A Step-by-Step Guide To Planning A Perfect Hiking Trip
Hiking is perhaps the most accessible, healing outdoor activity that exists. But if you don't develop a plan, you may find yourself in a sticky situation. Fortunately, planning a hiking trip is an exciting (and critical) activity that will send you on your way to a successful hike.
Are you questioning whether or not you really need that much water? Or if you can just walk out your front door and wander wherever the wind takes you? If so, this guide is for you.
I love a one-mile hike just as much as I love a 15-mile hike. I have run out of water, gotten terrifyingly lost on unfamiliar trails, and suffered sunburns that affected me for weeks. With each learning experience, I have discovered how to form the ultimate hiking plan.
Below, I'll help you learn how to make a hiking trip go as smoothly as possible. From pre-trek research to a guide on hiking essentials, I've got you covered. Let's start planning and hit the trail!
Step One: Plan The Route
Hike planning is essential to executing a worry-free, rewarding hiking trip. Learn ahead of time if you need any permits for parking or hiking. Fortunately, there are no specific requirements for an awesome hike — you can hike for a mile, or you can hike for 20 miles.
As a beginner hiker, you’ll want to start small. Perhaps with one to three miles and not a whole lot of elevation gain. It’s also important to understand both total elevation gain and elevation gain over a specific distance. For example, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation over five miles is significantly less strenuous than gaining the same amount of elevation over one mile.
Learn the trail before you start your trek — at least a couple days before. Know the trail's profile, forks, and the locations of water sources. Nothing feels quite as hardcore as whipping out a paper trail map and a compass, and this is certainly a basic skill you should develop as you become a more experienced hiker.
Nonetheless, you can easily learn and download a trail map on your smartphone using navigation apps. My personal favorite is Alltrails; there are usually reviews and trail condition reports left by other users in the recent past, and it’s incredibly user-friendly.
Choose a hiking trail that starts relatively nearby so you’re not driving a long distance after exhausting yourself. And of course, opt for a trail that offers a rewarding view — a lake, blooming wildflowers, or a distant summit. You want to enjoy your early experiences to encourage future hiking!
Step Two: Estimate Your Trip Time
The average hiker covers between two and two & a half miles per hour. This can serve as a rough estimate for planning your trip time. If you are brand new to hiking, it’s likely that you’ll hike at a slightly slow pace, and that’s a-okay!
This means that if you are hiking three miles at the average hiking pace, you can expect it to take about an hour and a half. If you are on a 6-mile hike, you’re looking at about three hours. These are approximate times. More strenuous or technical trails will increase the time it takes you to complete your hike. Allow extra time for rest and water breaks, unexpected obstacles, and of course, enjoying rad views.
Step Three: Check The Weather Forecast
Check the weather conditions a few days in advance to help you prep for your hike. Check them again the night before and even again right before you leave in case there are last-minute changes. This will help you choose and organize your gear in advance, so the morning of your hike is hassle-free.
Step Four: Plan Your Food & Water
The amount of food you'll need for a day hike is dependent on the duration, intensity, and your personal metabolism. For an all-day adventure of high intensity hiking, you may find yourself requiring 2,500–5,000 calories. You should certainly eat before you go, then bring plenty of snacks and something for lunch.
Foods that are high in protein are perfect for dinner the night before, breakfast the day of, and even a post-hike recovery meal. Eggs, lean meats, and soy are superb protein sources. Include some energy-packed carbs in your breakfast and snacks. Oatmeal, granola, and fruit are excellent choices.
Nut butter or nuts are awesome both before and during a hike as a slow-burning energy source. Steer clear of highly processed foods like candy and cheese.
If you're only spending a couple hours on a relatively flat hiking route, you'll be able to get by with just a snack. Munch on some gorp or a piece of fruit, and drink plenty of water.
How much water you'll need varies with the length of your adventure. A good rule of thumb for hydration is drinking half to one liter of water per hour of hiking. This recommendation can fluctuate, however. Variables include trail intensity, outside temperatures, your sweat rate, and your fitness level. It's always better to err on the side of caution and bring a bit more water than you think you'll need.
If you know that there are water sources along the trail, you can opt to carry less water knowing you'll have the chance to refill. Using your map or navigation app, estimate the time it will take you to reach the drinking water source. Then, only carry the amount of water you'll need to reach the source.
In my personal experience, water straight from an alpine stream is unmatched. It’s delicious and invigorating after miles of hiking. However, indulging in fresh stream water will require a water filter of some sort.
Step Five: Get Your Gear In Order
If you're unfamiliar with the 10 Essentials for first aid and emergency situations, take a moment to read up on this list from the National Park Service.
Once you're set in the emergency department, the fun stuff begins! Keep your pack as light as possible, but don't sacrifice any must-haves. Here are five sub-steps to prep your essential hiking gear for meandering along a stream or bagging a mountain peak.
1. Prepare your layers
Since you've already checked the weather, you know what to expect for temperature. But you should still prepare layers, since the temperature will fluctuate throughout the day. You should have at least a sweat-wicking base layer, a warm mid-layer, and a shell for rain or high winds.
2. Break in your hiking footwear
For weeks in advance, spend time breaking in your hiking boots or shoes. Hiking footwear is designed to be rugged, stable, and protective. As a result, they often feel stiff at the beginning.
If your hiking shoes are new, wear them around your house and on nearby walks. Start small — gradually build up the length of your break-in walks until your boots are broken in. It's also helpful to have a high quality pair of hiking socks to keep your feet happy.
3. Invest in a high-quality water container
My personal preference is a water or hydration bladder because it keeps my hands free, and I can drink on the move. Some packs come with built-in hydration reservoirs, making water access easy-peasy.
A durable water bottle is also a perfectly adequate option. I do advise caution here, however: If you carry a water bottle in your pack, it's less accessible, which may lead you to ignore your hydration needs for longer. Carry your water bottle in your hands to encourage better hydration.
4. Pack your hiking daypack
Any dry food can go in the night before, as well as a jacket in case of unexpected inclement weather. Pack your safety essentials, which should include sunblock, insect repellent, a first aid kit, and a headlamp.
5. Pack a “luxury” item
If you're up for extra weight on your hiking trip, pack a luxury item. To elevate your trek from a trying trudge to an epic hike, bring your camera, a sketch pad, or some binoculars.
Step Six: Implement Safety Measures
- Always provide your hiking itinerary details to a responsible friend or family member, especially if you don't have a hiking partner.
- Hitting the trail with a hiking buddy is almost always a good idea, but sometimes it's tough to find someone who wants to send it as hard or as often as you do. Stay on the trail, and use your navigation tools.
- Learn and share emergency contact numbers, such as the park ranger office and the local sheriff. If you have cell service during your hike, you can call in an emergency. Provide the responsible party with a time they should call emergency services if you have not returned.
- Check online for dangers in the area, such as natural disasters, poisonous plants, and dangerous animals. You can often find these reports on a hiking navigation app or on a state or national park website.
- If you are a frequent hiker (or intend to become one), a personal locator beacon is a must. Especially when hiking alone. This will allow you to send out a signal using a satellite to get help in an emergency.
Now you're all set to get on the trail. Remember the basics:
- Learn your route in advance
- Estimate time for your trip, including extra time for delays
- Check the weather forecast, and bring layers for variation
- Bring food and water — a little extra of each
- Pack your gear early, but keep your pack as light as possible
- Share your itinerary, and stick to it
Just like anything else, successful adventures take practice. Don't expect perfection the first few times, and make notes of ways to improve after each hike. Get out on a trail, and have some fun!
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.