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Trail Journals
For Hikers:
Best Ways To Use Them

By Diane Spicer

The best trail journals for hikers fall into several useful categories:

  • Collections of musings and amusement
  • Organizational lists
  • Navigation notes
  • Survival situations

Let's consider at least seven hiking journal ideas you can use on your next hike or backpacking trip.

There are at least seven different ways to use a trail journal on your next hike. Read more at Hiking For Her. #hiking #backpacking #trailjournal #Backpackingjournal

Trail journals for hikers:
record your
personal musings

The first (and some say best) reason for carrying a trail journal in your backpack involves great ideas.

If you hike for several hours, and allow your mind to empty out its usual chaos and clutter, you might find yourself coming up with some amazingly creative ideas.

  • But they might will slip away, unless you record them as they occur.

Enter trail journals for day hikers!

And a backpacking journal for recording solutions to pressing problems creates an important archive for future trips.

How are trail journals different?

This is what sets them apart from other journals:

  • waterproof paper
  • lightweight
  • a small footprint
  • spiral binding to keep pages organized

What's not to love?

Trail journal and pencil resting on a backpackLove my trail journals!

Jot down your ideas in one of these little beauties:

Rite In The Rain Trail Journals

You can never have too many

Buying these in a three pack is the way to go!

  • No need to wonder whether or not you're carrying your trail journal when you switch backpacks.

I use a pencil for my great thoughts, but that means I also carry a small pencil sharpener.

That makes a pen is a great idea.

  • Just be sure it's the right kind for this waterproof paper.
    Otherwise, all of your great thoughts will be lost.
  • Gel pens and water based inks won't work.
All Weather Pen

Want more space?

 Try this version instead, to capture all of your doodles and sketches:

Rite In The Rain Larger Trail Journal

Keep the kiddos

If you backpack with kids, using a trail journal to keep them occupied while you get food ready and the tent set up makes the day more pleasant for all involved.

  • Hand them a journal and watch them doodle and tic-tac-toe the minutes away while you get your hiking tasks finished.
  • One journal per kid, to keep the peace ;)

Trail journals for hikers:
organizational lists

One of the classic signs of a newbie hiker is disorganization:

  • Jumbled gear in a backpack
  • Re-inventing the wheel with every hike
  • Forgetting crucial pieces of hiking gear

You know the story, right?

The best way out of hiking chaos is LISTS. That's the second great way to utilize trail journals.

If you can train yourself to make lists, and know where they are (hint, hint: journal), and then actually use them - wow! you're in an elite category of prepared, organized, bomb proof hikers.

Examples of lists

Examples of lists you can draft and save in your trail journal:

  • Seasonal gear switches: what to take out of your backpack, and what to add, for each season
  • Amendments to a current gear list: what you needed but didn't have, what you brought but never used, gear you noticed someone else using and want to check out
  • Deletions from a gear list: why a piece of gear failed, which backpacking dehydrated food you hated, or why eight pairs of socks isn't a great idea on a backpacking trip
  • Thoughts about a specific gear list for an upcoming trip to a new region (see my ANWR gear list for an example)
  • Logging hiking equipment usage: Your Lifestraw Go water bottle filtration system, for example.

Your trail journal can be Planning Central!

Trail journals for hikers:
navigation notes

Access points to trail heads can be cut off within minutes, with a big wind storm blocking a road or unannounced road crews forcing you to find an alternate route to your favorite hiking spots.

When you learn of a trail head access problem, jot it down in your trail journal.

  • Why take a chance that you'll forget to check if the road is open next time?
  • Jog your memory to share the news with your hiking circle.

Another example of using a hiking journal for navigation: Sometimes a trail is re-routed for maintenance or animal activity.

  • It's tough to remember exactly where, and how, the route changed unless you write yourself a note.
  • Also take note of the bypass route: was it sketchy footing? well marked with colored flagging? several miles longer or shorter?
  • Write down landmarks along the new trail so you can keep track of how far you need to hike before rejoining the main trail (e.g. ten minutes after the tall pine with a broken top, re-joined the Yellow Aster Butte trail).

Backcountry hikers only

Do you like to do off trail and/or back country navigation?

Making notes of the terrain to complement your photos and GPS way points is a guaranteed way to build up an archive of spectacular, personalized hiking destinations.

And taking the time to document map discrepancies, seasonal water supplies, or alternate routes will pay off if you revisit that spot later.

And the reasons
keep coming!

So we've covered three more ways to use a trail journal:

  • Prevent frustration due to the "I forgot's"
  • Keep yourself sorted out when your route changes
  • Archive your back country ramblings

Let's see, we're up to five great ways to use trail journals for hikers.

Two more to go!

C'mon, we're burning daylight (or electrons).

Trail journals for hikers:
survival situations

Nobody wants to get into a survival situation.

Everyone wants to get out of one.

Carrying pen and paper guarantees you two things in a survival situation:

  • Communication
  • Objective data

Some examples will clarify this for you.

Scenario #1

You somehow took a wrong turn on the trail, or missed a sign, or who knows what, but you got separated from your hiking group or trail buddy.

You might even be lost.


Don't panic!

Instead, dig out your trail journal and your map.

  • Tear out a sheet of paper and note your location, date and time, name, and plans to get back to the trail head. 
  • Stick the paper in a hard to miss location, and anchor it with a rock or extra boot lace.
  • Backtrack or use an alternate route (after consulting your map), knowing that the probability of someone (yourself included if you need to return to the spot) finding your note is good.

NOTE: In less dire situations, it's good to have paper to leave a note about your change in plans, need to turn around sooner than expected, or other information your hiking group needs when you don't turn up at the designated lunch spot.

And sometimes when you're temporarily lost, it's best to sit down and wait for help. Use your best judgment, and your trail journal.

Scenario #2

Your hiking partner face plants on the rocks, and there's a lot of blood along with a brief loss of consciousness.

After you deal with seeing all of that blood and using your personal locator beacon to summon help, dig out your trail journal.

  • Take your buddy's pulse and record it, along with the time and date.
  • Keep doing this as needed, along with making notes of skin tone, breathing rate, and other observations of her physical condition (vomiting, uneven pupil size, etc.).

These notes and metrics will be useful to the search and rescue team.

  • And any health professional who happens along and has to make some fast decisions about intervention or transporting your buddy will get up to speed quickly.

Benefit to you: writing things down gives you something "real" to do, keeping you from giving in to panic or worry.

A few more examples of the beauty of
trail journals for hikers

A few other ways paper in your journal can help you out in a survival situation come to mind:

  • Fire starter material (it's waterproof so can ignite even in soggy conditions)
  • Lining a make shift container to collect water
  • Making a berry container
  • Impromptu toilet paper

Who among us can predict when you'll need a piece of paper??

Be smart, be prepared.

Six ways to use trail journals!
Here's one more

Waterproof hiking journals and all weather pens make great gifts for hikers.

Here's a way to make your favorite hiker's eyes shine with delight: a journal, pen and waterproof zippered pouch to hold them!

This is absolutely the best way to transport and protect those precious notes, lists, sketches and insights.

Trail Journal Kit

If you're celebrating someone's birthday or other festive event on the trail, what an appropriate gift to give!

  • Lightweight
  • Easy to carry
  • Instantly useful
  • Perfect memory preserver

Doodle something sweet inside the front cover to make her smile!

Or include a favorite motivational hiking quote.

Trail journals for hikers:
anything to add?

How have you used a trail journal?

Please do let me know!

Use this CONTACT link so I can share your trail wisdom right here.

Happy Journalling!

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Trail Journals For Hikers