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Beginner Backpacking Skills: Day-to-Day Planning and Adapting to the Unexpected

Trip planning doesn't end when you start a backpacking trip, but continues as you encounter unexpected conditions and situations.
Trip planning doesn’t end when you start a backpacking trip, but continues as you encounter unexpected conditions and situations.

What is the most important skill that a beginner backpacker has to master? Is it pacing, packing, how to use trekking poles, proper hydration, footwork, or navigation? While those are all essential, none is as important as planning: planning before your trip and planning each day as it comes. In this post, I discuss the need to re-evaluate and reformulate your trip plan on a daily basis as you encounter unexpected conditions and situations.

The Daily Plan

While you planned the length of your trip and the number of days you’d take to hike it before you left home, there are many factors than can throw your plan off when you start hiking. Heavy rain and flooding can make river crossing hazardous, blisters can slow down your pace, you might discover that you’re in worse physical shape than you expected and can’t hike as fast as you thought you could. “It is what it is,” is an expression used by many backpackers to describe the need to bow to the circumstances that arise during a trip.

That’s why it’s useful to reassess your itinerary each night before you go to bed, so you can be prepared for the following morning.

  • Has your pace been slower than originally planned?
  • Do you need to wake up and get started extra early tomorrow to get to camp before sundown on the following day?
  • Do you need to get to a river crossing early, before snowmelt raises the water level and makes the crossing dangerous?
  • Do you need to stop during the day and dry out wet gear in the sunshine?
  • Do you need to hike further than expected because you’re running out of food?
  • Do you need to carry more water because it has proven more scarce than expected?
  • What kind of distance do your partners want to travel tomorrow?

As you can see, there are many unexpected and unpredictable variables that can throw off your original trip plan and force you to relax some of your original trip objectives. The self-sufficiency that arises when you successfully cope with the unexpected is one of the rewards of backpacking, and you’ll come to relish the freedom that comes with it.

9 comments

  1. When I first started backpacking my biggest mistake was getting too caught up in reading about backpacking and not focused enough on walking in the woods. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to acquire gear and preparing for every scenario and not enough time walking in the woods and gaining experience.
    I agree with Philip. I’ve encountered every scenario he listed and had to adjust on the fly. My two biggest pieces of advice for the first time backpacker (both of which I didn’t follow myself) would be.

    1.) Give yourself plenty of time and leave yourself options. I would always give myself hard set destinations that often meant grinding out long days. When you run into a problem like high water levels making a river impossible to cross, you end up spending time looking for alternatives, which can throw your entire trip out of whack. You have to be flexible.
    2.) Try to go out with people who have experience and be willing to listen. I didn’t feel comfortable with meet up groups and I didn’t know anyone really interested in this stuff. In the early stages I did everything alone and had to learn lessons the hard way.

    Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to make good friends on the trail and we’ve become a great hiking network. Through this network I’ve learned EVERYTHING from cooking tips, first aid advice, constant gear discussion, and hygiene to dealing with critters… I think blogs like Section Hiker are invaluable resources to hikers. The advice is well researched from an extremely experienced hiker. But there is something to be said for seeing things first hand.

  2. I believe the #1 important item is getting in Shape to hike.. From there you will determine every else. If your not in shape, then your going to have a tough time of it. For Instance from years of physcially preparing for trips by just walking I know how many miles per hour on average I walk and at what speed in minutes.. From knowing that, I know how far I will hike on a Map being able to determine water sources and camp sites… Do not put the cart before the horse, as in… Planning a trip via the map without knowing just how far you can go in the first place is going to result in failure, frustration, and just having a bad time by having to focus all your energies on reaching Point “B” in a certain amount of time when you cannot physcially do it…

    • That sounds more like “learning what your pace and range are” rather than “being in shape.” There are so many degrees of “being in shape” that I think putting it that way dilutes your meaning.

  3. These are good questions to consider, good food for thought.

  4. I’ve found out–the hard way–that it’s a good idea to plan a “contingency” day into the itinerary, especially for longer trips. I’ve had everything from a horrendous storm to a sick dog pop up to get me off schedule. If not needed, I can have a rest day or do extra exploration.

    Planning in a bail-out point or two is a good idea, too! I haven’t needed it, but came close several times. The only reason I didn’t need it for the sick dog is that I was only 2 days in and was able to backtrack (while carrying the dog’s stuff and allowing lots of rest stops) to the trailhead. If I’d been farther along, I’d have needed another bailout point.

  5. Start small and learn from each time you go hiking.

  6. Don’t give up on backpacking because the hike didn’t go as planned. All those mini disasters make for the best stories afterwards–otherwise it’s, “We hiked 27 miles and we were tired.” How boring!

    Learning from the mini disasters makes you a better backpacker.

  7. One of my earliest multi-day trips was made all that much harder by willfully ignoring the topo maps. Looking at elevation and walking it are two different things. We did improvise down a side “road” that had a ton of blow downs and tattered metal from storm drains. Across the swamp and finally to near where we thought we should be. We learned a ton and had a blast.

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