Kate and I spend quite a bit of our vacation time hiking and backpacking, and we plan most of our vacations in locales that allow us to split our time between the backcountry and civilization. Deciding where to go, how to get there, and what to do once there can seem daunting but we’ll walk you through how we do it.
First, where are you going on your next trip? This one is all personal preference. Always wanted to go see a particular mountain in person, have a friend who just went on a trip to a cool destination, spend way too much time on Instagram looking at other people’s travel photos? It doesn’t matter how you choose where you want to go, you will need to take into account multiple factors including the time of the year, how much vacation time you have, what you want to see, and how much money you want to spend.
Most of our trips over the last few years have focused on going to different regions of the US and trying to squeeze as much activity as possible within a few state radius. For example, we went to the Pacific Northwest in late summer of 2017 for 12 days, and over that time we:
- Visited Seattle
- Visited Bainbridge Island
- Visited Portland
- Saw the total solar eclipse
- Camped and backpacked in Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park
- Day hiked Mount Rainer National Park
And we snuck across the border to Vancouver for a few days (and by “snuck” I mean waited in line like everyone else).
Deciding to visit the Northwest was first and foremost just something we both wanted to do. Washington and Oregon are beautiful and provide some of the best hiking in the country, but we also wanted to visit the big cities, eat new food, and do some touristy things as well.
Once we have an inkling of where we want to go we start the research phase. On the top of the list of priorities is the time of year and the weather. With few exceptions the weather is going to be the first thing you want to check out when you start planning. Traveling to Wyoming in December to visit Yellowstone may not be the best idea if you are cold adverse or to Arizona in August if you start to melt once it hits 90 *F (us Texans don’t mind three digit temperatures so much but Kate is reaching for a jacket if the refrigerator door is open a little too long). If you really want to visit somewhere and the expected weather is going to be questionable you may want to shelve that trip until you can find a more favorable time of the year to go. We normally scour Google for weather data and travel guides about the best time of the year to visit our destinations and what weather to expect. Wikipedia.com, the National Park Service, and numerous other sources have tons of information on average temperatures, precipitation, and regional weather concerns (hurricanes, etc). And don’t forget that if you’re headed to the mountains, weather can be vastly different at those higher altitudes.
Next up, the highlights. We like to make a list of the places, hikes, and sites we want to see, including suggested hotels and restaurants if we are going to be in a more urban area. The Pacific Northwest offered numerous national parks, state parks, and protected areas that are great for hiking and backpacking, as well as some interesting tourist attractions. We made a list that included Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier National Parks, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Bainbridge Island, Mount Hood, Crater Lake National Park, and a trip to see the total solar eclipse. Keep in mind, this was our “want list” and there are more not included here. When trip planning we have “must see”, “want to see”, and “if there is time” categories. In this instance Olympic, Rainier, Cascades, Vancouver, and the eclipse were must see. We weren’t able to do all of the things we listed, but we made it to all of the highlights and a few extras. Kate likes to use the app Roadtrippers to plan things out and I use Google Maps with way-points. We then bring it all together on a good old fashioned Word document. We map out the amount of time between locations, number of days in each, and try several iterations to maximize what we can do. For example, the itinerary below is the final one we used for our trip. Even with this we made adjustments on the fly to account for absurd traffic after the eclipse (turned a four hour trip to Bainbridge Island into a six-and-a-half hour traffic jam) and to get some extra time in the Seattle area.
Once we have the skeleton of a trip together, we start to flesh things out a little bit. The amount of time we plan on spending in each park, in the backcountry, and traveling is fairly arbitrary. Many times there are particular mountains, glaciers, or views we want to see but after that we are always on to the next location. Generally after a day or two we (me in particular) start to get antsy and want to move on. You could easily spend your whole trip and many more at any one of the national parks or other great locations but you’ll have to decide what is most important to you.
When we are planning a trip to the backcountry we start on the National Park Service website (NPS.gov). Here you can get general information about each park (weather, road closures, services available) and view maps. We use these maps to write a few different routes. We again make a list of what we want to see (thanks Instagram and Pinterest for the eye candy), try to take into account the distance and elevation changes to these locations, the available campsites nearby, and how we are going to get to and from the trailhead. Often our routes start and stop from the same location. We have to be able to leave our rental somewhere and often we are going to distant areas of the parks where buses, hitchhiking, and Uber are not going to be options. Through hikes are great and keep you seeing new sights but require extra travel arrangements. Below are a couple different routes we planned out for a trip we were planning to the Grand Canyon.
Now the frustrating part. Making your backpacking itinerary happen. Unfortunately, just because you put a lot time and effort into a plan doesn’t mean it’s going to work out. The above routes didn’t happen because we couldn’t get a backcountry permit. The Grand Canyon is one of most visited national parks and unfortunately we were denied a permit (despite faxing the application just after midnight New Year’s Day while I was working an overnight shift at the ER) due to high demand. In this particular case we were road tripping so changing our trip up and heading to Yosemite was easy. Yosemite has what is probably my favorite backcountry permit system. They have reservations based on trailhead, not campground. This means that you have to start out on a particular trail but are free to camp and hike wherever in the backcountry. This worked out great on that specific trip since the snow in the high country was still very significant and we were not equipped to slog through snow melt, something we found out from a friendly hiker while trading stories over a campfire at Little Yosemite Valley Campground. When we traveled to Glacier NP we had reservations and were ready to go, just had to pick up that permit. Unfortunately, the first snow of the season arrived the night we did. This closed down the Going-to-the-Sun Road for the shuttle from Apgar Village. With no way to get to our trailhead and fires closing the southern part of the park we had to get a walkup permit for another area of the park to the north which turned out great (see #TravelBackThursday Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Part I)!
In summary, start out with a good foundation and slowly build up your trip from there. Decide which parks, hikes, cities, and regional locations you most want to see. Check whether the weather (mmmm homophones) and season are appropriate for your planned activities. Then figure out how much time you’re going to spend in each location. Now plan a few hiking routes using campsite and topographic maps. Apply for your permit well ahead of time and get your reservations in order (planes, car rental, hotels, etc). Finally, be ready to adapt, don’t let a few curve balls ruin your trip, and enjoy!
If you are interested in putting a trip together but need help getting started, feel free to leave a comment or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! We would love to help you coordinate your next adventure!