How to Plan a Hiking Trip?
This is Part 1 of a two-part sequence on planning a hiking trip.
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; know the potential hazards; check the weather forecast (if you start planning your trip weeks or months in advance, you can use historical temperature data and base your decisions on it), 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; and consider all other small details that can turn an adventure into a disaster.
The most important questions you should answer are the following:
- Who will be joining you?
- Where will you go?
- When will you go?
These are the main questions you need to answer during the planning stage of your hiking adventure. This will allow you to fine-tune your gear and food selection, develop a realistic timeline, and anticipate potential problems.
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. 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 day hikes or two-day trips to evaluate your fitness, your hiking shoes or boots, your gear (hiking pants, shirt, rain jacket, sleeping bag 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, 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.
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. You need to be realistic about how the demands of the trip you are considering align with the reality of your physical ability. See our post about the typical features of good hikers.
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 exposureAs we mentioned in our post about summer hiking (you can read it here), sunburn 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 hiking 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 need to 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 and you need to take that into consideration when planning and estimating your timing.
Hiking HazardsDo your research and make sure you know what kind of hazards you may encounter during your trip. Check out our post on hiking hazards and you’ll be much better prepared for a wide range of hiking hazards. 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 novice to the outdoors read our post about the essentials for beginning backpackers. Anyway, 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 - knowing what kind of vegetation 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, and 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, 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 an 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, waterproof shoes or boots won’t protect your feet from getting wet – actually, in such kind of weather you’d better bet on a pair of lightweight trail-running shoes since they’re 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 trip. Up-to-date local knowledge is still important. Especially in remote areas, locals can be an invaluable source of information.
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.
(End of Part 1)