TRIP DOCTOR: How do I know if I'm ready for my first big park trip?

Make sure you've got the skills for your first national park trip. Here's what you need to know.
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Make sure you've got the skills for your first national park trip. Here's what you need to know.

We'd like to take a five or seven day hike in a big Western national park, or maybe even Denali. How do we know if we're ready for it, and where should we go?

--Nicole, Binghamton, NY

Backpacking Denali National Park is an adventure-of-a-lifetime that should be on everyone's tick list. But it's definitely not for rookies. Besides having no trails--you'll hike cross-country, be route-finding in big, sometimes confusing terrain--there are multiple challenges, including serious river crossings, weather that can deliver snow or cold rain and shut down visibility at the height of summer, and brown bears. This is advanced wilderness travel with many possibilities for trouble, demanding high self-sufficiency.

So how do you assess your own readiness for Denali, or anywhere else?

Step one: Do your homework. Research the destination to understand its challenges. Then ask yourself how many of those potential situations you have experience managing and could handle. With the Denali example, for instance: Have you crossed a glacially silted, near-freezing river that's thigh-deep and moving fast? Have you navigated an entire multi-day trip off-trail by map, compass, and GPS? Have you camped in grizzly country? Have you hiked for days in a place that's frequently wet and where summer can turn suddenly to winter?

If you come up with many “no” answers, pick a more beginner-friendly trip. If you have just one or two “no” answers, ask yourself how comfortable you are with the notion of having your first encounter with, say, a difficult river crossing in a very remote wilderness like Denali. A fairly experienced backpacker who's handled most of the types of challenges Denali will throw at you may be fine; others should opt for a trip where the bar's not quite so high.

So where to go? Most Western national parks have well-maintained, well-marked trails where route-finding is relatively easy, even for beginners. You can practice some off-trail navigating for a short leg of a trip, without being fully committed to hiking cross-country for days. For your first adventure in bear country, head for Yosemite or Sequoia-Kings Canyon, where you can refine your camping skills among less-threatening black bears--and where summer weather is generally pretty pleasant. Then you can graduate to Glacier National Park and grizzly-infested backcountry. (See the June issue of BACKPACKER for my story featuring a 92-mile hike in Glacier that can be broken up into two legs of 65 and 27 miles.)

For a baptism in rugged mountains that can be wet and cold even in summer, and a hike where you'll see few people for long stretches, head for the Olympic Mountains and the 43-mile I describe in the June issue of BACKPACKER, from the Bogachiel Trailhead to the Soleduck Trailhead.

When it comes to pursuing challenge in wilderness, baby steps are a good thing. Besides, there are so many gorgeous park trips out there, that won't push you too far outside your comfort zone, that there's no danger of being disappointed.

--MICHAEL LANZA

Michael Lanza is Backpacker's Northwest Editor. He's working on a book, “Before They're Gone,” about spending a year taking his kids to national parks threatened by climate change. See stories and images from those trips at TheBigOutside.com/