Considerations on planning your trip: Overall and Daily Hiking Plans

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 21 February 2011

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Considerations on planning your backpacking trip

If you are pulling a trip down the long trails down to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite from Lake Tahoe, you've already figured out your resupply plan.

You've worked out how many days it will take you to get to the Echo Lake Chalet from Meeks Bay, on down to the Lake Alpine Lodge, and then to your final resupply spot at Kennedy Meadows Pack Station to pick up your final resupply packages along the way to Tuolumne Meadows.

This means you already know how many miles a day you are going to have to cover between each stop, which has given you a good idea of where you are planning to camp each night, and how many nights it will take to get to each of your resupply points. But planning is an abstraction that does not express the raw physicality of the backpacking experience.

Though backpacking is a beautiful experience, it demands direct physical engagement with difficult terrain that will tax every physical system in your body. Each step you take is taking you further from the trail head and our social infrastructure. The pains of backpacking are just as real as the pleasures backpacking will bring you. Your hiking plan is going to determine the balance between pleasure and pain.

A reasoned approach to the physical demands of backpacking will minimize the dangers of exhaustion, injury, and unnecessary suffering on the trail. A reasonable approach demands physical preparation prior to backpacking, and a good hiking plan on the trail that reasonably reflects your capacities.

There is a "catch-22" in planning: If you take more days to cover a section, you will have to carry more food and a heavier pack. If you take less days, your pack will be lighter, but  your daily mileages will be greater.

Background Information

Consider that the length of the effective hiking day during the month of July is 14 and 3/4 hours. Consider holding a 2 mph average over those 14 and 3/4 hours. That's 29.5 miles. Yeah, sure. Now let's be reasonable.

The basic consideration about the length of your hiking day is your base level of fitness. Few people can hit the trail and do 2 mph for almost 15 hours on a flat surface, let alone through high angle and high altitude mountains with a heavy pack, day after day.

You must not only stay within your physical capacities, you also must stay within your psychological limits. Though challenging yourself is fun, the physical pain of backpacking should not be greater than the pleasure. This is a subjective measure, but it is really important to get the balance between pain and pleasure right. This will set the overall tone of your trip.

Understanding these factors will determine the length of your hiking day at the start of the trip, the mileage you are capable of covering during those hours, and the number of days you can comfortably repeat this mileage and daily time under pack on the trail.

I strongly recommend that you "stay within" yourself, especially during the first few days of a long duration high mileage trip. It is much preferable to start slow and get stronger and faster on the trail than it is to start fast and fade.

Pushing hard on the first days of a backpacking trip is common among aggressive males, and often results in debilitating blisters, sore muscles and strains, and lots of unnecessary pain. Even if you are very strong and capable of instant high mileages, it is very wise to bring yourself up to full exertion slowly.

You are shooting for repeatable performance over many days consisting of many miles each day. You will find that this requires adjustments of various factors to suit the circumstances.

First is the amount of daily trail time. I wake earlier, and hike later in the day, as I head down the trail. My time on the trail increases every day I am on the trail.

Second is lunch and break times. Long days with high mileage requires an excellent daily trail plan. My typical Summer day includes two hour-long lunch breaks, with at least three additional "take off the pack" breaks. One lunch consists of a cold lunch of cheese and crackers, and a wide variety of snacks. Lunch two consists of a hot lunch of ramen or soup, coffee, and a wide variety of snacks. That's 3 and a half hours of breaks per day, over the length of a 14 3/4 hour day.

I look at the map each morning, check the locations of the major climbs, access to water, the best vistas and overlooks, and try to time my breaks advantageously to enjoy the best combinations of these features. In any case, I always stop to enjoy the magnificent views and scenery, and to meet cool people.

You've got to determine the proper balance between work, rest, food, and mileage for you. The daily mileage and the days between re supply you plan should reflect a balance that suits you physically as well as aesthetically.

So far, my hiking plan brings me down to 11.5 hours of trail time per day. At 2 mph we are looking at 23 miles per day. Now that's more like it. But that would still be a crazy figure to base the first days of my trip plan on. I will be so tired that I won't have any fun at all.

Unless I've been running 7 miles through hills every other day for a few months, while pursuing a healthy weight-training program. In that case I should hit the high mileage quickly. Each degradation in preparatory fitness degrades my initial mileage capability. The worse shape I'm in, the longer it takes to make high mileage on the trail. Or the more it hurts. Or both!

It is likely you will have to plan your daily mileage to start with a short work day, and increase the length of your hiking day and hiking speed as you and your body adjust to high elevation, a heavy load, and long miles.

And a lighter pack. Consuming a day's food lightens my pack by 2 to 2.5 pounds.

More on Planning

Considering mileage, food, and physicality

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