How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

By Matt Pritchard

One of the most important backcountry skills is put into action before you ever reach the trailhead. Planning a backpacking trip can be a confusing process - especially for beginners. A well-planned trip isn't usually recognized as such, but when all of the pieces come together just right, your time and attention can be spent enjoying your time outside, not worrying about logistics and details. When careful thought isn't given to trip planning, a sour outcome can present itself at every bend in the trail. Memories of our first backpacking trips aren't so far off that we've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner. We want to go over some of the questions we had when we first got started.

In this guide, we will review the basics of planning a backpacking trip. We will take you from the idea stage to the trailhead. Beyond the trailhead is a broader subject for another time. We have written this guide with beginners in mind, but even salty backcountry types might learn a thing or two. There are a number of books on the market that cover similar topics and we suggest that you consult a variety of sources when learning. What we hope to offer is a well-organized overview of the subject with current links to important resources.

In reality, trip planning isn't a linear process. To some extent, you have to determine one thing before you can move onto the next. These steps have been presented in some type of logical order, but they are more likely to all be happening at the same time, once you get the ball rolling.

Goal Setting and Group Dynamics

Unfortunately, this topic is usually an after thought for people. Sometimes the conversation is avoided all together because people think that goal setting has more to do with corporate retreats than backpacking trips. This really isn't the case. Think of it in simple terms. Before you make a decision on what type of trip you'll be doing or even where you are going, consider what it is that you want from the trip. Is it supposed to be a relaxing weekend trip? Or a 5-day, hard-core, off-trail trek? Or maybe something in between? Discuss openly with the other group members what you want out of the trip. Few things can sour a trip as quickly as different agendas among the group.

Consider the physical condition of each group member. Be honest in this respect. Just because you were a high-school track star doesn't mean you're ready to start tagging the summits of 14,000' peaks. Be realistic and considerate of other group members. If a consensus can't be reached, maybe it's best to break up into more than one group. Sometimes, a well planned route or basecamp can accommodate everyone's needs at once.

Questions you may consider asking yourself and other group members:

  • How far are you comfortable hiking each day?
  • What activities (other than hiking) do you want to do during the day?
  • Are you comfortable sharing a tent, food, etc with other group members?
  • Are there any particular sights that you want to see during the trip?
  • Does anyone have special medical or dietary needs that should be accounted for?
  • Are there any photographers in the group?**

Again, honesty is key here. Don't surprise your teams member on the second day of the trip with your "spontaneous" idea to climb a nearby peak or search for the elusive Blue-Footed Loon, if that isn't what you discussed ahead of time. When everyone is open and up front with their intentions, the trip can be designed to accommodate everyone. Also consider the number of people involved. Sometimes getting just one partner for the trip can be like pulling teeth. Other times, the numbers can balloon out of control like a high-school keg party. In order to reduce impact on the land, try to keep groups to 6 or fewer people.

** A special note for photographers. People that aren't photographers don't enjoy the process; they enjoy the fruit of the process. Few non-photographers have the patience to watch you bracket three rolls of film with six different lens/filter combinations during a rest stop. Consider that your hobby is mystifying at best and aggravating at worst. Try to go backpacking with other photographers. If you are traveling with non-photographers, be flexible with your shooting schedule and keep the stops within reason.

Choosing a Location

It seems simple at first, but "Where should we go?" may be the most difficult question to answer if you are new to the world of backpacking. When you are choosing a location, the internet is a wonderful resource. There are countless websites with suggested trips and message boards full of people willing to offer advice. Magazines, guidebooks, employees at your local gear store, and that granola crunching "outdoorsy" friend are also great resources. Once you have some ideas, you're ready find out who to contact for additional information, to evaluate if the location is right for your trip.

99% of backpacking in the U.S. happens on public land and your short list of locations will almost surely be managed by a federal or state agency. Nearly one third of the U.S. is public land - our land - yours and mine (and every other citizen of planet Earth). It doesn't belong to these agencies, it belongs to all of us - they just keep an eye on it. Take advantage of these open spaces.

Information about who manages a location may or may not be available from the source that got the idea going. If not, an internet search (for state land) or a trip to (for federally managed land) is likely to reveal the party to contact about regulations, restrictions, required equipment (i.e. bear canisters), reservations, fees, and the permit process (if one exists). Never assume the rules for a certain area, as they are constantly changing and are specific to each individual location

Federally Funded Land Agencies

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

    Once called "the land nobody wanted" because 19th-century homesteaders had passed it by, most of the land is located in 12 western states, including Alaska. This land includes a variety of different terrains. Generally BLM land has moderate restrictions and fees are small or non-existent.

  • USDA Forest Service (FS)

    The Forest Service is a part of the Department of Agriculture and manages national forests and grasslands in 42 states. Most are open and free of charge for your use and enjoyment. Entrance and user fees may be charged at some areas, and like the other agencies, may require a "campfire permit" to operate a backpacking stove in the backcountry.

  • National Park Service (NPS)

    The National Park Service is a part of the Department of Interior and manages 51 national parks and other sites. These areas generally offer outstanding beauty and represent the 'best' of what America's parks have to offer. They often require fees, have several restrictions, may require reservations, and have the potential for crowds.

State Funded Land Agencies

  • State Park

    Most states manage numerous parks that are recognized for their beauty or historical importance. Generally, state parks don't carry the same grandness factor and are smaller than National Parks, although there are many exceptions. These parks can also have similar names to National Parks and it's easy to get confused. There is no single official website for information since they are individual to each state, but try the state's official website and go from there.

    Websites vary, but try (xx = the abbreviation)

Special Designation

  • Wilderness Areas

    A wilderness is a special designation by Congress, and provides another layer of protection placed on top of an original federal land designation. The above federal agencies manage wilderness areas, but the Forest Service covers the most units. All but six states have federally designated Wilderness, but more than half of the acreage is in Alaska. These areas are managed so the imprint of humans is substantially unnoticed. Activity is limited to primitive recreation and minimum tools which makes for great backpacking. Wilderness areas are likely to offer the most solitude and pristine environments.

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