The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your Next Hike In 7 Steps
Planning my next hike
My feet are itching, my heart longs for nature...
Working full time means we don’t always have the luxury to go on vacation whenever we want, but rather have to find the destination within allotted free time.
The second half of February is winter break at my school. Which means: I have two weeks to go hiking! It is also a lovely coincidence that my 40th birthday is just a day before that.
One more reason to give me a present! But where should I go to? That's a decision that requires careful planning.
For a short while, I considered winter hiking.
But then reality and common sense hit hard. I do not have the experience and know-how to do it alone, and buying the extra winter gear would just break my bank. And so my search had begun…
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What are the factors everyone should take into consideration when searching for the perfect match?
There is no way around it - this one is the most important when planning your next hike. Before you start to look into possible destinations, you must now (roughly) how much you can spend.
I wish I could go to New Zealand for my trip, something I’ve been dreaming about for the past fifteen years, but it is simply beyond my current budget.
And also probably silly to go there just for two weeks with how long you have to spend on getting there and back.
Thinking about hiking destinations in February, my heart would gladly look toward exotic islands and far-away lands.
But my rational mind is pretty ruthless: I can only afford Europe with budget airlines. And no islands.
What are your needs?
The budget will set also the kind of accommodation you need to research. Do you want to stay in a hotel each night?
Are you a self-professed queen of camping cuisine or do you plan on eating out?
Do you need any new gear or clothes? Those can be really expensive!
Take it all into consideration, always budget for extra emergency spending and also little pleasures.
I prefer to save on hotels and such, but want to be able to step in for a coffee or try local cuisine once in a while.
Learning from my own mistakes
When I was planning my Scottish hike, I thought I created a very good, balanced budget.
Boy, was I wrong!
Three times I withdrew extra money and basically doubled my budget.
What went wrong?
Two things: firstly, I wanted to be too stingy with myself; secondly, I miscalculated how much would be spent on small things: local bus tickets, extra food, access to Wi-Fi, extra socks I had to buy…
Only after a long hike, you know what a pleasure it is to sit in a nice pub and have a cup of tea or stop on your way for a hot soup.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, allow for those pleasures and morale-boosters!
I don’t assume I knew what the weather was like in February anywhere – I tried to read on it as much as I could. I also had to consider anomalies and possible “colder than regular” situations.
Very often the information I found was about a much bigger area, which included valleys, shores, and hills or even mountains, which obviously must have big differences in daily minimum temperatures or precipitation.
Be aware that the more you hike the less warmth your sleeping bag provides because it accumulates moisture.
3. Getting there
That's an obvious one when planning a hike.
Are there direct flights from my location to the place? What are the prices?
Are there extra fees for checked-in luggage? Is it easy to get from the airport to the actual start of the trail?
Some budget airlines use smaller airports away from your destination and it might actually be better to buy more expensive flight getting you in a more convenient place.
Figuring out local transportation isn’t easy and trying to make it for the once-a-day bus and then miss it might be a real bummer.
I have seen some great locations and was tempted by hiking on Crete or other wonderful islands… but the ticket prices were just too high.
In some cases, the only advice I found was “hire a car at the airport”. I don’t have a driving license and I don’t want to get one, so that’s also out.
Sometimes the only way to get from point A to point B is by hiring a taxi, which can be really expensive.
4. Accommodation and food
My favorite system is to wild sleep in my tent for two or three nights, then one night at a regular campsite (or a small B&B/hostel) to use their facilities.
Each country might have different laws concerning wild camping and this need to be checked ahead of time.
The easiest to wild camp are northern countries – Scandinavia and Scotland, and as much as I love them, I don’t want to go there in February.
This time I budget to cover a couple of nights in a hotel on the way, as that might be the only way to get a proper shower and washing facilities.
Another thing to have in mind – some places might be seasonal only and be still closed.
Connected to the issues of accommodation is the knowledge of where you can buy food on the way. Although it is possible to carry food for two weeks, it is nice to refill with something fresh on the trail.
In my case, another consideration is access to gluten-free food, which is not obvious. So some staples (like GF oatmeal or powdered soups) I have to carry with me for the whole trip.
All the more so I would like to be able to buy fresh cheese, sausage or snacks on the way.
What are your dietary needs?
Do you have any special dietary needs?
Make sure you think about them ahead of time. Check if the country you plan on visiting has laws about allergy and sensitivities disclosure on product’s packaging.
If things you can eat are rare – take them with you or plan on going close to big towns and cities where there is a higher chance of finding them.
5. Length of the trail
Another factor when planning your hike is the length of a trail.
Even the most magnificent trail won’t do if it’s just one-day thing, far from any civilization (and buses or trains).
When you have two weeks, you probably want to spend them hiking, not trying to get from the end of one short trail to the start of the next one. That’s what I did in Scotland – I looked into the long-distance trails because it was just so much easier to plan the trip that way.
I looked into the ultra long-distance trails in Europe that crisscross the continent in various ways in hopes of finding a segment of it that doesn’t lead through high mountains and is pretty easy to get to and from.
Planning your itinerary too rigidly might be quite risky.
A lot of things can happen on the way. And if it’s your first time hiking (or the first time with a big backpack, the first time in such climate, the first time after a serious illness, etc.) – you might be surprised with what your body can or cannot do.
When I first planned my trip to Scotland, I relied on other people’s descriptions and was sure 25 km/day was a regular, easy thing to do.
It might be for someone else – but not for me. If I reserved my accommodation or bought tickets based on an itinerary like that, I would either lose them or pushed myself beyond what would be healthy or pleasant.
Just read here about my adventures in failing at the Cape Wrath Trail and changing plans when needed.
Taking this into consideration, I looked into trails that would have a few “exit points” – both for the case where I walked much less than estimated, or if I had such a good walking experience that I would end up much farther down the trail.
7. Safety and individual abilities
I am pretty sure this one is much more obvious to women than it is to men.
Before my first solo trip to Scotland, I read extensively on hiking safety with a special focus on solo female hikers.
I searched through forums, blogs and articles. Based on my own experience and simple common sense, the more remote the trail, the safer it is for women.
From my perspective, I don’t worry much about fellow hikers whom I meet somewhere up there, after many miles on a trail.
I worry about “Sunday tourists” who go out to nice places for a day or two, have a few beers and then a walk in the mountains to see a famous rock formation.
If you plan on visiting country that you have never been to before or is quite far from what you are used to - research it.
Check their customs and political situation. You don't want to find yourself hiking along a popular drug-smuggling trail...
Another safety issue? Hunting. Now that can be a completely different level of danger. Check if your spot isn’t the mecca for hunters or if your chosen dates aren’t on the schedule for organized hunts.
Your health and abilities
The second part of safety issues is your own abilities and health.
How fit are you? What kind of trails is safe for you? There is no competition and we do not need to prove anything to anyone. If the description says "only for experienced hikers" - ask yourself if that's you.
I had to learn my own weaknesses as well as strengths while solo hiking.
Telling myself that it was OK to walk slower, to sleep longer or to take rest more often was necessary.
It is hard not to compare yourself to others when they pass you on the trail. It is about the journey, nature, views... the serenity and peacefulness. It's about knowing oneself and own abilities. Particularly when solo hiking this is a thing of paramount importance.
It is OK to push your boundaries and go out of your comfort zone.
It is not OK to jump into something completely beyond own capabilities.
So where am I going in February?
Taking all those points I looked into locations around the Balkans and Greece, Italian shore, Spain, and Portugal. Finally, I decided on my birthday gift: a section on the Spain’s GR 1: Sendero Histórico starting in Argus, near Huesca.
[EDIT: because of the wintry conditions in Argus, I have changed my plans again. You can read all about my search for the perfect hiking trail near Barcelona here.)
Why? That’s for another time :)