I’ve spent hours researching everything that goes into planning a successful hike – steps that you should take to ensure that you will be safe and prepared, so that you can just get out to the trail and enjoy your passion. To write this article, I’ve taken a look back at my own trips and analyzed what I did right and did wrong, spoke with other hikers, and viewed the many resources online to provide as complete and comprehensive a guide as possible to plan the perfect hiking trip.
I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to hiking; but if you want to make sure that you are as prepared as possible when you hit the trail, I hope this helps.
So, what are the main steps you should take to prepare for a hike? They include:
- Honest Self-Evaluation
- Finding The Right Trail
- Sorting Out Logistics
- Get To Know The Trail
- Gear Check
- Final Check
Preparing For Your Hiking Trip
The very first thing you should do when preparing for a hiking trip is to evaluate where your state of being as a hiker – physically and mentally. You will need to take an honest look at what kind of hike you can handle. Hiking is wonderful and rewarding, but it can also be very difficult and discouraging if you are not properly prepared and honest about your goals.
What Is Your Physical State of Being?
The first evaluation you should make is your physical state of being – and be honest about it. Are you physically capable of a strenuous hike that might require 20 miles a day? Can you take on a hike that requires 10,000 feet of elevation gain over 3 days?
The best way to make this evaluation is to consider your past hiking experience and general fitness. If you are unsure about your physical capabilities – take a hike! Literally! Put some weight in your pack and find a local trail that will give you an idea of your physical capabilities. Do this a couple of times and you will have a good idea of what kind of hike you can handle.
How Are You Feeling Mentally?
You should also consider your mental state of being before deciding on a hike. Are you excited about the prospect of a longer, more difficult hike? Does the thought of being out in the back country for several days intimidate you? Are you going to embrace the challenge of physical and mental hardship?
All these considerations will play a role in determining what your hiking trip should be. You may be a strong hiker with hundreds of miles under your belt, but you may want an easier, less-strenuous hike this time round. That’s completely fine, and should be part of the consideration.
How Long Will Your Hike Be?
Once you have decided what kind of trail you are willing and able to take on, your next consideration should be what length of hike do you want. Your options include:
- Simple, overnight trip (Likely no more than 20 miles)
- Multi-Day trip (could be up to 100 miles or more)
- Shorter thru-hike or sectional hike (could be up to 500 miles or more)
- Longer thru-hike (The great thru-hikes can go for more than 2,000 miles)
NOTE: I am going to skip considerations and planning for a longer thru-hike. These trips are special and unique in many ways, and since I am not a long-distance thru-hiker, I should leave it to the more experienced.
How long your hike would last depends in part on how fast you can hike. An average pace on a flat trail is about 2 miles per hour, and you should add about a half an hour for each 1000 feet of elevation gain. So, a 40 mile hike with 8,000 feet of elevation gain should take about 24 hours, without breaks.
The types of hikes that I enjoy are multi-day trips where I can hike for up to 20 miles per day and stay 3 to 4 days out in the back country. My family and work commitments usually prevent me from being out on the trail more than a week at a time. Indeed, your own life circumstances might play a role in choosing and planning your hiking trip.
Where Do You Want To Hike?
After you have decided how long you want to be out on the trail, and what you are capable of, you should consider location. I feel blessed to live in the Pacific Northwest. I am close to beautiful mountain ranges, lush forests, open prairies, exotic rain forests, and even ocean shores.
Hopefully you have the option of choosing from different locales and environments. We probably consider hiking in the mountains as the default hiking option, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hiking in other habitats. Indeed, by favorite hiking spot is along the Washington Coast.
Finding The Right Trail
Now that you have a good idea of how long you want to hike, where you want to hike, and what you are capable of doing, you can start searching for the right trail.
Create A List Of Possible Trails
I always use the AllTrails app to start my search. This is a great tool to sort and filter hiking trails according to what you want from your hike. Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how I do it:
First, sort by the trail characteristics you want. This includes length of the trail, elevation gain, and overall difficulty.
I then switch to the map view – this gives you a view of the trails within the area you are willing to travel to that meet your criteria.
I will then usually go back and sort by other factors that you might want to consider, such as trail type (loop, out and back, or point to point), and what activities the trail allows (I usually try to steer clear of trails that allow bikes or off-road vehicles).
Consider The Trailhead
At this point, you should also consider the trailhead, or where the trail meets the road, so to speak. Is it close to a good road, like a highway? Does it require a longer drive over rough dirt roads? These may be considerations that you need to consider. More remote trailheads take you farther from civilization, which may or may not be a good thing.
Reviews From Other Hikers
This is where you can use trip reports on AllTrails or other hiking/trail websites to find out what your fellow hikers think of the trail. Here in Washington State, I use the Washington Trail Association’s website to find great descriptions of trails in Washington.
Many states have trail associations that provide reviews of trails in the state, and you can always Google a trail that you are interested in hiking to find what your fellow hikers have had to say.
I have always found recent reviews (within the previous month) or reviews from the same time of year (late summer, early spring, etc.) to be most relevant to evaluating a trail. For example, I recently hiked in the Cascade mountains of Washington and found a trail review from the previous week to be most helpful – it warned of snow throughout the trail and certain sections where GPS was necessary to stay on the trail.
Trip reports and reports on the National Parks and Forest Service websites should help you not only find the trail that meets your requirements, but also may provide special information about dangerous trail conditions that remove it from your list. Some potential hazards to consider:
- Exposure to cliffs and steep ravines
- Cold and Wet Conditions
- Moving Water, such as river crossings
- Altitude, especially over 8,000 feet
- Animals, including bears, mountain lions, and mosquitos
None of these factors necessarily should disqualify a trail from your search, but should certainly inform your decision.
Make A Decision!
Taking all these considerations into play, you should have a group of at least 4 to 5 hikes to choose from that meet your criteria. Now you get to choose the one that works best for you. It should be just about the length and difficult that you want, in the sort of habitat you prefer, and have good reviews from fellow hikers.
It may just be that one particular hike is calling to you above the rest – or you might have to flip a coin. But so long as you’ve put some work into getting to this point, you shouldn’t be disappointed with the final decision!
Sorting Out Logistics
You have evaluated yourself and determined exactly the type of hike you which to challenge. You have done your research and found the hike that will meet all of your requirements. You have made your decision about where to go. Now it’s time to get yourself ready to go. This starts with Trail Logistics.
Permits And Passes
It is always important to find out whether you need to obtain a pass or permit for a certain hike.
Funding for public lands has dwindled in recent decades, and passes help employ backcountry rangers and trail crews who empty garbage at trailheads and campsites, build bridges, clear trails, and improve signs either vandalized or worn illegible by time.
Passes allow you entry to national parks, US Forest Service lands, and also state lands. Recreation.gov is a great resource to find what specific passes and permits are required for many trails.
An Annual Pass for US National Parks and US Forest Service Lands is $80, and $20 for Seniors – Purchase HERE (USGS Website)
Permits are a way of regulating the amount of foot traffic in order to protect the environment. By limiting the number of visitors to an area, permits therefore help enhance the experience of hikers. You can enjoy and appreciate the sights and sounds of nature—without being overrun with crowds.
Some permits are free, while others come with small fees. Some are seasonal, and others are required year-round. Permits are often self-issued at trailheads.
If you are planning on to park or camp on national or public land, there is a good chance that will need to purchase a pass or permit. How do you know? Some places that provide information include:
- Alltrails.com (see user reviews)
- Trail Association websites
- National Park websites
- US Forest Service websites
- State Park websites
So get your permit and/or pass! You’ll be helping to conserve and sustain our trails – which will make your enjoyment all the greater.
In some national parks and forest service lands, bear canisters are required during certain times of the year. You should always contact ranger stations to find out whether they are required for your hike; they are usually free to rent from a ranger station.
Here is where they type of hike you’ve chosen can be important. If you have chosen a loop hike – which starts and ends at the same trailhead – or an out-and-back trail – where the trail ends at a certain point and then returns along the same exact trail – travel should be pretty straightforward – you’ll travel to the trailhead, park there, and your car will be waiting for you when you finish.
However, if you embark on a point-to-point hike, or a section or thru-hike, you will need to arrange for travel, because your starting point will not be your end point.
This is where trail reports from other hikers can come in handy by reading how they arranged for travel. Did they have a group and leave a car at the end, and then all travel together to the start? Did they use a shuttle service? Uber?
If you are going on a thru-hike that will require you to resupply on food and other supplies, here is where you will decide on those checkpoints – where you can leave the trail and travel to a nearby town to resupply.
You may choose to hitchhike or have someone meet you as you leave the trail. Most well-known thru-hikes have well-established waypoints, so you should be able to plan your exits from the trail quite easily.
Get To Know The Trail
Now that you have figured out trail logistics and your travel to and from the trailhead, it is time to get to know your trail and what highlights and possible obstacles you will face.
You have already scouted out potential hazards, but continuing to study your route and what to expect with the weather provides piece of mind, as well as contributes to a more comfortable hike. As noted above, I love to use the All Trails app as well as the Washington Trails Association trip reports to prepare for each of my trips.
I always feel better knowing exactly where I will camp each night, how long each day will be, and how much elevation gain I can expect. Careful study of trip reports will give you a good plan for the best campsites, where to find good water, and and what strenuous areas of the hike I can expect.
As you can imagine, knowing places to get more water is vital. Finding a detailed map of the trail will show you water crossings or springs.
Hikers are also great about describing the highlights of the trail. They might often recommend taking small detours to a remote lake or beautiful viewpoint. If you can, take the advice of your fellow hikers and make time for these recommendations.
National parks and forest service websites also often offer good insight into your trail – they can tell you of obstacles or provide information about trail junctions and other details.
A study of weather reports is essential as well – if there is rain or snow forecast, or higher temperatures, your decisions about your gear will be impacted.
As you prepare for your hike, you should:
- Download a map of the hike from AllTrails onto your phone
- Know exactly where you will camp each night
- Study the weather report and pack accordingly
- Obtain a physical map of the trail (better detail than AllTrails map)
Prepare Your Gear
By now, you should know your trail like the back of your hand. You should know how long you are going to hike, where you are going to camp, where to get water, and what the weather will be like. You don’t have to worry about transportation – you’ve got your plan in place to get everywhere you want to go.
Now you can concentrate on your gear. Knowing your terrain, how long you will be hiking, what the weather will be like, and what the water situation is will inform your decisions about the gear you’ll need to bring.
Big Three (Shelter, Sleep System, Backpack)
The trail you choose will have an impact on the type of gear you should take on your hike. Some of your most important gear is your Big Three – Shelter, your Sleep System, and Backpack.
Your shelter may depend on several factors, including weather, terrain, and overall length of your trip. For example, if you are planning on a short, overnight trip with good weather, you might just bring a tarp and ground cover. This would minimize the amount of weight you need to carry. On the other hand, if you anticipate poor weather, you may choose a tent or a tarp with a hammock.
However, if you anticipate a trail with little in the way of trees, such as a desert hike, you won’t want to bring a hammock. Or if your hike does not have much in the way of established campsites, a hammock – which can be strung up anywhere there are trees – might be your best bet.
And, if you are planning on a longer hike that could last anywhere from 3 to 15 days or longer, you will probably be very concerned with the weight of your shelter. In this case, you may consider an ultralight tent that will significantly reduce your base weight. Ultimately, this decision will come down to your preferences and desire for comfort.
Your sleep system – which includes a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, or underquilt (if you choose to sleep in a hammock) will depend on temperature and how much weight you want to carry.
If you are hiking in the summer, you will probably want a sleeping bag with a temp rating of 40 degrees. A good rule of thumb is to take the temp rating and increase it by 10 degrees to ensure you have a comfortable night sleep. So, if you expect low temperatures in the 50s during a hike, a 40 degree-rated sleeping bag should do the trick.
The same rule would obviously apply in the winter, but you might want to err on the warm side and choose a sleeping bag with a temp rating closer to zero, if you can find it.
When choosing a sleeping pad – you will want to check for it’s R-value, or insulation rating. R-values of 2 to 3 are usually good for most 3-season (spring, summer, fall) hiking trips, while an R-value of over 4 is usually sufficient for most winter hiking trips.
Finally, if you choose to use a hammock, I would recommend using an underquilt – even during the summer. You will have no insulation under you when you sleep in a hammock, and even in relatively warm seasons, when temperatures dip into the 50s at night, you will get cold underneath you. A good underquilt will offer you appreciated warmth in any season.
With regards to your backpack, your choice of pack may depend on the length of your trip, or just your preferences for comfort and ease. A longer multi-day trip, where you do not plan to resupply, will require extra room for more food and clothing. As such, a simple day pack that holds 30L or less is probably going to be inadequate for your trip.
If this is the case, you will have to bring a larger (and heavier) pack to make sure you have room for all that you need.
However, if you choose to sacrifice some creature comforts and perhaps cut down on a cooking stove and only eat bars or cold-soaked food, or only bring an extra day’s worth of clothing, you may be able to hike with a lighter, smaller pack.
If you are planning a thru-hike, a smaller pack might actually be possible, as you will likely only need to pack food and clothing for 3 or 4 days at a time.
Food And Water
Food and water are gear items that you don’t sacrifice or skimp on. Generally speaking, you will want to carry about 2lbs of food, or around 3000 to 4500 calories, for each day that you hike. If you are good at finding foods that are more calorie-dense, you can cut down on this amount.
Another good rule of thumb is to pack an extra day’s worth of food, in case you are delayed by weather, injury, or losing your way. You may consider packing items that don’t require cooking, such as protein and energy bars, or dehydrated and instant options.
In my Gear Loadout 101 post, I share some meal ideas. Again, if you can find foods that pack the most calories in the smallest space, you’ll save yourself weight and packing space. Some foods that are extremely calorie-dense include:
|Protein Bars||Approx 100|
You should always have the means to carry enough water to keep you hydrated. This includes a means of treating water, regardless of the length of your trip. You can carry a filter, purification tablets, or a stove for melting snow. Most people need about a half liter per hour during moderate activity in moderate temperatures.
My go-to water system includes a filter and two or three Smart Water bottles. The filter I use is the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System (Amazon Link). You can screw this onto the top of a Smart Water bottle and it instantly becomes a 1L water bottle. The Sawyer Squeeze has a good flow rate, meaning the water filters quickly and doesn’t just drip out of the filter.
Weather conditions can change quickly; having some level of protection against extreme weather is vital. For example, even during a summer trip, you should consider a lightweight down jacket and a rain coat. This will protect you against a rogue rainstorm or extremely cold nights that can occur.
One rule that must not be forgotten: NO COTTON! Cotton gets heavier when wet, takes longer to dry, and does not provide any warmth when wet. Aside from the discomfort of wearing wet clothing, wearing cotton puts you at risk of hypothermia and serious danger if you encounter cold temperatures. So skip the cotton.
If you plan a short, overnight trip, you may only have to pack a warmer coat or raincoat, and just wear the clothes on your back the entire trip. For a multi-day hike, you should consider the following:
- Warm Jacket – Puffy jackets can be very lightweight but provide warmth – day or night. Colombia’s Voodoo Falls 590 Jacket is a good option. (Amazon Link)
- Baselayer Top and Bottom – I like to wear synthetic, moisture-wicking baselayer when I go to sleep and early in the morning.
- Long-sleeve shirt – One that can wick moisture, let you roll up your sleeves, and help repel sun is a good option. The Columbia Silver Ridge shirt is a great option (Amazon Link).
- Convertible Hiking Pants – I love convertible pants – sometimes you want to wear shorts, sometimes you need pants. The Columbia Silver Ridge pants do the trick. (Amazon Link)
- Buff Neck Gaiter – A must-have for any hike. Works as a gaiter, a hat, and more. (Amazon Link)
- Merino Wool Socks – You can get low-cut socks to keep you cool in the summer and warm at night. (Amazon Link)
- Beanie – I love to wear a beanie at night to keep my bald head warm at night.
- Hiking Boots/Shoes – I’ve offered my recommendations for hiking boots and shoes HERE.
Many trips will not require that you have a fire, but, in case of an emergency, you need to be able to start and maintain a fire. The simple solution is a simple butane lighter, but waterproof matches stored in a waterproof container can do the trick as well.
You should also carry a firestarter, which is excellent in wet conditions. The ideal firestarter ignites quickly and sustains heat for more than a few seconds. Options include cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, and even lint trappings from a household clothes dryer.
Be sure to know how to use the items in a first-aid kit. You can purchase small hiking first aid kits (Amazon Link) that make putting together any treatment relatively simple, but over time you will need to replace items with your own.
All kits should include treatment for blisters, bandages of various sizes, gauze pads, tape, over-the-counter pain medication, and a pen and paper.
Knives are great for a number of reasons, including to repair gear, assist with first aid, or prepare food. While a basic knife is a handy tool, a Swiss-Army knife or multi-tool are still very small and lightweight and offer more options to help in different scenarios.
You should always, even in the winter, have protection from the sun available to you during your hikes. Suffering sunburn or eye injuries from the sun isn’t just annoying – it can be dangerous. You should use three tools to protect yourself from the sun:
- Sunglasses: Make sure to bring sunglasses that block 100 percent of ultraviolet light. If you are hiking in the winter, bring glacier glasses, which provide extra protection.
- Sunscreen: SPF 30 is recommended for most outdoor activities, and is a good piece of gear to have available to you. You can purchase either lotion, spray, or a roll-on stick similar to deodorant. Don’t forget about lip balm as well.
- Protective Clothing: Many outdoor clothes now offer protection from UV light – they make great protection for hikers. Always consider a hat, long-sleeve shirts, and pants for your hikes, even in hot weather. I also recommend a Buff scarf – noted above.
There are five tools or parts to a full, robust navigation system:
- Map: A topographic map is an important part of any hike. Study it before and during your hiking trip to know exactly where to camp, where water sources might be, and where you need to be aware of tricky paths that might take you off the trail.
- Compass: If you ever become lost on a hike, you will want to know how to use a compass, along with your map.
- GPS device: You can always use the GPS on your smartphone to help you find your location on a digital map. However, if you use your smartphone you will need to monitor your batteries often. Getting a separate GPS device is often a good idea, as most are designed for outdoor use and are weatherproof and durable. Whichever option you choose – bring batteries or a charger.
- Personal locator beacon: This device can alert emergency personnel if you become lost or need help on your hike. These devices, when activated, use GPS positioning to locate you and alert emergency personnel.
Hiking at night is never fun, and most hikers try to avoid it as much as possible. However, if you are forced to do so, a headlamp is essential. Likewise, if your day runs long and you set up camp in the dark, having a headlamp that keeps your hands free to set up your tent or cook dinner is essential.
I would recommend the Black Diamond Storm Headlamp. (Amazon Link)
Pack and Test your backpack: Put all your gear into your pack (sleeping and shelter gear at the bottom, heavier items such as food closest to your back) and put it on. Adjust your pack so the weight is carried on your hips, rather than the shoulders, and keep the pack closer to your back, rather than pulling away from your body.
Check the weather: It is always worthwhile to double-check the weather report, even if you have done so previously.
Leave a trip report with loved ones: Always leave your detailed itinerary with someone you trust. Write down who to contact and when, if you haven’t returned at your expected time. You should also leave a piece of paper with contact information under the front seat of your car, too.