How to Plan a Big Backpacking Trip

Want to check an epic hike off your life list? Start ticking off these boxes and make it happen.
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Want to check an epic hike off your life list? Start ticking off these boxes and make it happen.

Set your goals. 
The best way to ensure you get out for a big trip? Plan it yourself. Start by deciding what kind of trip you want. Is this a leisurely escape, with lots of lakeside naptime, or a hard-charging quest to maximize miles? Look for routes that fit your criteria, rather than zeroing in on the highest rated hikes.

Choose a location.
Determine how far you can travel and how long you
can be away. Search trail sites, of course, but also try googling images for destination + season. You’ll get inspiration with a dose of reality. (Yes, Sierra passes can still be snow-covered in July.)

Scout a route.
Look at trip reports, online maps, aerial photos, and elevation profiles. Are there any seasonal hazards, like river crossings or snowy passes? Identify prime campsites, tricky trail junctions, resupply points if necessary, and bailout options for emergencies. Add key points to your paper map and/or GPS.

Secure permits.
Some hard-to-score permits require early application. Research the rules for your trip so there are no last-minute surprises. Tip: Some parks have built-in loopholes, like starting at an alternate trailhead, that make it possible to do your desired hike even if you don’t get your desired permit.    

Invite friends.
Don’t count on signing people up at the last minute. That might work
for weekends, but not for the big trip you’re planning. Aim for at least three months’ notice for a weeklong trip, and provide a detailed description of your plan (difficulty, distances, weather concerns, etc.).    

Arrange a shuttle.
Unless you’re doing a loop, most big trips require a shuttle. Options: Bribe a friend, hire a commercial shuttle, or bring two cars. For the DIY option, leave the larger car at the end point, and stock it with water (and snacks if bears are not a special concern). For long DIY shuttles with big groups, consider splitting into two parties and exchanging keys when you cross paths midway.   

Do a gear shakedown.
Does your route require special equipment, like an ice axe and crampons? Do your boots need breaking in? Does your shell need a DWR treatment? Make sure your gear—and others’—is dialed well before your trip. Let companions know what personal gear they’ll need and what group gear (tent, cookware, water filter, first aid) you’ll be sharing to save weight.

Plan a menu.
Check in with others on dietary needs, tastes, and appetite (the only thing worse than too much food is too little). Have each hiker pack personal snacks, and split the group food into bags to divide the weight.

Buy non-perishable ingredients.
Order dehydrated foods well in advance so you can get the best deal on bulk meals.       

Shop for perishable groceries.
Cheese, tortillas, meat, and fresh produce on the menu? Get this stuff right before the trip.  
Check everything—again.
Just before departure, make sure you have it all: maps, permits, gear, food. Use a list and cross it off.