So you want to explore a national park, but not just the visitor’s center, or the top tourist photo spots. You want to explore. You want to get past the crowds and into the depths of the wild. Maybe you want to do this alone, to completely immerse yourself in the humanlessness—or maybe you’re ready to adventure with a friend and have a real bonding experience. Whatever kind of journey you’re craving, you’re sure to experience the elation and total frustration that’s paired with a backpacking trip in the national parks.
But let’s minimize the frustration part by going over how to best prepare for a backcountry trek, while staying safe and considerate on the trail.
Before you decide on a park, take note of…
- your fitness level
- pre-existing medical conditions
- experience level
- financial budget
- gear you have or can borrow
- available time
- time of year you’ll be backpacking
- transportation options
All of these things will help you determine the best national parks trail for your trip.
Once you are confident with what you have to work with, you can start searching for the perfect trail!
Step 1: Choose a Trail
Research your chosen national park for the best trails and choose one that will accommodate your desired trip length, fitness level, experience level, and offer scenery you’re excited about. For example, if you want to visit Zion National Park and you’re a beginning backpacker without a history of regular cardio and strength training, you’ll want to look for a backcountry trail fit for a one or two-night trip that is relatively flat. If you’re unsure of your stamina, fill up your pack and go for a local day hike. Find out how many miles you can do without over-exerting yourself. Based on your experience day hiking, you can more confidently choose a trail.
Note: You’ll also need to request a permit if the park requires one.
Step 2: Create a Daily Itinerary
Before you step foot on the trail, you need to have a general idea of how many miles you’re going to hike every day, where you’re going to camp each night, and where you’ll find water sources. Don’t leave any guess-work for the trip. You want to be as prepared as possible to minimize any risk.
I recommend printing a detailed map for each day you plan to be on the trail. Mark water sources (i.e. a creek or river), landmarks to look for, and your route. Type out a general description of what every day will look like for added clarity while you’re on the trail. You can store any printed information in a plastic envelope or ziplock bag.
Tip: Refer to a website like AllTrails for detailed information on your decided route.
Step 3: Plan a Menu
Taking food restrictions into consideration, plan a menu that won’t weigh you down while providing you the calories and nutrients you’ll need to sustain energy. While you want to keep digestion flowing (if you know what I mean), you also won’t want to carry water-dense fruits and vegetables that could rot in your pack. Instead, opt for dehydrated fruits and veggies, quick-cooking grains, nut and seed butters, wholesome oils, dehydrated legumes, protein bars, etc. to fill you up without ditching fiber. These foods are dense in calories/nutrients and aren’t as weighty. Remember, every ounce counts when you’re carrying it on your back.
Here is a sample “day of meals” for a 4-person trip:
- Breakfast: 8 packs of instant oatmeal, 4 packets of almond butter
- Lunch: 1 bag plantain chips, 2 cups dehydrated hummus, 12 oz of dried fruit, nut mix
- Dinner: Couscous curry (4 cups couscous, 2 cups dehydrated veggies, olive oil, 4 tbsp curry powder, coconut milk powder, tomato paste, salt, pepper, 4 tbsp brown sugar)
- Dessert: Oreos
I also recommend packing a snack for each day, hot drinks (such as instant coffee, tea, or hot chocolate), and one emergency meal.
You know your body best, so pack what you know you’ll need.
Note: I don’t encourage restrictive eating ever, but just in case it wasn’t obvious, the backcountry is no place for diets that limit your calorie intake. If anything, the backcountry is a place to consume more calories than you usually do. Do yourself a favor, and ditch diet culture for this trip (and forevermore after it). Food is your friend and one of the most enjoyable parts of a backcountry trip. If you do struggle with an eating disorder, consider speaking to your healthcare provider before heading out. You deserve support!
Step 4: Calculate and Prepare for Risks
As with anything we do in life, a multi-day hike will always present sources of risk. Each trail will have its own list. Get to know this list and be prepared to tackle it.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Is there dangerous wildlife?
- Are there poisonous plants/insects?
- What will the weather be like while I’m out?
- Where is the nearest hospital?
- Can I get phone service anywhere on the trail?
- Do I or anyone else in my hiking group have allergies or other medical conditions I should be aware of? And if so, are we carrying the proper equipment/medication to respond to a health emergency?
- Is it fire season?
- Are there any spots on the trail that may become inaccessible during particular seasons?
- Do I need to store my food in a particular way (i.e. in a bear canister)?
Once you’ve done research and answered these questions, you can curate an equipment list.
Step 5: Curate an Equipment List
Depending on a number of factors, your list will require specific equipment. I recommend checking out rental services, shopping second-hand, borrowing from a friend, or checking out something like an REI garage sale to save money. Just test all your equipment at home before taking it on the trail. You wouldn’t want to end up with a broken stove and a bag of raw minute-rice!
Refer to this guide to ensure you are bringing exactly what you need (and none of what you don’t) for a successful trip.
On the Trail
While you’re on the move, there are a few things you should always be thinking about that will help you prevent injury, steady emotions, respect the land, and care for the ecosystem you are experiencing.
1. Stay Hydrated
While seemingly obvious, staying hydrated is of the utmost importance while you are backpacking. Your body may not send normal thirst cues while you are in a new environment, so schedule water breaks often, and keep tabs on the hydration of your hiking buddies.
2. Treat Hotspots
Blisters are some of the most easily preventable, yet one of the most dangerous, issues for hikers. Let a hotspot become a blister, or a blister become a popped/infected patch of skin and you could have a serious problem. Spreading infection is a huge health concern when you are away from professional medical care, but even if you have a localized infection, you will most likely be in too much pain to hike—causing a need to draw the trip out, increasing need for more food and water, and so on.
To prevent all of this, simply check up on each of your hiking pals (or yourself if you’re going solo) and tend to “hot spots.” Hot spots are spots on your body where frequent rubbing of a boot or strap causes friction—heating up the skin (hence the “hot” in “hot spot”). This friction is what eventually creates a blister. To treat a hotspot—and keep it from blistering—make sure your skin is dry (change into dry socks if your socks are damp), apply a layer of body glide, and/or simply stick a piece of duct tape or blister tape over your hotspot. These practices will prevent your hotspot from blistering. Click here for more information on blister prevention and treatment.
3. Always Practice LNT
Leave No Trace is an organization promoting 7 core practices aiding in land-protection. As conscientious outdoor adventurers, it is our duty to respect and protect the land we have the privilege to explore.
The Leave No Trace principles include:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What you Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Visit the LNT website here to read more about these principles so you’re ready to adventure responsibly!
4. Research Indigenous History
The National Park system has a complex history. Honor the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded the national park you are visiting by doing some research beforehand and maybe even finding ways to support and acknowledge their community long-term.
If you are visiting a national park as a descendent of its original stewards, I pray you are able to find healing in the land of your ancestors while offering yourself space to feel the heaviness of history and present.
If you are a beginner, backpacking will likely kick you way out of your comfort zone. It will test your ability to “hold it in.” The real lesson here, however, is that none of us should have to “hold it in.” Be open and vulnerable with the people you are with (hopefully you are with trusted company). Communicate authentically and express your needs. Do you need the group to slow down? Ask. Do you need water? Voice that. Is someone being sexist/racist/homophobic or flat-out insensitive? Call them on it.
The outdoors can bring up complicated emotions for some. All of that is valid and I hope that by communicating with honesty, you can find healing in nature. When we are free of distraction distraction free, we have a rare opportunity to dive deep with others. And if you do not feel comfortable communicating honestly with your fellow hikers, maybe rethink who you want to spend this time with. If you’re planning a solo trip, give yourself space to feel. Let down your guard with yourself.
With this information, you’re ready to get planning! Remember, the internet is your friend. Keep researching, but most of all, get out there and try it—and tag us in your Instagram photos!
If you’re a seasoned backpacker and have trip recommendations, please leave them down below!