Eight Tips to Prepare for Overnight Backpacking Trips

Heading out on the trail in Banff National Park!
For me, spring means planning trips I’ve had brewing in my head all winter. It’s a chance to dust of backpacking gear, dig out summer clothes and get excited about spending time outside in beautiful weather. I’ve got some exciting overnight trips on my list for the upcoming months, but want to make sure I make the most of every wonderful summer excursion before I leave home. Here are my top eight tips to help you do the same.

1. Get maps and get to know them. Having a good map and knowing how to use it can be the difference between getting lost and staying on track. Even if it's a trip you've been on before, you should always take a map with you. Topographic maps can help you pick out landmarks, water sources, camping spots, and anything else that might be useful on the trail. Most topo maps will have a key designating established campsites, park offices and parking areas. You'll also be able to determine elevation changes, which help you understanding how difficult the trail will be and estimating travel time.

Detailed topo maps are available for popular backpacking destinations like the Adirondacks, Catskills and most National Parks. Topo maps are also available through USGS.gov.

2. Plan your route, then keep the route map safe and accessible. Having a route plan is essential. Know how long the trail is, where your stopping points are, and where your bailout points are if things don’t go as planned. Bailout points and turnaround times are essential, even on local heights.  If you're lucky, the topo map for your chosen destination might have your desired route planned for you, like the Batona Trail in New Jersey. But if not, using a highlighter to outline your route on a map can be very helpful. Try to match the color you  use to outline the route with the blazes on trail you'll follow. Then if the blaze color changes at a junction, it will be easier to see and remember. Fold the map so it displays as much of your intended route as possible, then put it in a plastic bag to keep it dry. Buy a waterproof map if they're available.

Forgot gloves, but remembered extra socks!
3. Make a clothing and gear checklist... There's nothing worse than getting out on the trail and realizing you've left something essential at home. (For me, it's usually gloves and lip balm!) Take the time to make out a list of all the clothing and gear you need. This can also be helpful when you've got group gear to divide among members of a party, like climbing ropes or tents. Check the weather and make sure you've got rain gear, warm layers and other weather-dependent items. Make sure the backpack you have is the right size for all of your gear. Does the bear-proof canister fit in it? Or is there too much space, making the pack uncomfortable to carry? Packwhiz is an incredibly handy tool for the uber-organized among us!

4. ...But don't pack too much, and pack efficiently. SWS Mountain Guide James Brown (JB) told us that one of the biggest mistakes he sees among some of his beginner clients is over-packing. Though having a clean set of clothing for every day of your trip might sound like a great idea, carrying all of those outfits certainly won't! Unless you're carrying extra weight for a purpose, you shouldn't pack more than you need. JB's best piece of advice is to lay out all of the gear you didn't use when you get home from a trip and decide if it's worth taking next time. Once you've finalized your gear and clothing, pack it as efficiently as possible. Make sure trail snacks, first aid kits, water and your headlamp are easily accessible. Then when you reach for the trail mix, you won't have to unpack everything!

Dan packing meals up in our bear proof canister.
5. Plan your meals. On Mount Rainier last summer, guides Melissa Arnot and Solveig Garhart told us to separate the snack food we'd brought for summit day into five "meals" prior to leaving camp on summit day. Rather than rummaging around in our packs for the right number of calories during every rest break, we had everything organized and separated in advance. Count the number of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks you'll need on a trip, and lay out each meal separately to ensure you have everything covered. This can be especially helpful if you're carrying a bear-proof canister; if you pack the meals properly, you won't have to empty the canister at every meal to find what you need. You’ll also know that it all fits!

6. Make sure you're intimately familiar with your gear and make sure it all works. There's nothing worse than getting deep into the wilderness only to find, for example, the canister of fuel you borrowed from a friend doesn't fit your stove. Or maybe the canister does fit, but the fuel line in the stove is clogged and needs cleaning. Take the time to get to know your gear before you leave and to test it. Even brand new gear can malfunction.

7. Ensure you've covered specific requirements for the area you're going to. Do you need backcountry camping permits? Are bear canisters required? Are fires allowed? If so, are they allowed at all elevations in all places along the trail? These are just some of the questions you need to make sure you've answered in advance of a trip. Permits are there for a reason, usually to make sure rangers know where to look for you if you don't return in time, or to make sure an area isn't overused. Bear canisters are usually required because there's a danger you'll have an uninvited campsite visitor if you don't use one. These things are important; make sure you've got them covered.

8. Tell someone, maybe two someones, about your plans. You don't want to end up Between a Rock and a Hard Place, do you? Don't put yourself at risk unnecessarily by forgetting to tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. It's also good to leave loved ones with information about your intended journey, where you're parking, where you're camping, and authorities to get in touch with if you're not back on time. It's just a smart thing to do.

So, I hope you’ve got all sorts of adventures planned for the upcoming summer backpacking season! Of course, most of these tips apply to any adventure at any time of year; take them with you on winter trips, climbing trips, and any other trip you’ve got planned. Any tips for me to add to the list?


jhook27 said…
I love your camping and climbing posts.  They're always very informative and useful.
Katie L. said…
Thank you so much! It's feedback like this that makes the writing worth doing. Is there anything in particular, climbing or camping related, that you'd like to see covered?