backpacking planning big sur

Planning that First Trip: Next Steps

If you are just starting to plan your first backpacking trip and have been following my blog, you’ve chosen the length of your first foray and now you’re wondering what to do next.  After you decide how LONG your first trip will be, the next step is to pick WHERE it will be and also WHEN.

Where and when you hike is important for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.  The most obvious consideration is the weather.  If you live in a cold environment, backpacking in early spring will be very cold and potentially snowy. Probably not your cup of tea (just yet)!

Another consideration is your current physical fitness level.  If you aren’t exactly in the best shape of your life and you don’t have much time to train, hiking in the Colorado Rockies, for example, might be a tad much.

backpacking planning
Planning out a recent trip.

Your first trip needs to be planned for an environment that will be comfortable for you. I live in Northern California and just completed my first trip of 2016 in March.  I don’t do snow. I knew the Sierra Nevadas and their foothills would be too cold and snowy, so I headed out to the coast of Big Sur.  The weather was quite comfortable for me there.  I also hadn’t been hiking much at that time, so I picked a trail that wasn’t too strenuous or hilly.

Backpacking beginner Ventana Wilderness
My dog carries his own pack!

I’m starting to think about my second backpacking trip of the year for in May. That one will also NOT be in the Sierras as it can (and does) snow up there through May.  I will likely pick a place more inland or perhaps further south. I can probably get away with the Sierra foothills, but I’ll need to check historical data for overnight lows to be sure my gear (and my skin!) can handle the temperatures.  And since I’ve been training a lot the past few months, I know I can handle more hills, so that will factor into my decision, too.

When it comes to backpacking locations, there are many types to choose from, from national parks and national forests to state parks and county parks as well.  There are also Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas, federal and state wilderness areas, recreation areas, etc.

For many first timers, a national park is ideal because of the awesome facilities and consistent maintenance. National parks tend to have well-maintained, well-marked trails and lots of information available online and by calling.  Alternatively, BLM areas are often more remote with less information available online and trail systems that may or may not have been maintained any time in the last 100 years.

If you are a dog owner and want to bring Fido, national parks tend to be your enemy as they are decidedly not dog-friendly and most don’t allow dogs on any trails, period.

National forests, on the other hand, are usually incredibly dog-friendly and even allow for off-leash backpacking! Always check the rules while planning your trip – don’t find out the hard way that your trip with your dog has basically been ruined.

Also, don’t hesitate to call your prospective park and talk to a ranger or other representative. I have gotten wonderful advice by calling national parks and forests for information. The people who answer the calls tend to be very friendly and have a desire to help you out. It’s not like calling the DMV!

Last year I was planning a trip for my sister and myself for May. We originally wanted to backpack out to some popular hot springs in the Los Padres National Forest, but by calling and talking to a ranger in advance, I found out it would be way too crowded and unenjoyable for us; solitude was our big priority. Without talking to that ranger, we probably would have just gone to the springs and been let down.

Backpacking Henry Coe
Solitude at Henry Coe State Park! Just what we wanted.

In addition to park websites, searching for online trip reports is a great way to find information about trails in your area.  People write trip reports after a specific trip to help inform and educate others about that trail at the exact time they hiked it.  In addition to describing the trip, they also include things like the trail conditions, water supply, hazards, difficulty, etc. To find them, simply search online for ‘trip reports backpacking [your state]’. If you already know you want to hike in a certain park, you can do the search that way – ‘trip reports backpacking [name of park]’.

Another great resource is YouTube.  There you can see videos of the places you are considering. As an example, try searching ‘Evolution Valley‘ (part of the famous John Muir Trail) on YouTube – you’ll see a ton of videos. I also like using Google Images to search for photos of places in which I’m interested. One word of advice – don’t overdo it with the videos and photos; you want some of where you are going to be a surprise!

You can also seek out local backpacking clubs and organizations in your area and consult with them. For example, the Albuquerque, NM, chapter of the Sierra Club offers weekly hikes with an experienced leader. If you live in that area, those people would probably be good to know!

Next up: Finding Fellow Backpackers!

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber