Step 02 – Planning

Planning a trip requires time, research, and attention to details. Questions needing to be answered are where, when, how am I going to get there, and who wants to go with me? How I go about answering these questions, for some, may be over kill and to others it may be perfect. With more experience, the faster and less researching is needed. Whether it is an overnight trip to several days to weeks, this is what I do to prepare.

Where Do I Want to Go?

There are a lot of places to go see and sometimes that can be daunting. However, looking in “your own backyard” may surprise you. One of the easiest and free ways of finding out is to download Google Earth. Once you download, install, and run the program, turn on the National Park and National Forest boundaries (located under “More”). Make sure “Photos” is checked too. Now look around and see what is nearby. Users have uploaded photos of their destinations throughout the country. If you see a place you want to go, take note of it and where it is located (i.e. Park Service or Forest Service). If you destination is in a National Park, the trails should be colored red and have mileages associated with them. This will come in handy for answering “how am I going to get there,” which comes later. Next question you need to figure out is when.

When Do I Want to Go?

Typically most people travel in the summer months to their destinations. It really depends on where you want to go. If I want to backpack in the desert or the forest, I would research when the best time of the year is before I go any further. A simple Google search or a phone call to the right office can be the most helpful. If you are fortunate to live close to one of the offices, stop by and have a face to face conversation about your plans.

When a decision is made for the right time of year, I check with the land management agency (i.e. Park Service) about rules, permits, and things to know before going. For example, when I climbed Mt. Whitney there were two options. One required calling in 6 months in advance from my “summit date” to reserve a permit. The other option is a lottery based system, done 6 months in advance. Whatever date you are drawn is when you need to plan your trip around. You can sometimes find this information online. Other times the best thing to do is call the office.

How Am I Going to Get There?

Obviously you need a vehicle to get to the trail head and then hike into the destination. The details of “how am I going to get there” surface when researching maps. Google Earth, once again, can be a great tool at your disposal. The National Parks have their trails mapped and mileage markers displayed. If traveling elsewhere, then buying a map, which is recommended regardless, is a great idea. Tom Harrison makes great maps for about $10. You can also purchase maps from an agency’s office too. If you do not want to go that route, search online for free topography maps or see what Amazon has in stock. Now that I have the map, I plan out where I will camp each night.

With a map in hand or a program to generate a map, I measure out the distances to campsites. If possible I typically try to stay around 10 miles a day max for multi-day trips. This way I am able to gain some distance towards my destination, but at an enjoyable pace to take in what is around me. I always camp near a water source. It is essential for cooking food, rehydrating, cleaning, and so forth. I do not typically consider this final until I look at the elevation of my starting and ending point.

For beginners, 10 miles a day may seem like a lot of walking while to others it is not big deal. Remember that there is no need to sprint all 10 miles or never take a break. Let’s put it in perspective. If you trekked along at an average pace of 2 MPH, then you would arrive at your destination in 5 hours. If you did an average pace of 1.5 MPH, you would arrive at your destination in 6.67 hours. Plus take some breaks for snacks, to enjoy the view, to take the backpack of your shoulders and rest. It isn’t a race to get there.

Most of my backpacking trips have been at very high elevations (8,000 ft. or more). I try my best to follow a general rule of starting and ending close to a 1,000 feet difference. This is supposed to help reduce the chances of high altitude sickness. Conditions and symptoms of altitude sickness vary from person to person and day to day. Since the atmospheric pressure is less up at higher elevations, you’ll be working harder to intake the oxygen needed for your body to function. Exertion aggravates the symptoms, so being in shape will help reduce this problem. Also having plenty of water and food to help the body adjust is important. To learn more about these potential problems, please click HERE for more information. Remember some of these altitude sicknesses range from common to rare.

Here is where experience will kick in and I believe others who have gone with me would agree with these. Hiking on the trail with a full backpack will teach you a few things about yourself. One of those is what shape you are in. The second is how much and when you will need to snack. The last lesson will be discovering a comfortable pace in various situations. Let me go into further detail.

  1. Being in shape is not required for a successful and fun trip into the outdoors. In fact my first trip I just slung on a bag and out the door I went. I didn’t exercise at the gym or pursued a physical activity and had a great time. However, I later learned by exercising a month or so in advance, will help minimize lactic acid after each days hike and create a more enjoyable experience. If you do not work out and prepare, you probably will do fine the first and second day of hiking. However, the abundance of lactic acid will inhibit your movement (stiff and sore muscles) and slow you down. You will also get tired faster and exert more energy than necessary. It is possible that by not being in shape you could create an emergency situation that could have been avoided or significantly reduced. More information on how to get fit for the trip can be found at REI.
  2. Taking a break to eat varies from person to person. However, you will be burning a lot more calories then normal when you are out backpacking. Try to eat 5 times a day. Three of those times are you main meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The other two are snacks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Pay attention to how your body reacts throughout your hike. For me, I find myself hunching over more and slowing down in my pace, especially where you typically would not (flatter or gradual downhill stretches of trail). This typically occurs around 2 to 2.5 hours of straight hiking. I have learned that if I recognize this change, I stop for a break and eat. Bars are my favorite along with some trail mix. Get a quick 300 to 500 calories that way. Just listen to your body. It will take some time and experience to figure it out, but worth the investment.
  3. Finding a pace that works efficiently for you also takes some time on the trail to figure out. It took me a few trips to figure out a pace I can maintain, especially when going uphill. I am breathing out of my mouth then, but my heart rate is constant and so is my breathing. I am in a rhythm or a “groove” if you will. This also depends on my fitness level and caloric intake.

Figuring out these three areas that work for you could produce a more positive experience backpacking. Just remember to take breaks when you need to and don’t over exert yourself. It isn’t a race!

Next Step -> Gear

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