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How to Prepare for a Big Summertime Backpacking Trip

Camping Dinners are Always Fun Times
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Summer is here and you probably have a big backpacking trip planned for July or August. Maybe it’s the first backpacking trip you’ve ever taken with your son, daughter, or family, or maybe it’s the trip of a lifetime like thru-hiking the John Muir Trail or Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness.

I get a lot of email from readers about how to prepare for trips like these and I always respond that same way. Go on at least one practice overnight before your trip – kind of like a full dress reheasal.

Take all of the gear you plan on carrying on your real trip and make sure you know how to use it. Even more important, make sure you really need it. Further carry all of the food – at least in terms of weight – although packing the identical bulk is also useful – that you need to carry on your big trip too. There’s nothing quite like carrying a full expedition pack to bring you to your senses and get you committed to a training regime in advance!

Unfortunately, too few people take the time to do overnight practice hikes and pay the consequences after they’ve invested heavily in travel and outfitting expenses. We see it every summer: backpackers who quit less than 5 miles from the trailhead because they had no idea how ridiculous it is to carry the loads they’ve brought with them or how arduous the terrain is going to be. They’re weighed down with all kinds of electronics and photography equipment, some of it bought just for the occassion.  It’s just tragic.

I’m not sure where the disconnect is, but  I have this longstanding hunch that “people” (in the collective sense) have forgotten what going ino the wilderness means: that they can’t imagine a place so indifferent to their needs. Or like me, memories of my youth cloud any comprehension about what my true physical limits are now that I’m in my early 50’s.

Whatever the cause – if you want to finish your big summertime backpacking trip, go prepared. Practice will make it real and provides its own reward.

See also:

Hiking Route Planning and Local Knowledge

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  1. Of all the things a new backpacker can do to prepare for a multi-night adventure, this is probably the single most important task. When I take newer backpackers into the woods I try to take them on a short overnight trip with a full gear load and relatively short hike. This gives them the opportunity to experience what a longer trip feels like with a safety net in place in case they get out in the wilderness and decide they should have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express.

  2. Crazy Trip Leader

    I tell my newbies you better be able to brisk walk/run with your pack 25-35lbs on for 6-10 miles non stop. Do this for 6 days in a row at home before our trip. If you can’t do it one month before the trip you did not train enough and don’t get to go.

    Sounds mean and hard. It is the only proven way of making sure someone can hike at 10k plus for 6-10 miles a day before the trip, that does not take hours and hours of slow hiking to train. One hour 7 miles done. Oops I forgot you sectioners never get up over 10k.

    All the gear is torn down before we leave, and I create a bonfire of TV’s, Kindle, Iphone, and boomboxes. If it was not on the list it does not come. If you don’t know how to use it, bring it. It is a great time to learn in the wild we will have plenty of time on our hands.

    If I hear a wimper or a complain I bring a tub of Nutella and tie them to a tree smearing the nutella all over their toes.

    Ok sounds like a joke right? All is true except the last part

  3. Absolutely correct. A dry run or shake out trip is critical before the big adventure. You can fine tune your gear selection, assess your overall level of fitness, and experiment with meal choices on these mini-trips.

    I’m going to section hike the PCT from Sonora Pass to Tuolumne Meadows in August with friends. Just completed a dry run this weekend to San Gorgonio which is at a similar altitude as where we will be going. Fortunately I realized then that my solar charger/smartphone GPS solution will not work as expected. I can now make adjustments to equipment since I didn’t discover this three days into our trip!

  4. Any hints on how to prepare for hiking at altitude (like, I don’t know, say, JMT) when you are from the lowlands (like, say, maybe New England) and you won’t get to train outside of New England before you go?

  5. Thanks, very helpful. I have a whole year to train, so hopefully I’ll get myself ready by then. But it is worrisome to think about being physically well-prepared only to find oneself felled by the elevation and I can’t think of anything I could do about it except hang out on Mt. Washington summit a lot.

    (Also I hope you’re not suggesting running marathons with a full pack on. No thank you. ;-) )

    • I just said that because i know you run marathons. Seriously, I think you’ll be in shape. The part you really need to work on is knowing that you are prepared for a 3 week trip. Multi-night trips are what you need, to verify that you have everything you need, practice using it, and figure out what you can shed. A 3 week trip is VERY different than a weekend outing.

    • Liz- Philip has great ideas. I’m in CO and see mainly “flatlanders” who think they are prepared as soon as they get off the plane. Best advice is to arrive at your elevation a day or two ahead. Drink lots of water (dry air and increased resp rate will dehydrate you quicker).
      And remember you will have to adjust your hiking speed at elevation- enjoy the trip not just the destination!

  6. Hi Liz. I live about 2-3 hours (depending on traffic) from Big Bear (8k-11k elevation) so it’s not very easy for me to train as well.

    What I did was begin endurance swimming for the past few months. I did the breast stroke starting at 5 minutes and eventually worked my way up to an hour three times a week. This strokes helps to strengthen many of the muscles you need when backpacking and helps to increase your lung capacity. That increased lung capacity will help you at elevation.

  7. Good advice – speaking as a newbie. One of my current challenges is developing a list of good overnight hikes in my area. While I have read several guides and surfed a number of online forums, most suggestions point to the same alternatives. On my first couple of outings, I followed some of these suggestions, only to end up at popular – and overpopulated- locations. The effect was less than inspiring. I am sure there must be more choices than what makes it into the vast majority of guidebooks that are both attractive and relatively convenient – a basic requirement if you only have time for an overnight.

  8. Thanks, Bryan. I never thought of swimming to increase lung capacity, but that’s brilliant. I just hope that swimming at sea level will help out with hiking in the high elevations.

  9. Thanks, that is very helpful. I will be doing some multi-day trips in between now and then, and looking forward to them.

  10. Hi Liz, it helped out a lot for me. I live at around 1,400 elevation, and noticed a big difference in my endurance, stamina, and capabilities from when I went to Big Bear in May (before endurance swimming) and last weekend (post endurance swimming).

    Obviously everyone is different but it worked for me and hopefully will do the same for you.

  11. One of the things I’m a little worried about for my upcoming 3-4 week trip is whether my shoes are going to give me any problems. I’ll be using shoes I’ve never taken on a long trip before, and 3-4 weeks is a long time to spend in one pair of shoes — lots of time for little problems to become big problems.

    I plan on doing a 6 day trip in the next few weeks to test them out, but I’m not really sure if that’ll be enough. Any suggestions, besides hope and pray?

  12. I don’t have any really long trips in the foreseeable future (not that I don’t want to do it), but the “shakedown cruise” concept is important for any new adventures. My grandkids are my usual backpacking buddies–one grandson has backpacked with me since age four. Last year, when he was eight and his sister was six, I wanted to experiment with a different pack setup for each one. We did a several mile day hike with full packs and overnight gear on a trail rated “strenuous”… of course, the “strenuous” was by Oklahoma standards, which aren’t quite JMT or Presi Traverse ratings. That hike helped greatly to tweak things for the future. I’ve done more day hiking with them using those packs to refine a few more areas. When we do get to a bigger hike together, we’ll be much better prepared.

  13. I find the exact same thing to be true in my area and it is one of the reasons I have a difficult time introducing newbies to the sport. To reduce the likelihood of crowds, it’s either more mileage or a more challenging hike, both of which can be miserable on a newbie. I wish I knew the answer, because I’m not willing to share my experience with crowds just to introduce a newbie to the sport.

  14. For me, I’ve found time with a weighted pack doing hill repeats is a great way to get in shape. I manage an outdoor adventure group. During the winter, I host twice weekly evening hill repeat sessions. We add two pounds per week to our packs starting in January. I max out around 40lbs, well above my normal carry weight. Our hill repeats are on a paved 1/2 mile up, 1/2 mile down course. This training really improves core strength and conditions neck/shoulders/knees for carrying the weight. My spring season is much more enjoyable as a result and I have lots of time to talk to my comrades about trails, gear, shoes, etc. Plus it gets us out of the house on these dark winter evenings, smiling, enjoying full moons, telling stories, finding future hiking/backpacking companions.

  15. Washington isn’t high enough to get the air pressure to acclimatize. On a recent trip to CO I wasn’t acclimatized until about day 4 or 5. Anything under 9k wasn’t too bad, 10-+11k was really bad for a few days. I think that’s standard but if your cardio is great you’ll do better than I did. GL!

  16. Perhaps some people on this site will contribute a few ” off the beaten path” suggestions.

  17. My guess is that being in decent shape, especially when it comes to cardio should do the trick, and having the right mentality. Someone told me “if you keep eating, you could go on virtually forever, walking slowly”, and as far as I know, this has proven to be true in every trip I’ve taken, on foot or biking. So, unless you are a total couch potato, start easy and you’ll get in shape soon enough (when it comes to hiking, of course, mountaineering is another piece of cake), if you keep the right attitude.

  18. Ah great idea! Thanks Philip.

  19. I will be hiking the JMT this August/Sep. and my training was jogging 2-3 times a week, weight training 2 times a week and 1 hike with about 13 miles (20km).
    This helped me a lot on my day hikes and some multiday hike. I am not sure about the higher elevation but I think when you get some days to acclimate to the hight it won’t be a big problem.

  20. One idea that I would add to this routine is using water for extra weight. It can be drained at the top of an ascent to take some stress off the knees while descending, very helpful for avoiding well engineered titanium implants in the future.

  21. JT you mean while jogging or hiking?

  22. For training hikes. Personally I would not carry extra weight while running or jogging, too much wear and tear on the knees.

  23. I am afraid people have misconstrued the intent of this post. While physical training is certainly important, knowing how to use your gear and what gear you really need is just as important.

    If you don’t know how to use your stove or if you don’t bring enough fuel – I’ve seen people do both – no amount of physical training is going to save your hike.

    You need to practice cooking, filtering water, pitching your tent/shelter, etc. before you get on the trail.

  24. Couldn’t Agree More!
    overnight practice hikes are the way to go to warm up for any upcoming backpacking trip
    its also a great way to get into the mental zone and prepare for the trip, which normally would occur on the first night of the trip

  25. True. The body is just one more piece of equipment you need to test and make sure is working.

  26. The truth is you will never now how you body will react to altitude until you are at altitude.
    What you need to do is:
    -be in shape
    -spent at least one night at something several thousand feet lower than you max elevation before getting into the real deal.
    -stay hydrated, always
    -do not over excert
    -try to pick lower elevations for sleeping
    – take something like Motrin before bed

    That’s it.

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