A Step-by-Step Guide to Planning the Perfect Backpacking Trip

There is a lot to consider and prepare for when planning a backpacking trip.

From researching the area, to packing the right supplies, to mapping out your route, planning a backpacking trip can seem overwhelming at first.

However, by following a step-by-step process as outlined in this guide, you can make sure your trip is a success. 

The following is a comprehensive guide that will teach you how to plan an enjoyable, memorable, and safe backpacking trip.

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

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1. Decide Where to Go

Lake in the mountains.

The first step in planning a backpacking trip is to decide where to go. 

The main things you will need to consider are the climate, terrain, season, and accessibility of the areas you want to hike.

  • A great place to start when planning a trip is to consider the ecosystem you want to go to. Do you want to explore the desert, a coastline, or the mountains?
  • Make a list of national parks and wilderness areas within those ecosystems that look exciting to you. National parks and wilderness areas (as national forests, BLM land, as well as some state parks) are typically the best places to go backpacking. Keep in mind, however, that national parks usually have the strictest regulations and most involved permitting process.
  • Next, consider the time of year you want to go. You don’t want to go to Canyonlands in Utah in the summer when it’s 120 degrees, and you don’t want to go to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the winter (at least probably not for backpacking!).

Create a list of the top 5-10 places you want to visit, and then start narrowing it down from there.

You can always return to this list for future trips or if your top choice doesn’t work out.

Narrow down your trip choices

Once you have a working list of places you want to visit, it’s time to narrow it down.

Here are some other things to consider when deciding on a location to go backpacking. 

  1. How far do you want to travel to get to your hike? Maybe you want to stay in your home state and drive to the trailhead, or maybe you want to fly to another state or even another country (which would take much more planning).
  2. How much time do you have to plan? Some locations, especially national parks, have an extensive permitting process, which means it could take months (even years in some cases!) to acquire the proper permit you need for your trip. 
  3. How fit are you? Some trips are much more strenuous than others. Beginners and those with lower fitness levels should stick with 1-2 two night trips with minimal elevation change. Overexerting yourself on a backpacking trip can reduce the fun factor at best, and put you in danger at worst.
  4. How much time do you want to spend on your trip? This will limit some trails that you will be able to hike. For example, a 40 mile loop wouldn’t be smart for a beginner to take on if they only had two days to hike. 
  5. Do you want to backpack everyday or do you want to set up a base camp and explore? One way to plan a trip is to hike to a campsite and spend several nights there. This is a great way to reduce the difficulty of a trip and spend more time relaxing and enjoying a single area.
  6. How far do you want to hike? If you are a new backpacker, 3-6 miles is a good place to start. More experienced and fit hikers may want longer days at 8-10 miles or more.
  7. Will you be going with anyone else or solo? If you will be going on your trip with others, consider their skill and fitness level so that the trip is within everyone’s ability. 

2. Choose a Trail

Hikers hiking down a trail in the mountains.

After taking into account all of the above, you will then need to choose a trail.  

The trail you choose will have to meet the parameters you have established after answering the previous questions.

You might need to explore many trails in an area to find one that meets your criteria, and this can take some time.

Even after you find what you think is the perfect trail for your backpacking trip, it is possible that after doing more research (see below) that the trail isn’t actually feasible (e.g. due to lack of water availability, closures, or permitting issues). 

In this case, don’t get discouraged. Much of this process is trial and error, and you will get better at trip planning the more you do it.  

If you are confused or struggling to find a good trail for your trip, there are a ton of resources out there that can help you out.

Resources for finding a trail:

  • Topo maps - this is usually the first resource I use when picking a trail. Once I narrow down the area I want to hike, I will purchase the topo map of the area or use an application like Gaia GPS or CalTopo to explore trails in the area I want to hike.
  • Guidebooks - these are great because they usually have complete itineraries put together for you and are written by experienced hikers. While sometimes they can be outdated, they can give you lots of great ideas for where to get started.
  • Websites and blogs - this is a ton of information on the internet about backpacking itineraries and trips for nearly every part of the country. Just Google “best backpacking trips” in the area you want to go, and this will give you a good starting point.
  • Visitors centers - rangers at state and national parks are a wealth of information and they can fill you in on all of the best trails and backpacking trips in an area.
  • Talk to locals - you can also contact local gear shops and hiking clubs in the area you want to backpack and they often have information and advice that can point you in the right direction. 

3. Research the Area

Topographic map.

Once you have decided where to go, it is time to research both the trail and the area the trail is located. 

You should research all of the follow for each trip you plan:

  • Local regulations - every location has different rules. You will want to especially check for fire restrictions and bear canister rules. You can obtain these regulations by contacting the local land regulatory agency office (e.g. BLM office or ranger station).
  • Permits - you will need to figure out whether or not you need a permit to do your backpacking trip. Some backcountry permits can be easily obtained for free at the trailhead, some need to be obtained months in advance and must be paid for.
  • Trails - obtain a topo map of the area and become familiar with the local trails. Study the terrain as well as elevation profiles and trail distances.
  • Campsites - learn whether the area or trail you want to hike on has dispersed or designated campsites and where those campsites are located. 
  • Water availability - one of the most important parts of planning a backpacking trip is knowing where you will be able to access water along a trail. It will determine where you camp and how many miles you can hike each day. It can even determine whether or not you can even backpack the trail at all (for example, if there is no water available at all due to the season). You can learn this information from topo maps as well as from online trip reports. You can also contact the local regulatory office and ask.
  • Climate - Does it rain often? What will be the average high and low temperature? Understanding the climate will largely determine the clothing and equipment you will need to bring.
  • Remoteness - will you have cell service or be near other people? Or, will you likely be the only person or group out on the trail? You will need to take this into account when planning for an emergency. 
  • Trail closures - trails can close for a variety of reasons, but when they close it’s usually to keep hikers safe. Never try to hike a trail that the local land regulatory agency has closed.
  • Natural hazards - spend some time learning about the potential natural hazards in the area such as flash floods, lightning, or avalanches. This information can usually be obtained from the local regulatory agency. 
  • Wildlife - every area will have different wildlife - some more dangerous than others. For example, if you are backpacking in the desert you may need to be aware of deadly scorpions and rattlesnakes, and if you are in the mountains you need to be aware of bears and mountain lions. It is essential to know what to do in each type of wildlife encounter in order to stay safe - and know what to do for each type of encounter.
  • Insects - in some areas you likely see virtually no insects, and other areas can be infested with them. For example, some backpacking areas in the spring in Colorado are overrun by mosquitoes which can absolutely ruin a trip if you aren't prepared with repellent and mosquito nets.
  • River crossings - at certain times of a year, rivers may be too deep to cross safely. You will also need to bring proper footwear to cross rivers if they exist along your route.

5. Get a Permit if You Need One

Hiking permit sign.

Some areas require you to have a permit in order to camp in the backcountry. 

During your research it is essential that you find out if your trip requires one.

If you plan on backpacking in a national or state park, it is virtually guaranteed that you will need a permit. These permits can usually be obtained online through the National Park Service or the website of the agency that regulates the land you are visiting. 

Wilderness areas and National Forests are typically more relaxed with permitting unless the area is heavily used. Most of the time, a free permit is available at the trailhead and you don’t need to do anything in advance of your trip. 

If you need a permit, the permitting process is usually slightly different depending on the area you are going. 

In general, however, you will need a permit for each designated campsite or each zone that you plan on camping each night.

6. Create a Backpacking Itinerary

Backpacker hiking in the mountains.

Once you have picked a trail and researched the area, it is time to create a backpacking itinerary. 

This is your day-to-day plan, which should include the number of miles you plan on hiking each day, the campsites you plan to visit, the exact trails you will take each day, locations you will get water, and any activities you plan to do.

In order to start creating your itinerary, it’s best to start by opening up your topo map of the route.

Note: knowing how to read and understand a topographic (topo) map is a key skill that you must understand in order to plan a hiking or backpacking trip.

On your map, you will want to specifically mark:

  • Campsites you will stay at each night
  • Reliable water sources (e.g. rivers, streams, and lakes)
  • Terrain and elevation gain/loss
  • Distances between campsites and water sources

When creating your itinerary, consider scheduling rest stops and meal breaks. This will help you manage your time throughout the day and avoid getting to your campsite too late (i.e. after dark).

Make sure to also plan for unexpected events. Things don’t always go to plan in the backcountry, so leave room for flexibility in your itinerary. 

There are so many variables, like weather and illness, that can’t be predicted (or at least 100% predicted) on a backpacking trip, which is why it is helpful to create backup plans if your original itinerary gets derailed. 

Important: write your detailed itinerary out in a notebook or type it out in a document on your computer. 

This is not only important for your own planning purposes, but it will also be a document that you will give to a friend or family member before your trip (see safety below).

How to Estimate the Time Needed for a Backpacking Trip

When you are designing your itinerary, you will need to estimate the time that it will take to complete your trip. 

There is no exact science to this, but it will depend largely on the terrain (i.e. elevation gain and loss), the climate, the altitude, and the distances each day, and your level (and the group’s level) of fitness.

First, consider your fitness level and be honest about it. You should be training at least a little bit leading up to your trip. 

During your training, get to know your backpacking speed with no elevation gain (i.e. over flat terrain). For most people, this is usually 2-3 miles per hour. 

Some people hike much faster, and some even slower.

Then, break each day of your trip down in terms of mileage and calculate how long it would take to hike each day if there was no elevation gain and you didn’t stop for breaks (which, of course, you will stop for breaks on the real trip). 

For example, if you typically hike 3 miles per hour with your backpacking pack on, you would theoretically finish a 6 mile day in two hours.

Then, start to add in variables that will slow you down. If you have an elevation gain of 2,000 feet during your six mile day, expect to lose at least 1 mile and hour of speed. This will put you at 3 hours or more to hike your 6 mile day.

Then consider the climate. If it’s really hot outside, you may need to stop more often for water. 

Finally, hiking at high altitudes reduces your hiking speed as well. If you are hiking in the mountains way above sea level, this will make you feel more out of shape than you actually are due to the lack of oxygen. 

Expect to hike much slower at high altitudes. 

You can see how a 6 mile hike could take all day after you take these variables into account, as well as stops to fill up water, take pictures, and rest. 

As a final note, it’s a good idea to add an extra day or two to the expected duration of your trip in case of bad weather or other unexpected events.

Finalize Your Trip Plans

Once you have estimated the time needed for your backpacking trip, it is time to finalize your trip plans. 

This should include making reservations for campsites, flights, hotels, and any other accommodations.

It should also include your transportation to and from the trailhead you plan to start your hike.

If you have a permit, make sure you print your permit out and pack it with your gear. 

7. Collect and Organize Your Gear 

Backpacking gear laid out on the floor.

Once you have finalized your trip plans, it is time to get your gear together. 

The gear you need will vary depending on the climate, duration, and other factors related to your trip, but in general you will need everything or nearly everything on a standard backpacking checklist. 

This checklist will provide you with an overview of everything you will need for most backpacking trips and is a great place to start.  

Regardless of where you are backpacking and the nature of your trip, it is important that you pack the 10 essentials

It is also important to consider the weather when packing for a backpacking trip. Make sure to bring layers, as temperatures throughout a trip can fluctuate greatly.

Once you have all of the gear together than you plan on taking with you, it’s a good idea to lay everything out neatly on the floor to visually see everything laid out and organized.

This way you can be absolutely sure that you aren’t forgetting anything important that you might have accidentally checked off your list. 

It is also a great way to inspect your gear to make sure everything is working (e.g. headlamp turns on and no tears in your sleeping pad). 

I also recommend setting up your tent before your trip to make sure that there are no tears and that it is in good condition.

8. Create Your Meal Plan

Backpacking meals on the ground.

I am currently working on a full meal planning guide, but for now, here’s an overview of how to plan your meals.

The hardest part about meal planning for a backpacking trip is trying to find the balance between packing too little that you run out of food, and not packing so much that you have to carry extra food (and weight) that you never use.

In general, your backpacking food should be:

  • ‍Lightweight: backpackers will be carrying everything on their backs, so food needs to be light - especially if you are backpacking solo and can’t split the weight with others.‍
  • Shelf-stable: since you won’t have access to a refrigerator or cooler, you need to bring food that is safe to eat when stored above 40° F. ‍
  • Calorie dense: you need a lot of calories when you are outside spending energy all day. Calorie-dense foods are often higher in fats and have a high calorie to weight ratio.
  • ‍Nutritious: when you are active outside all day, nutrient-dense food will help you recover faster, give you more energy, and help you feel better.‍
  • Easy to make and cleanup: with no running water and other kitchen essentials, you will be glad you kept it simple.

Your options become even more limited the longer you stay out, as even some perishable fresh food that has a longer shelf life (like bananas and avocados) can go bad after a few days outside.

When you have spent an entire day backpacking, you will likely be exhausted and famished. 

I recommend that you bring premade dehydrated or freeze dried dinners with you. 

These can be bought from outdoor retailers, or you can make them yourself using a dehydrator to save money if you go backpacking often. 

Here are some other guidelines to consider when planning meals for backcountry trips: 

  • Make sure you bring enough meals, snacks and desserts to reach approximately 2,000-3,500 calories per day. Stick to the lower end of this range for lighter days (and if you are female, petite, or older), and pack for the higher end of this range for more strenuous days. 
  • Keep the preparation process as simple as possible - cooking in the backcountry can be as simple as boiling water, adding it to your food, and waiting 15 minutes to eat.
  • Bring no-cook healthy foods like whole grain tortillas, bread, avocados, nuts and seeds to help add extra nutrition to your meals and help make dehydrated or freeze dried meals more interesting.
  • Include a variety of flavors (such as spicy, sweet, salty, and sour) and textures (such as chewy and crunchy) to make your meals more interesting. Dehydrated meals can get boring very quickly!

How much food should you bring on a backpacking trip?‍

The amount of food you need to pack should correspond to your daily caloric needs, which will be different for everyone.

This will be determined by several factors, such as metabolism, body weight, and how strenuous a day of hiking is. 

Women, in general, tend to burn fewer calories than men due to differences in metabolism.

Your daily caloric intake should be based on your unique physiologic needs, which you can approximate using the following formula: 

Basal metabolic rate + calories burned through exercise = minimum daily caloric intake

To calculate roughly how many calories you need to pack for each day of camping

  1. Calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the number of calories your body burns just to keep your basic bodily functions working. There are many calculators online  - like this one - that can help you easily calculate your BMR.
  2. Calculate how many calories you plan on burning through physical activity. Again, an online calculator like this can help you calculate how much you will burn through hiking, backpacking, or other activities. Don’t forget to add in the calories you will burn throughout the day on lighter activities like setting up your camp.
  3. Combine your BMR and expected calories burned through exercise. This will be your expected total daily caloric expenditure and the absolute minimum calories you should plan to bring per day. I recommend you add at least a few hundred calories to this total for some insurance in case you feel like you are still hungry.

You will want to do this calculation for each day of your trip, and then create a meal plan of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, desserts, and snacks that add up to your expected daily caloric expenditure for each day. 

9. Pack for Your Backpacking Trip

Backpacking bag and hiking boots in the mountains.

Once you have chosen the right gear, food, and other essentials for your backpacking trip, it is time to pack. 

Haphazardly stuffing all your gear into your pack will cause all kinds of problems for you on the trail, so learning the proper methodology for packing a backpack is an essential skill.

The two most important things to consider when packing your backpack are:

  • weight distribution - you want the heaviest gear (e.g. stove, fuel, food, bear canister) in the middle, with lighter gear (e.g. sleeping bag, clothes, tent) at the bottom and top. This will make carrying your backpack much more comfortable.
  • accessibility of your gear - there is certain gear that you will want to be able to access quickly (e.g. first aid, map, sunscreen, water bottle, etc.), and other gear that you won’t need until you are at your camp and done hiking for the day (e.g. sleeping bag, sleeping pad, dinner, etc.). 

When packing your pack, try to keep the overall weight between 20-30% of your total body weight.

If your pack is too heavy, remove “luxury” items like books, games, electronics, and other creature comforts that aren’t absolutely necessary for your trip.

For more tips on how to properly pack your backpacking bag and how to lighten your pack, check out my complete guide on how to pack your backpacking bag.

10. Spend Time Training for Your Trip

Hiker walking her dog down a trail.

When training for a backpacking trip, you will want to build both strength and endurance.

Any type of cardio (e.g. running, cycling, rowing) will build your endurance and cardiovascular fitness.

My favorite way to build endurance is through trail running. This sport is one of the best ways I have found to improve my ability to hike long distances.

The best book that I know of that will help you learn how to build your own running training plan is Training for the Uphill Athlete. Even if you are not a runner, this book will teach you the fundamentals of how to build an effective endurance training plan. 

In addition to endurance training, it’s very important to add strength workouts to your plan. This will help you avoid injuries, hike more efficiently, and make you feel stronger on the trail. 

This is a fantastic guide that will help you build your own strength training plan 

You will also want to give your body time to adjust to the physical stress of carrying a loaded backpacking bag. 

The only way to do this is by literally hiking or even walking around with your pack on and loaded with the weight you expect to carry on your trip. 

When you first start hiking with a heavy pack on, it will likely feel uncomfortable at first. Over time, your body will get more and more used to it the more you wear it.

Finally, if you are planning to do a high altitude backpacking trip but you live close to sea level, you might want to consider adding in some simple breathing practices like Wim Hof breathing, which is a type of intermittent hypoxic training. This type of breathing will trick your body into believing you are at a higher altitude and help you adapt to high altitude conditions even at sea level. 

The Oxygen Advantage is another great book that will teach you breathing techniques that will help you train for higher altitudes.

11. Create a Safety Plan

Search and rescue helicopter and crew looking for a missing hiker.

Learning how to stay safe in the backcountry can save your life, so it is important to have an emergency plan in place so that you can act swiftly in a crisis.

Even with the best planning and preparation, accidents and unexpected events can take place. It is critical to stay composed and be ready to act when emergency situations arise. By making an emergency evacuation plan and practicing it, you will be ready and know what to do in such a situation. 

Your hiking emergency plan should include steps to take in the event someone else or yourself is hurt or lost.

Two of the best ways to prepare for emergencies include:

  • Always carry a personal locator beacon/satellite messaging device like a Garmin inReach. This will allow you to call first responders even without cell service in the event you need to be evacuated. It will also allow you communicate with friends and family when you are in remote locations.
  • Take some kind of wilderness first aid training so you are prepared to handle a medical emergency. The most advanced training is called a Wilderness First Responder certification. I highly recommend you take this course if you spend a lot of time in the backcountry.

Communicating with Friends and Family

Before you leave for your backpacking trip, you must communicate with friends and family about the details of your trip.

It is extremely important that you give at least one close friend or family member a copy of your trip itinerary that you created above. 

Make sure that they know:

  • The exact area and trails you will be hiking on 
  • The approximate time your trip will start and end
  • The trailhead where your car will be parked
  •  How to reach you in case of an emergency (if possible - such as if you have a satellite phone or messenger)
  • A date/time to contact the authorities if they don’t hear from you 

You should also leave a copy of this itinerary in your car, somewhere easy to find like on the dash or the driver’s seat. 

11. Final preparation

Days to weeks before your trip, there are few steps you should take to ensure you have a successful, safe trip.

These include

  • Check the weather - make sure you have the proper equipment and clothing to handle the weather for your trip. You may need to even consider postponing or cancelling your trip if the weather poses any danger. 
  • Share your itinerary - as discussed above, make sure you touch base with your friends and family about your itinerary right before you leave for your trip.
  • Charge your batteries  - ensure that all of your batteries are charged (e.g. headlamp, GPS, phone, etc.).
  • Review your gear checklist - make sure that you didn’t forget anything on your gear list.

Trip Planning Tips for First-Time Backpackers 

Hiker sitting on a mountain peak overlooking a beautiful mountain range.

If you are a first-time backpacker, there are a few tips that can help you prepare for your trip.

  • Plan a trip closer to home that feels more easily accessible than say a giant trip across the country or even to another country.
  • Go with a group. This tip is important as you will learn the most about backpacking from other backpackers. If you are struggling to find people to backpack with for the first time, consider taking a class at REI or taking a guided backpacking tour through a reputable outfitter.
  • Aim to do only 3-6 miles per day. Stick to the lower end of this range if you feel less physically fit. 
  • When planning your meals and packing food, err on the side of packing a bit more than you think you will need. It’s better to have too much rather than too little and you will learn to estimate your caloric needs better the more you backpack.
  • Expect the time it takes to complete each day of your trip to take longer than you think it will. Take this into account when planning your itinerary.

Final Thoughts

Planning a backpacking trip can be a daunting task, but with the right preparation, it can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. 

After following the steps outlined in this guide, you will be on your way to a memorable and enjoyable backpacking experience.

How do you plan a backpacking trip? Is there something I missed that you add to your trip planning process? Send me an e-mail and let me know!