5 Steps to Planning a Long Distance Backpacking Trip

Feature by Dawn Swinney (@dawnhikes)

“Them gals is goin’ “hikin’campin’!”

My girlfriend and I chuckled as we walked by a couple at a trailhead recently and heard this remark in reference to us. It remained a phrase of the trip (and a hashtag!) as we made our way deep into the wilderness to spend a few nights away from civilization, carrying everything we needed on our backs. 

This particular trip was just shy of 25 miles round-trip, but the planning process for each backpacking trip I do is basically the same, just with different levels of preparation based on the length of the trail and time spent on it.

© Dawn Swinney

Last summer my husband and I took 2 weeks to walk the entire way around the rim of Lake Tahoe on the Tahoe Rim Trail. We had never planned or attempted something like this before, so it was a little hard to even know how to start.

Listen to our JUMP podcast episode about this experience!

We began the trail at the end of July, but our planning process started at the beginning of April that same year. The whole long-distance backpacking scene was new to us, and three months felt like an appropriate amount of time to take to get ready for our adventure. Some trails (depending on your level of experience) require much less prep time; still others require much more. The sooner you can familiarize yourself with the planning process, the better.

Based on our experience, here are five steps we took before hitting the trail that kept us focused and organized during the planning stage.

My husband and I on day 5 of 13 of the Tahoe Rim Trail. © Dawn Swinney

1. Choose your trail.

Wikipedia lists more than 150 “long-distance trails” (undefined) totaling more than 74,000 miles within the United States alone. I think it’s safe to say that there are a LOT of trails to choose from.

If you’re considering attempting a long-distance hike — and for our purposes, let’s say this would be one of 50 miles or more in distance and/or more than 5 days of travel — choosing a trail would likely be your first step.

A late fall 5-day trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside of Mammoth, CA…chosen specifically for the hot springs! © Dawn Swinney

Ask yourself these questions when choosing a trail:

  • What type of terrain and elevation am I comfortable with? Don’t put on a Superhero complex here, be honest.
  • How far am I willing to travel to get to my chosen trail?
  • What climate do I desire to hike in for multiple days? Dry? Humid? Rainy? Hot?
  • If I need to resupply (replenish food/water/etc.), can I successfully do so on my chosen trail? 
  • Can I get a permit for my trail? Not all trails require a permit, but some actually require multiple permits. With the current and expected limitations from Covid-19, this is an especially important question to answer (or at least continually consider) during your planning process.

We chose the Tahoe Rim Trail because of its proximity to our residence. We live within 30 minutes of a portion of the trail, and had hiked sections of the trail before, so we knew access would be simple. We also knew we had family and friends willing to help resupply us along the way. Some of them even came and hiked a few miles with us during our trip, which was amazing for our spirits and morale!

Trail Resources

Refer to these for help, to ask and answer your questions, to find details about specific trails, permitting, closures, etc. Check and double and triple check these during your planning process, as regulations can change quickly due to weather, wildfires, pandemics…

Friends who will resupply you (and make you coffee!) out of their Sprinter vans are the best kind of friends. © Dawn Swinney

2. Determine your budget.

Budget may be your #1 determining factor for trail choice, because it definitely matters, but whatever the case, remember that a long-distance hike IS a vacation. Just like I would set a budget to travel overseas, I set a budget for our thru-hike. This was our major “trip” for 2019, so the money from our travel budget was used to purchase anything Tahoe Rim Trail-related. 

Plan for a larger budget if you don’t yet have any backpacking gear. Unless you have someone willing to lend you gear, you’ll have some pretty big-ticket items to purchase. There are ways to find cheaper gear, but it can add up if you’re starting from scratch.

We had several planning and budgeting sessions prior to hitting the trail to help us stay on track. © Dawn Swinney

We went over our budget because we bought a few things we hadn’t factored in when we started, but we had zero regrets about these purchases. Those items made our time on the trail more comfortable and convenient. Also, now I can head out on a backpacking trip anytime and I don’t have to buy anything, except perhaps some food and a permit for the area where I’m heading. 

Factor these things into your budget:

  • Travel expenses to and from the trail
  • Parking fees
  • Permit fees
  • Gear/clothing you don’t already own
  • Food
  • Hotel rooms before/during/after, if necessary
A hotel room in Tahoe City in August wasn’t cheap, but it was sure nice to get some good rest and reset halfway through our trip. © Dawn Swinney

3. Identify your timeframe and build your itinerary.

The fun stuff begins! 

Once you’ve chosen your trail and figured out your budget, you can put your trip on the calendar. If your trail requires a permit, this may determine when you attempt your hike. Research the permit system for the trail you want to attempt early. Some of them have a strict lottery system; others are a bit easier to get and are more lenient on access dates. Whatever the case, know this well in advance so you can ensure you can actually legally attempt your hike.

Consider these things when identifying your timeframe:

  • What was the snow situation the winter prior to your hike? Many trails are under snow during the winter, so if it’s been a big snow year that winter/spring before, this will affect your ability to hike in the timeframe you’ve chosen.
  • Can you successfully complete the miles allotted within the timeframe? Take the total miles and divide that by the number of days you plan to be on trail – that is your daily average.
  • Can you get a permit, if applicable, for the days you’ve chosen to hike?

Once you’ve determined your timeframe, you can begin to build your itinerary. This doesn’t need to be exact in most cases; however, your itinerary should be something you can loosely refer to for planning purposes. It’s also important to have an itinerary if you enlist anyone to help resupply you — it gives them an idea of when/where they need to meet you. 

We built our itinerary around our permit dates and our zero day (zero day = a rest day with no planned hiking miles) and then worked backwards from there. This strategy gave us the plan that we shared with the family and friends helping us along the way, so they knew when and where they needed to be to resupply us.

We left a copy of this with everyone that was helping us out on our hike and we generally stuck to the plan. © Dawn Swinney

When you’re building your itinerary, consider adding the following into your plan:

  • A day off (a zero day) in the middle of your hike to rest and recuperate.
  • A day or two at the end of your hike to recover before you have to return to work or “real life” responsibilities. You’ll need this, trust me.
  • Some buffer time. Beware of overestimating how many miles you think you can handle in a day, especially at the beginning. Start with lower mileage days and slowly increase. This gives your body and mind ample time to adjust to trail life.

We planned to average 13-14 miles per day on our trip and stuck to our itinerary, even though a few days felt cut short. I ended up having some pretty major blister issues and was extremely grateful for our buffer time and our zero day — and so were my feet!

They say to plan for the best and prepare for the worst. The same goes for backpacking. © Dawn Swinney

4. Build your gear pile… and try it out.

Gear is a huge topic full of a myriad of choices and opinions. You can spend hours/days/months researching the different types and sizes and weights of backpacking equipment and clothing. 

Because we began our planning process months prior to hitting the trail, it gave us time to purchase and try out everything we brought with us on the TRT.

Testing your gear is super important — the last thing you want to do is get a few miles down the trail, get really thirsty, run out of water, and not know how to use your water filter! 

I love/hate the scene in Wild, where Cheryl Strayed (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) is literally taking her backpacking gear out of it’s packaging the night before hitting the PCT… and very quickly realizing it’s too heavy.

Don’t be Cheryl Strayed.

The biggest difference between an overnight backpacking trip and one that is multiple back-to-back days is the weight on your back. Speaking from experience with both, you want to keep your base weight (base weight = ALL your gear, excluding food and water) as low as possible. 

The biggest thing that influences base weight is your budget. Ultralight backpacking gear can be extremely expensive, but if you have the means to make a few purchases to lighten your load, it will be worth it. 

The gear I carried on the Tahoe Rim Trail. © Dawn Swinney

Best Gear for Long Distance Hiking

A basic gear list for your trip might include:

  • Pack (50L<…remember, the more space you have, the more stuff you’ll bring!) + raincover 
  • Tent + rainfly
  • Sleeping bag or quilt (be sure to consider nighttime low temperatures)
  • Sleeping pad
  • Trekking poles (a non-negotiable for any backpacking trip I take- they help you on the uphill and save your knees on the downhill)
  • Hiking shoes (I go with trail running shoes — they’re lightweight and dry quickly)
  • Socks (2-3 pair)
  • Underwear (2-3 pair) and bra (1)
  • Layered clothing (what you bring will depend on the climate you’re in). I brought/wore:
    • Shorts or skort
    • Leggings or pants
    • Base layer shirt/pants (that you can also sleep in)
    • Tank top or t-shirt
    • Sun shirt (breathable but long-sleeved)
    • Down or synthetic packable jacket
    • Rain jacket
    • Buff or bandana
    • Gloves
    • Hat or visor
  • Sunglasses
  • Phone or camera + charging accessories
  • Portable battery charger (could be solar)
  • Headlamp
  • Bug net/bug spray
  • Sunscreen and lip protectant
  • Bear spray
  • Tp/wipes + poo shovel 
  • Toiletries
  • Medications
  • First Aid kit
  • Eating utensil, cup, bowl
  • Stove + fuel
  • Lighter
  • Knife 
  • Water filtration kit
  • Water bottles
  • Bear hang kit (dry bags for food + cord/carabiner) 
  • Whistle

Extras you might consider:

  • Sit pad
  • Pillow
  • Camp shoes (Crocs or Teva-style sandals)
  • Book 
  • Bear canister (required in some areas)

Once you have all your gear, practice packing and unpacking your pack — a LOT. This gives you an opportunity to try different configurations to find the one that works best for you and your gear. It also gets you used to what you’re bringing. I must have packed and unpacked my bag 20 times before hitting the trail.

My husband’s gear- save weight by sharing items like your tent. It all adds up. © Dawn Swinney

In addition to packing and unpacking it, test it ALL out. Set up your tent. Wear your pack (with weight in it) on day hikes, use your water filtration system, get IN your sleeping bag — we figured out on night 1 of our trip that my husband’s sleeping bag was about 4” too short for him. Not a fun on-trail discovery!

The more you use and are familiar with what you’re carrying before you go, the more prepared you’ll be out there. 

Trying out all my gear and clothes on a day hike prior to starting the TRT. © Dawn Swinney

If you’re like me, you will discover pretty quickly that you really don’t need  that much, and what you do need, you’re using every single day. The only pieces of gear that I brought and did not use out there were my pack rain cover and my rain jacket, and that’s just because we were blessed with incredible weather for our two weeks on trail. 

Packing Food For Hiking

Food is obviously another essential part of your planning process, but it is also extremely individual and can vary extensively from person to person. I explain what we did for our trip in this post on my own blog.

Related: The Ultimate List of Healthy Travel Snacks

At the end of the day, you just want simplicity and convenience when it comes to what you’re eating. © Dawn Swinney

The biggest advice I have on food is to not overplan. We bought and brought WAY too much food and ended up ditching quite a bit of it during our first resupply. Your body changes out there, as well as your cravings, likes, and dislikes. Food is an ever-evolving part of planning that changes almost every trip. A little personal experimentation will help you dial in what works best for you.

For more healthy, packable food inspiration, check out this Eating Healthy on the Road podcast episode.

One trail meal I never got sick of and still take out with me. © Dawn Swinney

If you over-plan like we did, you’re stuck with what you bought because you already spent the money on it. My backpacking trips since the TRT include very simple food, because I now know what works best for me. 

Resources to help you plan food for hiking:

5. Remain flexible and keep the big picture in mind.

There are so many tips and tricks to planning a long-distance backpacking trip, but I think the following is one of the most important things you can take with you, pre-trip, during, and post-trip:

Each step you take and every challenge you meet on the trail is part of the adventure you’ve chosen, even if it doesn’t match up perfectly with what you had envisioned. If you lean in, the challenges you face can show you pieces of yourself that you don’t get to discover when everything goes perfectly.

You’re dealing with the outdoors and all the unexpected elements that come with it. Embrace it, and choose to grow through it.

On a recent backpacking trip, a friend and I encountered an hours-long downpour en route to a high alpine lake. We could have turned around, but we felt confident, safe, and prepared, so we decided to look at it as a blessing that we had cool weather on our climb up to our destination. It made for a really memorable experience and fun challenge.

The glamorous side of backpacking. © Dawn Swinney

The truth is, hiking a lot of miles day after day after day after day can become monotonous. Your mental state can take a real dive when you’re doing the same thing every day. Rain, snow, wind, extreme heat, injuries, illness, animals, broken gear, your own attitude — all of these can be obstacles that change the trajectory of your pre-set expectations — or they can be opportunities to test yourself, to learn how to persevere, and to adjust your expectations to meet your reality.

A good mindset goes a LONG way, not just on trail, but in real life. 

It really is all part of the experience.

Escaping the summer heat and smoke with the dogs in the Sierra high country last month. © Dawn Swinney

Final Thoughts

To wrap it up, if this is something you’ve been thinking about trying, DO IT! Take one step towards your goal. Buy some hiking shoes. Order a pack. Put it on the calendar. Take the time off work. Just do that one thing that moves you closer towards that trail. 

Personally, I’ve found that there is nothing more liberating and self-confidence building than carrying everything I need on my own back and being proficient enough to spend an extended length of time outdoors.

I have learned a lot about myself while on trail. I have also learned that those lessons about trail life can translate to “home” life. A trail is one of those few places that I can eliminate the noise, be with my own thoughts, and truly exhale. 

Also, when you finish, the feeling is like NOTHING else. 

So grab a friend (or don’t) and start planning! If you need help, you can check out my full write up on hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail to inspire you and perhaps move you in the right direction.

Happy hiking!

Find Dawn @dawnhikes on Instagram.