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Planning a Backpacking Trip: Got Your Backpacking
Packing List Handy?

By Diane Spicer

Before I say anything at all about the best tips for planning a backpacking trip, let me say this:

  • Be sure you have a lot of enthusiasm for this task.

If you're tempted to cut corners, leave the planning to someone else.

Or maybe you should just stay at home.

I am so serious about this!


Because your life may literally depend upon the strength of your plan and the details of your backpacking packing list.

I'm not talking about a quick overnight trip to a heavily populated camping spot on an easy trail, where there's a large margin for error, plentiful food AND nearby people to bail you out if things go wrong.

Although I can make an argument that I might be talking about this very scenario!

Things can go wrong under Mother Nature's immense roof regardless of where you find yourself.

It's one thing to spend a cold, wet night in misery and be able to hike back to the car in the morning. Makes a great story over a cup of coffee a few weeks later, right?

But it's quite another thing to watch a friend slip into hypothermia because you didn't plan ahead with adequate shelter and enough clothing for unexpectedly wet or cold weather. (take those links seriously)


So I counsel you to take your responsibilities for planning a backpacking trip seriously.

Devote time to crafting a thorough backpacking list, and just like Santa, make that list and check it twice before you leave for the trail head.

And to make your task easier, especially if this is your first time, consider these tips on planning a safe, enjoyable backpacking trip.

Female hiker setting up a tent on a grassy plain overlooking the Canning River in ANWR, Alaska.Out in the middle of nowhere, or ANWR in Alaska to be exact. Nowhere never looked so good!

Planning a backpacking trip:
Phase 1

We'll assume you've already selected the best hiking trails for your trip.

Let's get right to planning your trip, using these steps.

First, read through my best hiking tips.

Who has time to read?

Grab a backpacking gear list plus tips here

Next, make detailed notes about the gear you have and the gear you'll need.

There are discount hiking gear and used gear options, along with backpacking essentials, to consider.

Food = fuel

Then, carefully consider your menus.

  • Will you be working hard in cool weather? For instance, a fall trip with a lot of elevation gain requires lots of calories, spaced out over the length of each day's trail time.
  • You will also have to take in enough calories at dinner to maintain your core body temperature through a long cold night.
  • Backpacking food options include dehydrated or freeze dried entrees and organic selections, along with gluten free food.
  • Want to get really specific and calculate how much food you need? You should! I've laid it all out here.
  • Contrast this with relatively flat travel in the summer time. You don't need to pack as much food, but you do need to pay careful attention to your water supply.

Home away from home

What about shelter?

It may be even more important than food in certain scenarios.

  • Do you intend to go fast and light? Then your shelter will need to be minimalist.
  • Ultralight backpacking gear is a long term monetary investment, so be prepared for a bit of sticker shock with the trade off of lightening your load.
  • Bringing just a tarp could be an option, depending on the terrain and season.
  • If you can share the weight of a shelter with another hiker or two, you can have the luxury of a floor, walls, ceiling, and a little leg room! Ah, the wonders of your best backpacking tent!

And then there's the option of a backpacking hammock...

Although that wouldn't work in the Alaska ANWR terrain pictured above, now would it?

So be sure you know the lay of the land where you're headed.

Phase 2
planning details

Now that you've meticulously sorted out your gear, you need to get very specific about your itinerary (day by day plan).

If you need permits or passes, apply for them in plenty of time to avoid delaying, or cancelling, your backpacking trip.

Line up transportation, if that's an issue.

Guesstimating your daily mileage is your next step, using the appropriate maps to select camp sites in the right mileage ranges.

  • If the terrain is rough, you might only accomplish single digit mileage unless you have plenty of daylight, and energy.
  • If you're intent on studying the geology or botany in an area, you might only want to move a few miles each day.
  • If time is of the essence, you'll have to divide the total trip mileage by the number of daylight hours you want to spend hiking, and make a plan that gets you onto, and off, the trail in the right time span.

Always have a Plan B in case your intended camp site is occupied, washed out, or taken over by a bear.

Leave your itinerary with a trusted person back home, and file a copy with the authorities if you're entering areas that are monitored or controlled by lottery.

Staying safe on your
backpacking trip

Planning a backpacking trip includes knowing how to stay safe.

Have you considered how to do that in all kinds of trail conditions?

How's your first aid comfort level?

Spend some time getting trained, or at least reading about how to meet medical challenges.

If making a hiking equipment list is something you'd like to read more about, here are more tips for you!

You're just getting started
planning a backpacking trip

These ideas are just to get you started thinking about the essential features of planning a backpacking trip.

Read the plethora of information on this site to fill in your plan until you are completely confident that it will work, and that you will stay safe.

One more word to the wise:

  • Start a spread sheet with all of the gear you HAVE -versus- NEED -vs- WANT, and update it when you get back home.

  • Ditto for the backpacking menus that WORKED -vs- DEFINITELY NOT AGAIN.

This is the fastest way to shorten up the learning curve out on the trail, and create an historical record you can refer back to later.

If you need specific advice on the best backpacking gear or backpacking food ideas, please contact me and I'll answer your questions.

Or we can set up a gear chat for a deep dive into your plans.

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Planning a Backpacking Trip