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How to Plan a Successful Backpacking Trip in 7 Steps

This year I’m planning 29 guided backpacking trips. They are scheduled through October, run three to seven days, and are scattered throughout North America in the high desert, eastern woodlands, Mountain West, and Alaska. I will also ready my company’s more than 240 clients, who are of mixed ages, genders, fitness levels, and experience.

To pull this off efficiently and minimize mistakes, over the years I’ve developed a planning process that works for any trip and can be used by any backpacker.

Looking north over Colorado’s Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy toward Apache Peak, the Lost Tribe Lakes, and the west ridge of Lone Eagle CirqueLooking north over Colorado’s Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy toward Apache Peak, the Lost Tribe Lakes, and the west ridge of Lone Eagle Cirque (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

1. Define Your Trip’s Parameters

General questions are a good starting point for trip planning. You don’t need definitive answers to every question right away, but you’ll want to begin narrowing your options.

Start by asking where you want to go, when, and what kind of trip it will be. Why hiking rather than car camping?

Then add more specifics. What length of time will you be traveling? What specific trails, routes, landmarks, or campsites do you want to visit? How many miles or how much vertical distance do you intend to cover? Who else do you want to join you, if anyone?

Finally, consider the logistics. Do you need permits? If so, how, when, and where will you get them? How will you get to the trailhead and back? Are there unique or notable land-use regulations or requirements you need to be aware of?

I suggest taking all these details and dropping them into a document that can be shared with emergency contacts before you leave.

2. Research Conditions

In a downpour, would you rather be relying on just a rain shell or a rain shell plus an umbrella?In a downpour, would you rather be relying on just a rain shell or a rain shell plus an umbrella? (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

Once you have a reasonably defined trip plan, research the conditions you will likely encounter, so that you can prepare properly, mitigate risks, and rule out baseless what-if scenarios.

I’m only interested in conditions that will influence my selection of gear and supplies or demand particular skills. I recommend looking into climate, sun exposure and hours of daylight, footing (the most common types of walking surfaces), vegetation, wildlife and insects, navigational aids (signage, blazes, cairns, and posts), water availability, remoteness, and potential natural hazards like avalanches and lingering snowfields, river fords, possible flash floods or tides, or lightning.

Compile the findings of your research in a separate document, and cite your sources, so you can easily compare any contradictory information you later find elsewhere.

3. Select Gear

Clothing, footwear, and a few other items for the winter months of my Alaska-Yukon expeditionClothing, footwear, and a few other items for the winter months of my Alaska-Yukon expedition (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

For a beginner backpacker, the task of gear selection is usually the most time-consuming, certainly the most expensive, and unfortunately also the most frustrating—it’s very easy to go down the rabbit hole here.

To make this process easier for my clients, I give them a time-tested gear-list template that I designed, along with examples of completed gear lists for trips similar to the one they’re going to take and a copy of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. These resources should help cut through the noise.

Clients also have email access to their guides and their group, so that they can get trip-specific advice. If you don’t have an immediate contact who really knows their stuff, I suggest a community forum like Reddit’s r/Ultralight. Make sure to tailor your gear to your itinerary and expected conditions. 

4. Plan Your Food

Food for a nine-day yo-yo of Colorado’s Pfiffner Traverse. Six days’ worth fits in my BV500, and I ate through the “overflow” prior to entering Rocky Mountain National Park, where the canister is required.Food for a nine-day yo-yo of Colorado’s Pfiffner Traverse. Six days’ worth fits in my BV500, and I ate through the “overflow” prior to entering Rocky Mountain National Park, where the canister is required. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

We’re vulnerable to packing our fears. If we fear being cold at night, we bring a sleeping bag that’s excessively warm. If we fear bears, we sleep in a full-sided tent (which won’t help but may make us feel better). And if we fear being hungry, we pack too much food.

I’ve given in-depth meal-planning recommendations before, so here I’ll just go over some basic pointers. First, plan to consume 2,250 to 2,750 calories per day. (I generally assume an average caloric density of 125 calories per ounce, which means about 18 to 22 ounces daily.) If you’re older, female, petite, or on a low-intensity trip, go with the low end of this range. If any of the opposites are true, go with the high end. Variety is the spice of life, so pack foods with varying tastes (spicy, sweet, salty, sour) and textures (chewy, crunchy). Early in a trip, treat yourself with real food, like a ham sandwich, an avocado, or an apple. This will also delay the onset of culinary boredom.

For breakfasts and dinners, try these field-tested options instead of spending your hard-earned cash on exorbitantly priced freeze-dried meals or punishing yourself with thru-hiker fare like ramen noodles or Lipton Sides.

5. Create or Collect Navigational Resources

Here is a complete navigation system.Here is a complete navigation system. (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

For my first hikes, I utilized whichever resources were conveniently available and seemed sufficient. Before thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002, for example, I purchased the Appalachian Trail Data Book and downloaded the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association’s Thru-Hikers’ Companion. To explore Colorado’s Front Range the following summer, I bought a few National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps that covered the area.

But when I started adventuring off the beaten path, I had to create some or all of these materials from scratch. Through this process, I developed what I believe to be an optimal system of maps and resources that includes large- and small-scale paper topographic maps, digital maps downloaded to a GPS app, route descriptions and tips, and a data sheet (a list of key landmarks and distances along a trail or route).

6. Gain Fitness and Skills

A training hike in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, carrying the Osprey Aether Pro 70 pack loaded with with 50 pounds of bricksA training hike in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, carrying the Osprey Aether Pro 70 pack loaded with with 50 pounds of bricks (Photo: Andrew Skurka)

There’s no better way to improve your hiking fitness than by hiking, and there’s no better way to develop backpacking skills than by backpacking.

But who has the time and ability to do that? Not me, and likely not you.

The next-best option is to work out more intensely to maximize the potential of the time you do have available. Personally, I do this by running 60 to 70 miles per week. Ultralight backpacking pro Alan Dixon has a training plan that’s more hiking oriented (and more realistic). You can also read and watch skill tutorials, such as my series on navigationpooping in the woodsfinding great campsitespacking your backpack, and tying knots.

A test hike is also very valuable. This systems check is meant to be done in a relatively low-risk environment, and the goal is to get you better prepared for your actual trip. It can be done locally, like in a nearby park or even your backyard, and will give you an opportunity to use your gear, practice some skills, and identify room for improvement before you undertake a more committed itinerary. Focus on replicating the elements of a real trip: hike with a loaded pack, refill your water bottles, change layers, set up your shelter, cook a meal, etc. 

7. Conduct a Final Check

In the days before your trip, complete any remaining housekeeping. Using your checklist, pack up all your gear, including your maps, resources, and permits. Buy any necessary perishable foods, like cheese, butter, and tortillas. (This trip-planning checklist has more details.) Look at a five-day weather forecast, and adjust your gear accordingly. Finally, proofread your trip-planner document, and leave it with your emergency contacts.

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All the Awesome Outdoor Gear Sales That Are All Ending Today

To commemorate the Fourth of July, ratings of brand names making hiking, outdoor camping and outside equipment put their items on sale. Today’s the last opportunity to get discount rates.


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The Gear We’ve Tested for Half a Decade

As equipment editors, our task is to evaluate items that are brand-spanking brand-new and after that inform you what we think of them. We do this with the complete range of outside devices—– from Hoka’’ s most recent running shoes to the newest improvements in ski bindings . In some cases, however, our go-to equipment isn’’ t the latest or flashiest. We choose the products that work the very best and have actually gotten scraped up and spilled on after being utilized time and once again. Simply put: our most-trusted equipment appears like it’’ s seen some shit. Our psychological connection to these things isn’’ t a lot about the price or technical specifications, however the truth that it’’ s held up for many years and accompanied us on numerous experiences. We asked 6 editors what equipment they’’ ve been evaluating for half a years or more, and why they aren’’ t aiming to update anytime quickly.

.Osprey Exos 58 Pack ($ 220).

 will-osprey-pack-correct_h. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Will Taylor)

Ten years back, I was an intern at Outside with essentially absolutely no cash in my savings account however the desire to be outdoors as much as possible. I’’d simply entered into climbing up and was trying to find a crag pack when I discovered the Exos 58 at an REI utilized equipment sale. It remained in like-new condition and cost an extremely high (to me) $74. Equipment desire being what it is, I purchased it, figuring I might utilize it for climbing up experiences in addition to backpacking journeys. Which’’ s simply what occurred. This pack, which was produced ultralight backpacking, took numerous journeys to Joshua Tree and Idyllwild to assist me scale rocks. It accompanied me and my better half on our honeymoon backpacking in Yosemite. Squirrels munched on it in the Pacific Northwest, tape gloves gunked it up in Indian Creek, and sun block, insect repellent, and trash have actually stained it on events too various to count. There aren’’ t’a great deal of frills: it ’ s a basic top-loader with a brain compartment and hipbelt pockets, however the suspension system is extremely adjustable and constantly feels excellent on my back, although there’’ s very little cushioning. And regardless of being made from mesh and reasonably thin material, it’’ s held up to 10 years of rock abrasion, difficult drops after long walkings, and branch stabbings. I have much better packs in my closet now, however this one is still in rotation for weekend experiences, although the zippers are crusty and there are lots of tears in the mesh. There’’ s simply excessive fond memories here.– Will Taylor, equipment director

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.Camp Chef Everest Stove ($ 148).

 ariella-camp-stove_h. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Ariella Gintzler)

Until I disappeared to college, the only outdoor camping range I’’d utilized was my moms and dads ’ MSR WhisperLite from the 1980s. Even if we were simply cars and truck outdoor camping, we prepared all our meals on that single burner. When I purchased my partner the double-burner Everest for Christmas 5 years earlier, I felt like I was investing in the outside equivalent of a high-end stainless-steel kitchen area oven. Now I can’’ t envision how we ever lived without it. Having 2 locations to prepare is a total video game changer when it concerns simple, effective meal preparation. The Everest in specific puts out an outstanding 20,000 BTUs, which suffices to boil water in minutes and make easy work of whipping up breakfast burritos for a crowd. It has actually sustained years of desert windstorms and bacon grease and looks none the even worse for the wear. —– Ariella Gintzler, associate editor

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.Arc’’ teryx Atom LT Hoodie Jacket ($ 60).

 emily-arcteryx-jacket_h. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Emily Reed)

Six years earlier, I identified a glistening Atom coat on the utilized equipment rack at the famous Moab Gear Trader shop—– and it was just $60. Sure, it was a size too huge, in a dull black color, and fit me like a loose old sock, however the coat offers me with flexible heat to this day. It’’ s been all over the world with me and stays my go-to midlayer when I’’ m uncertain about the projection. It loads quickly and offers adequate space for layering beneath, and the zippers move as efficiently as the day I brought it house. I’’ ll be riding this horse till the day the zippers fall off. And after that I’’ ll happily pay Arc’’ teryx to repair it —.– Emily Reed, video manufacturer

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.Herschel Supply Pop Quiz 22L Backpack ($ 60).

 claire-herschel-backpack_h. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Claire Hyman)

The Pop Quiz has actually been my daily hauler for almost 7 years. It brought my basics on flights to 4 continents, carried my books through high school and college, and accompanied me on car-camping journeys. This knapsack’’ s easy style is among the factors I have no intent of updating. A cushioned laptop computer sleeve, there aren’’ t any areas in the primary compartment for things to get lost in. The front pocket is simple to gain access to and has pouches for arranging fundamentals. The other factor I’’ m faithful to this pack is its toughness. The zippers have actually never ever gotten stuck or come off the tracks. And though the material has actually ended up being more flexible throughout the years, it hasn’’ t ripped as soon as. The leather bottom doesn’’ t appearance as brand-new as it performed in 2014, however I choose to think about the wear as a patina that offers the knapsack character. —– Claire Hyman, editorial assistant

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.Nike Dri Fit Tennis Cap ($ 125).

 jeremy-federer-hat_h_0. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Jeremy Rellosa)

In 2011, I travelled with my household to Switzerland—– the house nation of my preferred tennis gamer, Roger Federer. As a high schooler consumed with the sport, this journey felt quite like a capital. I purchased this hat as a homage to Federer at a sports shop in Geneva and used it as a fortunate beauty for every single match I played afterwards. I continued to use it years later on in college, however it became my go-to cap for the years I was on a cruising group at William &&Mary College in Virginia. It was on my head if we were practicing. I capsized for the very first time in it, too. Its expected luck showed real: I got my very first bullet (very first location in a regatta) while sporting it. You can inform it’’ s been soaked in the James River lots of times by its yellow-colored tint (it utilized to be white) and its subtle funk. It’’ s lasted so long due to the fact that of its cotton-polyester mix that dries rapidly, and since of the tough Velcro strap that’’ s kept it on my dome in the middle of surprise squalls. Now I use it whenever Federer is playing in a controversial quarterfinal or when I’’ m in a circumstance that requires an additional little luck. —– Jeremy Rellosa, evaluates editor

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.Mystical Patagonia Capilene Quarter-Zip Long-Sleeve.

 maren-patagonia-shirt_h. jpg( Photo: Courtesy Maren Larsen)

Sometime around 2009, my father provided me this Patagonia zip-up. The tag is so bleached from cleaning that it can just be determined as an early version of Patagonia’’ s Capilene line . This t-shirt entered my life prior to I understood or had braces how to drive. It has actually outlived every romantic relationship and doubtful hairstyle. Throughout the years, it’’ s been my backcountry security blanket– the best weight to toss on as a midlayer when the air gets cold, however thin adequate to use as a base layer. I’’ ve provided it to– and consequently battled it back from—– numerous underdressed pals. Regardless of more than a years of heavy usage, it’’ s in sufficient shape to use to the bar after a walking or ski run—– it looks almost brand-new aside from one quarter-inch hole near the hem. The obvious infant blue of this layer can be identified in many images of my happiest memories over the previous 11 years—– finding out to backcountry ski, outdoor camping and backpacking with loved ones, and climbing up in impressive locations. When I’’ m prepared for my next experience, it’’ ll be the very first thing on my packaging list. —– Maren Larsen, assistant editor


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