The truth is, most of your time spent on a backpacking trip will actually come before you even hit the trail. Planning a trip takes a lot of time, but can be a really fun process! If you are more visual, head over to our YouTube page and you can watch this information, otherwise we have transcribed it for you below.
First, you are going to want to determine where you’re going to backpack, which seems obvious, but can be easier said than done!
If you’re feeling indecisive, one thing you can do first is determine what type of environment you would like to backpack. Do you want to backpack through a forest? Or maybe a desert with beautiful canyons? Is a beach setting more appealing to you? Or a high alpine setting near a lake?
Once you choose the type of setting, one way to get inspired is to hit up social media! Instagram and Pinterest are great for visuals, Facebook groups are a great place to ask others for suggestions, while TikTok and Youtube can be helpful for showing you full trip itinerary experiences. Of course, you can always use a classic search engine and type in “backpacking [insert setting] [insert state or country].”
Once you’ve figured out where you want to go, the next step is to start planning with maps!
How to Map Out Your Backpacking Trip
Have you ever wanted to go backpacking, but aren’t sure of how to plan out your route? In this post, I’m going to show you a step-by-step example by planning an imaginary trip.
Let’s say you made the decision that you wanted to backpack a thru-hike and heard about the amazing Wonderland Trail in Washington. The Wonderland Trail is a 93-mile trek that travels around the famous Mount Rainier. Talk about a trail with views! This example will help us point out several different aspects you may encounter in the planning process.
Your first step is to determine approximately how many miles you want to travel on average each day. Things you will want to take into consideration:
- The amount of time you have for your trip.
- What you feel like you’re physically comfortable with. Nobody knows you body better than you. If you are feeling uncertain, error on the side of caution and aim for less average daily mileage.
- The altitude of your trail and elevation gain per day—if you’re familiar with hiking in similar conditions as your chosen destination, you’ll have a pretty good gauge on what you’ll feel comfortable with. If you’re from a region that is flat and at low elevation, and the trail you want to do is at a higher elevation, you may want to consider doing lower mileage than you might typically do.
- The weight of your pack—the more weight you carry, the harder it will be to hike each mile, and you will be expending more calories. If you’re not sure what to expect, grab a backpack, put at least 20-30lbs in it, and go for a hike or walk you’re familiar with. See how it compares to your usual pace and comfort without the weight.
- Access to water—the less reliable your access is to water, the more you will have to carry in, making your pack heavier.
- Temperatures—if you’re heading to a region that gets really hot during the peak parts of the day, you may have a shortened timeframe you can comfortably travel, so you may want to plan for shorter daily mileage.
- Trail restrictions, rules, and regulations—some trails and parks have strict rules about the amount of time you’re allowed to travel, your party size (if you’re planning to backpack with others), times of year you’re allowed to be on the trail, etc.
For this imaginary trip that we’re planning on the Wonderland Trail, we’ll say I have 12 days to be on the trail, and I’m feeling comfortable with about an average of 8 miles a day or so. I know personally I can hike that distance very comfortably in higher elevation because of where I live in Idaho and my past experiences, and am taking into account the extra weight of my pack. I know some days will be longer, and others will be shorter, allowing for some recovery days. This particular trail has consistent access to water, so I don’t have to worry about packing in lots of extra water.
The Wonderland Trail is part of Mount Rainier National Park, so I can go the the National Park Service website and look up the average weather each month. Since I’m hoping to catch as many views of Mount Rainier along the way, July and August are going to be my best options with sunnier, warmer weather, but not too hot, since I don’t always do great in the heat.
On the National Park website I can also check any rules and regulations. Here you’ll see any special alerts that might be in effect that could impact your trip.
You can also check and see that permits are required. It also looks like there are some reservation options available. If you want to guarantee that you will be able to hike this trail the way you want, obtaining a reservation would be recommended, so you’ll need to enter a Lottery. This is fairly common practice for trails that are really popular. The State and National Parks do their best to allow the greatest number of backpackers to enjoy the trail while also being respectful of how much human traffic that wild space can really handle.
The Wonderland Trail page also shows that there are options to cache food and fuel. What does that mean? Instead of carrying all of the food you will need for your trek (which can get really heavy and take up a lot of space in your pack), you can either mail yourself food to designated locations, or you can personally deliver it and leave it in something like a sealed bucket. If you’re mailing food to yourself, make sure to send it well enough ahead of time so that it arrives when you need it, but not too far ahead of time that it’ll potentially get thrown out.
Whether you mail it or leave it in a container, it’s recommended that you create a label and include your
- Name (if you are traveling with others, include the name of the person the reservation/permit was made under)
- Location of where the cache will be picked up
- Date the cache will be picked up
- Your permit number
In this example, the Wonderland Trail has four different options, so we’ll keep these in mind as we plan our trip.
Now we can start taking a look at the trail maps.
I like to start by looking at the map Key, because it’s going to give you a lot of useful information. You can see here, there are Ranger Stations, which I know I’ll need to start at to pick up my permit, so I want to plan my trail starting around one of those. There is one at Longmire that would be a good starting point.
From there, we are going to head clockwise. While this trail allows you to do either, a quick google search showed that a clockwise direction was ideal to avoid ascending some of the steeper sections, and to descend them instead.
The first campground we come across is Pryamid Creek. Using this map is great to get general distances and a visual or where you’re going, but the mileage sometimes doesn’t include the extra short off-shoots to the actual campgrounds, so the Trip Planner Aid that I got from the National Park Website is really helpful for that.
So looking at the Trip Planner Aid, I can see that the distance from Longmire to Pyramid Creek is 3.3 miles. If I was arriving late in the day, that might be a good option for me, but for this trip, we’re going to go a little further that first day to Devil’s Dream, which is 5.8.
Day 2, I’ll be starting at Devil’s Dream. You can see it says “0” here, which is where the camp starts. Everything to the right is the distance to other campgrounds moving clockwise. So I can either go 6.5 miles to South Puyallup or 10.6 miles to Klapatche Park.
There’s another great tool the website provided called the Wonderland Profile. It shows me the elevation of each campground, and the elevation of the trail along the way. For day 2, I will be starting at an elevation of 5,060 ft. I can see that the trail desecends, and then ascends approximately 1,200 ft or so. Then it goes down again to South Puyallap River. If I want to keep hiking to the next camp, there would be another ascent of approximately of about 2,000, which would make the total day 3,200, and there would be extra mileage, so I’m going to decide to stay at South Puyallap.
Day 3, I’ll be starting at South Puyallup and can either go 4.1 to Klapatche Park or 6.7 miles to North Puyallup. Looking at the elevation map, there is just the one large ascent between South Puyallup and Klapatche and a descent to North Puyallap, so I’ll opt to do the extra mileage and head down to North Puyallup. I also need to keep in mind the number of days I have for my permit, so sometimes days with longer mileage are a good idea.
I’m going to continue with this process for days 4 to 7, until I get to Sunrise camp. That day will be a longer one, with 8.7 miles, but the important part of this particular camp is the proximity to the Sunrise Ranger’s Station. Remember the food cache we wanted to store? This would be an excellent place to store it, so we would only be carrying food for 7 days (plus extra, just in case of an emergency).
It would be good idea to set up your tent upon arriving to Sunrise camp, then hiking with a lighter pack to the Ranger’s Station. Then you can pick up your cache and hike back to camp fully loaded. Remember to look up the Ranger Station hours of operation and pickup windows, and plan your day accordingly.
Now that you’re all refueled, I’m going to opt for a shorter trek on day 8 to White River, so that I can set up camp, and if I want to, I can do a day hike along the Glacier Basin Trail. I personally enjoy doing day hikes while backpacking to see other areas that I might not otherwise have time for with a backpack on.
Day 9 through 12, we’ll continue our trek using the same strategies until we return to Longmire, right where we started 12 days ago. This 12-day trip ranges between 4 to almost 11 miles each day for a total of 93 miles.
You may have heard that sometimes the hardest part about planning a backpacking trip is the preparation—now you see why! Once you get going though, you develop a rythym.
I hope you found this helpful! This is by no means the only way to plan a backpacking trip with maps, but it’s one that I’ve found to be successful time and time again. If you have any questions, please feel to drop them in the comments below. Check back soon for future videos about gear lists, packing your gear, meal planning, and nutrition!
Shannon, Founder and CEO of Alpine Sisters