So, you have your location picked out, you know what time of year you want to go, and you have a general sense of the area you want to backpack. But how do you pick out the route you are going to take?
Hopefully, you understand that you cannot simply put your pack on and start walking. You need to know where you are going to camp, how you are going to get there, and how you are going to get back. This information should be, at minimum, on your map, if not also programmed into your GPS.
So, in this post we’ll explore some ways to select a route and then how to make your own route if none exist that fit your exact needs. Personally, for most route planning I use the “Ultimate Outdoor Map Kit” by National Geographic and AllTrails. More about this later.
Don’t reinvent the wheel…or the trail
By far the most common (I would assume) and easiest method of route planning is to go where others have gone before you. For most people and most trips, this method works great. Go to Backpacker.com for some great trips that are already pre-planned for you. It’s as simple as selecting the one you like, printing the maps (or ordering them if need be), downloading the GPS waypoints, and becoming familiar with the route. They even have advice on how to get there, information on reservations and permits, and pointers on where to camp, where to see wildlife, or where to get the best sunset photograph. Before going on any trip, I would strongly recommend checking out these resources on backpacker.com and equivalent sites.
Making your own route
Sometimes there isn’t a perfect route pre-planned for you. For example, when Katie and I backpack some of the less-visited National Parks, there often isn’t a backpacking trip online that fits our time and distance needs. In these cases, we play the map version of connect the dots.
First, we decide how many nights we want to camp and how far we want to walk between campsites. We’ll do some research to figure out where the best campsites are and how to get there. Our goal is generally to see as much of the park – or as diverse an area – as possible. Once we have selected the campsites, we simply “connect the dots” using the existing trails. Going off trail in a National Park is hardly ever a good idea (with the exception of parks like Badlands, where there are no backcountry trails to begin with), so it’s fairly simple to plan your route once you know where you want to camp.
National Geographic has Trails Illustrated maps for the National Parks and other parks you can purchase and use to manually route plan. Use a pen or marker to draw your route directly on the map and circle your campsites. Study your route and make sure you know where the tricky parts are (intersections, switchbacks, etc.).
Forging your own trail
Once in a while, as the old saying goes, “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” For original route planning, I use the Ultimate Outdoor Map Kit by National Geographic and AllTrails. For $39.95, the Map Kit enables you to find trails, create GPS routes, print maps, and even sync your routes to your smartphone. It doesn’t require software download, and works on pretty much and browser. Route planning using this method requires some experience, but anyone can do it with practice. Some parks or wilderness areas don’t have any trails through them, and for these locations you must plan your own route. Doing this requires knowledge of topography and navigational skills.
Which is the best route planning method for you?
The short answer: Whichever you are most comfortable with! If you’re starting out, you will most likely benefit most from using routes others have planned. There are tried-and-true backpacking trips available online or in guidebooks and other resources for most locations. I would encourage you to research these options and find the one that’s best for you. After some time, you can move on to more advanced route planning and even forge your own trail.