The Basics of Backpacking – Part 4 – How do I Plan a Trek?

You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?

If you’re reading this, it means you’ve got the gear, the clothing, the training, and the all-consuming desire to put your feet on the trail and start burning some rubber. Hopefully you’ve read parts 1, 2, and 3 of my Basics of Backpacking posts, so you’re already familiar with a lot of the terminology I’ll reference later in this piece. At the end of the day, route-planning and picking great trails is an art all on its own. It’s my favorite part of any adventure, and it’s where things start to get really fun.

The most important two things to consider when you’re planning a backpacking trip along an unfamiliar trail are mileage and vertical gain. You’ll also want to factor in altitude if the hike goes above 6,000 feet.

Remember how I told you to start tracking how quickly you’re able to walk up and downhill in Part 3 of the series? Well, now it’s time to put all that sexy data to use. Even a seasoned hiker will slow down once you factor in heavy boots, a fully loaded pack, and a long vertical gain. For example, I generally hike at a 3 or 3.5 mph pace when I have a small Camelbak and trail runners on, but that number might drop to 2.5 mph if I’m moving uphill or even 2 mph if I’m trudging uphill with a heavy pack and boots. These seemingly subtle changes will make a big difference in how many miles you’ll want to hike each day.

When I embark on longer day hikes for fun and training, I’ll frequently tackle 16 mile trails with glee, but if I’m heading out on a weekend backpacking adventure with a friend, I seldom plan for over 12 miles per day. Pumping water, stopping for snacks, and set-up/break-down of camp always take longer than expected, and it’s nice to have a buffer to actually enjoy the wilderness, rather than merely sprinting from place to place.

If the trip itinerary you’ve selected goes above 6,000 feet, and you don’t live in Denver or Santa Fe, you’re probably going to want to factor in altitude as well. Depending on what the highest point on your trek is, your usual pace might get slashed in half for the upper few miles.

That’s because at 10,000 feet, there’s about 32% less oxygen than there is at sea level. At 13,000 feet, there’s 40% less oxygen than at sea level. Ascending too quickly can easily make a hiker dizzy or nauseous, so be sure to allow for plenty of extra time if you haven’t spent a lot of hours above 10,000 feet. It’s also a good rule to stay at or below 10,000 feet if you’re coming from sea level that same morning. Once you’ve slept at a higher elevation, it’s much safer to continue on to whatever summit or badass alpine objective you’ve planned the following day.

Before you decide how many miles you want to inflict upon your weekend warrior crew, it’s important to ask yourself what the purpose of the trip is. Be honest. Is it fitness? Reading in your ultralight hammock? Fishing and drinking beers? Backcountry hot springs? Pushing your limits and hiking a 40-mile loop in two days? Being honest about what you and your buddies have as a goal will help you determine the mileage and length of time you want to spend actually hiking. 6 hours might seem like a breezy way to knock down an 11-mile day, but when you factor in all the other things you want to do, 6 hours of solid cardio can easily feel like a sufferfest.

Whew! So, now that I’ve gotten all of my disclaimers out of the way, I can show you what’s behind the curtain at Brazen Backpacker. I have a veritable tool chest of resources that I use every week or two to get inspired, find trails, map out elevation changes, and read about route-finding challenges.

For gorgeous photos, route descriptions, and trip inspiration, I’m a big fan of Outdoor Project, Modern Hiker, and SoCal Hiker. For trail and topographic details, CalTopo is, hands down, the best free resource. I cannot recommend it enough. CalTopo includes features that let you add a line across the entirety of your trail, and then, if you double click it, a box pops up with terrain details, elevation gain, slope angle, and more. For handy, on-the-go topo maps that download to my phone for offline use, I spent about $20 and grabbed the Gaia GPS app. So far, I’m very happy with its tracking and map details, though the search function can be frustrating. The best resource for altitude-specific mountain weather is Mountain Forecast, and, finally, if I’m going to be peak bagging and navigating off-trail, Summit Post is my favorite website for beta on tricky junctions and route-finding issues.

Of course, all of these pieces need to work together to turn a dream trip into a reality. Typically, I’ll see a surreal alpine lake or summit on a friend’s Instagram or an Outdoor Project newsletter and immediately start a Google search to see if any smaller blogs or websites have done a more thorough write-up of the trip itself. I’ll start salivating over all the gorgeous pictures before mapping out anything technical. Then, I head over to CalTopo to scope out the specifics of the trail, noting the starting elevation, highest point, and total mileage for each day.

Next, I might do an additional Google search to double check that a 4WD isn’t needed on the dirt roads. I’ll also double-check weather conditions on my travel dates. For trips inside of National Parks and protected areas, I always call the associated ranger station or wilderness office to secure a permit for my group on the dates that we’ll be trekking. If I’m tacking on a nearby peak, I’ll zip over to Summit Post to read the latest trip report for detailed beta. Then, last but not least, I’ll download a topo map of the entire trip area onto my phone using Gaia GPS.

Learning how to use a map and compass and read a topographic map are invaluable skills that every backpacker should know, especially if you think you’ll ever be heading off trail or scrambling up the side of a mountain. REI has great classes for both that completely opened my eyes and made me feel more confident when I was first starting out. I went from not knowing anything about technical map reading to triangulating my location on a paper print-out in just a couple of days. It’s literally like reading a book – the more you get out there and practice, the more fluent you become. I almost had a panic attack when I lost the trail deep in the San Gabriel Mountains when I was still new, and the experience truly shook me. Losing your way is much easier than you might think, and knowing how to get back on track quickly and safely can be life changing.

If you’re interested in getting a more well-rounded outdoor education, the Sierra Club has a pretty amazing 3-month series every year called the Wilderness Travel Course. They cover topics from snow travel to navigation to first aid, and so much more. My friends who have taken it totally fell in love with it, and it sells out every year, so I know it comes highly recommended.

Another great program, if you’d like to learn what to do when things go wrong on the trail, is NOLS and their second-to-none Wilderness First Aid class. They host the two-day workshop all over the world, usually on weekends, and it’s the best resource I know of for an in-depth first aid certification. In fact, I loved mine so much that I wrote a whole separate article about it.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the company you keep will be your guiding force as you explore our public lands. One of the biggest questions I get from people who are just starting out is always, “How do I find experienced people to go with?” If you’re the most motivated person in your friend group, it can feel daunting to have to go out and fetch a wilderness Yoda to shepherd your journey from casual day hiker to savage, thru-hiking renegade, and you may not be confident or skilled enough to lead a group expedition when you’re new.

That’s where your classmates come in! If you’re serious about getting into backpacking, hopefully you’ll research your nearest REI or check out the class offerings at your local outdoor shop and hone your skillset before embarking on a multi-day excursion. These classes are a fantastic way to meet fellow outdoor enthusiasts who actually give a shit about things like safety and building their knowledge base.

There are also hundreds of meet-up groups online for people who want to find nearby peak baggers, day-trippers, or overnight camping friends. Some have Facebook groups, some have their own websites, and some are organized by different Sierra Club chapters. The best part? Almost all of them will have a designated trip leader who does the technical route planning before you show up, so you can learn by their example!

Well, dear hikers, I’ve covered a ton of ground in this series, using my limited experience and my own mistakes as fodder for the examples I’ve given. It is my sincerest wish that you leave this website with a lot of the tips and tricks that I wish I’d known when I was first starting out, and hopefully I’ve saved you a few anxiety attacks and shivering, wet nights in the process.

The thing I love best about the outdoors is their ability to instantly transform the most cynical among us into slack-jawed believers in the sublime. They are as humbling as they are empowering, and I think we need that now, more than ever.


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