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This article deals with the task of deciding where to go on your first backpack – no easy task with the incredible range of routes to choose from. Whatever you eventually settle on, you want to ensure that it is within your capabilities.
With this in mind, don’t leave route planning to the last minute. Prepare for your trip, by making sure you know where you’re going, where you are sleeping and how long you will be hiking each day.
In the Canadian Rockies, where I’m a guide, there are hundreds of kilometres of backcountry trails, and dozens of backcountry campsites. Some are great for beginners and some are very challenging.
Especially until you have more experience, we don’t recommend relying on a neighbour or somebody on a Facebook group to give you reliable and accurate information. Hikers abilities and expectations differ wildly so it’s best to consult a reliable and trusted source.
Consider looking at some of the backpacking trips and treks we share on 10Adventures.com. You should also cross-reference any recommendations with the most up-to-date information from the local park or tourism office.
Here in Canada, I use Parks Canada’s websites for suggested itineraries and trip planning, for example Backcountry Trails Brochure and the suggested itineraries on the Parks Canada website. Outside the Canadian Rockies, you can find information in other places from local ranger stations, National Parks services and local tourism offices.
When planning your backpacking route, don’t bite off too much. In fact, we like to do really easy backpacking trips for people who are new to backpacking, often with a short 1.9mi–4.3mi hike in to set-up camp. This seems short, however adding 30 lbs to your back will make this a challenge…trust us.
In terms of understanding how fast you can hike with a pack, remember that people hike at around 2.5mi–3.1mi per hour, with an extra hour added for every 1969ft of ascent (this is known as Naismith’s rule.) When carrying a heavy backpack, this reduces to 1.9mi–2.5mi per hour.
Even with this estimated speed of 1.9mi–2.5mi/hr, make sure you know you’re walking pace. During day hikes prior to your trip, work out a rough estimate of your usual hiking pace, to calculate how long it will take you to complete a trail, and use this when planning your backpack.
The goal in planning your day is making sure you arrive at your campsite well before sunset – ideally at least two hours, though we prefer to arrive before dinner. This gives you a lot of time to set-up camp, make a good dinner and relax. It really sucks to setup camp and cook dinner in the dark.
We often hear of backpackers that show up in Banff in May asking about what backcountry routes are open. Pretty much none. It’s still winter in the mountains, and travel can be really difficult (and not to mention dangerous), with high rivers, bridges not put out and lots of snow.
Before planning your trip, make sure you’re choosing the right itinerary for the time and expected weather. This is best done by calling the local tourism office or park service. You can also look at historical weather online but it’s always advisable to check local weather conditions before setting out and to have a back-up plan, if the weather decides not to co-operate.
Once you have decided on where to go, when to go and your day-by-day itinerary, then it’s time to figure out if you need to make reservations.
In many places you’ll need to reserve your backcountry campsite (or in some cases you need to reserve access to the region) before you head out. In some places you can show up and camp anywhere, without a reservation.
In most places that require reservations, it’s hard to get space last minute for the best backpacking trips, so you need to plan ahead.
Here in the Canadian Rockies, you can book your backcountry campsite either online, over the phone, or in person at park visitor centres.
We love staying at official backcountry campsites. These have tent pads, which help to reduce our impact on the landscape. They also have outhouses, picnic tables, and bear proof storage areas in the form of bear lockers (metal boxes with bear proof handles) or bear hangs (a pulley system that hangs your food high out of animals reach). Ensure that you use these facilities and never underestimate the power and persistence of bears. The food storage and cooking/eating areas are always located well away from the tent pads, to prevent attracting wildlife. In some wonderful cases, campsites will even have firepits and nearby wood, a real luxury when you haven’t had to carry it in.
Of course, if you have any questions at the campsite, ask a fellow camper – we tend to be a very friendly bunch and we’re always excited when we have somebody new to listen to our favorite tales from the trail.
This article is part of a series of articles for beginner backpackers. You can see other articles here:
- How can I stay safe while backpacking?
- How do I stay warm while backpacking?
- What do I drink?
- How do I pack my backpack?
- Do you have a packing list?