White Mountains Pemigewasset Wilderness (NH)

How to Prepare for a Backpacking Adventure


I enjoy backpacking in remote and rugged wilderness areas throughout North America.  My successes in the wilderness have been attributed to my pre-planning.  Preparing for an adventure into a rugged wilderness area requires allot of research.  Backpackers who do not properly prepare themselves may encounter difficulty, undue hardships, and dangers on the trail.

Pre-planning should be a big part of your wilderness adventure.  Your research will not only give you important information, but it will prepare you physically and mentally for the adventure ahead.

I will discuss the below (9) topics, and how you should implement them into your next wilderness adventure. 

  1. Travel  
  2. Terrain
  3. Trail System
  4. Weather
  5. Wildlife and Foliage   
  6. Dangers
  7. Equipment Needed
  8. Amenities and Laws
  9. Notifications


Arizona Picture taken from an aircraft
Picture taken from plane of Arizona (the smoke is burning fire in the Wilderness)

Determine your mode of transportation.

Determining how you will get there is obvious but much goes into this.  You need to decide if you are:

  • Flying to your destination
  • Driving a vehicle
  • Sharing a ride (if you plan on going with a group of people).
  • Determine other forms of transportation available to you.

Planning your adventure requires time and money.  You need to figure out all of the costs associated with your trip.  These costs could be airline fees, car rentals, hotel stays, food you will need, equipment you will have to purchase, and other miscellaneous expenses.

When I fly to my destination I have to pack my gear that usually weighs more than 50 pounds.   I usually end up paying extra airline baggage fees for the equipment I am checking in.  When I land, I have to rent out a vehicle for several days.  I sometimes need an all wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicle that costs extra.   All of these costs can be very expensive if you are on a budget.  My pre-planning allows me to know how much I need to save and budget for my adventure.

Lost Creek Wilderness (My all wheel drive rental vehicle)
Lost Creek Wilderness (Colorado) My all wheel drive rental vehicle.

You should also come up with a timeline on how many days your adventure will take including travel time to and from the trailhead.  I use the calendar on my phone to document this timeline.  I will put flight times, confirmation numbers and other necessary information on this calendar. Having all of this information organized either written down or on my phone gives me quick access to this information.

Research the trailhead you plan on starting from and the parking situation.

When I research a wilderness area I find out how I will get to the trailhead.  Many people believe that there will be well-placed signs guiding them to the trailhead.   These sign may have been moved by someone or damaged by a recent storm.  Some signs can be dilapidated, misleading, and some can be difficult to decipher if you are not familiar with them.

Gila Wilderness (New Mexico)
Gila Wilderness (New Mexico) Weathered Signage guiding me to the Pueblo Park Trail.

Use other backpacker’s online guides/blogs.  These blogs will give you valuable information on how to get to a trailhead. Some even post GPS coordinates and distances on how to get there.  Some blogs will also give you specific landmarks that will help you navigate safely to your starting point.  There are trailhead’s that are many miles off the main road. I have travelled up to 30 miles off-road to get to my starting point.  Be prepared because getting lost doesn’t always happen on the trail.  Sometimes it happens getting to the trail.  Use all available resources especially online information.   Print out these guides to help you get there safely.

Find out if there are private landowners or private structures around your starting point.  Knowing this will help you from possibly trespassing on private property that may not be adequately posted.  I have seen trespass signs that have also been improperly posted giving you false information leading to confusion. 

Gila Wilderness (New Mexico) A private cattle corral I came across around a trail.
Gila Wilderness (New Mexico) A private cattle corral I came across around the trail. No signs posted .

Find out about parking and whether it is safe to do so during your stay.  Some trailhead’s start by rivers and streams that may flood out during a rainstorm leaving you with an expensive vehicle recovery.  Have a secondary location to park your vehicle in case the one you are planning to use is full or closed.

Superstition Mountain (Tonto National Forest)
Superstition Mountain (Tonto National Forest) Parking area I used from the Peralta Trailhead.

Determine if there are Trail Fees.

Finally find out about fees you will need to pay if any from the trailhead you plan on starting from. Some wilderness areas allow you to pre-purchase a pass online.  Make sure you print it out and put it on the dash of your vehicle before leaving the trailhead.

Some places require that you pay at the trailhead.  You will see some type of container system, (wooden or metal box), that you fill out an information card and drop the card with the necessary fees in the box.  I recommend that you always have some cash with you since you will probably not be able to use a credit card at the trailhead.

Researching this in advance will save you a lot of headaches and a ticket, (civil citation) from the parks department for not paying the necessary fees.  They do check and I can recall an instance where I had a warning citation put on my vehicle when I got back to the trailhead.  It was on my trip to the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington, (Hint).


Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Kalmiopsis Wilderness Topo Map

Get a topographical map and do your research.

Get a topographical map of the area you plan on visiting and research the terrain.  Much of the information you need will be online.  I still advise purchasing a topographical map and having it with you during your stay in a wilderness area.  You may choose to print out the map online but either way have a paper version with you at all times. (FYI if you print out your topographical map on a printer there is waterproof paper you can use to help keep your map intact.)

The terrain in a wilderness area can change quickly.  You could be in a desert type terrain and then find yourself in an evergreen forest. Research the area thoroughly before leaving.  Knowing what terrain you will encounter will help you stay on course.

One very important thing that you will find out from your terrain research is where you can find water.  Topographical maps show you where lakes, rivers, and streams are located relative to the trail system you are on.


Determine the Route you plan on taking.

When you get your topographical map determine the trail you plan on using.  Route out your trip from the trailhead and back using online software like Garmin Basecamp.  There are other navigational software programs you can use as well.  I do this especially if I decide to do some bush whacking off the trail.   You should be up on your land navigational skills as well, (know how to use a compass and topographical map).  I have posted videos on Land Navigation here my website.

Garmin Basecamp Software
Garmin Basecamp Software (Planning my Superstition Mountain Wilderness Route)

I always upload my anticipated routes with alternatives, and waypoints on on my GPS unit (Garmin inReach Explorer).  You may want to use your cell phone to do this.  There are some good cell phone applications you can download to your cell phone. Your cell phone will use its GPS capabilities outside of the cell service to function.


Pemigewasset Wilderness (NH)
Pemigewasset Wilderness (NH)

Research the weather in the area you plan on visiting

Research the weather during the time you plan on visiting the wilderness area of your choice.   Weather forecasts, in today’s technology, can be determined up to 10 days out.  These forecasts are not always spot on but they can give you an idea if bad weather will affect your adventure. 

You can also look at historical weather trends to include the Almanac.  Historical weather trends may give you an indication on rainfall and the temperature you will experience during your stay.  Here in Florida the summers are hot and humid and we get afternoon rain showers.  Having that information means to have rain gear if you want to backpack in Florida during the summer

The more information you get on weather the better your stay will be.  Knowing the weather will also help you pre-determine where you may want to set up your basecamp.


Research the wildlife and the dangers they pose to you.

Research the wildlife that is present in the area you will visit.  Once you find out determine your course of action if you encounter that particular wildlife during your stay.  If you know that you are heading into Montana have bear spray with you. Know how to use it and learn about what to do if you are attacked or see a Brown Bear.

Wind River Range (Wyoming)
Wind River Range (Wyoming) Grizzly Bear Country
Wind River Range
Wind River Range (Wyoming)

Knowing the wildlife also helps you determine the appropriate food containers that you will need. Researching the wildlife may save your life if you are not familiar with a particular wildlife species.  Encounters may not necessarily be with large animals like bears. 

Smaller wildlife may be just as dangerous or disruptive.  There may be raccoons or Armadillos carrying diseases or raiding your food.  You may travel to an area that has poisonous snakes. Know their habitats and be vigilant during your stay.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness
Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) A Rattlesnake That I came across while getting water.  Near my Basecamp

I will also include insects in this category.  Have the proper insect repellents with you to prevent biting insects such as mosquitos or black flies from making your stay miserable.  Having the right repellents may also prevent you from getting certain diseases such as the Zika virus or Lyme disease.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) Rattlesnake
Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) Spider

Lone Star Tick on my glove at my basecamp (Juniper Prairie Wilderness)
Lone Star Tick on my glove at my basecamp in Juniper Prairie Wilderness (Florida).

Understanding all of the wildlife gives you the knowledge to deal with them if you encounter them during your stay.

Research the plant life and trees in the wilderness area you plan on visiting.

Plant and tree life are important to know.  There are areas in North American where you may encounter poisonous plants that when touched may cause some type of allergic reaction to your skin. 

Knowing the type of plants and trees you will see in a wilderness area may also save your life. If you go into survival mode and you need to forage off the land knowing what plants to eat may sustain you until you get to safety.

Indian Paintbrush Plant
Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) The Indian Paintbrush Plant. The flowers are edible but eat in moderation.  This plant has selenium in it and eating to much can be toxic.


Call the local Ranger Station near the wilderness area you plan on visiting and speak to them about current and potential dangers.

I always call the local Ranger District in wilderness areas I am not familiar with.This type of first-hand information will get you up to speed if there has been some major change to the wilderness area you will be visiting.

There may have been a natural disaster unknown to an out-of-state backpacker.  A storm may have flooded out a trail or downed some trees closing a trail. This is information you want to know before leaving.

Use the knowledge of these Rangers to plan your route.   Some of these Rangers are hardcore backpackers and they may give you some good areas to check out during your stay.

They can also give you information on local towns.  This information may be on where you can purchase supplies for your trip or hotels you can stay at.  The information I received on my Superstition Mountain Wilderness trip made my adventure epic. 


The American Backpacker
Wilderness Go-Bag

Once you have done your research using the above elements now you have to determine what gear you will need.  Many backpackers have a basic, (core items), list of gear they bring into any wilderness area.  I have my core list that I have in my Go-Bag, and I add to it as needed.

The equipment list that I bring on all of my expeditions.  My research may add to this gear list. (Alphabetized List)

  • Bedding gear
  • Bear Spray
  • Compass
  • Cordage (550 parachute cord)
  • Clothing (to be determined)
  • Fire starter gear
  • Firearm (My personal choice that I always carry into a Wilderness)
  • Food (to include a proper food storage container for wildlife)
  • GPS system
  • Hiking poles
  • Headlamp
  • Knife
  • Medical kit
  • Satellite communicator
  • Solar Panel
  • Shelter system
  • Toiletries (to include hand sanitize)
  • Water filtration system
  • Whistle
  • Wet weather gear


Determine locations of the following especially if you are travelling to a very remote Wilderness area. The more remote the less amenities. 

Stores:  Know locations of stores, (Outdoor sporting, Grocery, Gas Station, Etc.), around the wilderness area you plan on visiting.  Knowing these store locations will help you purchase supplies and fuel up your vehicle.   You may have to find stores close to the airport you land at.  You may have to travel to a larger city or town that may have these stores because there are none near your trailhead.

Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) REI Store where I purchased my supplies when I landed.
Kalmiopsis Wilderness (Oregon) REI Store where I purchased my supplies when I landed.

Remember some items cannot be transported by the airlines such as bear spray and cooking fuel. Consider maybe shipping out some of your gear to a local hotel if you plan on staying there before your trip.

Lodging:  Find out hotels and motels near your trailhead.  You may need to stay a night before your trip to prep your gear. There may be no lodging amenities close to you so pre-planning will help you locate one before your trip.

White Mountains (New Hampshire) The cabin I stayed in the night before my trip.
White Mountains (New Hampshire) The cabin I stayed in the night before my trip in to Pemigewassett Wilderness.

State Laws:  If you plan on backpacking with a firearm read up on the laws of the state you plan on visiting.  The laws of the state you plan on carrying your firearm may be different from where you live.  You also need to check with the airlines on their policies for bringing a firearm with you. When you travel by aircraft you will need to check in your firearm with your checked baggage.


Before you leave the trailhead make sure that you have notified family members and close friends on where you are going.  This is where your timeline will help you.  Print out a copy and give it to them.   You should be specific to include GPS coordinates on the trailhead you will start from and if you have a different ending point give them that GPS coordinate as well. You should give them a start date and a return date.

I highly recommend that you carry a GPS satellite communicator with you.  The costs associated with them are well worth your safety.  Many of those costs have come down considerably and the air plans on them are very reasonable. Having a GPS satellite communicator allows you to let family members know if you change your timeline during your trip.

Garmin inReach Explorer Plus video review

You may decide to stay an extra night or you may have to alter your path due to an unforeseen problem or emergency.  A GPS communicator in general is for your safety in case of an emergency.  They come in all types.  I use the Garmin inReach Explorer Plus and it allows my family members not only the ability to communicate with me but also to track my movements in the wilderness.

Notifications can save your life if an emergency arises when you are not back on a specified date you told everyone.


Pre-planning your wilderness adventure will save you time, money, undue hardships, and even your life in an emergency.  I find that pre-planning not only is important but fun.  I learn important facts that make my trip more adventurous. 

Many wilderness areas have a certain mystic and lure that makes me anticipate the adventure.  When I went to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Oregon, I was in an area where Miners mined for gold and other valuable ores in the 1800’s. I found many artifacts, tools and a homestead, that made my experience unique and exciting

No matter where you travel do your pre-planning. Pre-planning and research will make your stay more enjoyable, exciting, and more importantly safe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.