How to Plan a Hiking Trip. There is No Spontaneity in Hiking!
The moment you decide you would like to go for a hike, the planning begins. Hiking is the kind of activity in which spontaneity is not encouraged much. And by “much” I mean not at all. To have an excellent and safe trip a proper process of preparation is required.
In this post, I will help you to highlight the critical elements of the process you should go through before you hit the trail. When I write this article, I have mostly multiple days and long-term hiking in mind, but many of the key ideas are quite useful also when thinking of a short day hike.
But why can’t I be spontaneous and just go?
I know that some people find it romantic or exciting to just decide on a spot to go somewhere – buy a ticket, grab a bag, and fly for a weekend to a new destination. I can even see some appeal in that idea (if I squint hard and tilt my head a bit to the left) but what might work for a weekend urban escape can be a recipe for a disaster when it comes to nature escapes.
Cities come with their own set of dangers and risks, but generally, you can go there with nothing but your credit card – you can book a hotel, buy new clothes, eat only in restaurants and go by taxi everywhere. Not so when heading off into the mountains. You need to prepare well and quite often carry all you need on your back.
I hope I convinced you that planning a hike is a good idea.
Plan like your life depends on it
Because it totally does.
So, where shall we begin?
Planning a hiking trip: Choosing your destination
To know what you should pack, you must know where you are going.
But how can you pick a spot when there are thousands upon thousands of beautiful destinations?
Narrowing down your choices
Thank goodness there are some factors you need to consider that help you to narrow down the options.
Probably the most obvious – you need to establish how much you can spend. Can you afford an exotic destination? What’s your limit on plane ticket price? Can you pay for B&B’s and mountain refuges or do you plan on camping (or wild camping) only? Will you rely on your own food or do you plan on stopping at mountain refuges and local pubs?
Deciding on all those choices help you narrow down your trail options a bit. Some trails have no camping options or quite limited, another offer absolutely no restaurants or stores for many days.
How much time can you devote to hiking?
How many days can you spend on the trail? Let’s say you have two weeks off work. You need to think about how you get there and how much time you need for that. If one day is enough for transportation – you are left with 11 or 12 days on the trail. The next thing you have to think about it is what kind of distance you can cover in that time.
If you are a beginner, it might be hard to figure it out. Just because a guide divides a trail into 12 sections of 20 miles/day does not mean it’s doable for you. You need to have some kind of an idea of what is a possible daily limit depending on elevation gains or terrain roughness.
As it is tough to know it precisely when we go on a new kind of terrain, it’s good to look for trails with multiple exit points so you can leave earlier or later than estimated.
If you know you generally can hike, let’s say, 12-18 km/day, you may look for trails that offer 130 – 200 km of hiking experience. I like finding long-distance trails and then look for doable section matching my needs. It’s better to search for a bit longer path than needed as it’d be ridiculous to find out you had a fantastic and fast hike and were left with two days in the end with nothing to do.
If you have a limited time for the hike – let’s say just a long weekend, there is no sense to go far or you will spend more time getting to the trail than hiking. Try to find something close to your home even if it’s not exactly the kind of landscape you prefer to observe.
Once you have a general idea of the distance you plan on covering, you need to narrow down the actual destination.
What would you like to see while hiking?
Try to think first of the general kind of destination you want to go to. Answer such questions, as “Do I prefer hiking in the forest or open spaces?” “Do I like easy and almost flat paths to do a lot of miles a day or rather challenging and constantly changing ones?” What kind of environment appeals to you? Gentle hills or hard rocks? Lakes, countryside or waterfalls? Or maybe paths leading you by the sea
For example, I have learned that as much as I enjoy hiking through forests, I absolutely love the big views of alpine landscapes of mountains above the tree line and if I had the choice – that kind of destinations win.
What kind of views call your name?
Your decision can also be motivated by the climate you enjoy – maybe you look for snow-less trails during winter? Or cold weather in summer? Do you want to escape gloom and cold temperatures or perhaps you want to have a chance to hike and swim in lakes?
What kind of a hiking style do you enjoy?
Do you like to go on long linear hikes or maybe you would love to establish a base and go for many day hikes from there? There are some towns or villages in mountainous regions where it’s possible to spend a week or more at one spot and go for a different hike each day. It could also be combined with sightseeing or other outdoorsy activities, like mountain bikes or kayaking.
When would you like to go?
If you have set dates of a work leave, you need to be aware if something’s going on during that time at your dream destination. There can be temporary closures, trail rerouting or damages caused by floods. Some dates are popular with hunters, or there might be a local sporting event organized at your chosen destination.
Planning a hiking trip: Research
The moment you have the general idea where you can and want to go (the country, region or National Park), you need to do some proper research on all the details of the trail, which is crucial so you will know how to prepare for it.
Google it and check other hikers’ hiking reports. If the trail is in a Park, see the Park’s website for announcements and relevant information. Ask questions wherever you can to be aware of the specifics of the path.
It’s worth buying a guide – an electronic version could be a great idea to cut on weight – to see how others divide the trail and if you could follow the author’s suggestions. If you found the trail’s description on a blog – don’t be shy and ask the author questions! From the blog itself, you can get the general idea if the hiker is of similar stamina and skills or if you need to adjust their daily mileage to your own needs.
Don’t wait till the last minute – to hike some trails you need a permit or a pass, and you have to apply before a specific deadline. Some top-rated destinations have a system of a lottery to get the permits. Check if that’s the case with your dream location.
Check the trail’s accommodation options
You need to know exactly how to find a safe and legal place for the night. Know about all options – mountain rescues (do you need to book in advance?), campsites, wild camping options, hotels, hiker hostels, etc. If you plan on sleeping only in your own shelter – a tent, hammock or a bivy, you need to know if you actually can. And I don’t mean just the legal side of it – if it’s permitted at all. What if the terrain does not have suitable ground for pitching a tent? What if there are no trees for a hammock? Some areas are filled with bogs, or you might hike on very steep slopes with no chance to find a somewhat flat area for miles at a time! Study a map to see what’s the terrain like if you think of wild camping.
Learn it ahead of time to avoid any nasty and dangerous surprises.
Related to accommodation is the option of buying luggage carrying services. Some favorite trails offer them, and it is worth considering especially if you, for whatever reason, can’t take more than a day pack. This way you can go for longer trails, but someone else transports your heavy bag from accommodation to accommodation.
Access to water and food on the trail
You need to be aware of the water and food situation on the path. You don’t have to carry as much water on you if you know there are a lot of rivers and streams on your way, or you pass villages and mountain rescues. But if you hike in a dry area, you need to think more carefully about where you can refill your water and how much you need to carry with you. When I was hiking in Norway, I could refill my water bladder every few steps (almost) – streams, melting snow patches, waterfalls or ponds were all around me.
I had quite the opposite situation when I was hiking on Crete – even though it was winter! I had to carefully plan how much water I should take and was surprised a few times when I saw a river marked on a map but I found only a dry river bed in that spot.
If you plan on hiking in areas known for dry climate be skeptic about your map. It may show a blue line for a “river,” but in reality it could be a seasonal stream that has water only during heavy rains. A lot of good guides give detailed instructions on where you can refill your water bottles or how many liters you should carry.
Take a look at some useful gear to keep you hydrated:
Can’t see anything? Try refreshing the page.
When you go hiking in more remote areas, you have to carry all your food with you. Don’t assume you can refill your supplies in every village you pass – some can be so small they have no grocery store at all! On the other hand, some trails are popular, and each day they hit a town or a village with a friendly pub or a tavern where you could eat a hot meal. This way you could significantly cut on the number of food supplies you have to carry. If you have special dietary needs, it can get a bit tricky – check what are the traditional dishes in that area and if you could eat them.
Know what to expect under your feet
Do your research so you are aware of the kind of terrain you will have at your destination. This knowledge helps you to figure out the type of mileage you can do a day but also the type of footwear you might need or how difficult pitching a tent might be.
Look at elevation gains to give you some idea of how steep your trail can become. Read on what you can find under your feet – is the trail well-established and even or rough and a real maze of rocks, boulders, roots, and muddy puddles? Will you need to navigate vast moors and bogs or maybe climb rocky slopes?
If you find that the trail you like is way beyond your fitness level at the moment you need to decide what to do – if you have enough time (and will) to get in better shape (and if it’s even realistically achievable) or change your destination for a safer for you. If you decide on the first option, prepare a serious training plan to avoid injuries later on.
Know what skills you need to safely complete the trail
Look for information on how well the trail is marked. Some popular paths are clear and have visible markers (blazes). Other require excellent orienteering skills. If you are only a beginner in reading a map and using compass, skip this trail unless you go with someone much more experienced and skilled.
There might be some climbing required or the path could lead on the edge of a cliff - if you know you are afraid of heights or don’t feel like using your hands while hiking - choose a different trail.
Another thing to think about is communication with the local population. If you hike in the US it might not be an issue but in Europe we have dozens of languages. I know English fairly well but I can’t use it everywhere. Still, I managed to hike in Spain or Greece with no problem. I downloaded a translating app to my cell phone (with the chosen languages for an offline use) and used it multiple times when English was not enough. It’s worth learning at least the basic expressions to ease communication. And in general, people love when foreign tourists try to learn their language!
If it’s your first time hiking and camping in the Wild - take the time and learn the principles of Leave No Trace, as well as some tips on hiking & camping etiquette.
All that knowledge will help you decide on the next step:
Planning a hiking trip: Choosing appropriate gear and clothes for the trail
During your research on the path think about the kind of equipment you need for that particular destination. If you expect hiking for days on a very exposed terrain with possible heavy rains and winds – you need an excellent rainproof layer, including rain pants and mittens. The same goes about choosing your shelter, boots or clothes.
If the destination is windy – you might want to think about your cooking gear and possible wind protection. Is the terrain very rough and rocky? You might want to take a ground cloth to protect your tent and a sleeping mat.
Not much water? Extra bottles to carry it between refills.
Sandy ground? You might have difficulties with setting up your tent – it might be a good idea to either get a self-standing tent (you may borrow one) or figure out the way to anchor your tent. Sometimes you can use rocks but what if there aren’t any? Knowing it ahead of time, you can buy anchors to be filled with sand (or snow) to hold your tent down.
Consult someone else’s gear list to have an idea what you need. If you want you can check my packing list for hiking and camping or the list of gear I use. It’s easy to get over the board and buy too much, so check what you can leave behind to save on weight (and money).
Check what you already have, what you need to replace, fix or get new. Knowing it well in advance gives you a chance to hunt sales, second-hand opportunities or just to try on many options to see what you like the most. If you can’t find a ready packing list for your destination simply look for one for similar climate and type of terrain. Summer Norway or Iceland packing list is pretty good for winter in Greece, too.
If you have a long list of things you need to get, it might be a bit overwhelming (for your head and wallet). It’s worth doing research on what are the items worth splurging on (my choices: boots, backpack, shelter, then sleeping bag) and where it’s easy to save some money (clothes are the easiest to get a high-quality second hand, cooking supplies don’t have to be all titanium, cheap hardened aluminum is perfect, etc.).
Take a look at some of the gear I use and recommend below:
Planning a hiking trip: What kind of animals you are likely to encounter on your way?
You must be aware of the kind of wildlife that populates your hiking destination.
Are there bears or cougars? Snakes, scorpions or venomous spiders?
The moment you know what is out there – learn how to prepare for the encounter. Check how to hang a bear bag or what areas are forbidden because of high wildlife activity.
Think also about the tiny beasts – ticks and other insects can seriously mess up with our good time. Buy insect repellent and use it freely. Some areas could be so popular with midges or black flies that hiking there requires more attention and appropriate gear – like long-sleeved clothes with permethrin or a head net.
Planning a hiking trip: Where can you get your fuel from?
I’m assuming you will use your stove at least once a day – even if you plan on stopping by pubs or restaurants, it’s hard to do it daily. If you fly to your destination, you cannot take a gas canister with you, which means that you have to locate an outdoor store in the town you fly to, which is not always an easy thing. Some destinations are so popular with hikers and adventure travel that it’s not a problem at all, but some aren’t. And not every sporting equipment store will have a gas canister, especially if you go off-season! If you wanted to go directly to your trailhead from the airport, you might need to change your plans and include a trip to an outdoor store. But if you plan on staying at a B&B, you can try and ask the owners to buy you a gas canister so it can wait for you.
Check out some of the clothes I use and like:
You might want to google your destination and write an email to local stores to ask about it.
And be sure what kind of gas canister you need. I remember when I was hiking in Scotland, I met a guy who had to turn back from the Cape Wrath Trail because he realized he got the wrong kind of gas canister and he had only dried food on him. If you are unsure - bring your stove to the store and ask for help.
Final preparation for a hiking trip – the week before
Check the weather
Now that you are just days away from your trip, the weather forecasts for your destination get more precise. Just make sure you check both the town you fly to as the mountain destination. The difference in temperature or precipitation between valley and mountains can be striking! Sometimes you can see live camera footage from a mountain refuge to give an idea of what the conditions are like there – you may have a chance to see what other hikers wear to provide you with an indication of the temperature.
Instead of general estimations, you have a better image of what you expect. If there are surprises – adjust your clothes, add another layer or even change a sleeping bag for warmer if there is atypically cold weather ahead.
Pack your backpack
Now that you have most of the things figured out, you have your gear and clothes, tickets, permits, and general itinerary, it’s time to start packing. Don’t leave packing for the last hours before leaving your house! Packing a backpack takes a few hours the first time you do it because most of the time you pack and repack. You realize there is too much stuff, so you take some out, consider what you can leave behind or maybe notice the weight is not evenly spread.
Learn how to pack your backpack correctly and try it on – if you feel something’s off – try again. Adjust the bag, see if maybe you can change its size or the length of straps.
You can, of course, do it much earlier on but always buy insurance before you reach your destination – some companies refuse covering you once you are at your goal or give a buffer of 1-3 days before the coverage kicks in.
Make sure your insurance covers mountain rescue and hiking – read the small print. Some travel options only cover sightseeing and elemental activities. Some give limits to the elevation you can reach – above it, they might require extra “extreme sports” coverage.
Don’t just disappear
Make sure someone has your itinerary – even if you might tweak it later, leave the primary route with a friend or a family member. If you change your plans then – let them know. If you plan on staying at shelters or B&B’s - leave their contact information with someone. If you want to go in more remote areas you might think of grabbing location beacon or similar gear.