How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

One of the most incredible ways to explore this planet is on foot, carrying everything you need to survive on your back. Here's how to make backpacking as awe inspiring as possible.


Choose an Epic Destination: My favorite part about living in LA is leaving LA. We are close enough to the Sierra Nevada that I can drive north Friday after work and make it into Sequoia or Kings Canyon National Parks by midnight — getting a headstart for an adventure. The Sierra Nevada are truly stunning and, due to their close proximity to Southern California, that's where I most often venture out to get my backpacking fix. The High Sierra is my favorite. I feel right at home above the treeline; as such, I plan my trips to stay as high as possible for as long as possible. There's nothing quite like being the only person camped at a remote alpine lake at 11,500' while surrounded by even taller mountains. Most of my friends really seem to enjoy trees, so the long, forested approaches while gaining elevation tend to appease them.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

I scrambled to the summit of Mt. Hitchcock (13,184') to catch a view of Mt. Whitney and Hitchcock Lakes below.

Whether you're adventuring at home or abroad (the latter of which, I'm about to do ,) trekking in the presence of jagged mountains, towering waterfalls, gargantuan trees, or hot springs can all have a similar dramatic effect. Open up Google Earth, find an area near you with no roads, then zoom in and see what it's got to offer.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Humble beginnings: during my first backpacking trip, I immediately realized the value of lightening my load.

Choose the Time of Year: My first ever backpacking trip was to Yosemite National Park in July. It was hot, muggy, and mosquito-laden. But there were plenty of rock pools, alpine lakes, and rivers to dip into and cool off. Summer is a great time to backpack, because it's warm out so you can carry less and lighter gear. Snow in most places has melted, so the terrain is more accessible. That being said, summer is my least-favorite season to backpack.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

The High Sierras were still encrusted with snow over Memorial Day weekend.

Spring: If you're up in the mountains, chances are that there's still an abundance of snow. This past Memorial Day, I took a couple of friends to Mineral King to go backpacking in Sequoia. The mountains were still blanketed in white at higher elevations, but the trail was mostly clear of snow and ice. The patches where we did encounter frozen precipitation offered a little extra excitement. The days were cool enough that we didn't sweat our balls off while hiking; nights were cold enough to bundle up. The fact that the mountains were still covered in white made everything nicer to look at.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Daniel and I scrambled to the summit of Second Kaweah (13,667') to get a wide-open view of the surrounding country.

Summer: Summer's great for packing light and moving fast (you probably don't need a 0° sleeping bag and a ton of layers.) Most of the snow has melted, so take advantage of that and find some easier Class I (Yosemite Decimal System or "YDS" rating: cross-country hiking with low chance of injury) or Class II (simple scrambling, with the possibility of occasional use of the hands) peaks to scramble up. The views from the top are worth it. Make time for detours to swim in lakes and rivers. If you go a bit off-trail, often you'll be the only person around.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Brian and I kept warm by the fire while camping in the Lost Canyon, Mineral King, Sequoia early last Autumn.

Fall: Without a doubt, Autumn is my favorite season for backpacking. Depending on how early or late in the season you go, there may or may not be snow, but temperatures are cooler, the air is crisper and there are no more pesky mosquitoes to deal with. Colors start to change, creating camouflage patterns of green, yellow, orange, and red across the landscape. Nights are chilly and require the use of warm jackets and hats. The colder weather creates a great excuse to make a campfire — something that everyone can appreciate.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

The MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes are rugged, all-mountain snowshoes designed for climbing and winter backcountry travel.

Winter: Perhaps the most epic of all seasons to backpack. Depending on your location and elevation, chances are there will be a lot of snow. Snow requires a whole new skill set for backcountry travel and camping. To head out into the wilderness, it's likely that you'll need some snowshoes or cross-country skis. Snowshoeing, while a much less-efficient method of winter travel than skiing, presents a low-barrier of entry. A lot of sporting goods stores will rent snowshoes, but they're not terribly expensive to buy on your own (check out the MSR Evo's.) There's not much to using them either, just strap 'em on and start hiking.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Ian, a guide with American Alpine Institute taught us backcountry navigation skills, which are essential for winter travel.

Winter navigation in the backcountry is trickier than during the warmer months, because often the "summer" trails are covered with snow and no longer exist. Carry a topographical map and a compass (no, not the compass on your smartphone) and know how to use them.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Digging a snow pit can help you stay out of the elements when weather turns south.

Snow camping also presents its own set of skills and challenges. My professional mountain guide Ian , from the American Alpine Institute taught me, "everything takes twice as long in the snow" and it's true. Cooking. Setting up camp. Even peeing — each of these activities is more difficult and arduous when dealing with stiff fingers and bulky layers.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

By digging a snow pit for your tent, you can further protect your camp from winter storms. (Eureka Alpenlite 2xt)

Special camping equipment is also needed. Closed-cell foam sleeping pads (like the Thermarest Ridgerest SOLite) provide insulation from the freezing, heat-sucking ground. Warmer sleeping bags (like the Big Agnes Storm King 0°) will keep you from freezing at night. More weather-resistant and cold-weather-efficient stoves (such as the MSR Reactor) will ensure that you have warm food and and are able to melt snow to drink (never eat snow!) Sturdier tents (the Eureka Alpenlite 2xt is a four-season bargain) will protect you from the heavy winds and snow likely to be encountered in the event of a winter storm. A snow shovel is necessary for digging snow pits (to provide extra protection during storms.) All of that extra gear adds up in weight and volume, so you'll probably need a larger pack that can handle heavier loads (check out the waterproof Mountain Hardwear South Col 70L Outdry.)

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

The sun's rays shot through this snow-covered tree while hiking down from the summit of Mt. Baldy, just outside of Los Angeles.

While winter backpacking is certainly more involved than adventuring during the other three seasons, it's also incredibly rewarding. Often, you and your party will be the only people out in the backcountry. The snow-covered landscapes are incredibly scenic; there's nothing quite as serene as listening to branches crack under the weight of snow while watching backlit powder flurries dance about.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

During most months out of the year, tourists can drive up to Glacier Point. The road closes during the winter, however, so my brother and I hiked 19 miles round-trip to grab this shot when no one was around.

What to Do: Certain areas are renowned for their spectacular wilderness features. The Yosemite Valley has towering waterfalls and massive granite walls. Sequoia is known for its gargantuan trees. The Cascades are known for their year-round glaciated volcanoes (I'm sure there's cool stuff on the East Coast too). Find some epic stuff and go explore it.

Don't be afraid to take detours or deviate from the trail. Some of my favorite moments in the wilderness have been the result of venturing off the beaten path. Look for neat features in Google Earth or from other people's geo-tagged photos.

How to Plan an Epic Backpacking Trip

Earth spiraled around the North Star while we were snow camping in the Yosemite High Country last December.

Other Things to Consider:

  • Don't forget to look up! The stars are out there. And the farther into the backcountry you go, the brighter and more numerous they become.
  • Pack lighter however you can. A lighter pack will allow you to go farther, faster, and with greater ease.
  • Can't find anyone to go adventure with you? Some of my most personally rewarding adventures have been solo trips (just be sure to leave notice and records of where you're going; when you're planning to return).

Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.