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Countdown to a Successful Hike

Stop trailhead snafus with this pretrip checklist.
A detailed map shows alternate trails in case Plan A falls through. (JS)

Whether you’re packing for your next trip or still trying to carve out a free weekend, the logistics behind trip planning can be overwhelming. That’s why checklists are such wonderful tools. Pilots follow them before taking off and landing planes. Scuba divers and firefighters use them to maintain safety gear. And you should use a checklist to prepare for your next hike.

To get you started, here’s a countdown for a typical weekend backpacking trip. This first part takes you from picking a trail to testing new gear while highlighting the most common mistakes hikers make at each stage.

T-minus: Four weeks
If you don’t have a destination in mind, this is when you should pick one. Find new trails by inquiring at an outdoor store, tracking where local outing clubs go, or scanning a road map for nearby parks and recreation areas. You can also search your virtual backyard using the interactive destinations map at Backpacker.com. Plus, Backpacker’s New Tools/New Rules trip-planning feature offers high-tech advice and resources for locating exciting places.

At this date, you don’t need to pick specific trails or campsites. Those details are likely to change over the next month, and fixating on a route too early could obscure better alternatives. Also, this four-week timeframe is adequate for hiking at state parks and forests, USFS and BLM land, and most national parks. However, getting access to primo backcountry destinations like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon requires registering six months or more ahead of time.

Four-week pitfall: Pretrip conditioning
Training for a solo trip is easy. But let’s say you’re organizing a backpacking trip with six good friends, three of whom live out of state. If one of those friends isn’t physically fit, he could ruin the trip for everyone. To ensure all six arrive at the trailhead prepared to hike, divide your friends into three sets of equally matched training partners and require them to update each other about their fitness regime on a weekly basis. The partner system works because it’s harder to lie to a single person than it is to a large group.

T-minus: Three weeks
Once you pick a place, call the local park headquarters or ranger station to ask about permits, parking fees, or hiking restrictions. If permits are required, ask how much they cost and when and where to pick them up. You should also inquire about ground-fire restrictions, dog rules, bear sightings, trail closures, water access, and the best campsites. Guidebooks and websites are good places to begin a search, but always confirm details by calling the office or agency responsible for the place you plan to hike.

Three-week pitfall: Seasonal water access
Water access in the East and South is consistent across all seasons. But in the West and at higher elevations, a rushing creek in March could be dry as dirt by August, or vice versa. Variations in snowmelt make seasonal flows even more unpredictable. Consult guidebooks and online trip reports to identify probable water sources—but don’t stop there. Just because another hiker filled his bottles from a creek in April doesn’t mean you can do the same in September. Call local park headquarters or ranger stations to get the latest updates on water availability.

T-minus: Two weeks
Unpack and test any new, borrowed, or unused gear. This is especially important for complicated essentials like stoves, water filters, lights, cook sets, and tents. Why two weeks out? First, you’ll be busy with menu planning, mapping, and other logistics during the final week before you leave. Second, adding an extra week will save you money on shipping charges if you need to order new stuff online. No one likes to pay for express shipping.

Two-week pitfall: New footwear
As you practice pitching your new tent, look at your feet. Are you wearing those sleek, orange nubuck trail shoes you recently bought? If not, put them on. Breaking in new footwear requires at least two weeks of regular wear. Bigger, stiffer boots require even more time to keep blisters at bay. If orange shoes don’t pass the office dress code, lace up your new hiking kicks around the house, during trips to the grocery store, doing errands—and of course—on training hikes.

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