Home Trip ReportsBackpacking How to pick a backpacking trip in Washington

How to pick a backpacking trip in Washington

by Amanda Phillips
REI passenger tent in a field at Snowy Lakes on the PCT

The first time I hoisted my overnight pack on my back and felt the heavy weight settle on my hips, I did not think I would make it the 5 miles to Stuart Lake without falling on my back, stranded like a turtle. Now, having spent nearly 300 miles backpacking, the moment the pack lands on my shoulders I am filled with joy and anticipation. Walking from a trailhead with everything I need for the weekend, ready to explore, is my favorite feeling in this world. 

I love hiking, climbing brings me joy, watching the world transform under snow when we snowshoe astounds me every year. But oh, backpacking. Backpacking has my heart. I love finding outdoor spaces then spending enough time there to see it change from afternoon sun to sunset, then to an alpenglow. I even love the paralyzing fear in the middle of the night when I am convinced I am probably going to die and curse myself for having stupid hobbies. After all, I have a warm bed with no bears about two hours away, and I choose to sleep on the cold ground, exposing myself to unnecessary danger. Then I love the relief when the sun rises from behind the peak and my tent floods with warmth. I have discovered amazing places from backpacking and it is truly the place I feel the most myself. 

We try to backpack nearly every weekend in the summer. Since I am a solid weekend warrior, usually working a 9-5 Monday through Friday, we managed to streamline the planning process for short, two-day trips. I have covered how to pick a hiking trip or snowshoeing trip on the blog, but now that backpacking season is right around the corner, I wanted to share our backpacking planning resources and strategies!

Disclaimer

All readers must asses their own skill, experience, fitness and equipment before recreating in the outdoors. There is great risk to going in the wilderness and the most important thing you can do is educate yourself and make safe choices. The author is not responsible for adverse consequences resulting directly or indirectly from information in this post.

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Man and women backpacking in the sun

Backpacking is essentially hiking with a heavier pack, more meals and a really long nap in the middle. As a result, most of the planning you need to do for hiking is the same as backpacking. If you haven’t read the “How to Choose a Hiking Trip in Washington” post, pop over for a ton of resources and details. A quick summary of the 10 most important steps are below, click on each step for more details. The steps with * have some backpacking-specific information, covered later in the post!

 

Washington is big, with lots of mountain ranges, a coastal region and half of it is classified as desert. All of this means that any given weekend, there may only be a few spots that are safe to venture to. And an even smaller list that will not be miserable, wet and rainy. Luckily, that also means that there usually some pockets of workable weather on even the bleakest of weekends.

Resources:

NOAA’s Mountain Forecast Page

  • mileage and elevation gain?
  • drive time?
  • permit or pass type?
  • dog friendly?
  • seasonal goals?

Once I have an idea of my parameters it is time for the fun part: looking for inspiration. The first place I check is my notebook, where I keep a running list of trips I am interested in. I also have a visual bucket list via Instagram’s collections feature. Next, I head to WTA’s trip report section to browse what people have done recently, as it can be a good measure both of what is doing well seasonally and if any trails are going to be extra crowded. 

Resources:

Websites

WTAAlltrailsOutdoor ProjectThe Mountaineers

Facebook

Washington hikers and climbersPNW outdoor women

After this step, I try to have a list of 3-4 hikes that fit all of my previously outlined parameters. Sometimes I am really good at this and come up with 3 solid options. Sometimes I am terrible and enter the research phase with 11 routes that I somehow want to complete all on the same day…

Do your best to narrow them down to a manageable number, as that will help you with step number 5.

  • I read the most recent trip reports on WTA to see the conditions.
  • I search the aforementioned Facebook groups with the hike to see if anyone has been there recently.
  • I check the national parks or national forest page to see if there are any closures.
  • Lastly, and importantly this summer, I check the fire map to see if it is too close to any wildfires.

I officially decide which hike is the chosen one and exit out of all the other tabs

In step 1, I am looking at the weather generally, but by step 7, I want to pick the exact specific route I am going to be in. I make sure to get the weather at the trailhead and at the place where we will sleep, sometimes the elevation gain makes a difference! I head to weather.gov to find the weather in my exact location. You can type in exact GPS coordinates, which can help planning and packing your gear.

Resources:

Weather

Mountain Weather Forecast

There are a bunch of different wilderness types in Washington including National Parks (we have 3!), state parks, national forest land, tribal lands and more. Each wilderness category has a different permit, some overlap and it is different when there is snow. It can be hard to keep it all straight, but using the wrong permit can lead to a ticket at the trailhead.

Often guidebooks have simplified maps, but when you are heading on the trail, a topographic map is necessary. A topo map will show elevation, the trail and significant features. There are many excellent paper maps, and I usually purchase a green map for each national park because we use them so often, but I always turn to caltopo. Caltopo is an awesome online mapmaker that allows you to make a pdf of individual areas.

Start with the basics.
Woman standing next to a waterfall in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

5 additional steps for planning a backpacking trip

Hiking and backpacking are very similar–both involve going outside, into the wild and not dying. Backpacking has a few extra steps to make sure you are picking the right route! 

woman backpacking in the North Cascades

1. A few extra parameters to consider

Mileage? Elevation gain?

Mileage and elevation gain are important when planning a hike, but extra important when planning a backpacking trip. It isn't enough to simply consider the mileage and elevation gain to get to your destination, you have to think about how to get back too! 10 miles may be comfortable for you in one day, but can you do 10 mile days back to back? Mileage tends to go slower and the toll on your body is greater when you are carrying a heavy load. Don't assume because you can clock a 12-mile day with a 10 lb pack doing 3 miles an hour that your pace and endurance will be the same when carrying a backpacking load.

Some permits lock you into a specific campsite, so it is important for your safety and for adhering to Leave No Trace principles that you accurately assess your mileage and elevation gain limitations. On a hike, if you find yourself beyond your capabilities, you can often just turn around. With backpacking, sometimes turning around isn't as simple of an option. The first step of narrowing down a backpacking trip is usually determining how far you want to walk and how steep you want it to be.

Am I bringing a doggo?

There are dog-friendly hikes in Washington, but there are also a lot of trails that are unsuitable for dogs. Some backpacking trips do not allow dogs overnight and others technically allow dogs, but may not be appropriate for different dogs skills and capabilities. If you want to bring your pup on your backpacking trip, you can narrow down routes based on whether or not they are dog-friendly.

Time-frame?

Are you planning for this weekend or for a weekend months in advance? Some areas have restricted access with limited permits (see permit section below). If you are planning a backpack within a week, you may want to narrow your scope to areas that have walk-up permits or are not terribly popular.

Seasonal wishes?

Lastly, sometimes I narrow backpacking trips based on seasonal features. If you know which areas are best during the different times of the year, that can help narrow down the different routes. Some routes are miserable in July with heavy bug levels, but quite enjoyable in August. Other routes don't lose their snow until mid-summer or don't have access to water late in the summer. If it is going to be sunny, I like to pick routes with a view and maybe a lake to swim in. An overcast weekend leads me to a riverside route or lowland lake. Hope for foraging berries or likelihood of wildlife sightings can help steer me to the perfect route!

Woman backpacking on trail near Mt. St. Helens

2. Get Inspired-Backpacking style

I use the same resources for backpacking as I use for hiking (Facebook, Instagram, WTA) with a few extra! 

Woman backpacking in the Goat Rocks Wilderness
Man backpacking in the Mt. Margaret Wildernes
Two backpackers standing in front of Mt. St. Helens and Spirit Lake
Man hiking on the PCT in the North Cascades
Man crossing a creek in the Mt. Rainier National Park
Woman swimming in waterfall at North Cascades National Park
Craig Romano book Backpacking in Washington Cover

Backpacking Washington: Overnight and Multiday Routes
Craig Romano

This book is worth its weight in gold for the beginner backpacker in Washington. I bought it after my first backpacking trip and more than half of the routes we have backpacked came from this book. Romano gives detailed descriptions of the route, necessary experience, what to expect and preferred camping areas. The routes range from easy overnighters, to 50-mile epics and everything in-between. Some of the routes are super popular and well-known, others are more hidden gems. It helps you become more familiar with wilderness areas in Washington and has an awesome list of longer dayhiking trips that work well as short overnight trips. This is a wonderful place to start if you are new to backpacking around Washington.

All of the photos above came from routes we found in the book!

WTA Trip Reports

WTA Trip Reports are an amazing resource for backpackers and is one of the first places I go to for inspiration. You may already be familiar with how great it is for finding recent trips, or let you know the condition of different trails, but did you know you can filter by overnight trips? Especially in the summer, day hikes can clog up the feed and you may have to sort through a hundred Mt. Si and Mt. Pilchuck posts to find one overnight post. Luckily, in the advanced search options, you can sort by overnight and multi-night trips. Also, some long dayhikes make great short backpacking trips, so you can also filter by the number of miles you would like. It is usually the second place