How to plan an ultralight backpacking trip

How to plan an ultralight backpacking trip

Ultralight backpacking is all about enjoying nature. You want to bring everything you need: nothing more, nothing less. But how do you know what you need? The answer is proper planning. 

In this post I’ll teach you how to plan and research a backpacking trip. Pack the right gear and head out, knowing that you’re equipped to handle the adventure that awaits. 

Figure out where you want to go

Before you can do any planning or research, you need to figure out where you want to go. 

If you’re new to ultralight backpacking, start small. 

Find a nearby park or area where you can go out for an overnight trip. Like any other skill, you’ll learn by doing. Forgetting an essential item is a much smaller problem when you’re on a one-night trip near home than if you’re in another state for a multi-week trip.

If you’re a more experienced backpacker, you may already have a rough idea of where you want to go.

In either case, it’s good to do some research to find a trail or area you want to go to. 

A useful tool for researching trails is AllTrails. You can explore a map and search trails by parameters like trail length and total elevation gain. 

AllTrails map view showing the length filter
AllTrails lets you search for trails based on length, type, and elevation gain.

Plan your route

Once you know where you want to go, it’s time to do some more detailed planning to figure out. I recommend using CalTopo for this. You can use it to create routes and get information on the elevation profile and terrain.

Route on topographical map
A route in CalTopo using the Forest Service layer

Planning daily distance

The amount of distance and elevation you can cover in a day is very individual. When traveling in the mountains, use altitude as a guide when planning daily mileage. 

For most fit people, 3,000 ft of elevation gain per day is a good rule of thumb for comfortable travel. If you’re still getting in shape, aim for less. If you’re an ultra-endurance athlete, you might be able to average 6,000 ft per day

Terrain statistics for a route in CalTopo

Your traveling speed will vary depending on the terrain. You may be able to cruise around 3-4 mph on a well-maintained trail. If you’re off-trail and doing route finding, your speed can drop to 1 mph. 

Take both elevation and terrain into account when planning your itinerary.

Locating potential campsites

It’s good to have a goal in mind for each day, even if you end up changing your plan along the way. 

Some parks require you to stay at established campsites. Popular parks may even assign you specific sites beforehand. In wilderness areas, you can usually camp anywhere you like, as long as you stay far enough from the trail and water.

To decide campsites, start looking at how many miles you think you will do per day. Then see what looks intriguing.

It’s challenging to find a campsite by looking at a map unless it’s a marked site. You can find potential areas by looking for places where contour lines are far apart.

The terrain looks flat and there is access to water.

A good site will have access to water nearby but is not right on the water. You want to shelter from the wind and avoid camping down in a dip that gathers cold air. Open views to the West will usually have beautiful sunsets. Eastward facing spots will get morning sun. 

Research the route and environment

Now that you know the route, you’re almost ready to start researching your trip. Before you can do any further research, you need to decide when you are going.

What weather should you prepare for?

If your trip is still several weeks or even months out, you can’t get accurate weather reports yet. Instead, you can look at historical data to get an idea of what the weather might look like. Will it be cold? Rainy? Use this info to make an educated guess that you can fine-tune as your trip gets closer.

When your trip is about 10 days away, you can start to get some more reliable weather predictions. An easy way to find the closest weather station is to use CalTopo. Right-click on the map and select Point info > NOAA forecast. 

NOAA forecast selected in a context menu opened from a point near a lake on a topographical map.
Locating the closest weather station to your route using CalTopo.

Pay attention to temperature highs and lows, and if there’s any rain in the forecast. Remember that it’s typical to get afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains. They may not always show up in weather forecasts.

Note that temperature decreases by 3-5 degrees F for every 1,000 ft of elevation gained. Look at the weather station elevation and adjust based on it. 

How much daylight do you have?

Use a site like Time and Date to find out how much daylight you will have. If you’re used to hiking 30 miles a day, you may need to prepare for night hiking later in the season. 

A table showing sunset and sunrise times, along with day lenght.
Knowing how much sunlight (and moonlight) you have is valuable.

What’s the terrain like? 

If you are planning a trip that’s all on-trail, the primary consideration is elevation gain. Make sure you don’t need to climb 10,000ft to make your daily distance. 

Do a Google search for [your trail name] + "trail conditions" and see if there are any recent reports. Especially after the winter, there may be blowdown, snow, and deep crossings to take into consideration.

For off-trail travel, look at maps and satellite images to get an idea of the terrain you’ll be traveling on. The 3D satellite view in Google Maps is an excellent resource for this. 

Will there be snow?

Snow will be a critical factor if you are planning a trip early or late in the season. CalTopo has a weekly satellite layer you can use to get up-to-date images of the snow situation. 

In early November, my route is still clear of snow.

Also, you can try to find Facebook groups for the trail or area you are planning to hike. They are an excellent resource for up to date info from other hikers. Here is the group for trail conditions in the Sierra Nevada.

Remoteness

The remoteness of your trip will determine how much food you need to carry and how you should prepare for emergencies. 

Food makes up a big part of your pack weight. If you have a chance, resupplying along the way can help you keep your pack lighter.

It’s also worth checking if you have cellphone coverage. Search for your provider’s coverage map to see if they cover your planned route. 

T-Mobile coverage map showing poor coverage of the route
Poor cell phone coverage means you can’t rely on your phone for help.

In many remote areas, you can go without a cellphone signal for days on end. I recommend a satellite messenger like the Garmin inReach Mini for emergency communication. Especially if you’re going solo.

Insects

Mosquitoes can make any trip miserable. Do some research on Google and Facebook groups to see what the bug pressure is like.

Don’t get caught off guard with mosquitoes.

If the mosquitoes are bad, pants and long sleeves are well worth the weight. Also, remember the bug spray. 

Animals

The most important animal to keep an eye out for is the bear. They’re curious and hungry animals. They’ll devour any food you leave unattended within their reach. If you startle them or get between a momma bear and her cubs, they may get aggressive.

Research if there are bears on your planned route. Find out if they are Black Bears or Grizzlies. Black Bears are rarely aggressive, and bear spray is not generally advised. Many parks, like Yosemite, even forbid it. Grizzlies can be more aggressive, and you should bring bear spray.

Bear canisters are required in many heavy-use areas.

You’ll also want to keep your food protected from animals like squirrels, marmots, and pikas. Bring appropriate food storage, depending on the animals you expect to encounter.

How much water do you need to carry?

Research how long dry stretches you will have on the trail, so you have enough water carrying capacity. But don’t carry more water than needed, it’s one of the heaviest things in your backpack.

There was a lot of water on the JMT in 2019 after a heavy snow year.

What are the regulations?

Remember to check the specific regulations for the park or area you are going to. Especially, figure out:

  • Do you need a permit? 
  • Are bear canisters required?
  • Camping regulations
  • Camp fire regulations

Go out and adventure!

With a solid plan, you’re now ready to make informed decisions about what to bring on your trip. 

Happily on top of Mt. Whitney after a successful JMT hike.

How do you prepare for your trips? Let me know your tips in the comments below!

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