Choosing the best backpacking trail that will set you up for success can sometimes be tricky. Not knowing where to actually go can also, unfortunately, be a big factor that holds hikers back and keeps them inside instead of out adventuring!
I don’t want that to happen to you! Keep reading for my favorite ways to pick out your next best backpacking trail.
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Set your hiking goals
Before you even start looking at trails or maps, you need to get real with yourself. Why do you want to go backpacking??
For a physical challenge? To bag some peaks? To get to some other destination (lake, historic landmark, etc)? To view wildlife? Practice your photography or sketching/painting skills? Just to relax and get out of the house?
Knowing what your own goals, or the goals of your group, are will make a difference in what trail you pick. A marathon runner looking for a fun challenge might choose a 40 mile loop, with some real ups and downs, to be done in 2-3 days where as a birdwatcher or outdoor photographer might choose to only hike 10 miles in a beautiful location in 2 days time.
Assess your physical abilities
Again, be honest with yourself here, what are your or your groups physical abilities? Can you hike 8 miles in a day? Maybe 15? Maybe more or less?
Always take total elevation gain/loss into account as well. A 15 mile day with 2,000 ft of elevation gain is going to be way easier than a 15 mile day with 5,000 or 6,000 ft of elevation gain. You don’t want to get stuck in a tricky situation if you were counting on those miles to get you to the next water source, for example, but then are unable to complete them.
Don’t get me wrong – sometimes crazy sh!t happens on the trail. Maybe crazy weather slows you down or holds you back, or there was unexpected damage to the trail that slows you down or causes you to reroute. Some of those things are unpreventable, but we want to prepare for as much as we can, and set up ourselves up for success as much as we can with what is in our control, like setting realistic mileage goals each day.
Loop trails vs out and back
I wanted to mention this because I have a dear friend who lights up when talking about hiking a loop instead of a plain ol’ out and back trail, where you would have to backtrack to get back to your starting point.
I get where she’s coming from, trails that go in a loop and bring on new scenery the entire trip are usually more exciting than going out and back and retracing your steps.
But I also wanted to bring this up to make sure there’s no confusion when you’re planning your mileage. A looping trail that’s 12 miles is not the same as a ‘non-looping’ trail that’s 12 miles. To complete the non-looping trail that’s 12 miles, you would have to hike 24 miles total. So, just keep that in mind and pay careful attention if mileage is listed as one-way or round-trip.
Dispersed camping vs designated campsites
You’ll want to check if campsites along the route are dispersed or designated campsites. This may also tie into the goals of your trip as well. If you’re looking for some quiet alone time in nature, dispersed camping might be for you. If you’re looking to meet other hikers and enjoy their company around a campfire or campsite, designated campsites might be for you.
Dispersed camping is usually done in less traveled, secluded, wilderness areas. This is where you just pick any spot that looks good (within Leave No Trace guidelines) and go set up your tent there. The goal with dispersed camping to leave an area looking totally untouched, keeping that wilderness feel, no one should be able to tell where you set up your tent or sat to cook your meals or used the bathroom.
Designated campsites are usually created along more well-traveled trails and are set up as a designated area to create human impact. Land managers are saying, hey, we know a lot of hikers will be coming through here, so instead of hundreds or thousands of people damaging the whole trail by camping where ever they want, they can camp in this one area that is already cleared and ready to handle the impact. Sometimes, designated campsites also have pit toilets, fire pits, picnic tables, shelters or food storage systems installed.
How to find a backpacking trail
Ok, now that you have a better idea of what you actually want to in a backpacking trail – let’s start looking at trails! Here are some of my favorite places to check.
Alltrails.com – I’m not going to lie, I was not a big fan of the Alltrails app, even paid for the pro version, I did not think it was worth it. But I do like to at least do a quick on the Alltrails website, just to gather some initial information, like what trails exist, and look at any recent comments from other hikers about the trails I’m looking at. Especially here at high elevation in CO, it’s priceless to be able to hear from others if a trail is still snowpacked or not, or if there’s avalanche damage, or if a trail is closed during mud season, etc.
Hiking Project – this is REI’s hiking trails app and it is pretty awesome! It’s free, which I love, and actually had a decent listing of trails for the few areas that I’ve been to and checked out. It shows you the total distance of a trail, the elevation gain and loss as well as a detailed topo map which is amazing!
National Geographic Maps – I know a lot of you are tied to your smartphones and love your apps, so I did give you some options there, but I will always be a map and compass girl, through and through. So, of course, one of my favorite ways to find trails is to actually look for them. On a map! The National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps are by far my favorite. They’re just too easy use and read, and are waterproof and durable enough to take backpacking, so it’s a win-win. As long as you know how to read a map (which you should!) you can gather all the details you need, like mileages from point to point, where campsites and water sources are, elevation gain and loss and any other road crossings or points of interest along the way.
Local ranger station, book store, coffee shops, local guide books – If you’re having trouble finding a trail or have more questions, reach out to the local park ranger station or visitor center for more information. Or check the local book stores, gift shops, or coffee shops for any guide books specific to that area.
Check local regulations
Once you’ve found a trail that suits your needs, be sure to check the local regulations either on the managing agency’s website (park service website, state park website, or other privately owned property) or call the local ranger station or visitor center to ask for information or what you need to know ahead of time.
You’re looking for things like – what are the rules on campfires or is there a fire ban? Are there any warnings in effect like flash flooding or wildfire? Is a bear canister required? Where is parking permitted and do you need a permit to park? Where is camping permitted and do you need a permit? What are the rules on fishing and hunting, if that is pertinent to you? Are there group size limits, if you’re going in a group? Is there a limit on the number of nights spent in the area?
Hopefully this helps you narrow down your next or first backpacking trail to head out on!
Let us know what your bucket list trails are in the comments below.
For more backpacking tips for beginners, check out:
- Backpacking Gear Checklist: What to Pack
- Wilderness Backpacking Tips
- 35 Backpacking Tips and Tricks
- 14 Things to do While Camping Alone