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Beginner Skills

Countdown to a Successful Hike

Stop trailhead snafus with this pretrip checklist.

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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 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.

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’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’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.

T-minus: 24 hours

Tonight is when you pack your gear. Of course, by this point you’ve already assembled, tested, and organized your stuff—so there shouldn’t be any surprises. You should also check the weather one last time. Go to the NOAA website to find “Detailed Point Forecasts” for your backcountry destination.Fill your water bottles and hydration bladders the night before, but don’t pack them yet. A squished and leaky bladder can ruin your hike before it starts. And remember to pack an extra bottle for the car ride to the trailhead.

This night is also when you should inform a trusted friend or family member about your trip. Email or tell them your destination, planned route, car info, cell phone number and service provider, and expected return time. To be extra safe, schedule a time when you’ll call in after you leave the trail.

24-hours pitfall: Packing all your gear

Making your backpack trail-ready at home isn’t smart or efficient. Chances are you’re going to need to unpack something stuffed at the bottom of your pack when you reach the trailhead—upsetting your immaculate system. While still at home, fill your backpack with the big stuff—tent, sleeping bag and pad, first-aid kit—but bring the smaller stuff like food and clothing in separate duffel bags or plastic tubs. Finish packing the rest of your gear just before you start hiking—but check beforehand to make sure it all fits.

Have you ever packed a tent but forgot the poles? Share your mishap (or surefire way to remember essentials) by commenting below or sending an email to

—Jason Stevenson

Jason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking