Planning Your First Backpacking Trip

Maybe you’ve never gone backpacking before, or perhaps it’s been so many years that you don’t quite remember how to go about planning a trip. Or maybe the last time you went you were a child and your parent, a scoutmaster, or some other responsible adult was responsible for insuring that you arrived back at home all safe and sound. Whatever the case, you’ve decided to venture forth and explore the backcountry, you have an idea of what you want to accomplish, but you have a nagging fear that you might forget some detail, some item, or something that once overlooked means instant doom when you’re on the trail. Let the Leisurely Backpacker help you successfully navigate the planning of your first multi-day backcountry adventure.

Route Planning

Someone once said “Getting there is half the fun.” If the backpacking trip itself is the destination, then preparation is that “getting there” part. To make your trip a success requires both time and effort, but consider it time and effort well spent. Most of the things you need to take into account when planning a trip are common sense. The first thing you need to do is to choose suitable hiking companions. You need to partner up with a person (or persons) who have the same goals and expectations that you have. If you wants to amble leisurely through forest-covered lowlands, following some meandering stream until you find a suitable campsite near an inviting swimming hole, that’s great. But if your hiking partner has read somewhere that back in the 1930s, some fellow in New Hampshire climbed 17 4,000 foot peaks in a single day (yes, someone has done that), and your hiking partner just knows he can beat the record, then at least one of you is not going to have much fun.

Now it’s time for some route planning. It is an excellent idea to have a guidebook that was written for the area where you are going to be hiking. Examples of guidebooks can be found in the Trail Guides section of The Leisurely Backpacker’s Reading List. Most guidebooks contain topographic maps. A topographic map uses contour lines to portray the shape and elevation of the land. These contour lines make it possible for a topographic map to render the three-dimensional ups and downs of the terrain on the two-dimensional surface of the map. Topographic maps show both natural and man-made features, including roads and trails. The ability of of topographic map to show elevation, as well as the location of trails, makes this type of map an indispensable aid to hikers and backpackers alike.

When planning a route, there are several things to take into consideration. First of all, if you haven’t done any hiking or backpacking recently, you will certainly want to pick a short, easy route. It is important not to attempt to over-reach your abilities. Whenever I hike with people who are not seasoned backpackers, I usually look for routes with several “bail” points. If, for example, I’m planning a three-day hike that covers five or six miles a day, I pick an area where I can change the hike to either a three-day hike that only covers two or three miles each day, or a two day hike over an equally short distance. That way, no matter the ability (and willingness) of myself or my companion(s), we can still come out of the woods feeling like the hike was successful. Far too many people are achievement oriented when it comes to recreation, and these people gauge success (and failure) by whether they walked all the trails they had planned on walking, and whether they climbed the peaks they’d planned on climbing. For the rest of us, success was achieved when we strapped on the pack and started putting one foot in front of the other towards an unseen and often undefined destination.

Assuming you have access to a guidebook with trail descriptions, take the time to read over the descriptions of potential trails. Maps are an indispensable tool, but a trail description written by someone who is familiar with the trail can be invaluable. Warnings about stream crossings in high water, scrambles up steep rocky slopes, and other hazards and difficulties on the trail should not be taken lightly. Decide whether you want to hike a loop trail or an “out and back” trail, or a hike where you finish in a different place then where you began. If you choose the third option, decide whether you are going to spot an extra car where the hike finishes, or find alternative transportation.


No matter how tempting it is to pull the plastic out of your wallet and ring up $1,500 worth of gear purchases, pause for a moment and count to ten. All of that wonderful gear will still be there a week, a month, or a year from now, but it just wouldn’t be fair to leave that stuff abandoned over in the corner of your basement along with the treadmill, the stationary bike, and the rowing machine, not to mention that crock pot you received as a gift and the bread machine you used once or twice. It’s prudent to go backpacking at least once before you decide to invest heavily in the hobby. There are many places where you can rent most, if not all, of the equipment you will need in order to go backpacking. Most EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) stores and REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) outlets rent backpacking equipment. If you happen to be in the military, the Recreation Departments of most military installations rent equipment. I’m sure that many independent stores that carry backpacking gear rent equipment as well. An added advantage of renting equipment is that it allows you to try out a particular product line before you buy it. It is probably impossible to rent everything that you need, but most of the big ticket items can be found for rent. Another alternative to purchasing equipment new is to buy used equipment. The Leisurely Backpacker’s Backpacking Checklists is a good place to start when trying to determine just what needs to be brought along on your backpacking trip. The left-hand column of the table within that article contains a typical backpacker’s checklist; it is an excellent starting point, and includes most everything one would need in the backcountry. For any trip into the backcountry, even a day trip, it is important to bring along what is commonly referred to as the “ten essentials.”

  1. Extra Clothing
  2. Extra food and water
  3. First-aid kit
  4. Map (in a water-tight case)
  5. Compass
  6. Flashlight (with extra batteries)
  7. Matches (waterproof, or stored in a water-tight container)
  8. Fire starter
  9. Knife (or multi-use camp tool)
  10. Sunglasses

Some Food for Thought When Thinking About Food

There are many decisions to be made before you can plan a menu for a backpacking trip. One of the first decisions to be made is whether or not you’ll be cooking food. There are advantages and disadvantages associated with cooking food in the backcountry. You may not realize it, but cooking is a rather recent development, historically speaking. Choosing food that doesn’t require preparation means that you can leave cook stove, fuel, fuel bottles, and cooking utensils at home, which will result in significant weight savings. A clear disadvantage to this strategy, particularly when hiking in inclement weather, is that sometimes, at the end of a long day, nothing can replace a good hot meal. I have hiked with people who exist solely on Snickers Bars, and I’ve hiked with people who insist on bringing attachments that convert their stoves into ovens so they can do some baking up in the woods. Most backpackers, thankfully, fall somewhere in between.

Personally, I often look at the time devoted to food preparation as time better spent doing something else. I know for a fact that my reasons for hiking in the wilderness do not include the desire to prepare gourmet meals out-of-doors. That said, I usually eat one hot meal a day in the backcountry, or two hot meals a day if I’m hiking in the winter. After years of resistance, primarily due to cost, I now almost always choose freeze-dried food for the meals that I’m going to prepare over my campstove. Freeze-dried meals are extremely light, taste very fresh, and result in less cleanup than any other alternative. The brand of freeze-dried meals that I recommend is Mountain House®. In general, I prefer the way their meals are seasoned, and the meals are designed to be prepared merely by adding boiling water to the plastic bag that the meal comes in, stirring the contents, and waiting a few minutes. If you take that a step further and eat the meal directly from the preparation bag, then cleanup is limited to your spoon. No matter what kind of packaged foods you bring along, you need to keep a few things in mind: weight, bulk, calories, cost, ease of preparation, nutritional value, and most importantly, taste.

Enough meandering about food already. Here’s how you go about meal planning. The more domestic among you will recognize amazing similarities to planning for meals at home. First of all, you need to put together a meal-by-meal, day-by-day menu, which includes spices, condiments, snacks, and drinks. If you are planning for more than yourself, now would be a good time to find out whether those you are hiking with have any food allergies. You might even want to find out if any of them might be vegetarian. Once you have your menu in hand, it’s time to go shopping. Grocery stores, backpacking stores, health food stores, and even some sporting goods stores are all good sources for filling out your food purchases.

Once you’ve purchased your food, you need to spend some time on organization. Every ounce counts, so it’s best to discard all that pointless packaging and put your food into resealable,reusable plastic bags. Whether you pack your foods into breakfast, lunch, and dinner bags, or decide to pack each and every meal separately, is completely a matter of personal preference. Write down the cooking instructions you need for particular items, and place the directions into the correct food bag. That’s about it. Oh, one last thing. Take all the discarded food packaging material and heap it up on your kitchen table. Amazing, isn’t it?

Packing Your Backpack

Believe it or not, people argue about this subject. There are differing techniques for placing heavy and light items in your pack, and they are contingent on whether you are using a frame pack or an internal one, and whether your trail will be relatively easy, or difficult with steep climbs and descents. Many of the finer points in these discussions are completely without “real-world” merit, because you won’t be bringing all that many things, probably no more than you can carry, and after you ensure that your first-aid kit, your trail snacks, your water, your map and compass, your rainwear, your extra clothing layer, and your sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellent, toilet paper, space, and your camera (plus whatever else you want to have quick access to) are near the top of your pack or in an outside pocket, your packing options are pretty much limited. I alway carry a notepad with me when I hike, and every time I start looking for something that I did not bring, I write it down. Everytime I go digging deep into my pack for something I should have put near the top, I write it down. And when I’m back home putting my gear away, I pull every item out of my pack one by one, and if I didn’t use it during the hike, I write it down. Because of this, what I pack, and where in my pack I pack it, is an ever-changing dynamic that reflects my own hiking idiosyncrasies. I would suggest you do the same. No two people hike alike.

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