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Learn from These Backpacking Trip Planning Mistakes

Backpacking in the White Mountains

I consider myself a pretty good trip planner, but I’ve still made many comical or embarrassing backpacking trip-planning mistakes or omissions over the years.

Here are a few select nuggets:

  • The time I parked my car seven miles farther down the Appalachian Trail from where I’d expected to find it, so I had to keep walking when I thought I’d finished my section hike.
  • The time I set out to backpack a section of the Appalachian Trail only to find it still buried in several feet of snow, for miles and miles.
  • The time I ran out of food on an overseas hike and ended up eating cans of baked beans I found in a shelter until I could get to a town to resupply.
  • The time I found that the trail I’d planned to backpack had been washed away two years earlier and was closed by the Forest Service. That required a complete trip reroute at the trailhead.
  • Multiple times when high water crossings have forced me to make extended detours. I could have figured out this with a little local knowledge and closer attention to stream crossings on the map.
  • There have been times when I didn’t test meals at home before bringing them on a hike, and they turned out to be disastrously inedible.
  • I underestimated the impact of a physical limitation and was forced to get off the trail and figure out a shuttle back to my car in rural Maine. This is harder and more expensive than it may sound!
  • Times when I’ve brought too little sleep insulation and had a long, cold night.
  • I underestimated the fuel required to prime an alcohol stove in cold weather.
  • When I ran out of water and had to beg a passing hiker for some of theirs.
  • The time I figured I could hitch-hike 10 miles back to my car, but never got a ride and had to walk it.
  • The times I’ve carried way more food than I ate.

With experience, the number of such trip planning mistakes does drop, but you still need to be on guard and pay attention to your actions. If anything, you need to become an even more meticulous planner, particularly if you’re hiking outside your comfort zone, where trip planning mistakes can have real consequences.

Route Planning
Route Planning

A Trip Planning Guide

While none of my trip-planning mistakes have been serious enough to get me killed, many have caused discomfort, expense, or inconvenience that I could have done without.

Here’s a checklist of trip-planning tasks for day hikes and backpacking trips that might go beyond the planning activities you engage in today.

  1. Plot the route on a map or in a digital mapping tool. Double-check the route with a guidebook or paper-based map since digital mapping tools can significantly underestimate distance.
  2. Estimate how many days your route will take you to hike. Be realistic. How many hours per day will you hike? How fast can you hike? How many hours of daylight are there?
  3. Depending on the trip, plot out bad weather escape routes or car drops where you can hike out if conditions or health issues warrant an early exit.
  4. Check local backcountry regulations and wilderness area rules.
  5. Find trip reports or other recent condition updates about the route you plan to hike, including fire restrictions, trail conditions, high water crossings, snow depth (ice melt), etc.
  6. Write a description of what you expect to see or experience every quarter-mile along the route. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to miss things on the map because you only use it to compute mileage and elevation gains. For example, steep climbs, viewpoints, tree cover, etc. This extra planning step makes you look at the map at a fine level of detail.
  7. If wilderness backpacking, try to identify good camping spots, such as level areas, along your route if you are not staying at shelters or designated campsites.
  8. Identify local water sources.
  9. Check seasonal weather patterns and temperature ranges.
  10. Check sunset and sunrise times.
  11. Determine the type of stove/fuel combination you need based on weather, fuel supply availability, and local regulations.
  12. How much food do you need to carry for your trip? 1.5 to 2 pounds per day is a good estimate that you can refine later.
  13. Test your food in advance if eating it for the first time, especially specially packaged backpacking foods. You don’t want to find your food awful at the beginning of a multi-day trip. This includes cooking it using the stove system you plan to bring.
  14. Assemble the right gear for your trip needs based on the climate, landscape, and backcountry regulations for your hiking area.
  15. Figure out transportation to and from the trailhead. Is a shuttle required? Carpooling?
  16. Write up a trip plan to leave with a friend or relative.
    • When to contact authorities if you are overdue.
    • Who to call, including phone number.
    • Where you parked your car.
    • What your route plan was, including escape routes if any.
    • What gear you are carrying.
    • Your level of experience.

Hiking and backpacking trips start well before you ever get to the trailhead. Becoming a good trip planner is an important skill in becoming an expert hiker or backpacker. But practice makes perfect, so start practicing now!

See Also:

Updated: 2024.


  1. Wow, reading your list of mistakes was like a walk through my backpacking history. Untested food that tastes like wet cardboard. Check! Cold nights due to not enough insulation. Check! Unknown trip reroutes. Check! Miss estimating mileage. Check! Carrying twice as much food as you needed. Check! Fortunately I have lived and learned to hike another day. Thanks for sharing your guidelines, I picked up a couple of tricks to add to my own process.

    • Twelve hours without water is very unpleasnt and unforgetable. Now I carry too much water weight out of fear of a repeat of that mistake.

      • Had the same thing happen to me on the Maine AT during a drought. That was bad.

        • My very first backpacking trip after a 20 year hiatus I ended up hiking without water for close to 15 miles. It was down near the coast here in Florida and several of the water sources I was depending on had turned brackish after the last hurricane came through. Spent one night and half the next day without drinkable water. I was so happy to come across a fresh water pond even if the water was dark brown after filtering.

      • Indeed. I had a ran-out-of-water-on-a-hot-day experience thirty years ago, and I still tend to carry a bit too much water. I’d rather haul an extra kg than go through that again!

  2. Oh. Yeah,
    I definitely can look back and see the same mistakes I made years ago.
    I actually remember running out of water while hiking trough the “Namibe desert” in 1995. That was a crazy. Luckily..
    Letting my map get soaked in the rain in Gaborone, Botswana.
    Today we still are making mistakes, but looking back it seemed ridiculous.

  3. Your post elicited a knowing smile… been there, done that! One of the dumbest/funniest mistakes I made was when I was day hiking on a business trip in El Paso. I parked my rental car at the trailhead armed with an optimistic appraisal of how long the Ron Coleman Trail would take me and inadequate knowledge of when the gates for the park would close. Needless to say, the difficult trail was made more difficult by routefinding errors (including sweating through my copy of the map until it was unreadable), and when I got back to the car, the park gates were locked for the night. I had the choice the next morning to be late for my meeting or show up looking and smelling like I’d had a hard hike and slept in the back seat of a Honda Civic!

  4. my favorite moments when something has gone wrong (typically nothing big for us) is inevitably one of us says “Who planned this trip anyway!”

    Like the 3rd time we were trying to complete the NY AT and we found ourselves attempting to cross the Palisades parkway at 4pm on the Friday before memorial day……

  5. Leaving the Map at home for a Cross Country Trip in the Mojave Desert was not a good idea. I continued on any way and suddenly realized on the second day that I could not recall all the known water cashe spots and secondary known natural ones along my Route. It got ugly. One trick I learned to do was to Graph out on paper the Elevation Changes during preplanning that I learned from some Guidebooks of the PCT. I found that doing that greatly inhanced my knowledge of the area and really helped me make the Right decision. Very.Bad Commerically prepared Foods is or was my next mistake. Teriyaki anything makes me sick and I did not know that seems my body does not like Soy sauce and Ginger combination and I had 3 packages of it cause I got it on Sale. Another Mistake, taking my self inflatable Air Mattress on a Desert trip where I slept under a Tarp on the ground leaving the ground cloth at home to save weight which was replaced by water weight. Ssssssssssssssss kerflat! And not bringing a repair kit which would have been useless anyway. #1. Mistake..Big Big Big Mistake….Bringing alone a totally incapable female companion who was totally out of her element…Oh it was bad….The funniest, or the most Humorist, or the Most funny stories coming out of a hike Mistake? Leading a macho testosterone ladened group of Deputy Sheriff’s on a Sierra 16 mile two night round trip hike…Oh I got stories..I actually think I got a promotion for keeping my mouth shut..LMAO from the memory of that hike…….

  6. My 3 boys and I had quite a change of plans when our alcohol stove fouled the first night of a 3 night trip. I use a mix of alcohols (3:1, methanol:isopropanol). The isopropanol supplier (Red Heet) started including fuel injector cleaner in the product just before this trip. It dawned on me as my stove flame slowly shrank that the oily residue of the fuel injector cleaner was plugging up my fiberglass wick. As the alcohol evaporated and burned, the oily fuel injector cleaner accumulated in the wick. Now we always make our blend using 90% isopropanol from the pharmacy!

  7. Sounds familiar.
    Early days.
    Returned home with 6 lbs of food.
    Complete as hoc improvised trails since maps/roads were washed out on an island.
    Water source was a mosquito swarm of mud
    Parked at the bottom parking lot added 1 extra mile to trailhead.
    Slept shivering on a summit in a badly labeled 40F before I knew they were all lying marketing gimmicks.

    Live and learn.

  8. I’ve had cold nights from not enough insulation and carried way too much food, but give me time and I’m sure these other mistakes will happen to me too.

    Oh, and there was the time I was doing a long run last winter in Vermont (not hiking-related per se but still relevant) and the road I needed to complete my loop was closed for the season. Had to call my friend to bail me out or else I would’ve run 24 miles that day instead of the planned 18.

  9. Making sure my hiking partners are prepared for the trip has been a theme for me. Reaching the summit of a Catskills peak after dark when my buddy announces that he forgot his sleeping bag. Day 5 of an 8 day trip when my two hiking partners are running out of food. Day one of a 5 day Olympic park traverse and two members of the 4 person group take a different trail hiking out of the river valley- eventually making it back to the trail head after dark completely oblivious that they were hiking alone for hours. My girlfriend running out of panic when the night was closing in on the AZ trail. – falling injuries and cougar bait we’re my concerns with that one. My beginner mistakes years ago include putting my food in anearby

  10. My beginner mistakes include trying to store my food in a near by stream and raccoons eating it all. Hanging food on a branch in Yosemite and the bears ate it. Not testing my tent and having it leak horribly on the first night. Having no rain gear whatsoever and being close to hypothermia. A 35 mile trip became a 60 mile trip when the bridge was washed out on the road in tithe trailhead . Sleeping on the ground witha summer weight sleeping bag. And no ground pad in February. Getting naseaus eating carob chip laden trail mix. Having no idea there would be snow on my route in April in the Olympic park. Having no bug protection. Shelter on the Ny AT in July. And the list goes on…..

  11. The water mistakes reminds me of hiking in the Bigelows with my son. Hiking in 90 degree weather, I asked him if he would help even our loads by taking some of our gear in my pack. So he took all the water out of my pack to help lighten my load. Soon after, he disappeared down the trail and out of sight. (mistake #2, always stay together) A couple of hours later, I dove my head into a stream and drank plenty figuring it couldn’t be any more harmful than heat stroke which was starting to look like a sure thing.

  12. “All of the times I’ve carried way more food than I actually ate.”

    Every . . . Single . . . Time

    I seem to do this on every trip. I always forget that my appetite drops for the first day or 2.

  13. this year was my first year snow shoeing, and that trip over greylock mt. was challenging there was a big snow melt when i moved up trail from october mt. there was only about 4-5 inches in Cheshire. I almost left my snow shoes behind, little did i ever imagine there was two-three feet of snow between mark noepel shelter and bascom lodge. it was a great experience with great views and glad i snow shoed, i often spend to much time planing. but have often made some errors and bring two much food now hearing how much snow they got up there i’m glad i ended my trip at the north end of greylock and didn’t continue on to vt. I left two days before they got the last big snow fall in the middle of march. water freezing up and filter, baby wipes, ect freezing up during that polar vortex, changing my winter gear to accommodate now. I kept most of it on me and warm but shifting stuff around and leaving it out in camp for a few min was all it takes, now going to carry astringent for cleanliness on long winter hikes

  14. Another backpacking history that sounds just like mine! We do learn a lot from the experiences, though! Well, most of the time–I still took way too much food on my last trip (overestimated appetite of teenage grandson).

    My biggest problem in more recent years came from not allowing an extra day or two for contingencies. I ended up learning this one the easy way. On one trip (planned to be major), my dog got sick the second day and continued to upchuck on the third day. I turned around, not wanting to be stuck miles from any trailhead with a veterinary emergency (fortunately, after a couple days of rest the dog was fine). This turned out to be a good thing, because otherwise I’d have been camped well above timberline (at Elbow Lake in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers for those who know the area) when over a foot of snow hit that lasted a couple of days. I hadn’t factored that into my schedule, so the dog and I would have had a couple of foodless days and my anxious relatives would probably have called SAR. Since then I’ve planned in a couple of contingency days for longer trips. If there is no contingency, I can always exend the end of the trip a day or two.

  15. My best stories come from creative bad planning.

  16. I once did a multi-day hike and didn’t expect the temperature to drop well below zero – I froze at night and didn’t sleep at all since I didn’t have proper insulation and gear.

  17. TwoYellowDogs.Terri

    I like to think of trip planning mistakes as really good stories to tell post-hike/backpack. Some of my best stories were probably planning mistakes. (As long as they don’t become life-threatening). Realistically, past planning mistakes are basically gaining experience. HOWEVER, enjoyed reading your list.. apparently from the comments you are not the only one that walked away with “lessons” not to be repeated from “planning mistakes.”

  18. Early morning after-coffee, with trowel in hand for the morning ritual, I found, just outside of the campsite, a beautifully prepared dung hole someone had dug and not used. It was perfect with only a small tree root running through it. Immediately after release, I was stung by a bee on my wrist. Startled, in pain, and jumping around with trousers at my knees I was able to get away from hundreds of ground wasps who built a nest under that root! While a little more cleanup was required, I was really lucky to get away with a single wasp sting. I was 13 miles from the car, 5 miles from cell reception, and on a solo trip. That could have been disastrous. ALWAYS dig your own hole.

  19. Katherine Hirsch

    On the lighter side, no real survival issue…my friends and I divided up the food list for a 10 day Allagash lake and river canoe camping trip (Northern Maine, US). Not total wilderness, but no supplies available en route. After first night of camping, when we got up to cook breakfast, all of the rummaging around in the food supply revealed that there was NO coffee…big mistake, particularly to a couple members of the group who seemed to regard a caffeine-free trip as a fate worse than death! They remedied the problem by begging a small supply from a forest ranger at a ranger’s cabin we passed, and carefully rationed it throughout the trip.

  20. Always bring your own water filter!
    I once went on a backpacking trip with a “more experienced” friend who insisted that he had everything taken care of. It turned out he brought a steripen as his only water filter (new to him) and the batteries ran out. Luckily we were on the Olympic Coast and fires were allowed and there was plenty of wood. I did have backup iodine tablets, but I’m really glad I didn’t use them because I didn’t realize at the time that they don’t get rid of cryptosporidium…
    Another time a fellow hiker dropped their water filter in the river and it was gone. Redundancy with some things can be a good idea.
    As for carrying too much food, sometimes it’s better with beginners to have a little extra, until they’ve gotten used to being out in the woods without just being able to grab what they want. Especially grandchildren and people you want to go with again. Dial in the menu over several trips…
    I love the stories here!
    Thank you!

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