A sucessful hike often starts with a bit of research. And the first bit of research should be a phone call to the rangers at your destination to check on trail conditions, permits and closures.
After you call the land manager for information, log on to our message boards at www.forums.backpacker.com to get the latest scoop from hikers recently in the area.
Identify and plan for possible barriers to success. Are you physically ready for the terrain and length of the trip? Can the slowest person in your group maintain the pace? Do you have the skills and gear to handle the worst weather you could encounter? If you answer no to any question, modify your goals.
Think one day at a time. Instead of picking a site as a goal and then calculating the miles you'll have to hike per day, turn the process around. Estimate what you can accomplish each day under given conditions. By breaking your trip into daily chunks, you won't be tempted to make sweeping generalizations that overlook important factors like elevation gain and trail conditions.
Technique to try: Let's say you want to determine how long it'll take to hike from Klondike Notch to the top of Yard Mountain in New York's Adirondack Park. Here's how:
Step 1: Figure the trail distance by tracing it with a length of string (shown in pink, at right), then lay the string next to the map scale. In this case it's 1.25 miles. The average hiker's pace is 2 mph on rolling, groomed trail, which means it would take 30 to 40 minutes to hike this section. But since it's not flat from Klondike Notch to Yard Mountain, you need to figure in elevation.
Step 2: Count the number of contour lines that send you uphill and downhill to determine elevation gain and loss. On the map there are 7 descending contour lines. Each contour interval is 10 meters, so the descent is 70 meters. Translated into feet, 70 meters equals about 230 feet (1 meter equals 3.281 feet, so 70 3 3.281 = 229.6). Use the same calculations for the ascending contour lines (31 lines uphill = 1,017 feet).
Step 3: Calculate your hiking time. Every 1,000 feet of vertical gain adds 1 hour to your hiking time, so trekking 1,017 feet up Yard Mountain means adding 1 hour. The hike will take at least 1 1/2 hours. Don't assume that descents are faster, since rock ledges or other obstacles may slow you down.
Step 4: Allow extra time if you plan to take photos or like to stop to look at flowers, or if trail conditions are tough.
Be flexible. Surprises will happen, but if you've done your homework, you can improvise the rest. And realizing you can't cover all the bases will keep you from getting frustrated when things don't go as planned.
Keep a log to record weather and trail conditions, pace, time spent eating and setting up/breaking camp, enjoying the view, plus other information that'll help you plan future trips.
Return to the Backpacking 101 home page.