As with most successful events or activities, it all starts out with a great plan. A successful backpacking trip is no different. You wouldn't dream of going to another country without doing some research ahead of time, would you? Knowing what you might expect will help you better understand what you are getting yourself into and be more prepared. But more importantly, a good trip plan will let you have a more enjoyable experience.
Physical abilities and Skill Level
First thing to consider when planning a backpacking trip is your physical abilities and skill level. Going on a 50+ mile backpacking trip for your first backcountry experience might not be a great idea. I would suggest picking one of your favorite hikes and turn it into a backpacking experience where possible. Limiting yourself to a few miles and just an overnighter will make your first experience a little more enjoyable. After a couple successful trips, you will have a better idea what backpacking is about and can then make better decisions on how far and how long you go.
Knowing the route and matching the difficultly of the route to your ability or to the ability of your weakest member will be important for those first few trips. It is no fun getting half way into a trip and finding out that you still have to climb 4000 ft., and you barely have enough energy to take another 10 steps. Researching elevation gains and losses, difficulty of terrain and knowing of any natural obstacles (river crossings, etc.) can dramatically reduce surprises while out on the trail.
A great tool for planning your route is a topographical map of the area you are going. If you do not know how to use or read a topographical map I would suggest finding a local class or reading online about how to use a map and compass. Here is a great resource from Princeton University and The Backpackers Field Manual by Rick Curtis. Using the topographical maps, you will be able to see the elevation of the trailhead and destination. It will also provide you will some knowledge of natural obstacles like river crossings. With this information you will be able to get a better understanding of elevation gains and losses and can then make an appropriate decision about your route depending on your skill level. A great resource for topographical maps is the USGS website. Here you can download for free maps or order them. This is a great way to start the planning process.
Having a map of the area is a must before heading out, but doing a little more research is never a bad idea. Finding guide books about the area you are planning on visiting can give you more information about routes and the terrain of the area. One of my favorite things to do is talk with local outdoor shops. The staff is usually pretty knowledgeable about the area in which they live. They can usually point you in the right direction for your skill level. Also talking with the local Forest Ranger station or other government agency can give you more current information about the trail conditions; if there are downed trees, trail closures, availability of drinking water along the route or suitable campsites at the destination.
Know the Area
I think this section is important for every trip but some of this information might be common knowledge if you are heading into an area in which you have lived for years. But if you are planning on a backpacking trip to an area in which you have never been, getting to know the area is definitely worth the time. One person who does this very well is Andrew Skurka. He talks about having two options when planning a trip: Option 1: Assemble a catch-all kit or Option 2: Know what you need to be prepared against. Either of the methods would work and Option 1 was usually how I packed when I was in the Boy Scouts. I would take extra clothes and other items to only find out after the trip that I never used any of them. But as I got older, the more trips I have been on and with better planning, I have been able to take less but be just as comfortable.
Knowing a few of the conditions that you will be heading into you can help you make better decisions on what to bring and what to leave home. These are a few of the conditions that I like to know before heading out. I like to know the average temperature highs and lows of the area I am heading. This will help me prepare my clothing system as well as what type or degree of sleeping bag I will need for sleeping. Next, is the average amount of precipitation an area will receive. A great example of why this is important is whether you really need to carry a rain jacket. If you are heading to the desert and the chances of it raining are a million to one, you could probably bet you will not need your Gore-Tex jacket on that trip. Finding this historic data is not as hard as you would think. The National Climate Data Center keeps this information. Their website can be a little tricky to navigate at first but with practice it gets easier. If you do a search on the internet you will also find other sites that keep this information. Just make sure you are getting your information from a reliable source.
I mentioned the next 2 items in earlier in the article but researching available water sources and terrain is essential. Knowing if you need to pack extra water or knowing that there is a small stream along the trail is important. This can save you weight as well as time looking for water. Also knowing what terrain you are going to encounter will help you plan what type of footwear to bring. Is the trail going to be snowy, muddy, rocky, sandy or just dry and dusty? Backpacking with wet feet because of snow is not a lot of fun but on the flip side nor is hot, stuffy feet because you are wearing waterproof boots in the desert.
I also like to know a little about the wildlife in the area. Knowing what types of wildlife that you might encounter will help you better prepare the type of equipment that you will need to bring. If you are heading into bear country, making sure that you have a way to secure your food is a must. While not all wildlife will eat you, knowing beforehand what animals might be out there will help you both identify the wildlife you encounter but also understand the boundaries of certain animals. Getting too close to a moose or any other animal with babies is not a good idea for example. Just because they probably won't eat you, doesn't mean they will not hurt or even kill you, but the biggest threats are usually the smallest.
Insects can ruin any good backpacking trip in my opinion. Mosquitoes for me are the worst of the bunch. I remember a trip where we got into camp way after dark and decided not to pitch a tent. I had mosquitoes biting me most of the night. I finally cinched my mummy bag as tight as it would go and laid on my stomach all night. This would not have been a good solution for the claustrophobic type. When planning a trip find out if mosquitoes are a problem in the area, then you can then bring insect repellent or bug netting. Another insect to worry about in the US are ticks. Be sure to find our if they are in your area so you can be more diligent in looking for them and wear the proper clothing to help minimize your exposure.
Create a trip plan and leave it with someone
The last thing that I would recommend you do before you leave on your backpacking trip is to create a trip plan and leave it with someone you can rely on. A trip plan should include some of the following items. The date you are leaving and when you expect that you will return. The names of those you are going with and where are you planning on going. A good map, maybe a copy of the one you are taking, is a great item to leave. This is definitely not all the things you could leave in a trip plan but I think this is a good start. I read somewhere that they suggested leaving a copy of the trip plan in your car at the trailhead as well. That is probably not a bad idea.
You cannot prepare for everything but you can prepare for most things with a little planning. Remember most of the time when heading into the backcountry, cell phones do not work so being prepared and letting others know what you are doing will help your chances of survival if something happens.
This is part one of a series of articles that will be coming out this summer about backpacking. So start planning your next trip. Get out there and enjoy yourself and most importantly be safe.