsUse blogs and forums to find relevant information about the wildlife and insects that can be a concern. The possible presence of dangerous animals (mice, raccoons, bears, snakes etc.) affects how and whether you store and protect your food, where you cook and camp, where and when you walk (avoid night hiking in snake country), and whether you need to carry anything for self-defense. Relentless swarms of mosquitoes, black flies, and no-see-ums can completely ruin a trip. There are so many potentially dangerous animals for a hiker so you need to be well-informed in advance about the dangers related to wildlife on a particular hiking trail.
RemotenessDepending on the location, you need to carry one or more of the following: mobile phone in a shock and waterproof case, GPS, and personal locator beacon (PLB). If something unexpected happens or if something goes wrong you may need to self-rescue, await an assisted rescue, or apply medical treatment.
Water availabilityOn any walk, you need to know where water sources are and what the condition of the water is likely to be. Water supply is among the most important things you want to know about a region you’ll be hiking in. Having access to enough drinking water should be one of the major considerations in planning your hiking trip. There are some places where water sources are generally reliable and others where many water sources dry up during the arid summer months. Before relying on a water source marked on a map, consult someone who has personal familiarity with the landscape or check guidebooks and online trip reports for past observations.
PrecipitationYour footwear, clothing, shelter, the types of materials you use, and water availability will all be affected by the amount and frequency of precipitation you can expect during a trip. In prolonged rainy weather, lightweight trail-running shoes are preferable to waterproof boots because 1) boots won’t protect your feet from getting wet and 2) running shoes are breathable and will get dry much faster than a pair of boots.
Sorting the obtained information - what’s useful and what’s irrelevant?
It doesn’t matter how much information you have. It’s important to have enough relevant information. The Internet can overwhelm you with a massive amount of information, so you will need to sort out what’s useful from what’s irrelevant. Many trekking websites are updated regularly and provide a ton of (both relevant and irrelevant) information for your hiking expedition. Filtering out the irrelevant information is critical to helping your brain process the most important information out of everything presented to you. Your experience, as well as the ability to think critically, is the key to extract what matters from what’s irrelevant.
Be critical of everything you read or hear, try to find at least two different sources about a particular topic you have an interest in, and carefully evaluate the quality and consistency of the information you get. This will help you allow yourself to reflect thoughtfully, objectively, on the data.
Most beginning backpackers usually stick to trails or established routes and limit the amount of off-trail hiking into the wilderness. But even if you plan to be on a trail all day, look carefully at the map before you set off and identify some landmarks to keep track of your progress.
First, pinpoint your starting location. Then, trace your planned route carefully making note of key features you will pass on the way. It is a good idea to hike with a map in an easily accessible pocket to consult it if necessary.
Keep in mind that up-to-date local knowledge is still important. Especially in remote areas, locals can be an invaluable source of information. They can give you advice or guidance for the route planning. Their experience can be especially helpful when you’re looking for more information about particular local sections or obscure trails that aren’t popular or well recommended. Moreover, they can help you with any transportation-related questions as well as with finding online guides about the area you will be heading to as well as with finding valuable local forums. Perusing these forums can help you find some hidden gems.
Main problems to solve for long hiking trips
Resupplying/logisticsYou need to organize an effective supply of enough food for your entire hiking trip. Planning and successfully executing a strategy for resupply is a must for long-distance hikers. You should also know in advance where grocery stores and post offices are located on the trail. Additionally, there are companies that ship resupply packages to hikers on some of the most popular trails (valid for the US).
PermitsMany national parks throughout the world require permits. There are places where you need to apply for a permit long before your trip - especially if the place is popular among backpackers and the number of permits is restricted. Thus, it’s best to check whether permits are needed before making firm plans for an area.
Hiking footwear, clothing, and gearProper equipment is critical to navigating through and living comfortably in the outdoors. Many backcountry emergencies result from people being poorly equipped to meet conditions. You will need appropriate and comfortable hiking footwear that’s durable, fits well, provides excellent traction and control. As far as clothing is concerned, layering is essential, especially when hiking in the mountains. For higher temperatures, pick up a pair of lightweight and breathable hiking shoes or trail-running shoes. For lower temperatures and rough terrain, choose high-cut boots that provide ankle support and give you more control and stability. Pick up a pair of proper hiking pants or shorts depending on the weather, your preferences, and last but not least - the presence or absence of mosquitos, black flies, and other insects. Pretty much the same is valid when choosing a shirt for hiking. In general, you should know what type of hiking clothing you might need.
Know your gearIt doesn’t help to have all the right gear in your backpack if you can’t operate it. Take time to learn how to use your equipment before you leave home. Avoid going out on long trips to isolated places with untried backpacking gear. If you are using old gear, pull it out of storage and check to make sure it is in good repair before leaving. Carry a repair kit to fix your gear if something breaks down.
Specific problems related to the trail you’ve chosenAnything that can be of interest from natural hazards to dangerous wildlife and fierce bugs such as mosquitos, flies, and gnats. In general, you want to have as much information as possible prior to your expedition as this might help you avoid risky situations.
Hiking around the world
Hiking around the world (especially if you want to do some long-distance trekking) makes planning even more complicated because in addition to applying for a permit, you’ll have to have a valid passport, go to the embassy and apply for a visa (if you decide to go hiking in Asia, for example), buy a plane ticket, take a couple of passport photos, arrange travel insurance, and be vaccinated against tropical diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis, Trypanosoma etc. (if you go to a tropical country). In addition, scan all the documents for your trip abroad (you may wish to put everything in PDF format because it’s universal, plus there are a lot of PDF reader programs) including your personal documents, visas, driver’s license, health insurance cards, passport photos etc. Store them online as a safety precaution. This way, you’ll have easy access to all your documents in case that something goes wrong and you lose an important document. Sure, scanned documents cannot replace your official documents, however, they might come in handy for getting a provisional identity document as well as for getting a permit.
Emergency planning ensures that you are prepared for the unexpected, that people know where and when to look for you, and that your actions are rational and predictable in spite of the emotional trauma associated with any kind of emergency situation. A contingency plan should lessen the risks involved and increase the probability of being found in case of an emergency situation. Creating an emergency plan and leaving it with friends or family means safer hiking trip for you, fewer headaches and less unnecessary panic for your family and friends. Additionally, carry a first aid kit in an outer container made of durable nylon to protect contents. Among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Aspirin or Acetaminophen, Sting relief pad etc.), bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, gauze sponges, safety whistle, water-purifying tablets, extra shoelaces, fire starter, duct tape, multi-purpose tool. The exact content of your first aid kit depends on the features of the place you will be hiking in, the chronic diseases you have, and your previous experience.
Planning meals is an essential part of planning a backpacking trip. You need to eat (and drink enough fluids) regularly throughout your hike, especially when hiking at altitude. Having three solid meals a day with a snack or two in between is recommended. Food plays a large part in how much you enjoy the outdoors. You’ll need lightweight, non-perishable, high in calories foods that taste good. Exhaustion after a long day on the trail can make you think about skipping your dinner which isn’t good for your health and fitness; however, knowing that you have some tasty food in your pack can make you change your mind. A warm and delicious dinner can not only make you feel better but also boost your morale.
A 90 kg person burns around 550 calories per hour of hiking (this number usually varies between 450 and 650 depending on the terrain, weather conditions, the density of the air, your fitness level, your individual basal metabolism etc.). Thus, you’ll need a lot of energy on the trail. So when planning your meals, look for foods rich in carbs, fats, and sugar - such kind of foods will provide you enough energy for a long hiking day.
Some people bring their favorite high-carbohydrate foods such as dried fruits, chocolate, granola bars, pop tarts, snickers, energy bars, energy gels etc., while others prefer eating fatty foods like nuts, jerky, cheese, chips, olive oil, almond or peanut butter as well as any other kind of nut butter available. Eating healthy during long hiking trips is much less important than eating regularly so the choice of foods is not really that important - as long as you take enough calories everything will be all right.
There are numerous examples of people having a pack full of all the “right stuff” and not eating it and frankly doing this is much worse than eating junk food on the trail. The former is a recipe for disaster while the latter can be a huge motivation for moving forward to your final destination.
Planning and packing your backpack
When packing your hiking backpack before hitting the trail, the little things can add up to make a big difference later. If you start out with a good organization system, life in the backcountry will be simpler and more pleasant. Plan carefully the contents of your pack considering the duration of your trip, the expected weather and temperatures, the features of the terrain, the potential dangers on the trail, and your specific needs.
Do the packing the day(s) before the hike when you are not in a rush. Lots of beginners try to pack in the morning of the hike and as a result forget some important things like toilet paper, flashlight, fire starter, raincoat, etc. It can be daunting to pack for your first wilderness adventure and you don’t want to exacerbate things further by doing it in a rush. Make detailed lists with all the backpacking gear you'll need, and note what you do and do not use so that on future trips you can fine-tune the packing. Eliminate redundancy when pack planning. When deciding what to cut, think twice about eliminating insulation and food. A fleece or a sweater doesn’t weigh a lot and won’t slow you down significantly but can be very useful on the trail. It helps to have things you will need during the day near the top of your pack. Keep things like spare clothes and food there for easy access without having to unpack other gear. Carry snacks in hip belt pockets and have your water bottle located so you can reach it without removing your pack. You can check out our posts about packing for a day hike and packing for a multi-day hike. You will find some further recommendations on packing there as well as lists with basic and extra stuff essential for a hiking trip.
Planning a hike, whether for a weekend or a summer, takes time and energy, and the adventure itself can vanish in a welter of lists, logistics, maps, and food. Detailed planning is advisable for any hike, especially for a long-distance hiking trip that will take several weeks or months. Planning such a walk can be difficult, however. Sometimes, the process of planning your hiking trip can be more daunting than the hiking itself. Remember that compiling information takes time, and there are always gaps - you can’t avoid that. However, this shouldn’t discourage you because as soon as you take that first step into the wilderness, all the organization fades into the background. Then it’s just you and nature.
Backpacking, like any other activity, is usually more successful if the participants are ready and if they have some idea of what to expect. So be ready to meet the challenges, be prepared to be flexible and to make the best of all circumstances. And most importantly - enjoy your hiking adventure!
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