The best trips begin long before you leave home. Learn all you can about a destination, and you're likely to discover can't-miss sights while avoiding unpleasant surprises, such as a closed trail or a dried-up water source. Start by getting an overview of your intended route from a variety of sources: magazines, guidebooks, topo maps, the Web, friends, local outdoors clubs, guide services, and gear stores. Then call park officials for the most up-to-date information on the following topics.
Regulations Get the lowdown on permits, fees, and restrictions. Popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon require permit reservations months in advance.
Climate Research average rain and snowfall, expected temperatures, wet and dry seasons, the possibility of thunderstorms or flash floods, and bugs.
Crowds Seeking solitude? Ask a ranger about less-traveled routes or pick a remote trailhead. Avoid popular trails and sought-after summits like 14,000-footers in the West and 4,000-footers in the Northeast. Plan to hit the trail when most people don't: early and late in the day, midweek, and off-season.
Difficulty Weigh daily and total mileage, elevation gain and loss, and navigational demands against the endurance, speed, and experience level of both you and your hiking partner. Keep environmental factors such as altitude, heat, and humidity in mind, too. A general guideline for new backpackers is 5 to 7 miles a day, less if there's 1,500 feet or more of elevation gain.
Trail conditions Get the latest beta on your chosen route: the possibility of snow at high passes or on slopes; water levels at stream or river crossings; wildlife issues (bears, rodents, mosquitoes); damage from recent storms such as downed bridges or excess mud. Also ask about potentially confusing signage, water sources, recommended campsites, road conditions to the trailhead, and trailhead parking as well as information on swimming holes, wildflowers, and other trail attractions.