When you are planning for a multi-day backcountry hiking trip, you need to make a few considerations before stepping onto the trail. You might want to jump straight to what gear you want to bring, but that there are other steps you should think through.
1. Choose Trails For Your Experience Level
Not everyone can make the PCT their first ever backcountry hike and successfully complete it. It takes time to find the right gear, get comfortable in the backcountry, know what you’re doing out there, and build your strength. Confidence is key in the backcountry. Get a few weekend hikes under your belt before you set out on a multi-day trip where you will have limited access to civilization. It is great to challenge yourself, but start slow and give yourself enough time to build up your “trail legs”. Pushing too hard, too fast can lead to injury. The goal is to have the best experience on trail and complete the distance you set for yourself.
2. Consider the Season and Elevation Where You’ll Be Hiking
In the winter months, you may find it hard to be stuck at home and not be hiking the trail. You might think about getting outdoors to get some camping days in. Be mindful of where the trail is and if it passes through mountainous areas. There are many trails, such as the PCT, that start out in the desert but increase in elevation as you go along. Because of the location and elevation of some long distance trails, you cannot start them in colder seasons. Do your trail research during your planning phase and choose trails that are safe for the time of year you are traveling.
3. Schedule Enough Time
Set realistic goals for yourself with the time you have available. When planning a multi-day backcountry trip, you need to not only factor in your days on trail, but any days you need to get to the trail and get home. Unless you have quit your job to hike or are retired, you have a finite number of vacation days to work around. Travel days can cut into your trail days. You may need to rethink which trail you choose, or how far you hike, based on your timeline. This may also impact how many zero or nero days you take on trail and how many miles you need to hike per day.
4. Set Your Budget
When planning for your hike, take a good look at your budget. A budget can be blown before you even set foot on the trail. Gear upgrades can be costly and when you’re dreaming of getting back on trail, you could be tempted to buy new gear. Calculate your meals and planned zero days. Factor in unexpected hotel stays due to weather or injury and other incidentals such as laundry. Don’t forget that there are still bills to pay when you’re away so the more you can save before your travel, the better. Backcountry camping doesn’t mean no costs. You still have shuttles and permits to consider and each expense adds up.
5. Review Your Equipment
Depending on where you choose to hike, you will want to check if you have the correct gear. If you are hiking where bear canisters are required for food storage, you will need to purchase a BearVault. If you are hiking in the winter, you will need to look at the rating of your sleep system and might need micro spikes or an ice axe. Since you are planning to hike over several days, weigh your pack and understand how much you are looking at carrying. A heavy pack might not be a big deal for a short hike. Carrying it for over a week, you may regret some decisions. If making new gear purchases, look for sales, find second hand gear, and confirm what you really need to bring with you. You don’t want to purchase something only to discover you are packing the extra weight for nothing.
6. Determine the Distance
By knowing where you are going, how fast you hike, the time you have on trail, and your budget, you can now understand how far you can go on trail. Now you need to take a good look at the map. Examine the elevation gains to estimate how difficult those miles will be. Note where campsites are located and if stealth camping is permitted. Also look for exit points in case you are falling behind or need to exit to get to a resupply.
A good look at the map also helps you to figure out where you might need to catch a ride either by hitchhiking or by getting a shuttle. Consult with online hiking groups for the trail such as on Facebook or through Apps. They will identify water sources and other trail information which will help you make additional estimates about where you might want to stop on the trail each night.
7. What Permits or Reservations are Required?
Some trails will require you to book permits to access the trail or make reservations for campsites. When planning for your hike, you need to factor in enough time to make the reservations you need for your hike. The Great Divide Trail requires reservations for backcountry sites in several sections. It is often challenging to get a couple of vital campsites which requires additional research for alternate routes and mile adjustment. Other trails require permits with specific start dates. This will change when you can get on the trail which could impact your vacation schedule with your employer.
8. Are You Hiking Solo or With Others?
While it is easier to only plan for yourself, sometimes it is more fun to hike with a friend. In this case, you need to bring your hiking partner into the planning process. Consider the experience of your hiking partner. Do they hike faster or slower than you? How much time do they have to hike? When looking at gear, will you share a tent or will you each bring your own? With two tents, you will need two reservations if they are required and you need to find a place to camp with enough space for both tents. Take into consideration what sights they want to see. You may end up taking a short side trip to a waterfall or a viewpoint to satisfy your partner’s curiosity.
9. Identify Your Logistical Requirements
While this was briefly mentioned before, you need to take a look at how you are getting on and off the trail. Many of the larger trail systems have Trail Angels. These are incredible volunteers who offer anything from shuttle services to accommodations and water stashes. You can find them on Trail Association websites or on Facebook. When you have your schedule figured out, you can begin to hunt around for Trail Angels to see if one is available. If not, you can use shuttles or taxis to get to the trail. Identify locations where you can either purchase a resupply of food or mail a box from home. Knowing the distance between resupply points will help you to determine how many days of food you will need to carry.
10. Prepare Physically and Mentally
During the months and weeks before your hike, get ready. Don’t wait until your feet hit the trail to get exercise. Being on trail for multiple days in a row is exhausting both physically and mentally. The wind battering your tent at night will leave you with little sleep. Tiredness can lead to injuries and poor decisions. There will be challenges on the trail, so give yourself a head start by going to the gym, walks… move. Do something to get your body ready for the stress you will be putting it under so it is one less thing for you to adjust to on the trail.
Planning for a backcountry trip should be a fun process. It is during this time that you can set goals, dream big, and get excited about the journey ahead. Yes, there are important considerations to make sure your trip goes smoothly, but ultimately, make sure you leave room for flexibility on trail. You never know what unexpected and exciting opportunities might arise.