Planning Backpacking Trips is both an art and a science, but I know more about the science. When I plan a backpacking trip, I always start out by making a chart. I include as many campsites, road crossings, and other useful way-points as possible. I then list the cumulative mileage and elevation gain from the beginning to each way-point. Then I calculate cumulative hiking hours to each of these way-points. I use this chart to decide the ideal starting and ending point for each day of the trip.
List Your Waypoints
The first step in planning a backpacking trip is to list your waypoints. Your starting and stopping points are the obvious ones, but it is nice to be more detailed than that. I include all road crossings, campsites, mountain peaks, and sometimes water sources. Ask yourself: What might I need if I become tired, lost, injured, dehydrated, or run out of food? Where on the map can I find the resources to solve those problems? The more of these “resource points” you put on your map, the better!
It is also helpful to include challenges and hazards. Are there any tall mountain peaks on your route? Rock Scrambles? Dangerous river crossings? Put all of those on your chart as well.
Add Mileage and Elevation Gain
Finding the mileage between points on a paper map is relatively easy. Use a piece of string to trace out the trail between two points, then measure that string against the scale in the map’s legend.
Finding the elevation gain using a paper map can be tedious! It requires you to count all of the contour lines crossed by your route. That could be a really difficult task in mountainous terrain.
Fortunately, there is software available that makes both of these measurement tasks easier. Here are a few:
Calculate Hiking Time
To calculate hiking time, I use this simple formula:
Hours = (Miles + Elevation Gain/1000)/R.
The “R” in my formula is my expected Rate of Travel. For most backpacking trips, I set R = 2. For day hikes or fast-packs, you may want to set R to 2.5 or even 3. When I’m planning bushwhacks or hikes through deep snow, I set R to 1.5 or even 1 if I think the going will be really slow. Here are some examples:
A summer backpack along the Appalachian trail with a 16 mile day and 2000 feet of elevation gain. R = 2.
(16 + 2000/1000)/2 = 9 Hours
A winter bushwhack in the Catskills. R = 1.5
(6 + 1600/1000)/2 = 3.8 Hours
A fall backpack in the White Mountains. R = 2
(10 + 5000/1000)/2 = 7.5 Hours
A spring day hike on an easy trail. R = 3
(20 + 1200/1000)/3 = 7 Hours
I always measure my distance and elevation gain in miles and feet respectively. You could probably use other units, but you would have to adjust your R accordingly.
Breaking Up the Days
Once I calculate the total hiking hours for the trip, I try to break up each day as evenly as I can according to the number of days I have on my trip. On one trip, I had to hike 44 hours in 7 days. My goal was to hike a little more than 6 hours per day. I went through my chart and found campsites that were roughly 6 hours apart.
It is important to realize that you won’t find campsites that break up your trip perfectly evenly! Some days will be shorter and others will be longer. Depending on how early you can start your first day and how long your drive home is on your last day, you may want those days to be a bit short as well.
I follow the above method whenever I am planning backpacking trips. As I’m studying the map for waypoints, I am forced to consider the route and far more detail than if I only looked at the starting and stopping points. The more detail you have about your route, the more prepared you will be if an emergency arises.
I keep a copy of my trip plan saved as a photo on my phone. As I hike, I compare our actual hiking time to my projected time. If I see we are falling behind schedule, I push the group to move faster and I shorten our breaks. If we fall way behind schedule, I consider changing our goals. On the other hand, if we are consistently ahead of schedule, we can treat ourselves to nice long breaks at viewpoints!
When planning a trip for a group, you should consider the time everyone needs to drive home on the last day. Most of my usual hikers are from the NY/NJ area. If we hike in Maine, we have a 8-12 hour drive home! Our last day of hiking must be very short in theses cases. When that isn’t possible, we plan a stay at a hostel or B&B before the trip back.