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!
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.
This article contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Every Two Pines.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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!
1. A few extra parameters to consider
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 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