How to Plan for A Backpacking Trip

Planning for a backpacking trip can be stressful if you don’t know how. Check out my guide to planning for a backpacking trip to make the process as pain free as possible!

Me, never thinking I would possibly love hauling gear to sleep on the ground outside

Intro to How to Plan for a Backpacking Trip

Love the idea of backpacking but have no idea where to start? Then you’re in exactly the same place I was two years ago. 

I was such a beginner to planning a backpacking trip the first time I went backpacking. It felt beyond overwhelming to figure out everything I needed to do. 

How do I book permits? 

What do I need to pack? 

How do I pick a trail? 

Thankfully, I was able to do a ton of research and figure it out as I go. This guide will walk you through all of the steps you need to plan your dream backpacking trip like a pro. 

How to Plan for A Backpacking Trip: Table of Contents

- How to Pick A Trail
- Pre-Trip Planning
- What to Pack

How to Pick a Trail for Backpacking

There are some questions you need to ask yourself before you can even pick a destination for a backpacking trip.

  1. How much time do I have off work?
  2. How many miles a day can I realistically hike?
  3. How much money am I ok spending? 
  4. Who is coming with me?
  5. How far do I want to be from home? 

Timeframe

How much time you have will likely determine your timeline and destination. I work full time and I have pretty limited PTO. I have to make sure I am picking trails that make sense for my availability. For example: if you live in Pennsylvania and only have one week off work, the entire 210 mile JMT in California is likely an unrealistic goal. One week to hike over 200 miles with a ton of elevation gain would be a near impossible task to begin with, nevermind including travel time to and from California! 

I also recommend thinking about things like elevation acclimation and realistic travel times. Some trails, like the Wonderland Trail, have super strict permitting rules and are very limited in campsites. If you plan to start the hike the same day as your flight into Washington and your flight is delayed, you may be SOL. I recommend including some additional time in your itinerary for unexpected delays. 

I got to CA two days before our ferry departure when hiking the Trans Catalina Trail – just in case!

Mileage per Day

This will vary wildly depending on your abilities and experience.  I highly recommend doing multiple long day hikes before picking a trail to get a sense of how far you can go with a pack to help estimate daily mileage. 

If you don’t know how many miles you can hike in a day while backpacking, I would recommend not picking a daily distance that is over 60-70% of your longest hard day hike. My longest day hike is 37 miles (during the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge), but when backpacking I would unlikely plan for a day over 24 miles, especially with a full pack. Three back to back 20 mile days on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail was enough for me! 

Still jolly after long days on the LHHT

Permit and Campsite Cost

As with all things, popular trails and permits can be expensive! For a comparison point, I paid $30 per person per night for my sites on Catalina Island, but on the Laurel Highlands Trail paid $4 per person per night. Want to hike Havasupai Falls? Permits were almost $400 to camp for two nights in 2024! If you’re backpacking on a budget, you’ll want to make sure that you’re either saving up or picking the less expensive trails. 

$30 per person per night was totally worth it for campsites like this on Catalina Island

Hiking Companions

Nothing can make or break a trip like your hiking buddies. I recommend being aligned in your goals and safety plan.  For example – do you have a plan where if someone has to bail, everyone bails? Do you want to hike together every mile or are you planning to hike separately and meet up at camp? Figure it out before you get on trail and if someone’s plan doesn’t jive with yours, maybe they’re not your right backpacking partner. 

In addition, personality is honestly such a huge part of a great backpacking companion. You want to find people you jive with – and know that it might not be the same on trail as it is in the comforts of your own home. This takes some trial and error, but I now have such a great group of people to put the word out about future backpacking trips!

Distance from Home

If it’s your first backpacking trip, I recommend staying closer to home or a safety net if possible. While many trail angels have helped hikers who had to bail for one reason or another, there is never a guarantee of help. When I first hiked the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, we had a friend with a cabin thirty minutes away who offered to bail us out if we needed it. Thankfully, I didn’t have to use that safety net but it gave me peace of mind to know it was there. 

Picked a trail close to home for my first backpacking trip because you never know when something can go wrong!

Answer all those questions and have a time frame and hike in mind? Move on to the planning portion of your trip!

Want to learn more about the trails I've backpacked? Check them out here!
- Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, Pennsylvania (70 miles, 4 days)
- Trans Catalina Trail, California (38 miles, 4 days)
- Quebec Run, Pennsylvania (11 miles, 2 days)

Planning Your Trip

Once you have a destination and timeframe in mind, then comes the planning! Here are the questions you need to ask yourself when in the planning stage of your backpacking trip. 

  1. Does the location need a permit?
  2. Are there any specific rules I need to be aware of in this area?
  3. How will I get to and from the trail? How will I get to the area?

Permitting

Hikes with permits can often require more planning and logistics than hikes without permits. The sooner you can plan a hike with a competitive permit, the higher your chances of success.  For very competitive permits, I highly recommend researching over a year in advance of when you want to go hiking. That way you can mark your calendar for when permits go live and give yourself the best possible chance to get the permits you want!

Some hikes require you to pick your campsites in advance when you get your permits and know where you’re going to stay each day. This will require research in advance! When looking at the trail, take into account mileage between sites as well as (and this is important) elevation gain. An 18 mile day might be possible for you with 2k elevation but not with 7k elevation. Make sure to really research carefully before picking campsites (and have some backup plans in case the sites you want aren’t available. 

You may have to experience some, uh, discomfort if sites are really competitive. For the Trans Catalina Trail, I was awake at 3am EST for campsites that got released at midnight PST. It was an EARLY alarm clock and no one in my household was happy about it. 

Some examples of competitive permit lotteries including many national park campsites like Yosemite or Yellowstone, JMT, Wonderland Trail, and Havasupai Falls.

Trail Specific Rules

Being aware of Leave No Trace is ALWAYS vital when backpacking but sometimes trails have location-specific rules. Make sure you’re aware of all rules when traveling to a trail. 

Some potential rules to research:

  1. Does the area have a ban on fires? (ex: Quebec Run has a fire ban from X-X)
  2. Does the area require camping to be further from a lake than standard? (ex: 200 yards vs the standard 100 yards)
  3. Does the trail require users to store food a certain way? (ex: a bear can in the Smokey Mountains)

Often permits will have information about rules like this but ultimately it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to be aware of and adhere to these rules. 

Traveling to the Trail

Ok your hike is all planned – but how are you going to get there? Sometimes this can be one of the most logistically challenging parts of the hike to plan!

If you’re flying to the trail, be aware of restrictions on what can and cannot travel in your luggage. Sometimes things that you wouldn’t even think of have different rules. TSA won’t allow trekking poles or multi tools to be carried on a plane, but you can store them in your checked luggage. On the other hand, stove fuel cannot go on a plane at all so plan time to buy some at your destination. 

If leaving your car at the trailhead, I recommend creating a car bag with fresh clothes, deodorant, fresh baby wipes, and a snack. Your future self will thank you. Make sure that everything is hidden from view and that you have no valuables in your car – sometimes thieves will target trails as car occupants may be gone for long periods of time. 

Some point-to-point trails, like the Laurel Highlands Trail or the PA Grand Canyon, have shuttle services to take you to the trailhead (always book in advance). For larger trails like the Colorado Trail or the Appalachian Trail, there is a network of trail angels or local drivers that can take hikers to the trailhead. 

The most unique way I’ve gotten to a trailhead is via ferry for the Trans Catalina Trail! 

View from the ferry on way to hike the Trans Catalina Trail

Tracking Your Trip

I highly recommend creating a Google document with your itinerary, where you are parking, direction you’re hiking, estimated time of being able to contact or return, and share it with multiple friends or family. If, God forbid, something happened and you don’t come back when you planned, this is how search and rescue (SAR) will start to look for you. Even if you don’t need SAR, I have found that this is the easiest way 

I also recommend screenshotting important emails (permits, tickets, campground reservations) and saving them to an “Important Documents” folder in your phone. I do this so that I don’t have to search through emails for things I need to make my trip happen. It’s so much easier to find a permit this way when the ranger comes 

Psst – don’t forget your portable charger because your phone does you no good without a charged battery! I also recommend printing a paper backup just in case. 

What to Pack

Ok your trip is all planned – but what do you pack for a backpacking trip? This can honestly be one of the most intimidating parts of planning a backpacking trip, to the point that I did not try backpacking for a long time because I was so worried! I was so concerned I’d be stuck in the wilderness without something that I vitally needed. 

Here are some guiding principles as you’re thinking about packing:

  1. How long are you going for?
  2. What is the weather like?
  3. How are you planning on cooking? 
  4. What can you split between your companions?
  5. How much can your pack feasibly weigh?

I’m not going to tell you exactly what to pack on your trip, but I recommend checking out my post on Must Have Backpacking Gear to help guide you. This is my comprehensive gear guide to everything you need for a backpacking trip – from sleeping bag to water bottle. I also have a Backpacking Clothing Guide. I am constantly updating these posts based on my experiences and new products that I try.

Interestingly enough, packing for Pennsylvania in April was similar to packing for California in January!

Planning for a backpacking trip can be intimidating. By following the steps I’ve listed out, you’ll be an expert on how to plan a backpacking trip in no time!

Updated February 3, 2024

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