On this page, I will give you some backpacking tips that you will find very useful. As tempting as it would be to tell you that all you need to do for backpacking is throw some gear in your car and hit the road, in reality, it does take a bit of planning. You do need to have a general idea of where you are going, what you are doing, and for how long, before you hit the trail. Then you can throw all your gear in the car and take off!
I’ll first start off with some backpacking tips on picking your trail. This will require some research on your part. There are many excellent backpacking trail guides available, and the internet is also a great resource.
You see, not only do you have to pick a trail; you need to find out as much about that trail as possible. Here are some of the things you need to consider:
First of all, is overnight camping even allowed on the trail? On many “day hike” trails, it is not, and those that do allow overnight camping often require a wilderness permit. This will be discussed in more detail below.
How long is the trail, and how far do you intend to follow it? Going the entire length of the trail is hardly necessary. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail runs from Mexico to Canada along the California Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. While many experienced backpackers do hike the entire length of the trail (or at least attempt to do so), there is no need to go on a four-to-six month excursion to enjoy its beauty. One can easily hike a small section of the trail: in fact, we did a day hike on snowshoes on a short section near Lake Tahoe.
What is the topography of the trail? You need to know this in order to estimate the miles for your total trip. Five miles of steep uphill climbing may take as much time and energy as twice that distance on more moderate terrain. Especially if you’re carrying twenty or more pounds on your back!
More backpacking tips
When is the best time of year to go? Weather makes a huge difference. Nobody wants to hike in the rain, and some higher-elevation trails are inaccessible most of the year due to snow. We can’t even begin planning many of our Yosemite backpacking trips until Tioga Road opens, which is usually not until May or even June. Conversely, in warmer areas, it may not be wise to plan your trip for mid-summer, especially if the water sources dry up outside the rainy season. Also, many trails are just more scenic during certain times of the year. One trail may be known for its display of wildflowers in early spring, while another might display incredible fall foliage.
Not only will you need to know how to get there (with specifics, many good ones are off obscure back roads), you need to know where you can leave your car for a few days. Many trailheads have parking areas, but make sure to read the signs, as the parking area may serve more than one trail. Keep in mind that in areas which have bears (such as in the California Sierra Nevada range) you cannot leave anything in your car which can smell like food. This includes deodorant, toothpaste, car fresheners, and old fast food containers. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and they can and will break you’re your car if they think there is something edible inside. Anything like that that is not being brought with you should be left at home or will have to be thrown away when you get there if you want to avoid returning to broken windows. Some trailheads have bear lockers where you can stash stuff but don’t count on it. It may help to find specifics of the amenities of the trailhead; some even have restrooms and potable water.
What are the rules of the trail?
You will most likely need to contact a ranger station in the area for this. Most backcountry trails require wilderness permits, and while sometimes you can reserve them in advance by mail, over the phone, or online, in many cases you will have to personally visit the ranger station on your way to the trailhead. These usually don’t cost anything, but availability varies.
Backpacking without a permit will get you immediately kicked off the trail as well as fined, and I know from personal experience that there are rangers out on the trail looking for just that. Also, if you are planning on having campfires, you need to check the rules on that as well.
Some places do not allow campfires or prohibit them during the drier time of the year or above certain elevations. Most places require burn permits for anything larger than a camp stove. And if you are camping near those pesky bears again, you will need to have a bear canister to keep your food overnight. If you do not have one yourself (most of us don’t, they are a bit on the pricey side), you may be able to rent one at the ranger station. Check on this ahead of time.
Of course, you also need to consider your personal skill level while planning your trip. Even if you are physically active, this is often a different sort of exercise than most people are used to: it requires sustained endurance over a long period. Even if you are already an avid hiker, remember that hiking with a pack is an entirely different experience than a day hike with only a sack lunch and a bottle of water. If backpacking is new to you, I recommend training for at least a month or so before. Throw about twenty pounds of weights into a bookbag and hike a few miles a couple of times a week. Or even walk around your neighborhood. Every little bit helps.
Your skill level and physical fitness should be considered when picking your trail. For a relatively healthy person, about five to ten miles a day on moderate terrain is feasible. You can put in many more miles on flat terrain than on steep climbs. Remember that a particular trail has considerable variation, so don’t count on hiking the exact same number of miles every day of your trip. Of course, if you are one of those fitness nuts or someone who already has many backpacking trips under your belt, you will be able to handle longer distances and more difficult terrain than the average person. On the other hand, if you are a couch potato who is rarely physically active, you will want to pick a mild trail and count on doing only a few miles a day.
There are also different ways in which to tackle a trail. The most common type of trip I’ll call the out-and-back. This is where you simply start at the trailhead, hike to some destination or pre-planned endpoint, then turn around and hike back on the same trail. So if you were doing a three-night jaunt, you would camp the first night about halfway to your destination, the second night at your destination, and the third night halfway back to the trailhead, in about the same area as you camped the first night. The endpoint may be some interesting feature you would like to see—say, a big waterfall, a scenic lake, or a sweeping vista—or it may just be a point a chosen number of miles into the trail.
A variation of the out-and-back is a base camp trip. Here, you reach your intended destination the first day, and camp at the same site for the entire trip. An advantage of this is you don’t have to break camp every day; and trust me, it is a lot of work to set up and tear down your tent, sleeping bags, and cooking area on a daily basis. You can just leave your cozy little base camp carrying only a small day pack with snacks and water and do short day hikes, exploring side trails that look interesting, looking for good photo opportunities, or swimming and fishing in a lake if it’s allowed. If you are a beginner to backpacking or are not very physically fit, this is a great way to start out. But even if you are a seasoned backpacker, this may be a nice, relaxing variation to try once in a while.
Probably the most difficult type of trip is a panoramic trail. You may want to try a couple of out-and-backs before attempting a trip like this. It makes perfect sense, then, that this is exactly the type I did on my first-ever backpacking excursion. Did I ever learn my lesson on that one! A panoramic is basically a “loop” trail, where you will be hiking new terrain and camping somewhere different every night of the trail. Obviously, for scenic purposes, this type of trail is ideal, as you are constantly seeing something new. The trail will loop back to the same trailhead if you are lucky. More likely, it will terminate at a different trailhead near your entry point.
Now keep in mind that “near” can mean several miles. If this is the case, you need to plan how to get back to your car, which will be parked by the first trailhead. This is easy if you are bringing two cars but with the cost of gas these days, who wants to do that if it is not necessary? In many of the larger parks, there are shuttle services which can bring you back. In this case, you will need to find out the shuttle schedule, and make sure you are off the trail before you miss the last shuttle. I have found, however, that often the shuttles aren’t so good at following the schedule. On one of our panoramic trips, we busted our butts to get to the end of the trail on time (on very sore feet, I might add). We made it a little bit early, but two hours later, still no shuttle was to be seen. We started to get worried that we may have to walk back to our car. After already being on the trail half the day, this was a daunting prospect, especially considering our car was quite a few miles away—uphill on a paved road. Finally, a group of day hikers gave us a ride after hearing our plight. And of course, on the way to our car, what should we see heading our way but our long-absent shuttle.
Please don’t let all this planning daunt you; it’s really much easier than it sounds! After you have done it once or twice and you know the ropes, it’s a piece of cake. If you are hiking often in the same general vicinity, you will already know the regulations, where to get trail information, and where the ranger stations are. And trust me, this little bit of prep work will make your entire trip a lot smoother, so while you are on the trail, the only thing you will have to worry about doing is enjoying the scenery.