On one of my first backpacking trips, I was dropped off by boat at the start of the Dusky Track in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. When the boat driver tried to lift my pack out of the boat, he nearly fell into the water. He curtly told me my pack was too heavy and that I was “doing it wrong.”
Midway through the trip, I could see that I had packed three times as much food as I really needed. Was I so hungry because my pack was so heavy? Or was my pack so heavy because I was always so hungry? I may never know the answer to that backpacker’s paradox, but I do know I could have planned the food more thoughtfully. This article can help you avoid the multitude of trip-planning gaffes. Backpacking is a very broad topic — consider this a starting place for your planning, and adapt the ideas for your trip.
This article will cover:
- Choose a place to backpack
- Establish priorities for your trip
- Plan your route
- Educate yourself on hazards
- Plan food and gear
Choose a Place to Backpack
You can truly go backpacking at any time of year if you pick the right destination and carry the appropriate equipment. Summer and early fall are common seasons for trips to the high alpine areas in the Rockies and the Sierra. Spring and fall can be a good time in the Appalachian Mountains and the deserts of the western United States. Winter is a good time for low latitude destinations like the southern Appalachians, Florida, and low elevation desert across the southwestern US.
At gaiagps.com/hike, you can search for hikes in many popular parks throughout the United States.
If there’s a specific area you’d like to visit, set Gaia Topo as the map source on gaiagps.com/map, click on points of interest, and nearby hikes will be listed. Guidebooks, blog posts, online trip reports, and forums can also provide inspiration.
Understand the Human History of Your Destination
You can show respect to the original inhabitants of the area you are visiting by researching the human history of the land. You can use the Native Land map to understand the human history of your destination, as well as your home and many other places worldwide.
In many popular backpacking destinations, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park, Native Americans were murdered and forcibly removed by the United States government, and the landscape was then advertised as a pristine and uninhabited wilderness. The very definition of “wilderness” in the Wilderness Act of 1964 also perpetuates the falsehood that these areas were uninhabited: “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The founding of National Parks and the creation of wilderness areas, coupled with the larger history of dispossession of Native American and Indigenous lands worldwide through genocide and fraudulent treaties, contributes to the erasure of modern-day Indigenous societies. It’s important to recognize this is not just a history lesson. The cultural and economic impacts of genocide and forced removal remain contemporary issues for Indigenous people.
One way to acknowledge this history is to use a land or territorial acknowledgment. As Chelsea Vowel writes in Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments:
“If we think of territorial acknowledgments as sites of potential disruption, they can be transformative acts that to some extent undo Indigenous erasure. I believe this is true as long as these acknowledgments discomfit both those speaking and hearing the words. The fact of Indigenous presence should force non-Indigenous peoples to confront their own place on these lands.”
An acknowledgment by itself is only a small gesture. Read more about moving beyond acknowledgment with authentic relationship and informed action.
Establish Priorities For Your Trip
Backpacking used to be a balancing act between carrying minimal gear to be happy walking or carrying luxury items to be happy camping. Over the last decade, gear has become lighter, making it easier to be comfortable both walking and camping. Establishing goals around the length of days and hiking pace early in your planning will give structure to planning decisions and can mitigate conflicts with partners.
Plan Your Route
Once you decide where you’ll be backpacking, use gaiagps.com/map to create a route for each day. With Gaia Topo, the route planning tool snaps to the trail, making it easy to calculate mileage and elevation. You can put all the routes in a folder to see the total distance and elevation gain for the trip. Add waypoints to mark the trailhead, points of interest, and emergency access points. Consider separate routes for side trips or escape options—if you can’t make it over a pass due to weather or snow conditions, for example. Planning in some base camp days to rest, fish, or summit a peak can be a good way to add variety to your trip. For an in-depth presentation on how to plan a route on gaiagps.com, check out the Gaia GPS webinar on creating routes.
Recommended Maps for Backpacking
Gaia GPS offers a comprehensive selection of maps for planning and use during your trip. You need a subscription to download any map for offline use and to access map sources other than Gaia Topo. Here’s a list of recommended maps for backpacking:
- Gaia Topo – updated weekly with data from OpenStreetMap, Gaia Topo offers up-to-date coverage of trails and points of interest. It is also optimized for mobile downloads, saving space on your device.
- USGS Topo – Official topographic maps from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
- USFS 2016 – Full, detailed topographic coverage of all 172 national forests and grasslands in the US.
- NatGeo Trails Illustrated – These maps cover many popular destinations like National Parks and major long trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, John Muir Trail, and Colorado Trail.
- Public Lands – Use this overlay to identify public lands like National Parks, US Forest Service lands, BLM lands, and state and local parks. This can be a great way of finding local spots for a trip.
- Snow Depth – If your route may involve snow, you can get a rough sense of snow coverage with this overlay.
Be sure to print backup maps in case your device runs out of battery or is damaged. It’s easy to print maps on gaiagps.com. You can print on waterproof paper from your home printer, store the backup maps in a plastic bag, or order large custom-printed maps online. For a longer trip, a large overview map, such as those made by Beartooth Publishing, can be helpful.
Before you leave, be sure to download maps to your phone so you can use them without service. Make sure you know how to change map sources in the app (iOS/Android) and conserve your phone’s battery. Also, brush up on your map reading skills with our blog article on how to read topographic maps.
Estimating Hiking Time
An average pace on a flat trail is about 2 mph, and you should add 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. For an 8-mile day where the elevation gain is 3000 feet, the travel time would be 5-and-a-half hours.
This does not include time for breaks. Depending on your fitness, pack weight, and the quality of the trail, you may travel faster or slower. As you travel, keep track of your pace and adjust your time estimates accordingly using the Trip screen in Gaia GPS:
Once you estimate your hiking time, work backward from critical points along your route to plan out where to camp and when you need to depart in the morning. If you need to be on top of a pass by 1 PM to avoid afternoon thunderstorms, make sure you camp close enough the night before. It’s easiest to edit your route on the website and then sync the route to your phone.
Leave Plans with an Emergency Contact
An injury, navigation error, or other mishap could leave you stranded in the wilderness. It’s always a good practice to leave your plans with a responsible friend who can initiate a search and rescue response if needed. Include the following information:
- Your route, including start date and time, end date and time, and campsite locations. Gaia GPS makes it easy to share a route via email.
- Establish a clear time that you will be in touch with your emergency contact at the end of your trip. Set a time for your emergency contact to call search and rescue if they don’t hear from you. For example, if you plan to be finished with your trip and in service to contact your friend by 6 PM on July 31, you might set noon on August 1 as the time for your contact to call search and rescue. Have a clear plan for who they should contact and what to do to initiate a search.
- Phone number for the main park office, local search and rescue, or sheriff’s office
- Location of your car
- Make, model, and license plate number of your car
- Name of each person in the group and any pertinent medical conditions
Logistics and Permits
Many popular areas require camping permits or reservations at specific campsites or huts. In the United States, many permits and reservations can be made online through recreation.gov and you can find those campsites right on Gaia Topo. The rules and dates vary by location, but some popular destinations allow online reservations as early as January for trips starting in the summer. However, many land management agencies also have a group of permits that can be acquired daily on a first-come, first-served basis.
To determine if your proposed route crosses Native or Indigenous land, you can use the Native American and Alaska Native Lands layer. Contact the sovereign nation for permits, or change your route if permits are not available.
Educate Yourself on Hazards
An understanding of the hazards you may encounter is the key to staying safe on a backpacking trip. Backpacking is generally not dangerous, and the risks can be managed by educating yourself. The sections below, environmental hazards and human factors, are common hazards to be aware of as you plan your trip.
Hands-on first aid training is invaluable for managing wilderness medical emergencies. NOLS, SOLO, and Wilderness Medical Associates are well-known wilderness medicine course providers. NOLS has a comprehensive wilderness medicine book that is worth studying. It is best used in conjunction with hands-on training through a class.
- Terrain Hazards
- Exposure. Be wary of cliffs or steep ravines where a fall could injure or kill you. Your balance may be affected by your pack weight and rain can make the ground slick. In these situations, it can be helpful to consider the consequences, not just the likelihood, of a fall.
- Falling trees. Falling trees, particularly dead trees or ones with a significant lean, can pose a hazard, especially at a campsite, where you spend more time. Wind can make the trees more likely to fall — be sure to choose a safe campsite. The Forest Service has a simple guide to this hazard here.
- Rockfall. Camp well away from the base of cliffs. If you are traveling through loose, rocky terrain, position yourself out of the fall line of other hikers so that if a rock is released, it won’t hit you. Consider other hiking groups above you as well as those in your party.
- Cold and wet conditions. Prolonged exposure to cold and/or wet conditions, or immersion in cold water, can result in hypothermia. Prevention is key—carry adequate layers, extra food, and fuel. Learn how to treat hypothermia in this simple video and read more here.
- Heat. It isn’t just the bad weather that can pose a hazard. Prolonged exposure to heat and sun can cause heat exhaustion and may progress to heatstroke. As with hypothermia, prevention is critical. Maintain adequate hydration, wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, and seek shade during the hottest parts of the day.
- Lightning. Thunderstorms are a common occurrence during the summer. On average, 300 people are struck and 30 are killed by lightning in the US every year. Monitor local weather patterns and plan to be off of high passes and peaks before thunderstorms build. If you hear thunder, descend to a safe place. Educate yourself with the National Weather Service’s lightning safety brochure.
- Moving water. If your route involves wading across creeks and rivers, seek training from someone with experience in river crossings. Some hiking clubs have classes you can take. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council has a good informational video, but YouTube is not a substitute for proper training from an experienced individual.
- Altitude. Travel to elevations above 8000 feet is associated with risk of developing one or more forms of acute altitude illness. Gradual ascent can prevent altitude illness. If you are unacclimatized, take two days to ascend to 8000 feet. Once at 8000 feet, it is recommended to increase your sleeping elevation 1500 feet or less per day.
- Animals. Seeing wildlife can be a highlight of a backpacking trip, but bear attacks and snake bites are not often remembered as fondly. It’s worth understanding how to avoid dangerous encounters with animals.
- Bears. Hiking in a group and making noise will decrease your chances of encountering a bear. Understand the difference between black and grizzly bears, and what to do if you are attacked. In camp, store your food properly. The National Park Service has an educational website about hiking in bear country.
- Mountain Lions. Mountain lions are most active at dusk and dawn. Similar to bears, hiking in a group and making noise will decrease your chances of an encounter. Learn what to do if threatened.
- Snakes. In the United States, the most common venomous snakes are pit vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths) and elapids (coral snakes). Wear long pants and watch where you step. Snakes tend to be more active in warmer months. Learn what to do in case of a snakebite.
- Bites and stings from spiders, scorpions, bees, wasps, and ticks. In North America, significant envenomations from spiders are uncommon, but black widow and brown recluse spider bites can be harmful. Scorpion, bee, and wasps stings can cause severe allergic reactions in some people. Ticks may spread diseases like spotted fever or Lyme disease. Learn to manage these bites and stings.
Accidents cannot only be attributed to environmental hazards. Bears or rockfall do not pose a threat unless you interact with them, so it is important to consider subjective factors related to personal and group behavior when managing risk. In fact, an Austrian study of hiking accidents found that most hiking falls occurred in good weather. Though not an exhaustive list, the following factors can impair judgment and contribute to hiking accidents:
- Dehydration or poor nutrition
- Commitment to a goal that blinds you to a hazard — “summit fever”
- Poor preparation — lack of awareness of the hazard
- Underestimating the hazard
- Not voicing concerns due to an interpersonal desire to avoid conflict and/or due to a group culture that doesn’t make everyone feel like they can speak up
Hike in Style
Wherever you go, make sure you travel in good style. Educate yourself on the Leave No Trace principles to help preserve the places you visit for future use. Learn more about the Leave No Trace Principles here:
- Plan Ahead And Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Planning Food and Gear
It’s important to consume a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and protein for a sustained aerobic activity like backpacking. Plan for 2500 – 4500 calories (or 1.5 – 2.5 pounds) per person per day. When buying food, look for dehydrated and instant options. Dehydrated foods are much lighter per calorie because they don’t contain water. Instant food will cook much faster so you don’t have to carry as much fuel. Repackage all food into plastic bags to minimize the extra weight of the packaging.
Planning your food can often be the most time-consuming part of your planning. It is worth making a simple chart for meals. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Other Meal Ideas
These websites also have great backpacking meal ideas:
Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House, Patagonia Provisions, and other companies offer a selection of pre-made instant meals if time for preparation is short.
After stumbling around New Zealand with a 70-pound pack, I eventually learned to go lighter. Over the years, I discovered that trip priorities greatly influence gear choices, but even on a leisure-oriented trip, the lighter your pack is, the happier you—and your knees—will be. Check out my backpacking gear list, complete with pictures to see what I bring for three-season adventures. Andrew Skurka’s website also has detailed gear lists. Also, try Adventure Alan Dixon’s tips on how to lighten your base weight. Get an inexpensive scale and weigh everything before deciding what to pack. Websites like GearGrams and WeighMyGear can help you compile your list and calculate your total pack weight.