Expert Advice: How Do I Set Better Hiking Goals?

In hiking, as in life, clear goals are key to success. Here's how to set better hiking goals so you can complete the backpacking trips of your dreams.

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Q: Every year I say I want to get out on the trail more, and every year, the summer flies by and I realize I’ve barely unpacked my tent. How can I make sure I really hit the trail as often as I’d like to?
–Slacker Backpacker, Raleigh, NC

A: Hey Slacker, don’t be so hard on yourself. It sounds like you’re suffering from a very common problem: Your goals aren’t SMART enough. And no, we’re not saying that wanting to hike more is dumb, but it’s not Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound—you know, SMART.

“Goal setting is a process,” explains James Fisher, a certified personal trainer who specializes in helping hikers. “It involves assessing your current status; creating a specific, measurable, realistic and challenging goal for your future; and detailing the actions to be taken to achieve that goal.” So if you really want to hit the trail more, you need to think harder about what that really means, how it compares to your current status, and what you’ll do to accomplish it.

Set Better Hiking Goals

Let’s break it down the SMART way, so this year, you can set better hiking goals for yourself.


“Get out on the trail more” is a pretty vague ambition. What are you really hoping to do? Hike 200 miles this year? Spend at least 20 nights in the backcountry between May 1 and November 1? Hike at least 4 hours at least two days per month?


A good goal is quantifiable. You’ll notice all the specific examples above are also measurable. You either hiked 200 miles this year or you didn’t.


Your goal should feel like a stretch, but it shouldn’t make you want to roll your eyes, throw up your hands, and give up. When you think about it, do you feel a little excited and a little nervous? Can you realistically foresee yourself achieving it, even though it may be a stretch? That’s probably a good sign.


Be careful that your goal will actually get you what you really want even if you achieve it. If what you really want is more time sleeping under the stars, then a mileage goal isn’t going to be very meaningful to you in the end.


“The goal should always have a specific date of completion,” says Fisher. “The date should be realistic, but not too distant in the future.”

Develop an Action Plan

Now that you’ve figured out a SMART goal, it’s time to make a plan to achieve it. Ask yourself:

  • What is the current status of my goal?
  • What do I need to accomplish on a daily basis to reach my goal? Weekly? Monthly?
  • What resources do I need to accomplish my goal (money, time, equipment, people)? Who can help?
  • What are some of the possible difficulties I may have to overcome to reach my objective?
  • How will I know I’m on track?

For backpacking trips in particular, we recommend pulling out your calendar and setting aside time for your trips as far in advance as possible. You don’t need all the details worked out right away, but by protecting certain dates from other commitments, you’ll make sure you can find the time when it comes.

Do you have any tricks for setting better hiking goals, or success stories to share? Let us know in the comments section.

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