Basic preparation

Woman with map, compass, and binoculars planning her route
The best Wilderness hikes and other adventures onto public lands begin long before you get to the trailhead.

To experience your public lands, whether with wilderness hikes or a quick roadside picnic, it’s always a good idea prepare ahead of time. Here’s a guide to planning ahead.

Plan ahead and prepare

Wildlands are vast and full of surprises. Before you venture out for a hike, a camping trip or another activity, you want to learn as much as you can about where you're going, so you're not caught off guard.

Know your route

Understanding what a place looks like can help you prepare. Nothing beats an up-to-the-minute glimpse from a web camera. The National Park Service, local tourism organizations and private individuals maintain web cams in and around wildlands.

If you're planning an overnight trip, plan to prehike your route or part of your route before you go, if you can. There's no better way to get a sense of what the trip is going to entail then to prehike your route.

Plan for the weather

Discussing the possibility of bad weather is a smart move while planning your trip. You can get information from an online weather site:

If you want an up-to-the-second weather report, you might try calling a local recreation business. These people are tuned into the weather and are often willing to give a few words of advice, especially if you’re planning to do business with them once there.

If you're headed to the mountains for a hike or overnight trip in the spring, summer or fall, plan to be on the trail early and off the trail by early afternoon. When storms hit the mountains, they often arrive in the early afternoon. You don't want to be caught in a thunderstorm at the summit, so start your trip early in the day and plan to be off the trail by early afternoon.

Take a map and compass

Wilderness hikes and adventures on public lands often begin with a ceremonious unfolding of a treasured map. Of course, for map lovers, the online possibilities are endless. Same goes for smart phone apps.

Invest in a good trail map with topographic details, which will give you a sense of the trip. A trail/topo map can show you:

  • Elevation gain
    This will give you a sense of how steep your trip will be and how long it will take.
  • Water access
    You need to know what are your water sources and how many times will your trail cross water.
  • Length
    The distance of your trip can help you plan your time because you will have a better sense of how long the trip will take and when you should start to be off trail by your desired time.
  • Emergency routes
    It's always good to know what access points are available to you in case of emergency. Are there adjacent trails, more direct trails, active or retired forest roads — a good map will tell you this.

A compass can help you if you come across a section of trail isn't clearly marked or maintained. Consider taking an orienteering class before you head to the backcountry, so you feel more comfortable working with these tools. A local outdoor outfitter or trail club may have classes to help you with basic map and compass skills.

Leave your itinerary with someone off-trail

If you plan to be in the backcountry area within a park or other federal land, you may need to check in with the ranger station before you go. Call your destination ahead of time to see if you can check in. Leave your itinerary, which includes where your car is parked and when you expect to be back. That way, if you encounter any problems in the backcountry, they will know your plans. When you write your itinerary, include a list of what you're wearing, who is with you and what supplies or safety gear you have. The more details the better in the event of an emergency.

It's also a good idea to leave your full itinerary with someone back home, so that others know of your whereabouts. Also plan to leave a copy of your itinerary in your car parked at your destination. Don't leave it in a visible place — you don't want passers-by to know your plans — but make sure that it's accessible in case emergency officials need to access it.

Lastly, tell your back-home contact a time that you will be able to call them after your trip and don't forget to make the call when you're back in communication range. That way, they'll know your time frame and when to call emergency officials on your behalf if they don't hear from you within that time frame.

Pack the essentials

When you're on trail, you should bring a backpack with a few essential supplies:

Water and food

Depending on how long you'll be out for the day, you need to bring enough water and food to keep you hydrated and nourished. Hikers can lose up to two liters of water per hour, especially on a hot day. A small bottle of water is not enough to keep you hydrated on a long hike. Instead, plan on a large water carrier that you can put in your backpack. You should hydrate as much as possible while on the trail. Make sure others in your group are hydrating as well.

If you're on a day-trip, bring some food to help give you energy on the trail. Trail mix, granola or energy bars — it's good to carry a few snacks in case you find yourself getting hungry. If you're on a day hike, plan to break half-day for lunch, so you can replenish your depleted calories.

Appropriate footwear

It's important to hike in supportive hiking boots or trail shoes that you've worn in off-trail. Don't wear brand new boots on the trail. This can lead to hot spots and blisters that can make your trip painful.

When purchasing your boots, talk with an expert at the store. There are options with high-tops for ankle support and low tops. There are options with reinforced soles for more stability. There are waterproof options. When you have a sense of the type of trips you'll be taking, an expert outfitter can help you pick the shoe that is right for you.

When you make your purchase, take the shoes home and test them out on walks. If you feel they don't correctly, take them back. Some outfitters have a return policy on gear that will allow you to try out a few options before committing to one.

When on the trail, also pack extra socks, in case yours get damaged or wet and you need to change. Keeping your feet dry can help you avoid blisters.

See also:

Gear and safety essentials

"Ten Essentials"

The "Ten Essentials" are the minimum safety essentials you should bring with you on the trail:

  • Map and compass
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Extra food
  • Extra water
  • Extra clothes (avoid cotton, which is slow to dry and can lead to hypothermia in cold temperatures)
  • Headlamp and/or flashlight with extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Matches and alternative fire starter
  • Knife

We'd also recommend bringing a large garbage bag which you can use for various things, an emergency blanket, which you can purchase at an outdoor outfitter, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and various sized plastic bags, so you can pack out all your trash. Learn more about this in our Leave No Trace section.

See also:

Gear and safety essentials

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