Everybody can plan a hike

A beautiful woodland trail on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In the beginning, planning a hike might seem scary. The hike itself already is a big adventure. But how to properly prepare for it? When I started planning my 3 month Pacific Crest Trail hike, I was clueless. Where do you even start? I read and read and researched until slowly the pieces started to fall together. And 2 years later, when I planned my West Highland Way hike, it was so much easier. So. Don’t worry. You too will learn.

It is actually quite straightforward. Now that I have hiked and planned a few multi-day hikes, I started to see a pattern in the process I follow. Let me share the steps with you:

1. Choose your perfect hike

Before you can actually start planning, you need to know what kind of section or trail you are going to hike. You might already have one in mind. But if you don’t, here I explain how to choose a trail. It is a beginner friendly blogpost explaining all you need to know to make a choice.

Important note! Alway be realistic with yourself. Last year I wanted to hike 100km, but I had not done any training. I thought I could pull it off. I didn’t. My feet said no. So morale of the story: know what you can and can’t do.

2. What will the weather be like?

This kind of influences a few of the following steps in this guide. So it is good to know this already in the beginning of planning your hike. Of course this is depending on the seasons. Do a quick google search on your location and time you plan to go. I would do this by country or region. Generally, there are reports on the average temperature and rainfall during the year for regions.

Don’t ‘wish for the best’. If there is a high change you will be met with a lot of rain, be prepared for it. Of course, you could be lucky and have no rain at all during your hike. But always keep in mind and pack for what you can expect.

And if you don’t like a certain forecast, maybe it is better to go in another season.

3. Are you going camping, or will you be staying in a lodge?

In my previous blogpost I already touched upon this. You can read the pro’s and con’s of both choices there.

This is also a choice that can be influenced by the weather. For instance, camping in a wet or cold season might not seem enjoyable to you (neither to me..). Than book lodges! However, if the weather is very pleasant, camping might be perfect. It brings you closer to nature.

But all in all, this choice is generally up to preference.

Refuge du Glacier Blanc, a little refuge hut in the Ecrins.

If you are a beginner, and this is all very new to you, I would suggest to go for lodges. It reduces your pack weight tremendously. A backpack packed for camping can vary from 8 to 20kg in weight. Depending on the amount of food you need and how lightweight your gear is (and, for beginners, it generally isn’t). And that weight I can tell you, is HEAVY. 

Also, if you stay in a lodge, you don’t need to buy expensive gear which you might never use again (if you realise after your trip that you hate hiking).

For me, as I have weak knees and feet (chronic tendinitis, it is a pain), I either try to go as lightweight as possible, or stay in a lodge. The weight puts even more strain on your body. So if you feel like you have not trained enough, or if you have health issues, reconsider going camping.

That being said, there is something magical about hiking and camping. The freedom of carrying everything you need on your back is very liberating. And of course the connectedness to the nature and the trail you hike is more intens.

4. Plan your stretches

Some trails have really clear stretches (= your start and end point per day). Either because it goes from village to village or from hut to hut. For other trails however, it can be totally up to you.

There are two things that you will need to determine your stretches, if they are not really clear yet:

  1. Know how much you can and want to walk per day.
  2. Have a map of the route you want to walk. You probably already found some maps when researching which trail to hike, those can be useful.

    Some trail websites even provide GPS data. Which you can load into google maps (be sure to use “my maps” instead of the regular google maps). Then the whole trail can be easily viewed, as well as villages and accomodations.

    Or, another option is a physical map or trail book. I personally really like the Cicerone series. They have guidebooks on the most popular trails. And next to maps in the books, they also provide trail information and even a day by day stretch plan.

So alright, you have your map, you know how far you want to go per day. If you’re wildcamping (and you are permitted to, which in a lot of European countries is unfortunately not the case), then it is just as easy as seeing day per day where that would get you. If it ends near a village some days, you can consider stopping there instead, for a resupply of food. Or you can do that during a hiking day.

I like to use the ‘my maps’ function in google maps to plan my hikes.

If I can not freely wild camp or if I am staying in lodges, I like to use the “my maps” function in google maps to pinpoint all the possible sleeping locations which are near the trail. The nice thing about ‘my maps’ is that you can save your map, including pinpointed locations and GPS info. For my GR57 trail planning, that looked like the image here. I planned on camping so I only looked at the campgrounds. I located all of them, which where reasonably close to the trail (you don’t want to walk an extra 5km just to find somewhere to sleep). 

Then, I like to make a little excel sheet (or any table), to jot down the distances between these locations. Sometimes that can be as little as 5km, if two campgrounds/villages are close to each other, that is ok. Because after this, you will compare these distances with your planned day length. It will never completely add up, but I try to come as close to that day length as possible when looking at my daily starting- and endpoints. I sometimes make different scenarios. You can see them here for the same GR57 preparations:

EtappeDistance, kmOption A, daysOption A, kmOption B, daysOption B, km
Angleur – Esneux16Day 116Day 116
Esneux – Comblain-au-pont 12Day 212
Comblain-au-pont – Comblain-la-tour10Day 222
Comblain-la-tour – Hamoir6Day 316Day 36
Hamoir – Sy3
Sy – Bomal12Day 415Day 415
Example of using excel to plan your etappes. It is good to compare multiple options if possible.


And then I just pick the most favourable option. If the daily lengths don’t add up, you can consider alternating a very long day with a very short day (like we did in the table for option B). To give your body some rest. 

5. Where can I get food while hiking? And how much should I bring?

This is highly dependant on where you walk. A hike going through villages will have a lot more restocking possibilities than very remote trails. So, look at your map again. Where are the villages? And then of course, not all places have a grocery store, so be sure to check that as well!

Me, planning my meals for my 900km journey.

You don’t need to restock every day, as doing groceries is not really part of the hiking fun. I mean, you could even take food with you for a whole week, and be done with it. But it will be heavy. I personally like to avoid a pack heavy with food and take meals for around 2 days.

If you can not find a grocery store near your trail for multiple days when looking at the maps, consider searching for campgrounds. Some campgrounds have a little store where they sell gas canisters, camp food and some snacks. Or try gas stations!

Exactly how much food you should bring, I can not tell you. I generally eat less than normal than hiking. But others tend to eat more, as they burn more calories. If you have no idea yet, be sure to bring a bit extra. On the PCT, when sometimes I had to bring food for up to 7 days, I always packed extra food for one day. I never ate it. But oh well. At least I was on the safe side.

6. Gather your gear

This highly depends on the weather, the location and if you go camping or not. I am not going in too much depth on all of these points, as I could talk ages about some of them. But the bare minimum would be:

Happy me and my backpack, packed for the West Highland Way.
  • A backpack which fits your gear snugly. Too small and well, that is obviously a problem. Too big and people tend to overpack things, weighing you down. Be sure to buy a backpack after you buy your other gear if you don’t have one yet, to make sure everything fits. 
  • Good hiking clothes. Which is a whole new topic on itself. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter because a blogpost on this is coming up soon!
  • A water bottle/blatter. I prefer a blatter, as I like to sip small sips during the day. But either works. 
  • Hiking boots which fit your needs.
  • Hiking socks (2 pairs). Either made from wool or polyester of a hybrid of the two. Never go for cotton, as it absorbs sweat easily, keeping your constantly wet (and this can cause blisters).
  • Warm clothes for during the evening. Even in warmer climates it can get cold in the night.
  • A map of your trail. Either physical or digital. If you only want to keep in on your phone to safe weight: be sure to bring a power bank though! You don’t want to run out of batteries when you find yourself lost in the woods. 
  • And I always carry a good rain jacket. Even if the changes on rain are super low. I don’t want to risk getting hypothermia.

7. Find out how to get to your starting point and end point. 

First off: consider traveling responsibly! Hiking is only possible if we have some nature left. So favour public transport or a car over flying.

Most well-known trails either start in a town, or have a well connected starting point. A little googling session should do the trick. Some trails however, start in the middle of nowhere. You might need to public transport your way to the starting point. Guides about the trail always state how to get to the starting point. Go from there. Or you could drive up there yourself/take a cab.

8. Book your travel!

You are all set! The only thing left is the book your trip. That can either be a train ticket, or a bus ticket. Or you might need to book your lodging possibilities, if you decide to not go camping.

Campground usually don’t require booking as most campgrounds have the policy that hikers are always welcome. 

The Sierras on the Pacific Crest Trail.

9. Start training a bit

If you are just a generally sportsy person, you probably don’t need extra training. But when you are not, make sure you are prepared for the physical exercise. Walking is not super straining, but if you are not used to long distances or a heavy pack, it can be.

A few tips:

  1. Practice hiking by hiking. Wow. Revolutionary. No but really, the muscles you use for hiking can be totally different than if you only do squats. So hike at least a little bit (15 min a day).
  2. Practice in your hiking shoes. Your feet need time to get used to different shoes or insoles. Better let them get used to it before your hike than during.
  3. Walking stairs, squatting and one-leg-squatting are good to train some of those leg and knee muscles. 

So how far should I plan ahead?

I hate to say this again, but: it depends. For booking accommodations I would say if you are staying in a lodge, plan 3 to 6 months ahead. Definitely make it 6 if you are hiking a well-known trail. Make it less than 3 if you are hiking something obscure.

For camping, you generally don’t need to reserve the campgrounds more than a month ahead. Or not even at all, as most campgrounds have a ‘hikers are always welcome’ policy.

Collecting your gear does not need to be done months and months ahead. But do make sure that you have time to try out new items (and return them if needed).

What is my other option..

Hiking trails can bring you to the most wonderful places.

So yeah, planning a hiking trip is not super complicated, but it takes some time. If you are short on that, or if you just want to be sure everything is perfect/taken care of. You might want to consider booking an arranged hike.

These hikes are then planned for you: you choose a trail in their catalogue and they do the rest. Generally they send you a hiking schedule, a packlist and a map on forehand and book all of your lodgings. On their website they also generally state if the trail is easy, or more expert level. And how long the daily lengths will be. 

This is generally done for trails where you stay in a lodge. But some agencies also provide this service for camping. Then they will pick up and drop off your camping gear everyday, at the location you are hiking to that day. It might be worth looking into these! Also if you want to camp, but dread the weight of the pack.

Downsides are that it will cost you more money than when you plan it yourself. And that you can not choose every hike you can think of.

I personally do not have any experience in booking these, but I have heard good stories about them! (And I mean, that pack-carrying service does seem tempting…).

See you out there!

I hope this helped you a bit! Leave a comment if things are unclear or if you have other questions!

Joos

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