How to Plan a Fun Backpacking Trip: 7 Friendly Tips

Back in 2016, I had this crazy idea for a backpacking trip across Iceland on the world-famous Laugavegur trail. I read somewhere that it was one of the most beautiful trails on Earth and after looking at some pictures, I knew I had to make it my mission. So I started looking into it. How long was it? How many days does it take? What were the reviews? I even looked up videos on YouTube. Before I knew it, I was hooked.

After the first wave of adrenaline dust settled and I committed to my crusade, I ran into every beginner backpacker’s problem. How do I plan this thing? Where do I start? Besides the obvious plane ride, I didn’t know what the next steps were or how to prepare for such an undertaking.

Safe backpacking trip - Where to start?

I’ll save you a long-winded explanation of my trials and tribulations, but unfortunately, I ran into some issues. For instance, I barely made the cutoff time to book my stay in several of the huts along the way and almost missed out on the entire trip altogether. Back then, I didn’t even think about bringing a tent and camping out under the stars. A decision I kind of regret now, looking back at it.

So that leads me to the point of this article. I’d like to save you any and all potential headaches beginner backpackers commonly run into. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook simple things like applying for permits or bringing the wrong gear. This article should provide you with all of the basics so you’ll have full confidence on a safe backpacking trip when you walk out the door!

Backpacking Trip Overview

  • Picking Your Destination(s)
  • Route/Itinerary Selection
  • Permit Requirements
  • Proper Gear
  • Meals
  • Packing Your Backpack
  • Last Details

1. Picking Your Destination(s)

Finding the right place to go is a little trickier than you might realize. Sometimes backpackers fall in love with the idea of a far-off spot that’s out of their wallet’s capabilities, or they romanticize something they saw photo-shopped online. It could even boil down to going at the wrong time of the year. Can we say monsoon season?

Safe backpacking trip - Picking your destination

Before going any further, you need to consider 2 main factors. Those are time vs. distance. How long do you have or want to go for, or how far is the journey you’re fixing to go on? After you’ve answered those 2 questions, you can move on to the next steps.

Time

Say you have a very small window to complete your journey. Maybe it’s a 3-day weekend trip out of state or you’re trying to squeeze in a side trip on that destination wedding you’re headed off to. It wouldn’t make sense to take on a 50-miler unless you’re in killer shape. Set yourself up for success by picking something that fits your abilities and time constraints.

Distance

On the flip side, you might have all the time in the world but are planning on something that’s incredibly long or difficult. Break it down by how many miles/kilometers you’d like to complete per day and calculate the trip that way. Most hikers are comfortable with a daily max of 8-10 miles (12-16 kilometers).

Time of the Year

When I spent 3 months in South America, one of the main attractions on my list was visiting the Bolivian Salt Flats. During the rainy season, the entire earth turns into a giant mirror. It’s like something out of a fantasy novel. During the dry times, it’s still pretty cool, but as you can see there’s a big difference to the experience.

Safe backpacking trip - Time of the year

Some places close entirely for clumps of time every year. The alpine section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is only fully open for a few months during the summer. If you plan to hike over the continental divide in January, you’ll be out of luck.

Basically, always do your research for the best times to go. If you’re hoping to see specific natural phenomena, avoid bad weather, dodge closures, or partake in time-dependent experiences in general, double-check when the time is right.

Type of Journey

The next question that’ll need answering is which kind of “backpacking trip” are you going on? Will you be carting your heavy backpack on a thru-hike, navigating thick brush, over steep mountain ridges, and under fresh waterfalls or will you be spending the majority of your time hoping from city to city, Eurotrip style?

Safe backpacking trip - Type of journey

Your preparation depends highly on where you’re going and what you’ll be getting yourself into. For example, if you’re going to spend the next few months hitting all the hot spots in Southeast Asia, you can probably leave that tent, camping stove, and sleeping bag at home. On the other hand, certainly bring those same items if you don’t plan on seeing humanity for days at a time.

More on this later when I go over gear.

Solo vs. Group

In other words, how much freedom will you have? I personally prefer solo backpacking trips as I’m selfish and want to do what I want to do, but some might not feel safe with this style and might choose to have a traveling buddy or two.

Safe backpacking trip - Solo vs. group

The advantage of going solo is choice but you’ll need to be extra cautious and bring everything you’ll need. Group travel comes with shared expenses and load distribution of gear but you’ll only be able to travel as fast as your slowest compadre.

Physical Fitness

Last but not least, how good of shape are you in? Do you possess the strength and stamina to complete the trip? Can you carry a daily load of 30-50 lbs (13-22 kgs) safely or consistently? Your fitness level can dictate your destination. Don’t forget about it.

Safe backpacking Trip - Physical fitness

Before committing to anything, I recommend strapping on a decent amount of weight and going for a test hike. Your mind might be saying “I got this” while you’re body is like, “Oh hell no!”.

If you’re not as athletic as you thought you were, take some time and train for your trip. It only takes a few weeks to make decent improvements. A good rule of thumb I follow is for every 10 miles the trip or hike is, I schedule 1 week of training. This doesn’t play that big of a role on shorter treks but comes in handy on those 50+ mile (80 km) hikes.

2. Route/Itinerary Selection

Now comes the fun part! Which trails or pathways are you going to pick? This section leans more into the thru-hiking/wilderness side of backpacking, but those traveling internationally can make use of some of these suggestions on their side quests.

Plan Your Route

Once you know where you’re going, start researching. Read up on all the “must-see” trails, local charms, or amazing sights that can’t be missed and map out accordingly. You probably already have a good idea of this ahead of time since the trail, landmark, or natural wonder is usually the reason for the trip in the first place. Everything after that is the icing on the proverbial cake – what do you sprinkle around the main event(s)?

Safe backpacking trip

I find it easiest to go from macro to micro, or in other words, big picture to little. I start with the city or towns I’ll be traveling to or through, the local transportation options on how to do so, the lodging I’ll need, and which activities or attractions are bringing me there in the first place. Then I fill in the gaps with other interesting things that catch my fancy.

After I schedule that out and know exactly how long I’ll need, I try and pad it an extra day or two, just in case on either end of the trip.

Try and finish a rough itinerary before setting out. You don’t need to get OCD with it unless you are into that sort of thing, but at the very minimum, you should know where you’ll begin and end each day. This includes side trips that you may or may not go on, miles/kilometers walked each day and any points of interest that might lure you.

Safe backpacking trip

If you like, download one of the many backpacking itinerary templates found online. Here’s one from the National Park Service. It’s basic, but you get the idea. Etsy is another great source of fun and fancy digital downloads. Have fun with it!

Trail Difficulty

If you’ll be spending most of your days and nights outdoors, read up on trail specifics and what to expect. One of the most important pieces of info you’ll want is the elevation gains. I use AllTrails as my go-to because it’s free, has almost every trail in the world, and has this handy dandy elevation visualizer that clearly shows how steep or flat the hike is going to be. Check them out when you get a chance.

Safe backpacking trip

After that, read user reviews and look at pictures (I hear they are worth a thousand words or something clever like that). Are there massive boulders or fallen trees in the way or is it well-established and maintained? Does it get narrow at points along the sides of cliffs or is it comfortably wide and leisurely? Is anybody up for the most dangerous trail in the world?

Important questions to ask yourself –

  1. How long is the trail?
  2. How difficult is the trail?
  3. How steep is the trail?
  4. What is the terrain going to be?
  5. Where are the access points?
  6. How muddy/wet is the trail?
  7. Are there any natural or manmade obstacles?

Water Sources

It comes as no surprise that you’re going to get thirsty. I don’t think any other factor outweighs the importance of how you’re going to replenish your water reserves. Look up where the water points are and if bringing a water filter is a good idea.

Safe backpacking trip

Sometimes you can fill up your water bottle or CamelBak straight from a river, like I did in Iceland while other times you’ll need some sort of filtering device due to contamination, bugs, dirty runoff, etc. Dry patches or deserts are extra tough because you’ll probably need to bring every ounce of H20 with you, and water is very heavy.

All this information is usually readily accessible, so consider your options and prepare accordingly. This is one of the few times that erroring on the side of too much is usually a good idea.

Camping/Sleeping Sites

These range from all types from a hole in the ground to full cabin rooms. When I was doing the 5-day W circuit in Patagonia, I slept in a tent, stayed in a pre-fab campsite, and rented a hostel bed, all on the same hike!

Safe backpacking trip

Know exactly what the shelter situation is long before you leave. Some lodging options on popular routes book up weeks, sometimes months in advance and if you don’t register, you’ll have to postpone or even cancel your trip.

Believe me, It’s a complete bummer to get where you’re going and be S.O.L. on either availability or lack of gear. On that same Patagonia trip, I had to wait a week because all of the accommodations were full. Luckily I got in, but if you book ahead of time, you won’t need to sweat it like I did.

3. Permit Requirements

These sneaky little buggers can pop up out of nowhere when you least expect it. Some lands issue them and some don’t. Every place is different and can change from year to year or season to season. There are many types. You might need one for entry only, camping overnight, backcountry access, or to bring in specific equipment (Like a car or RV).

Safe backpacking trip

It doesn’t only apply to passes into parks or protected lands, but some countries require them for entry. When I was planning my South America trip, I thankfully looked all of this up beforehand and read up about Bolivia and its additional visa stipulation. I registered with the Bolivian consulate in Los Angeles weeks before leaving and it saved me a bunch of time and trouble once down there. You should have seen the line to get in!

Deadlines/Lottery

Some spots around the world won’t let you purchase passes the day of because they’ve already met their quotas from pre-sales or it’s against their regulations. For instance during peak times in Yosemite National Park, the latest you can get a permit is 3 days in advance, and if you plan to go during the summer, good luck with that!

A cool, yet frustrating thing other major attractions set up are lotteries. The demand is so high, that they’re practically forced into it. Thinking of camping in the Grand Canyon? Check out their permit page and scroll down to their lottery section. It’s wild! Only 750 lucky few get early access and they have to enter up to 5 months in advance. Talk about lucrative!

Just remember, as long as you take the time to look into it all and don’t take anything for granted, you should be good to go.

4. Proper Gear

When it comes to your gear and equipment, there’s no perfect list. We all prefer certain things and prioritize different aspects of what we’re going to carry around with us at all times. Me, I toe the line between weight and necessity. I’m not as hardcore as the ultra lighters out there, but I can leave a few of the “luxuries” at home that some backpackers can’t live without.

Safe backpacking trip

As I previously mentioned, it’s all about what type of adventure you’re setting out on. If you’ll be spending most of your time in the city, pack as few items as you possibly can. There will be plenty of opportunities to replenish as you go. If you’ll be in the wilderness most or all of the time, it would be wise to lean on the cautious side and carry items that you may never use, like a first aid kit.

There are some universal items though that both styles of backpacking need. Let’s break it down further.

Backpack

Let’s start with the obvious, a sturdy and dependable carry-all that’s going to be your best friend for the duration of your trip. Choosing the right backpack will make all the difference in the world so If you don’t know where to start, you might want to read up on How to Choose a Hiking Backpack before you continue. All of the important features are broken down for novices hitting the road for the first time.

Safe backpacking trip

City Pack

A good city rucksack should be nice and compact, about 40-60 liters in size, and be minimalistic. There’s not going to be a great need for tons of compartments, because you’ll only be carrying the bare essentials. A great option is the Osprey Exos (males) or Eja (female) 58. It’s durable and extremely lightweight. Check out a breakdown of it in this article – The 8 Best Osprey Backpacks For Any Hiking Adventure.

Wilderness Pack

For the backcountry, you’re going to need substantially more items, so by default, your bag is going to be bigger. There’s no way around it. Just how much bigger is up to you, but any trek longer than a week and I say go 65 liters at the lowest and 85 at the highest. After that, it’ll feel like you’re lugging around a third-grader all day. Your back and knees will be quite displeased.

In that same article listed above, check out the Osprey Atmos/Aura AG 65 or the Osprey Aether/Arial Plus 85 as your best options. They both provide ample storage room and comfortable suspension systems. A solid choice.

Clothing

This is going to be case by case depending on where you’re going, but opt for a minimum 3-day full change of clothes, with 2 extra pairs of socks and underwear, just in case. I highly advise stocking up on items made from synthetic blends and staying away from cotton, as they take forever to dry out and can even lead to chafing. Here’s a basic list:

  1. Hiking Shoes/Boots
  2. Rain Jacket
  3. Pants/Shorts (I like the convertible kind)
  4. Long Sleeve
  5. Fleece Top or Insulated Jacket (For colder climates)
  6. T-Shirts
  7. Socks
  8. Underwear
  9. Hat
  10. Sunglasses

Of course, you’ll need to match the environment as best you can so If you’ll be in the tropics, bring a swimsuit and flip-flops. For those venturing into colder climates, bring extra layers. I leave it to you to figure it out!

Personal Items/Accessories

Don’t forget your toothbrush! Every excursion brings on sweat and grime so keep your tootsies clean with a toiletry bag including; soap, deodorant, toothpaste and brush, insect repellent, lotion, sunscreen, and anything else you feel is worthy.

You might also want to bring a phone, GPS device, tablet, headlamp, and all the associated chargers or batteries that go along with them. If you do, keep a close eye as these tend to wander off when you’re not looking.

To keep this article from rambling on and on, I’ll stop listing gear now but I encourage you to read up on the 11 Essential Items For Any Backpacking Checklist if you have any more questions or would like to know more.

5. Meals

Strapping heavy gear to your back and hauling it around for days on end burns a ton of calories (it’s a great weight loss plan if you have the time! ). In fact, you’re going to need to replenish anywhere from 2,500 – 4,500 calories each and every day. This equates to about 1 ½ to 3 pounds of food. Nothing to sneeze at.

Safe backpacking trip

But it’ll all be worth it! There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down after a particularly tough section and eating a delicious meal. It’s like a reward. When it comes to backpacking and long outdoor voyages, food is worth its weight in gold. Below are a few ways you can go about it.

Dehydrated Meals

Since food can be a substantial part of the cost, notably for longer trips, consider doing most of the legwork yourself. If you have the time and willpower, save a bunch of money by dehydrating most of your meals at home. There are countless combinations of either dehydrating the individual ingredients themselves, or entire meals.

Safe backpacking trip - meals

Not only does this save money, but the food also lasts for a good amount of time longer. If you want to go the extra mile, vacuum seal your dehydrated meals for that backpacking trip 10 years from now!

If you don’t have time for that and aren’t afraid to slap down some serious greenback, look into buying pre-packaged freeze-dried meals that only require hot water to enjoy (my favorite go-to). These are so handy, and quick to make. The last thing I feel like doing after walking 15 miles is cooking!

For both options, you’ll need some sort of water-heating device like a Jetboil, but other than that, either choice is convenient and tasty!

Assembled Meals

The other main option is creating your meals using fresh or shelf-stable ingredients and either assembling them beforehand or making them on the go. Sandwiches and tortilla wraps are extremely common, as well as rice, oatmeal, veggies & hummus, etc. The list goes on and on.

Safe backpacking trip - meals

If your trip is on the shorter end or you’ll have opportunities to re-stock consistently, this is the way to go about it. It’s the easiest method and there’s very little cooking, except for heating hot water for the warm options. The downside is the cost and the space taken in your bag. You can only bring so many apples.

On the opposite end of the spectrum come the fancier members of our unofficial club. I guess you would call them backpacker “foodies”. These classy folk only bring the raw ingredients and make their extravagant meals ready to eat. Examples of these mini feasts include pancakes, sun-dried tomato pasta, or shepherd’s pie. If you can believe it, you can achieve it!

I can talk all day about meal prep and how to go about it, but it depends on who you are and what you want to do. If you want further details, I urge you to read this article – Delicious Backpacking Food Ideas – 4 Ways To Prep For The Trails. There you’ll find examples of which types of food go well with different environments, options on camp stoves, and much more!

Packing Your Backpack

Just stuff everything in right? Well, you can if you want to deal with a hassle over and over but I don’t advise it. Packing your bag correctly will morph a frustrating ordeal into an enjoyable experience. I had no idea what I was doing my first time out and struggled with weight management, access to items, packing and unpacking in the middle of the trail, and so on. If you do it right, you won’t have to do it again.

Safe backpacking trip

Start with your campsite squishy items you’ll only need once you’re done for the day. Sleeping bags, pillows, cold weather clothes, etc. Put these on the bottom! You won’t need them during waking hours and they’ll only get in the way most of the time.

Next, your heavier, more rugged fair like tents, stoves, and main food stores. You’ll want this closest to the center of the pack for weight dispersion. Believe me, your shoulders and back will thank you for this.

Finally, at the top are your lightest and most useful items that’ll need to be grabbed and stored continuously. Rain jacket, snacks, water filter, and so forth. If you’re going to need it more than once, this is where you put it.

If your backpack has external compartments, likely on top, this is where fragile or tiny items go. Bug repellent, sunglasses, map, camera, and the rest. Each backpack is different, but most have a pocket or two.

Prioritize what you need vs what you want and if there’s a question if something’s important or not, it’s most likely not. Do your research, get the right backpack for your needs, and all will be well with the world.

Last Details

Ok, if you’ve done everything up to this point, you’re almost ready to set forth but there are a few simple things you should do before you say adios. You’ll save unwanted anguish, confusion and it might even save your butt, so don’t skimp out on these important instructions.

Learn about the Culture

If you’ll be traveling overseas into an unknown land, read up on their local customs. It only takes a couple of minutes and goes a long way. You don’t want to be giving a thumbs-up sign where that means “screw you” or forget to take your shoes off before entering an Asian home. You never know who you’ll offend and what that might lead to.

Safe backpacking trip - local culture

Protect Yourself with Knowledge

Again, if you’re going to unfamiliar territory, learn about the places to avoid. Where are the high-crime areas? What are the local scams? What do hustlers look out for? Spend a good amount of time digging into the ins and outs of your destination and arm yourself with insight.

Safe backpacking trip

You may want to look into travel insurance as well. It’ll give you peace of mind if anything goes awry while you’re away.

Local Wildlife

I know animals are cute and all, but they have teeth and claws for a reason. Ask yourself if there will be any potentially dangerous creatures lurking about on your outing and prepare accordingly. Will you be walking through bear country and need bear spray? Are there snakes, if so, where do they hide, and when are they active? Any dangerous insects?

Safe backpacking trip

Nothing’s more important than your personal safety. As long as you follow basic safety tips, do your research, and think things through, you’re going to have an amazing time.

Final Thoughts

A good backpacking adventure is like nothing else. There’s truly comparable to the feeling of complete and utter freedom. It’s where people find themselves, change their mindsets, meet incredible people, and have life-altering experiences. The list of reasons to go backpacking has no end.

So if you’re planning a backpacking trip, I wish you the best of luck. Pick a great spot, plan it out, bring all the necessary supplies, and do your research. If you do it right, you might not want to come back!

As always, be safe and enjoy the ride!

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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