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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)

T-minus: One week
Now is the time to finalize your route. Selecting a trail (or trails) lets you calculate daily mileage, pick campsites, and locate water sources. Once those details are lined up, you can start printing maps and/or downloading waypoints to a GPS device.

Gathering maps isn’t a task to leave for the night before. Obscure routes might require specialty maps like USGS quads that need to be ordered weeks ahead of time. For tips on acquiring unusual maps, check out Backpacker’s Get Maps and Go article from the New Tools/New Rules package. For more common routes, however, maps and waypoints are often available online—like at Backpacker.com’s destinations homepage.

Other reliable map sources include guidebooks, park and USFS websites, and local hiking groups. Print or photocopy maps in color when possible, and choose topographical maps (i.e., with contour lines that show elevation changes) over simple drawings. If you find narrative descriptions of the route, print them too. This week is also when you should call the local ranger station or park office to make sure the route info is still accurate, and that no developments (like a recent forest fire) might imperil your trip.

One-week pitfall: Scheduling too many miles
Your Friday night plan to hike five miles from the parking lot to your first campsite seems feasible on paper, but it’s asking for trouble on the trail. Not only will you be hiking in the dark, but you’ll be pitching your tent and cooking via headlamp, too. To prevent nocturnal death marches, reduce the mileage for your entry and exit days, and when topographical maps indicate significant elevation change. Of course, starting with a night hike might be your only option to access some routes. In that case, be prepared with headlamps, a detailed map, and a no-fuss dinner once you arrive.

T-minus: Three days
It’s grub time. If you’re planning a weekend hike, start thinking about food the Tuesday or Wednesday before you leave. Since most of us lack time for regular grocery shopping, here’s how to boost your pre-hike shopping efficiency:

  1. Plan a menu first. For new meal ideas, scan Backpacker.com’s Recipe Center
  2. Check your cupboards so you only buy what you need
  3. Stock up on essentials (i.e., gorp, energy bars, bagels) beforehand
  4. Shop at a store with a familiar layout.

For more food tips, read Backpacker’s Guide to the Grocery Store.

Besides helping you create tasty meals, shopping mid-week gives you extra time to re-package food to save weight and time. For a just-add-water breakfast, mix instant pancake batter, blueberries, raisins, or chocolate chips inside a zip-top bag.

If you can’t grocery shop ahead of time, a highway rest stop or convenience store might become your pre-hike supply depot. If that’s the case (and we know it happens), Backpacker’s got tips on how to fuel your stomach at a gas station.

Three-day pitfall: Check your perishables
This tip comes from reader Roger Pool. Roger writes: “I headed out on a spontaneous overnight and found that all my firestarting items, except for one nearly empty lighter, were no good. My ‘emergency matches’ had disintegrated, either from humidity or rattling around. Two lighters were empty, and my ‘lighter blow torch’ didn’t have a lighter in it at all. I had just enough lighter fuel to start my stove for one evening meal; no hot breakfast; and no cushion for an emergency.”

Even though Roger carried four lighters on his trip, only one of them worked. Packing essential gear like lighters, matches, headlamps, and bandages isn’t enough—you need to double-check that they function and can last the duration of your trip. Here’s Roger’s recommendation on how to avoid similar mishaps:

"I suggest making a list of such ‘perishables’ for all your stuff, and then doing a ‘real, hands on, make-it-work’ check at least this often: 1) at the beginning of your outdoor season, 2) before any trip longer than two nights, and 3) anytime there might be below-freezing temperatures.

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