For many people, backpacking sounds like a great way to spend time with your friends while enjoying the scenic views of the wilderness. While many people want to go on a backpacking adventure, they are reluctant to commit to the idea, often because they don’t know where to begin. Thankfully, we can help you plan your next adventure. So here is the quick guide to planning a backpacking trip. If you are new to the idea, we would suggest checking a backpacking website for a gear list, advanced tips, advice, stories, gear reviews and buying guides.
1. Figure Out Who is Going
People will often want to know where you are going before they commit. However, sometimes you plan a trip around the capabilities of who is going. If you are new to backpacking, try to keep the people who are going similar in experience and physical capabilities.
People who are of similar capabilities will make it easier to plan a trip because fewer variables are going to be needed in preparation of the trip. If you are new, you don’t want to add the extra stress of people who may not be physically capable and need extra attention. On the other hand, you won’t want someone who is in so much better shape they are constantly leaving you and getting farther ahead.
People of differing physical capabilities lead to a yo-yo effect. The lead people get farther ahead and when they decide to rest they stop. When the people who are far behind catch up, the first people take off or leave shortly after not letting the slow people get adequate rest. If you are all new to the activity this can cause, problems, frustration, and discouragement so finding out who is going may be more important before you choose the destination.
2. Choose the Trip According to the People Who are Going
There are three types of backpacking trips that you may choose from. The first type is an out-n-back trip. It is a simple hike where you walk down one path and return on the exact same path. The second type is a loop trip which is where you start at one place and return to that same place through making a loop path. The looped path usually doesn’t use the same trail or duplicates only a small portion of the original trail.
The third type is a point to point trip. This trip method is where you have a starting point and an ending point. For example, you have a car dropping you off at the starting location of your hike and a car picking you up at the ending location of your trip. To put it simply, the point to point hike is a one directional trail. Some of the more famous backpacking trails, like the Appalachian Trail, or Pacific Crest Trail, are examples of point to point trails.
If your group mostly consists of beginners or have varying physical aptitude, you probably want to try a shorter out-n-back type hike. If it is only for one night, its recommend that the hike stays under 5 miles. While five miles may not sound like a lot but considering the fact that you’re carrying extra weight from your travel backpack and other miscellaneous backpacking gear on your person, it will feel more like 10, especially if it is your first time.
Additionally, you should try to choose a destination with a limited elevation gain. If the elevation of the trail elevates more than 500 feet within a mile, it will be very difficult for those in the party who aren’t in excellent physical condition.
Make sure to allow enough time to make the journey. A fairly reasonable expectation is 2 miles an hour. If the trip is 5 miles all together, then allow at least 2.5 hours to get there. It may sound like a lot of time, but you don’t want to stress or overwork the slowest person. If the slowest person has a miserable time or feels forced, they won’t go again.
Out-n-back trips are great for first timers because it decreases the chances of getting lost and could technically allow for easier trips to the car, if needed.
For more experienced groups, longer out-n-back trips are great, and multi-night-loop trips are always fun. Many areas have shorter point-to-point trips available, running car shuttles can often take up time or make things more difficult. Those are things to take into consideration. Most point-to-point trails are fairly long and require a lot of advanced survival skills, planning, and more extensive gear such as backpacking tents, backpacking sleeping bags, and even a backpacking stove, to make successful.
I would also make a back-up plan that is similar and located in the same area. There have been numerous times where the intended trail was unavailable. Sometimes a fire, bear sighting, or natural disaster, has rendered the area inaccessible. If this turns out to be the situation, a back-up plan always comes in handy.
3. Acquire Proper Backpacking Gear
The success of a good backpacking trip depends on having the proper gear. Your convenience and enjoyment also depend on having a light and comfortable travel backpack as well as an adequate amount of food. Backpacking can be a very expensive hobby to do right, but thanks to the popularity of the sport, many local shops and universities have rental centers where you can outfit yourself for a reasonable price. If you have the experience you probably already have your own gear.
Here is a short list of necessary backpacking gear that you should bring with you on your trip:
- Backpacking Tent – Try to find a tent that is marked for 3 season weather protection, instead of the usual 4. Unless you are mountaineering, you will not need a tent that offers protection from a harsh and cold winter environment.
- Backpacking Sleeping Bag – An adequate sleeping bag is a must for any backpacking trip. Whether you decide to go with an actual sleeping bag or pad, you need to make sure it is properly insulated and light.
- Backpacking Food – Another must for backpacker, you need to have a good supply of backpacking food that is easy to make and light. Usually, packaged meals that can be made by adding water are the most common food of choice. Light snacks that are filled with protein, such as trail mix and protein bars, are also good choices.
- Backpacking Stove – While not the first thing you think of when packing your backpack, a cooking stove is a necessity. A light, single burner stove is the more common stove used among backpackers. Don’t forget to pack extra fuel for your stove.
If you are not experienced, experts recommend renting the first few times or at least until you have had a couple bad experiences. No matter how experienced you are, there will always be a trip that will have issues. You should at least experience a few of these trips before you make a significant financial investment.
If it is a group of newer people, experts also recommend making sure that all people in the group receive their gear list from the same website or vendor. If you are the trip leader, remember to send other members the URL to the website or better yet, print it out and disperse it.
Make sure to arrange people into groups or assign people responsible for group specific gear. If you have six people going, arrange them in groups of three for three person tents or groups of two for two person tents. To save space and weight there is no reason for everyone to bring their own tent. The same can go for a camp stove. Technically you only need two. If one doesn’t work you always have a back-up.
4. Pre-Trip Meeting
The night before you leave, make sure to have everyone meet up to go over important information. Have everyone bring all of the gear they are planning to take to the meeting and check to make sure everyone has what they need. This is also a good time to make sure that the party is not weighed down by unnecessary objects. This will also allow people to run to the store and buy anything they forgot before embarking on their trip the next day.
The pre-trip meeting also allows the chance to go over the plan with everyone, pass out maps, and allow you to collect any medical information or physical problems the party may need to know. For example, if the trail runs across some rivers and someone is afraid of water, this is something you don’t want to find out in the moment. If someone is allergic to bees, you may want an allergy shot in your first aid kit or make sure they have one with them.
5. Leaving On Your Trip
Before you leave from the designated meeting place, make sure to contact at least two different people and give them a detailed plan of where you are going as well as your back-up plan. Let them know how many people are in your party, where you will be going, what kind of car you have, and where it will be parked. Make sure to communicate any potential medical issues people in your party have. If someone is diabetic, it might be nice for search and rescue to know this so they will have the proper medicine available.
Sometimes your plans change at the last moment. Hide a spare key somewhere by your car or close to it or on it and let the people know where the spare key will be. Let the contacts know that if you change plans you will leave a detailed explanation of your changed plans inside your vehicle. If something bad happens, the park rangers, sheriff, or search and rescue can find your vehicle, locate the spare key, find your change of plans, and locate you easier.
6. Safety and Responsibility Meeting
Right before you begin following the path hold a quick safety meeting. Many adults don’t like this part, but it is the most significant part of the trip. Make sure to outline the safety rules and regulations that you expect everyone to abide by. If everyone is on the same wavelength, then in crisis or trouble situations things will flow more smoothly. It’s also important to make sure to designate a second and third in command. Someone who has shown capacity, enthusiasm, and initiative in the early stages of the trip planning.
When you get to your camp, things will flow smoothly if everyone has a job, now is a good time to assign them. Make sure that someone filters water, someone collects firewood, one person per tent sets them up, etc. The sooner these tasks are completed, the sooner people get to relax and enjoy the trip.
Related: How to Pack Light for Hiking Trips
7. Post-Trip Reflection
One of the best things you can do post trip for yourself is to make several lists. Make a list of things that you learned. Make a list of things you brought that you thought you would need and didn’t. Make a list of things you wish you would have brought. Make a list of things that bothered you. Do this after ever trip. After ten trips, you will have your own personal style and your backpacking experience will be custom tailored and you will be ready to move onto bigger better trips.
Unless you are going solo, backpacking is a collaborative effort. As a trip leader and planner, you have to be conscious of everyone who is going. Don’t announce to people who you think the weakest link is, but make decisions with them in mind. Ease into the activity until you know what works right for you, and you know what you can handle.