How to Choose and Plan a Backpacking Trip
Figuring out what area to visit is half the battle. The other half is planning your adventure, evaluating your distances and elevation gains and determining the best timing.
Map and guidebook
Start your trip planning by thumbing through a good trail guidebook. This will stir up the imagination with photos and trail descriptions, as well as give you a good idea of distance and elevation gain.
Search for trails with "established campsites" in WTA's Hiking Guide and search "overnights" and "multi-day trips" in Trip Reports for the month you are planning to go.
Once you make a destination decision, a good topographic map will help you identify trailheads along with where you’ll camp each night. Learn more about which maps we recommend in our Backpacking 101 section.
Timing and permits
Rarely, even in a normal snowpack year, does the high country melt out before mid- to late July. Lingering snow can make for hazardous crossings on steep slopes or swollen creeks.
Check with the appropriate land management agency (National Parks, U.S. Forest Service, State Department of Natural Resources, State Parks,etc.) for suggestions on the best times of year to visit and information on snowpack, trail and road conditions.
Tip: Ask if the area of interest requires a special permit or if there are any restrictions on camping.
Set an itinerary
When selecting your backpacking trip, decide if you want to base camp or pack up camp and migrate each day.
Base camp backpacking: Base camping is a good option for those who might not want the hassle of breaking down camp each day. Base camping also allows you to fill your days with lighter, local explorations of surrounding lakes, ridges and peaks.
A different home, every night: The other option is to migrate from location to location and set up camp at a different site each day. This opens up the possibilities of going farther, seeing more scenery and making longer loops out of connecting trails.
Either way, if you're new to backpacking or it's early in the season, remember to take it easy and not plan days that are too long or too difficult.
Consult with the pros
Check trails and conditions with the latest trip reports, and get info on all of the best trail destinations for each season.
Also, talk with service staff at your local outdoor store. They can offer insights on local trails, make suggestions and help you select what you need, and what you don’t, to ensure that you have a memorable, not miserable, experience.
Destination ideas for your planning your backpacking adventure
- Fourteen overnight adventures under 14 miles
- Classic backpacking loops for a weekend
- Ten backpacking trips for kids
- Where Trip Reporters are backpacking now
- Backpacking on WTA-improved trails
- Backpacking the Wonderland Trail
- Early backpacking trips on the Olympic Peninsula
This article originally appeared in the May+Jun 2013 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.