How to Hit the Trails Like a Pro

A quick guide for your next backpacking trip
April 4, 2018Edith HanNPF Blog
Grand Teton National Park — D. Lehle/NPS

Eager to strap on your hiking boots or pick up a paddle, but not sure where to start? Are you thinking about exploring the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail? Or perhaps you want to spend a few days exploring one of the newly established sections of the North Country National Scenic Trail?

Whether you’re planning a 6-month trip, or a 3-day trip, to ensure the most successful journey, there are some important things to keep in mind when you’re planning an adventure. This handy guide will walk you through how to prepare to hit the trails like a pro! 

Research

First, you need to figure out where you want to go and how long you will be out on the trail. Research and preparation will be essential to ensuring a safe and unforgettable adventure, so begin your investigation by considering all factors that may affect the trip.

A couple of people backpacking in the woods looking at a topography map

Here are some things to keep in mind before picking your adventure:

  • Time: How much time do you have? This will determine where you can get to and how far you can go. Don’t forget to account for travel time!
  • Your Strength: How much time do you have to train before your outing? Assessing your own fitness level may help you decide whether you’re better off on a more mellow path or fully prepared for one that might run through mountainous terrain. This will also affect how much you can carry and how many miles you can go in a day.
  • Seasons: What time of year are you going and what will the weather be like? If you’re thinking of adventuring during your winter break but you’re unfamiliar with snow travel, it may be prudent to nix the New England National Scenic Trail from your list and to look further south.
  • Environment: How far away from civilization are you looking to get? Do you like forests or marshland? Rocky peaks or vast grasslands? These personal preferences may affect your enjoyment on the trail.

Once you answer these questions, you can start searching for trail options that overlap with the research you’ve done. Consider some of the following for your next destination.

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

The Appalachian Trail winds through the Smoky Mountains

One of the more popular trails, the 2,180+ mile-long Appalachian National Scenic Trail runs between Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Springer Mountain in Georgia. Fondly known as the “A.T.,” this trail traverses 14 states and more than 60 federal, state, and local parks and forests. Most of A.T. thru-hikers start in Georgia and travel north-bound beginning in the spring, but a small percentage decide to take the trip southward departing from Maine. From gentle woodland paths to near-vertical rock scrambles, this iconic East Coast trail continues to inspire thousands across the country.

Ice Age National Scenic Trail

Yellow and purple flowers budding in a green meadow in Lodi Marsh State Wildlife Area along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail
National Park Service

During the Ice Age 15,000 years ago, much of North America was covered by a massive glacier. As the glacier moved and melted, it sculpted what is now the modern-day Wisconsin landscape. Designated as a national scenic trail in 1980, the nearly 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail takes hikers along the moraines marking the edge of this last glacier.­ Only a handful of people have hiked the entire Ice Age Trail, adding their names to the list of “Thousand-milers.” Hikers on this trail will go through mature forests, expansive prairies, and thousands of lakes and rivers.

North Country National Scenic Trail

Signage for the North Country National Scenic Trail
Wikimedia Commons

Spanning from New York to North Dakota, the North Country National Scenic Trail stretches 4,600 miles over seven states. Travelers on this trail will cross across forests, tall grass prairies, vast cityscapes, over many rivers, and even through the mountainous Adirondacks. Though section-hiking and long-distance hiking are more common on the North County Trail, there are a handful of people who complete a thru-hike of this epic footpath.

Logistics

After doing your research and determining where you want to go, your next step is to dive into the logistics. Careful coordination and planning ensure a safe and enjoyable trip while minimizing your impact on landscapes and ecosystems. The more you familiarize yourself with the area, the better shape you’ll be in when you encounter the unexpected.

Two people backpacking in the vast Glacier National Park
National Park Service

Consider the logistics you’ll need to navigate by carefully examining the following:

  • Leave No Trace: To responsibly enjoy your trip, learn these seven principles.
  • Travel Together: It’s a good idea not to travel alone, but be wary of bringing throngs of people. The larger the group, the more of an impact you’ll make on the environment.
  • Plan Rest Stops: Make sure you know where the established campsites are located along your route and whether you’ll need a backcountry or camping permit. Depending on the time of year, permits may be hard to secure so have some backup options if you can’t get them.
  • Water, Water, Water: Identify where your water sources will be along the trek. Though you can carry multiple days of food with you, this isn’t the case for water. By knowing where water sources are along your route, you can plan accordingly and consider setting up camp nearby.
  • Travel by Day: Know when the sun will rise and set during this time of year. You get a lot less sunlight in the winter compared to the summer, and this could affect how far you travel in a day. Plan your day’s travel so you reach your campsite before the sun has set, rather than arriving and attempting to set up camp with the help of your headlamp’s dim beam.
  • Current Trail Conditions: Have the latest information about your route – is it still viable? Did a sudden flash storm wash out a section of your trail? Or perhaps snow is now in the forecast, and you need to make sure that you bring your warmer sleeping pad. Has weather made stream crossings unsafe or impossible? Keep up-to-date on any closures or warnings in the area that might come up.
  • Guests in their Habitat: Be prepared to encounter wildlife – you are, after all, a guest in their home. Part of preparing is knowing which species you might encounter (e.g., mountain lions or poisonous snakes). Another part of being prepared is knowing how to keep your food safe from scavengers like raccoons, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. And if you’re venturing into bear country, make sure to find out what proper food handling and storage procedures you’ll need to follow. Then, there are the smaller ones to prepare for like mosquitos and chiggers. Depending on the season, it might be a good idea to toss the bug spray in the pack.
  • Let Somebody Know: Leave your itinerary with someone else not going on the trip and establish a reasonable check-in time for the end of your trip.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of things to think about when planning your trip. If you’re a first-timer, make sure that somebody in your group is experienced and has done this before. You can also take a class, ask accomplished backpackers, and research further on your own.

Physically Prepare

Backpacker hiking on black cooled lava along the Mauna Loa trail at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Along the Mauna Loa trail at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Edith Han

Backpacking on these trails requires a certain level of fitness. The majority of us don’t carry 40 pounds of weight on our backs all day. It would behoove anyone to prepare their body and train for an upcoming trip. You don’t want to be two days into your week-long trip, only to have your legs give out on you.

The best way to get in shape is to load up your backpack and go on hikes, or even try backpacking for shorter stretches. Not only will this help test your gear, but it will also allow you to identify your physical ability and limitations and to gain more experience on the trail.

Mentally Prepare

If you’re thinking of thru-hiking or hiking a significant portion of a trail, a great obstacle that almost every hiker faces at some point is the mental challenge. It will be grueling at times. There will be times on the trail when you’re cold; all your gear is wet; you’re slogging on with three blisters on your feet, and you’re asking yourself why you’re on the trail in the first place instead of curled up with a cup of hot chocolate watching TV on your couch.

The best way to mentally prepare is to take a few practice trips to see how you fair. Knowing your purpose for thru-hiking will be crucial and something to remind yourself of if a bad day makes you feel like quitting.

Have the Right Gear

Top-down image of backpacking gear

Now that you have the logistics nailed down and you’ve started training, you’re ready to make sure that you have everything you’ll need on the trip. Here are a couple of helpful tips to keep in mind:

  • Coordinate Efforts: If you’re traveling with a group, you can coordinate with others to see what gear you can share and split up to help save on weight.
  • Test Before You Go: If you’re planning a longer or more remote trip, it’s a good idea to test any new gear in advance on hikes or short overnight trips.
  • Always Be Prepared: Double-check your first-aid kit to make sure that you have what you need for where you’re going and that all your supplies are in good shape. Brushing up on your wilderness first aid knowledge is also a great idea.

Completing a multi-day (or even multi-week) hike is no small feat. Our national parks offer those with the courage and determination to take on these trails some of the most incredible thru-hiking opportunities in the world.

So, if you’re ready to test your endurance and create lasting memories, it’s time to start planning your next hiking adventure. Use the information above for a start and check out our free “Happy Trails” Owner’s Guide for more destination ideas. Then, delve deep into the research and training before you #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque along America’s remarkable trails.

Comments

I know it may be nit-picking but it's a personal wildlife bugaboo of mine - the guide references encounters with wildlife and refers to "poisonous snakes." Common figure of speech, but, not correct - they are venomous, not poisonous. Easy rule: venomous - it bites you, you die; poisonous: you bite it - you die.
Tom
Watts-FitzGerald

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