Helpful Tips for Planning an Overnight Backpacking Trip
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There’s something special about striking out from a trailhead with your food and overnight gear strapped to your back. Traveling light, the anticipation of the hike is exciting and step-by-step you’re immersed in the unfolding landscape.
Whether you’re planning a solo trek or your family’s first overnight backpacking trip, with careful planning and preparation, a visit to the backcountry can be both enjoyable, rewarding, and safe.
Preparedness and the right supplies are key to a successful backcountry trip.
Prepare and Plan Ahead
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness (Daryl Horton, Share the Experience)
Key to the journey is planning. Check out the many agency resources online, tap into your friends that have explored the area you want to visit, join different social discussion groups to share experiences – opportunities to learn abound!
Food for thought as you plan:
- Make sure the area you plan to visit fits your needs: Do you want to bring your dog? Is that route too challenging? Do you need to get a permit in advance?
- Be flexible: Have a backup option in case the area you planned for doesn’t work out.
- If possible, avoid popular areas on busy weekends and holidays. Popular trails can almost be deserted during midweek and off-season times. Pick your gear carefully with safety and Leave No Trace in mind.
Plan your food with bears and food storage in mind. See our tips below.
Reserve Your Permit
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness (Daryl Horton, Share the Experience)
You may discover the backpacking area you wish to visit requires a permit; either with an advance online reservation or a first-come, first-served permit requiring you to arrive on-site at a visitor center or agency office to pick up in person. Many of these backcountry hiking opportunities require a permit process to manage access to the area due to space restrictions or to prevent damage to the natural landscape, and to preserve the visitor experience. You may also find some popular hiking areas use a lottery to ensure fair and equal access to the backcountry opportunity.
Manti-La Sal National Forest (Christopher Quirin, Share the Experience)
Your experience level, the type of trip you’re planning, and the location will play a huge role in determining what gear you bring. Here are some basics to consider when packing for any backcountry overnight trip:
- Hiking boots – should be broken-in and comfortable
- Rain jacket and pants
- Thin wool or synthetic pants
- wool sweater, lightweight down or synthetic jacket
- Wool socks
- Liner socks (if you like liners)
- Synthetic underwear, synthetic t-shirt (no cotton)
- Quick drying shorts or pants
- Wool or synthetic cap
- Wool or synthetic gloves or mittens
- Lightweight hat with brim
- Backpack with pack cover
- Map of your route and compass or GPS (and the ability to use them!)
- Appropriate food for your trip, plus some extra
- Bear canister allowed for use in the area you’re visiting
- Sleeping bag and waterproof stuff sack
- Tent or tarp with ground cloth
- Sleeping pad
- First-aid kit – don’t forget moleskin
- Stove, cook-kit, mug, utensils, and fuel
- Matches or lighter
- Lightweight eating gear – cup, bowl, spoon
- Flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries
- Pocket knife or multi-tool
- Garbage bags
- Water bottle and water treatment or filter
- Collapsible water container for camp
- Mosquito repellant or bug net
- Lip balm and sunscreen
- Toilet paper in a plastic bag
- Trowel for digging cat holes (for human waste)
- Toiletries - toothbrush/paste, glasses or contacts, personal medications, hand sanitizer
- Repair kit
- Duct tape
- Maybe some more duct tape
- Sandals or camp shoes
- Journal and pen/pencil
- Fishing gear with a fishing permit
- Hiking poles
- Book or magazine
Food Recommendations and How to Pack Your Bear Canister
Joshua Tree National Park (Lana Wright, Share the Experience)
Bears exist in and around most of our public lands across the United States and are native and natural members of the wildlife community. When hiking and camping overnight in bear country, follow agency guidance for properly storing food while in the area.
Use these tips as you plan your menu:
- Choose the right foods. Dense, high-calorie options are best: Tortillas instead of bagels; dried fruit instead of oranges.
- Plan every meal. Avoid bringing too much (or too little). Lay out each day, divide portions, and pre-measure mixed foods like rice and pasta.
- Repackage. Get rid of bulky boxes and inflated packaging. Put food and toiletries into re-sealable bags or small containers. This saves space and reduces garbage. Make sure to keep the instructions and label each item.
- Check that it fits! Before you start your trip make sure ALL your food, trash, toiletries, and scented items will fit inside your canister on the first night.
- Carry the first day’s food outside of the canister: Snacks, lunch, and dinner. Just be sure to keep that food with you at all times. Since it’s not in a canister you can’t leave it behind while you take that quick side-hike!
- Minimize your toiletries: Just like food, pack small and don’t bring more than you need. Put toothpaste, sunscreen, bug repellant, etc., into small reusable containers.
- Use your canister correctly: Establish your “kitchen” about 50 feet from your sleeping area. Make sure to properly close the lid securely at all times. Leave the canister on the ground in an open flat area away from cliffs or streams.
Plumas National Forest (Zack Macdonald, Share the Experience)
No website can truly teach you self-reliance and to travel safely in the backcountry, but here are few recommendations to get you started:
- At the trailhead, don’t leave valuables in your car where they can be seen by others, and do not leave food or scented items in your vehicle that may attract bears.
- Know what you’re getting into and be realistic with your abilities and your group’s abilities. Plan an itinerary that is realistic for your group's level of backcountry experience and physical abilities – consider terrain and weather conditions in your plans. Your group is only as strong as the weakest member. Remember, most maps are flat representations of the backcountry. It’s important to research the terrain of your trip as it could be steep and mountainous, or flat and arid.
- Research the area you’re planning to visit. Talk to people who have been there before, ask rangers familiar with the area about local concerns, carry the appropriate maps, and know how to read those maps.
- Tell someone where you’re going. Make sure you tell someone exactly where you’re headed and when to start worrying about you, especially if you’re hiking alone.
- Always keep your group together. If you get lost, stay calm and stay in place.
- Do not rely on technology to save you. Cell phones do not work most places in the backcountry and GPS is sometimes unreliable. Always carry a paper backcountry map with you. It is your responsibility to plan and execute a safe trip for you and your group. Help is often many miles away and may take days to get to you.
- Pay close attention to your location as you move through the backcountry. This information is invaluable in case of emergency.
Backcountry conditions are constantly changing, and you must be prepared for the unexpected!
Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Read Yu Chen Hou’s story about an inspiring and memorable backcountry trip he took in Denali National Park. After months of preparing, he ventured out for a trip of a lifetime with college friends.
On the evening of my birthday, my friends surprised me with a birthday cake. Rather, a dehydrated birthday cake powder mix, which really was the next best thing you can get in the backcountry. As I sat there eating the birthday cake, though we all had sore knees and aching feet, though the mountain wind had us shivering in the cold, we laughed. This is the moment I cherish and would go back for.
At the end of it all, as we walked back to the park road and waited for our bus ride out, I thought again. Even if I still don’t know exactly why the wilderness beckons me so much, I know that I wouldn’t go out in the woods without the friends that helped create these memories that I treasure.
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