I think the first step to planning a trip is figuring out what trail to use, then download a data file for that trail, then do the rest. Using a data file, it becomes really easy to plan a trip.
Overall, my method is:
1) Find a Trail (and Download the Trail Data)
If You Know Nothing
If you just want a nearby trail of a certain length or difficulty, then I suggest starting with the map on cloud.gaiagps.com/map, look at stuff within a 2-hour drive, and find one or more parks or trails you want to explore.
The Gaia map links to both trails mapped by Gaia users, and also links to other great trail websites that include data files and information. If you are going some place dangerous or unknown, it’s critical that you read many accounts and get a sense for the place.
Use Google if You Know Names
If you already have a trail name in mind, one of the best resource to find the information you need is Google search. I find it better to search Google, than to try and muddle through individual trail websites, if I have an exact name in mind.
For example, Google for _Rockbound Pass GPX_
This turns up an EveryTrail page, which has a GPX data file you can download (and import into Gaia GPS for planning and navigation).
The data file is the most important part, but you may also want to read up about the trail and other nearby places. You may wish to Google for the name of the place without attaching “GPX” to learn more information.
If You Only Know the Park Name
If you want to visit some place like Yosemite, but don’t have a trail name in mind, I suggest two main methods.
Map Method – Look at the map on cloud.gaiagps.com/map. You can search for the name of the park, or just pan the map to where you want. From there, you can do a couple of things:
- click colored trails to view and download other people’s data
- Google search for the names of trails you see on the map, which we don’t have data files for
- click POIs to see other websites with data files
- change the base map to see maps that may have other trails.
Search Method – Visit cloud.gaiagps.com and search for the name of a park (e.g. Yosemite). Then, you can browse a gallery of trails. If Gaia doesn’t yet have a data file for a certain trail, try everytrail.com or other trail websites.
2) Plan the Drive and Parking
Once you know where you are going, you can plan the drive. Driving and parking ends up being one of the more confounding aspects of backpacking, unless you figuure it out ahead of time.
So, I typically:
print out driving directions
plot the route in Gaia as well
scout parking on the map
What happens is we’ll usually just try and navigate with the standards Maps app on an iPhone or Android. Then, when we lose our internet connections, we fall back to Gaia GPS and maybe the print-out to navigate the last mile.
Gaia won’t give you voice directions, but you can make a route in the app that mirrors the driving directions, and along with Gaia’s offline maps, you can get to your trailhead.
I amazed my friend the other day when we were driving, he lost his internet connection, and I handed him my phone running Gaia GPS, showing the dirt road we were on, and us cruising along.
I like to use Google to generate driving directions. You can usually get Google Maps directions for the name of the Park/Forest, but you may have to inspect the map and make sure the directions take you to a park entrance that is near your trailhead.
Then, I print the direction list, map, and email the link to my friends.
Plot in Gaia
I also then use the Gaia app or website, to plot out the route (or last-mile) of what Google suggests. Then, even if I lose my internet connection, I can still see we are following the route visually in Gaia, based on my route and offline maps. Here’s the route-maker on the website (with GaiaPro), but it also works in the iOS and Android apps without GaiaPro.
You may be able to identify where to park near the Trailhead, based on inspecting the map or satellite imagery. Otherwise, I suggest you Google the park name, and read the park’s website, which should include parking info. You can also call ahead and ask.
3) Get Maps
Print Back-up Maps
Regardless of whether you bring an iPhone or GPS device, you should also bring a paper map and compass. In case your electronics fail you, you should be prepared to navigate based on the map, compass, and what you can see. For printing:
With a GaiaPro subscription, you can print up USGS topo maps and other sources via cloud.gaiagps.com/map. Print several map sources, which increases your safety by providing multiple sources of reference.
You can typically pick up a map at the park or ranger station itself.
You can order various fold-out and waterproof maps online, at places like Amazon.com
To download maps in Gaia, the data file makes things really easy.
First, import the file into Gaia, which will add tracks/routes to your list. Then, you can simply select “Download Maps for Track” for any of these, and Gaia will download the currently selected map source, along the length of the track.
If you prefer (I often do this), you can instead use the Box tool to download maps. After you import the data file, choose “Show Track on Map” for the Track, and this will center the map where you are going. From there, you can use the Box tool, and download a broad area that includes your trail.
You should also probably download multiple sources for your journey (even though it costs us more money!). I like to download USGS topos, OpenHikingMap, and MapBox satellite (at a minimum) for all my trips. This gives me multiple references for both safety and exploration fun.
4) Share Info with Companions
Once you have imported the data file into Gaia, you are also a click away from sharing the map and track with your companions.
On both the app and website, you can send your friends a link in email that shows the map, any notes you add, and lets them download the data file too, in case they want to use Gaia GPS (or any app really). You can also send a link to your track and photos, after your trip, to share your adventure.
Also, for safety’s sake, every inexperienced backpacker should go with friends. If you break a leg, they can carry you out, or go get help. They can also stop you from making foolish decisions that lead to danger – two heads are better than one.
5) Check the Weather Forecast
I pulled this into it’s own section, because it’s important!
If you don’t, you won’t know the proper gear to bring, you might get rained out, or in extreme circumstances, you might be walking into a blizzard or other severe condition.
6) Determine gear to bring and any permits you need
Based on weather and geography, you can then get the things you need together. Ask yourself these questions:
How do I find or bring water?
How much power do I need?
How warm do my clothes need to be?
Do I need boots, or will shoes suffice?
How heavy should my tent be?
The water question is the only important one really – you need to make sure there will be water nearby you can collect and purify, or bring enough water to see you out and back.
The other questions related to weather and gear requirements you should ere in the side of caution, but in general you’ll just end up a little extra cold and wet if you choose wrong, which is half the fun.
Some places require you to have permits for entry and making a fire. Find the park’s or forest’s website via Google, and look up permit info.
If you backpack a lot in one area, you’ll start to learn general rules like “dogs are never allowed in California state parks.” Or that most wilderness areas require a fire permit, even to have a stove.
You can sometimes print a permit online, or you may need to drive to an office before or at the start of the trip to acquire one.
A true backpacking trip – spending multiple nights out in the woods – can be a very rewarding experience. Take the time to properly prepare and scout the area, and you’ll enjoy it all the more.
In making Gaia GPS, we have tried to simplify the planning and navigation involved in backpacking, and it can seem all too easy to just wander out into the woods. But even in our high-tech world, your best protection against mishaps is proper scouting, friends, and more than one way to navigate.