Whether you’re travelling to a new area, or just looking for new trails in your own backyard, knowing how to find and plan hikes is a crucial skill for anyone looking to get outside more.
For new people hoping to go on more backcountry adventures, choosing a suitable route is often one of the biggest obstacles. It can be scary to be the one coming up with all the logistics – what if the trail is too long or too hard? How should we choose where to setup camp? Will we need permits?
Fortunately, there are a few simple steps to keep in mind that will help you answer most of the big questions and guide your planning and selection process.
I’ve broken this article up into 4 main sections:
- Some Basic Guidelines: Estimating Your Capabilities
- Finding Reasonable (But Exciting) Nearby Trails
- Locating the Perfect Backcountry Campsite
- Last Minute Logistics Before You Head Out
Some Basic Guidelines: Estimating Your Capabilities
Before you even begin looking for hikes, you need to have a sense of what you and your group are capable of completing. For people that do a lot of hiking, you can usually think back to some of your recent hikes, how you felt during and afterwards, and how much you think you’ve gotten stronger (or weaker) as a hiker since then.
For people that are newer hikers that don’t have a good sense of where their limits are, here are some good principles to keep in mind. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, if you’re taking someone new into the woods for their first serious trip, you should make sure they don’t stray too far outside their comfort zone.
As a general rule, someone who’s not comfortable in the backcountry is going to struggle doing more than 8-12 miles of hiking per day.
Note that it doesn’t really matter how fit you are. Doing lots of squats or 30 minutes on the treadmill is very different than putting one foot in front of the other for 5 or 6 hours a day. The fatigue that sets in is mostly mental, and takes a good trail leader to help inexperienced hikers push past this limit.
If you’re planning an afternoon hike, 6-8 miles is a good upper limit. If you’re willing to get going earlier in the day and make lunch along the trail, then you’re likely to get closer to 10-12 miles.
It’s also important to note that this rule only holds for relatively flat terrain, with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain. If your trail calls for lots of time going up and down mountains, knock one mile off for every thousand feet of elevation gain.
So a new hiker who might manage 10 miles of flat terrain might only do 5 or 6 miles up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where 4,000ft of elevation is common on most hikes.
Estimating Trail Time
The other way to think about your group’s limits is by thinking about the total time you want to spend on the trail and working backwards from there. This is especially important with winter hiking where people might not be comfortable being outside for more than a few hours at a time.
My general, conservative rule of thumb is that you can plan for 30 minutes of hiking for each mile you cover, and an additional 30 minutes for each 1,000ft of elevation you climb. That’s an average hiking speed of about 2mph. Expressed as a formula:
Trail Hours = 1/2 * (Miles + Elevation Gain in 1,000ft)
So if you’re looking for a 3 hour hike, look for a relatively flat 6-mile loop, or maybe a 4-mile loop that goes up and over an 1800ft peak.
This estimate is pretty conservative and builds in time for rest and water breaks. Fast or ultralight hikers may easily be able to do 3 or 4 miles an hour by limiting breaks and moving quickly (hiking poles help), but newer hikers should stick with this rule of thumb.
It’s better to err on the side of getting back to the trailhead with some extra daylight than overshooting and hiking in the dark. 🔦 😟
Finding Reasonable (But Exciting) Nearby Trails
Now that you have a sense of your capabilities and where their limits may be, you can start looking for hikes and trails that fit what you’re looking for.
If I’m somewhere totally new and don’t know much about the area, these are the steps I follow:
Start with a List of Large, Hikeable Areas Nearby. Find yourself on google maps and start zooming out until you see large sections of green land. This is one of the quickest ways I’ve found to come up with a list of nearby national parks, state parks, public forests, land trusts and other wild, public areas. This is your starting list of areas to check out.
Find Something Interesting You Want to See or Reach. Do a search for each of those places you found and look for any notable features. Look for things like mountain tops that may have sweet views, or waterfalls and lakes that you can play around in.
Look for a Suitable Trail That Reaches Your Destination. Try and locate your point of interest on a trail map, and then start looking for trails that reach or pass it. Keep in mind the guidelines from above when considering the mileage and time you can realistically manage.
Match a Good Trailhead That Connects to Your Trail. Trailheads are where trails meet roads, and often have parking lots and occasionally visitors’ centers or ranger’s stations. Try and find information on your desired trailhead to see how busy it is and how much parking is available – some popular trailheads require you to get their early in the morning to secure a spot. If you live in the mountains, also beware that some backcountry roads are only open seasonally, so make sure your trailhead is actually accessible. If you don’t have a car, look for shuttles of public transportation that may go nearby, and be sure to make note of schedules for when you need to be back to ensure a ride home.
Note that sometimes you may get stuck finding a good point of interest in step #2. I usually try to have a destination since it gives the group a good goal and motivation – not to mention some good photo opportunities – but sometimes there just isn’t that much going on nearby. That’s okay.
If your goal is just to go out for a hike, you don’t need to have an objective. After you’ve found some hikeable areas in step #1, just skip to step #3, looking for a trail that fits your abilities. If you look on a trail map of the area and can locate a visitor’s center or trailhead where many trails converge, that’s a great candidate for finding a loop that’ll give you a good trip.
With those steps in mind, you should easily be able to find a few good options for hikes in your area. If you’re just planning a day hike, jump down to the “last minute logistics” section, and you should be good to go!
Locating the Perfect Backcountry Campsite
If you find a long section of trail that you’d want to break up over a few days, start looking for spots along the way that would break it up into manageable chunks.
Planning a backcountry camping trip requires a ton of various skills that I won’t cover here – but you should subscribe if you want to be notified when I cover them! 😉 📬
I will talk about a few considerations for locating and selecting a backcountry campsite. If you’re planning to spend a night or two out in the woods, it’s important to consider the following to ensure you’re camping in a good site.
In more popular areas, you’re usually required to camp at designated campsites to help minimize environmental impacts. Search for the name of the area you’re looking at with the word “backpacking” or “campsites” to see what’s available, or look for a little tent icon on a trail map. Avoid looking at “campgrounds” since those are usually full of RV campers and don’t really offer the full backcountry camping experience.
In areas that are less well travelled, you may be allowed to pick out your own plot of land to setup camp on. This is sometimes called dispersed camping. While choosing your own campsites offers the benefits of more remote, wild and pristine digs, it also means you need to pay more attention to make sure you’re in a good spot.
Be sure to consider the following:
Access to Water. Between dinner, breakfast, cooking, cleaning and drinking, you’re likely to consume 1-2 gallons per person each night you’re camping out. Since most people don’t carry more than 2-3L of water at a time, this means multiple trips to a water source to refill. I probably wouldn’t want to camp more than 200 yards from a known, reliable source of water to avoid long trips back and forth, and the chance of getting lost between camp and your water source if you’re filling up after dark.
Wind and Weather Exposure. You don’t want to setup camp in a low-lying area if there’s any chance of heavy rain or flooding. Similarly, you don’t want to be high up on an exposed ridge in strong winds or lightning storms. Find an area that offers natural shelter. Also be sure to think about shelter from falling tree branches or dead wood that might be dangling overhead, ready to fall and crush you and your tent in high winds.
Follow “Leave No Trace” (LNT) Principles. LNT is a pretty self-explanatory set of guidelines designed to help conscientious hikers avoid leaving obvious tracks or blemishes on the land. Pack out your waste, don’t disturb plants or animals and generally try to leave things as you found them for the next hiker. When selecting a campsite, look for durable surfaces to pitch your tent and setup your kitchen so you’re not damaging the area.
Beware of Creatures and Critter Threats. Lots of people worry about bears taking their food, but I’ve had far more run-ins with mice and other small rodents burrowing into packs or tents. Make sure you know what sorts of creatures are in the area and follow common precautions to ensure they don’t tear open your food stash in the middle of the night. The most basic is not having any food or fragrant items in the tent (including toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, etc) and hanging your food up in a tree so it’s off the ground.
Whether you’re staying at a designated campsite or have picked out a dispersed campsite, you’re responsible for knowing the local permit requirements. Some places will require you to register for a permit, and may have limits on when you can get them or how many they give out per night.
It’s a good idea to figure this out well before you go, so you don’t get stuck in a situation where there are no permits left.
Last Minute Logistics Before You Head Out
At this point, you’ve got your hike picked out and you’re excited and ready for a backcountry adventure. But before you head out, there are some very important last-minute logistics you should take care of, usually a day or two before your hike.
These are the kinds of things you can’t really plan for ahead of time, since nature can be hard to predict.
Check the Forecast Make sure you and your group are comfortable with the forecasted conditions. It’s not just precipitation and temperature either – also be sure to look up winds, sun exposure, lightning risk, or visibility hazards like blizzards or fog that may make it tough to navigate. If the conditions aren’t right, be prepared to postpone the trip. Don’t let the momentum of excitement for the trip push you into heading out in conditions that you know will be miserable or potentially unsafe.
Verify Trail Conditions It’s also important to verify the conditions of the trail before you head out. If you’re going to elevation, consider that the trail may be snowy or icy, even if it’s warm at lower altitudes. If you’ll be doing river crossings, it’s important to know if bridges are out or if the water level is higher than normal. Also consider how muddy the trail may be.
Leave a Copy of Your Itinerary with a Friend Once you’ve picked out the trailhead you’ll be parking at, potential campsites along the way, and when you expect to return, be sure to send all of that information to a friend who isn’t coming on your trip. In case you don’t make it back in time, that friend now has valuable information that can help search and rescue teams find you.
Pack Everything Up Verify that you have everything on my backpacking checklist, and make sure it all fits comfortably in your bag. Coordinate with your group to make sure someone has every piece of group gear that you might need for a fun, safe adventure.
Well that’s over 2000 words on how to plan a backcountry adventure. Hopefully this has given you some good ideas for how to start planning hikes and overnight backpacking trips. Leave me any questions you have in the comments, and be sure to share with your outdoorsy friends to what sort of trips you come up with.