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Trip Planning Checklist for Day Hikes and Backpacking Trips

Hiking Trip Plan Checklist

Why do people get lost or need to be rescued when they take a hike or journey into a backcountry area? One of the chief reasons is a lack of preparation and planning.

One way to prepare yourself is to write up a trip plan to help you assess different route options and determine if you need to bring extra gear, food, or water on your trip. A trip plan helps ensure that the route you want to take is a good match for the time you have available and the people you plan to go with.

Leave a copy of your trip plan with a trusted friend or relative who can call search and rescue if you don’t come home or contact them by a certain time. If they have your trip plan and know who to contact, they can call search and rescue to come and find you if you’re lost or injured. If you’ve followed your trip plan, it reduces the area that search and rescue teams have to search to find you.

In 2013, the National Park Service published statistics for the search and rescue operations they conducted that year. Nearly 60% of the rescues they performed that year were for day hikers, while 20% were for backpackers. In 30% of the cases, victims had become too exhausted to complete their trip without assistance from rescuers, while 22% of those rescued had insufficient trip information or made judgement errors. It’s apparent that those rescued didn’t have a good grasp of the effort required to complete their trips under their own power, lacked maps or detailed information about their routes, or bit off more than they could chew and needed help extricating themselves. Better up front trip planning would have probably prevented many of these rescue call outs.

A topographic map is one of the primary sources of information that you’ll use to create a trip plan. But there are other good sources of information that you might refer to including a guidebook, weather forecasts, and sunrise and sunset times. Seasonal information like river gauge levels or avalanche forecasts can also be important to assess the safety of stream crossings or backcountry ski routes.

Web-based planning tools can make it easy to calculate total elevation gain by drawing an elevation profile.
Web-based planning tools like Caltopo.com make it easy to calculate total elevation gain by drawing an elevation profile.

Estimated Travel Time

When planning a trip, it’s important to estimate how long it’s going to take you to hike your chosen route. If it’s a day hike, you’ll want to finish it before the sun sets. It’s much more difficult to follow trails at night and it’s easy to get lost. If it’s a backpacking trip, you’ll want to make sure you have enough time each day to hike between your intended campsites and that you complete the trip within the time you’ve allotted. Planning travel times is also useful if you plan on hiking in a group, so you can screen out people who won’t be able to keep the pace.

When planning, list the trails you plan to follow and the distance you need to travel on each one. If it’s a multi-day trip, break out your distance estimate by day to see if it’s reasonable or whether you need to redistribute the distance across more days.

Estimated travel time = Pace per hour on flat terrain + 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain

The amount of time required to hike a trail is a combination of your pace when hiking on flat ground + the extra time it takes you to hike uphill.

If you’re using a guidebook to plan your route, you can often find the cumulative amount of elevation gain along it. You can also derive the amount of elevation gain by adding up the contours on a topographic map, but don’t subtract the corresponding descents.  Be sure to do this for every hill or mountain along your route: subtracting the elevation at the beginning of your trip from the elevation at your final destination is insufficient.

If you’re hiking or backpacking, there is a well-established formula that you can use to get a good estimate of how long it will take you to walk a given distance and elevation gain. When hiking off pavement, most people walk at a 2 mile per hour pace, plus 30 minutes for each 1000 feet of elevation gain.

Here are some examples of how to use that information to compute an estimated hike time.

  • For 6 miles with 500 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 3 hours + 15 minutes
  • For 10 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 5 hours + 2 hours
  • For 16 miles and 9000 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 8 hours + 4.5 hours

You can adjust the formula if you walk faster (on average) or slower on level ground, by substituting a different number for the mile per hour element of the equation. In winter, I’ve found that substituting 1 mile per hour for 2 miles per hour leads to good travel time estimates since surface conditions usually require the use of snowshoes or crampons.

Now that you have the total distance and elevation gain of your route, how do you decide if you’re physically fit to complete it or if you’ve bitten off more that you can chew? Everyone is different, but use previous experience as your guide. If you’ve never done that much distance or elevation gain per day before, or carried as heavy a pack previously, be more conservative in what you plan to accomplish. Once you establish a baseline, you can build on it on subsequent trips.

Weather Forecast

While you’d think checking the weather forecast the day of your hike would be common sense, you’d be surprised by the number of hikers who don’t do it. Proceeding with a trip in poor weather or without proper clothing, equipment, and experience can lead to serious problems if you plan on venturing into hazardous terrain. There’s nothing wrong with postponing or cancelling a hike when the weather is crappy.

NOAA (weather.gov) point forecast tool
NOAA (weather.gov) point forecast tool

When checking the weather forecast, it’s also important to differentiate between a valley forecast and a higher elevation forecast, since bad weather at higher elevations is almost always more severe than weather at lower elevations. The potential danger is the highest when hiking above treeline where you’re not protected by tree or vegetation cover, because:

  • Higher wind speeds can blow you off your feet and make it difficult to walk.
  • Cold temperatures and wind chill can heighten the risk of hypothermia or frostbite.
  • The change of surface from dirt to boulder fields increases the chance of lower leg injuries.
  • Heavy cloud cover increases the chance of becoming disoriented if you don’t have navigation tools.
  • The risk of being struck by lightning is greatly increased when you leave tree cover.

NOAA has many good online tools for forecasting backcountry and mountain weather conditions on the Weather.gov website. Many people also like to refer to the Mountain Forecast website for a different presentation of the same information.

Sunrise and Sunset Information

I constantly see search and rescue reports about hikers who have been caught out after dark without headlamps. While carrying a headlamp on hikes is a must-have, I suspect the reason that hikers are “benighted” also has to do with underestimating travel times (covered above) and not knowing how many hours of sunlight there are in the day. This is important to check, especially in late autumn when the length of days gets incredibly short.

Sunset and Sunrise Calculator
Sunset and Sunrise Calculator – http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php

Trails become much more difficult to follow after sunset, even if you have a headlamp, because you have far fewer visual cues to help you see where the trail is. If you’re hiking on an un-blazed or poorly blazed trail, it can be very easy to lose the trail if the ground is covered with rocks or roots. It’s even worse in autumn and early spring, when the ground is covered with dead leaves that hide any evidence of other hikers’ tracks and footprints.

Parking and Vehicle Information

Including the location of your parking spot and vehicle information in your trip plan is useful if search and rescue has to come looking for you. If you’ve left a trip plan with a relative or trusted friend, they can email the entire trip plan to SAR, including this information.

The first thing SAR will do is to check your parking spot to see if your car is there. If it’s not, they’ll assume you hiked out already. If it is, then they can follow your route and try to locate you on foot or from the air. If you change your plans or don’t park your car where you said it will be in your trip plan, it’s important to communicate this fact to the person you’ve entrusted your trip plan with before you begin your trip.

Wrap Up

This has been a quick synopsis of the trip planning process and the type of information to include in a trip plan. I go through this same check list when I plan and document my day hikes and backpacking trips, leaving a copy of my trip plan with my wife. Going through the process of planning a hike in this much detail usually doesn’t more than 30 minutes and can be useful for sharing trip details and assumptions if you hike and backpack with other people. It’s also a good planning aid to make sure that you’ve packed the right clothing and gear for a trip, particularly for more challenging trips in remote locations.

Written 2017.

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  1. A lot of this information would be collected on a “route card”, but we don’t teach those in the US. I’m not sure why. They seem to be standard practice in the UK.


  2. It is also important to include time for breaks and meals when estimating the total travel time for a hike.

  3. Just did a day hike in an area I’m familiar with. I had forgotten about the parking fee. I was happy to find $5 in my wallet and to not have to put a 20 in the envelope for the pay post.

  4. Parking pass (lots cheaper than paying by the visit!) stays in my car

    “Ten” essentials stay in my daypack, removed only just before and replaced immediately after overnighters. However, I still use a check list.

    The required info is on my computer ready to add details and send with email to my designated contact. Maybe the equivalent of that British route card? However, I allow (and plan) for the possibility of being caught out overnight and ask the contact not to call SAR until mid-morning the next day. I always have my PLB with me, should I run into serious trouble sooner.

    This year, there’s no hiking in the Columbia River Gorge this fall/winter due to the Eagle Creek fire. In a normal year, I plan to return to my car at least an hour before sunset (in an unfamiliar place, 2 hours). The Oregon side of the Gorge faces north, and down in those deep (formerly forested, although a lot wasn’t burned) canyons on a cloudy winter day, it gets dark early!

    Just googling “sunset, [nearest city, state]” brings up the sunset time.

    • I also give my emergency contact a big buffer (usually until the next morning after I’m due to check in) before I tell them to contact SAR. The last thing we want is for them to start an unnecessary search. I have just upgraded from a SPOT, which very occasionally drops check-in messages, to an inReach which is more reliable when sending messages because I can see that they’ve been received. But I still keep that big buffer in there, since nothing electronic is fool-proof.

  5. Forgot one thing–that turnaround time:
    I recalculate it every hour by noting the time it took me to get where I am. I add an hour to the return timeto what it took me to get to the checkpoint. Remember that you’ll be more tired–hence slower–on the way back!

  6. I have a similar check list for multi day tramps on my computer and having filled in details email the form to my two I C E contacts. Mind you some unforeseen things can really stuff things up big time such as river levels up and too dangerous to cross due to such as excessive snow melt on distant peaks. Invariably this happens way beyond the half way point and the situation has to be assessed; A camp or bivi till the water goes down or perhaps a long detour to a safe crossing or bridge. This is the time I wish for santa to bring me a satellite phone! There is nothing more embarrassing than meeting the rescue team coming out for you or wincing every time you hear a helicopter when you are overdue.

  7. This is a great blog post! I have a similar post on my blog :) The NPS statistics are a sad truth.

  8. I guess it is an “individualized” decision on when to have emergency back-up contacts make that call to S&R. I also allowed a cushion-of-time, until a Sheriff Deputy once told me not to do so.

    I used to travel extensively on business. After completing my business assignments, I would remain in the state and use those opportunities to do long day hikes in wilderness areas where I had worked. For example, if it were a long day hike, I always would tell my emergency back-up contacts to wait until the following morning to see if they had an email from me that I was off-the-trail “safely.” If no email was present in their “in-box,” then they were instructed to telephone the local county Sheriff’s office at the number I provided them.

    I chose the following morning for emergency back-up contacts to become concern because sometimes there would be time zone changes due to my geographic location and I did not want to imposition emergency back-up contacts staying up longer hours waiting to hear from me, a solo hiker. Additionally, I was under the erroneous assumption that S&R would take “no action” until sunlight the next day.

    Then years ago a Sheriff’s Deputy responded, “No,” you have them call us “that” night. Here is his “reasoning” behind receiving a call “that” night. The S&R team will initiate immediately planning for your rescue. During the night they will study your itinerary, check on your car at the trailhead, cull through all available information to decide how to initiate the search and rescue starting at sunrise. By sunrise, every S&R asset will be in place at strategic geographic areas to commence searching for you. Some Sheriff’s offices will even go out at night, which happened a couple of years ago for a friend of mine who had a cell signal strong enough to make a call. They got to him “that” winter night.

    The reasoning behind getting the call ASAP is if an individual is “injured,” then every minute in the absence of medical care may be life threatening.

    Would it be embarrassing at times if S&R showed when no emergency rescue is needed? Sure! My friend was embarrassed deeply, and stated as such to his rescuers. The S&R unit told my friend not to feel embarrass in the least, that their job was to make certain that my friend was safe, and to get him home safely.

  9. Excellent info/advice Phillip! I often trek with a local high school, frequently peak bagging in the Lake Placid area (ADK Heart Lake area) and have seen everything from hypothermia to lost hikers eventually located at night – without headlamps, food or water. Having an appreciation of one’s surroundings and the potential for ‘unfortnnate’ events (and how to deal with them) can easily be the difference between a SAR situation and a pleasant day hike.

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