There are a ton of tools, resources, and websites that can help you plan your backpacking trip and give you a pretty good idea of what to expect. In this section you’ll find some of the resources and website I use to help plan my own backpacking trips.
[series title=”This post is part of the How to Plan a Backpacking Trip Series” title_wrap=”h5″ list=”ol” future=”off”]
Checking for Permits and Fees
If you plan on hiking a trail thats in a national park, you will most likely have to pay some sort of fee and register for a permit.
What exactly is a backcountry permit? A permit is mainly used to keep track of how many people are out on a specific trail at a time. Some trails are more controlled than others to help conserve the area and ensure those hiking can enjoy their time in backcountry free of crowds.
The permits also help the rangers in the event of an emergency like bad weather or missing hikers. So even if you aren’t required to get a permit to go backpacking, its still a good idea to register with the local ranger station.
Permits and fees can generally be found on the National Parks website for whatever trail you plan on hiking. This information is usually in the same spot that talks about group size restrictions.
When you are planning a trip far from home, trip reports are your best friend. A good trip report is the next best thing to actually hiking the trail yourself.
What exactly is a trail report?
As the name suggests, its a report that a hiker writes about a trail after they hike it. How thorough the trip report is depends on the person thats writing it. At the very least, it will be a handful of photos and some notes about the trail.
Usually however, you will find much more in depth information and a ton of pictures. A good trip report usually includes trail conditions/time of year, the highlights and lowlights of the trail, a map with GPS checkpoints, good camp sites, what to expect on the trail, and whatever else they decide to include.
When checking out trail reports, try to figure out what time of year they went. Don’t go by the published date on the blog post, as that is likely not when they went backpacking. This is especially important if you are inspired to hike a trail based on photos. Many locations can look drastically different throughout the year.
So if you want you trip to “look like the photos,” make sure you know the time of year they made their trip.
Here are a few of my favorite places to find trail reports:
Maybe its because I grew up with the internet, but I rarely go in search of a guide book to help plan a backpacking trip. I can find all I need and then some on the world wide web. That said, I can understand the appeal of guidebook and not having to shower the web to find the information your looking for.
If you decide to use a guide book, you will still need to supplement your research with the internet or calls to the ranger station.
By their nature, guide books aren’t updated regularly, so they won’t always have the latest trail opening/closures and other timely information about the trail.
After trip reports, forums are my next favorite way to learn about trails and plan for a hike. Theres nothing better than talking to people who live in the area or who have hiked the trail before.
One of the great things about the outdoor community is that they are always willing to share and are extremely friendly. In backpacking forums you never have to worry about asking a dumb question. Members are always willing to give you their advice and help out.
Just do yourself a favor and search the forums before you post your question. Asking a question in a forum that has been asked and answered at length before in the forums is the one way you will start to annoy members and flag yourself as a total newbie.
Here are a few of my favorite backpacking forums:
As great as trip reports are, they usually don’t cover every aspect of the trail. They don’t always talk about the ups and downs, elevation gain and steepness, water crossing, and other such trail features. A good topographic map will help give you the details about the terrain.
If you aren’t familiar with what a topographical map is, it is a map that has additional markings on it to show you the steepness and elevation of a certain area.
Learning how to read a topographical map properly will help you not only plan your trips, but also get a jumpstart on learning basic orienteering skills.
Talk to the Rangers
As good as all the above resources are for helping you plan your trip, they don’t compare to talking to a friendly ranger. The rangers who are responsible for the area of the park you will be hiking in will be your best source for information about weather, trail conditions, and what to expect.
Calling the ranger station to get information about your trail isn’t always necessary. If you are hiking a trail thats open year round and is easy to get a permit for, you can probably forego the call.
If you are hiking at higher elevations though, its always a good idea to check-in with the ranger about a week before your trip. This is especially true if you are hiking early or late in the season, as they will have the most up to date information about trail conditions and snow.
When calling the rangers you will want to ask them if they have any concerns about weather or storms that may be moving in, what are the trail conditions like, is there any snow on the trail, and if there are any closures or other things you should know about.
You can generally find the ranger station contact information on the national parks website.