Welcome to the Backpacking Trip Planning Resources Trailhead

How to plan a backpacking trip? That’s the biggest question – more than “what gear to use” or “what trails to hike” – that beginning backpackers ask. Planning a backpacking trip, even a short one, can feel overwhelming. That’s because there’s a large variety of tools and skills to learn, and it’s hard to know where to start.

This article is one of Backpacking Light’s curated gateway pages (a trailhead, so to speak). Think of it as a starting point. Here, you’ll find information and resources about how to plan a backpacking trip. We’ve got lists of our favorite software, gear guides for navigation and trip planning, video and podcast embeds, and other trip-planning resources. You’ll learn how to spot potential water sources on a map, how to anticipate elevation gain, how to plan for longer trips, how to identify great backpacking trails, and more.  You might be planning your first backpacking trip or your 50th, but either way, we think you’ll find something useful.

About this Trailhead: Curated and maintained by our staff, this Trailhead page includes an overview of the topic and links to information and resources at the Backpacking Light website. Those resources may consist of gear reviews, technology and testing, research, skills articles, online education (webinars, masterclasses, or other types of online courses), podcast episodes, forum threads, product recommendations, and other discovery tools, including our Gear Finder, Gear Shop, and Site Search engine.

a man looks at a phone on one side of the screen. On the other, a map.
Planning a backpacking trip involves choosing the correct tools and strategies. Photo: Stephanie Jordan

Navigating this Trailhead

Backpacking Trip Planning Education at Backpacking Light

One of our preferred trip planning and navigational software tools at is Gaia GPS. The following material demonstrates how to use it, as well as other trip planning and navigational skills:

a screenshot montage of images from the trek planning masterclass.
Screenshots from the Trek Planning Masterclass

Backpacking trip planning software

There are many software tools that are useful for planning backpacking trips. The following are examples of some that our staff and authors use on a regular basis, as well as some of the features that set them apart:

  • Gaia GPS Software – online mapping, beautiful map layers, premium version, very nice user interface, powerful route planning features, GPS import/export, desktop and mobile versions, and regular updates. In addition to route planning, we use this for real-time navigation on a smartphone as well.
  • Caltopo – Powerful and feature-rich mapping software. Also has a mobile app.
  • Fatmap -beautiful and user-friendly 3D maps that can download to your phone for offline functionality.
  • FarOut (formally Guthook) – trail resources for popular long-distance trails. The go-to choice for thru-hikers.
  • Orbit Satellite Tracking – a smartphone app used to monitor satellite positions, which can help optimize your use of a satellite communicator or GPS device.
  • Windy and Meteoblue – wind and weather forecasting.
A man crouches near a sign and looks at his phone. On the right hand side of the screen, there is a screen shot showing where's he's been on his map.
Gaia GPS is a powerful tool for both planning and navigation. Photo: Stephanie Jordan

For more in-depth information on trip planning software and skills, check out the following pieces of content:

James Montavon compared his experience using Gaia GPS to other trip planning apps and websites for a trip through Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness:

a group of people look at 3D mapping imagery on a television screen
Using digital tools like 3D mapping software can streamline trip planning considerably. Photo: Ryan Jordan

Trip Planning

Our content library features several podcasts to help you plan your trip. If you are looking to supplement traditional route planning tools such as paper maps with modern digital tools to create a powerful and flexible route-planning system, check out:

a black and white photo of a pass with yellow and black writing scribbled all over it
Information from other trusted backpackers can be very helpful when planning a backpacking trip. Photo: Ryan Jordan

Backcountry Navigation

Whether you are using a GPS, map and compass, or an alternative navigational strategy when in the wilderness, know your gear and how to use it is very important:

For more general navigation advice using Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Adventures treks as a case study, check out:


The lightest and most reliable satellite messenger on the market is the Garmin inReach Mini 2. It integrates with the Garmin Fenix series of watches, allowing for fitness monitoring in addition to GPS and altimeter use.

What about using your phone to replace your Garmin inReach?

When using electronics in the backcountry, managing your battery life is an important skill. To learn more about managing your battery life, check out:

a close-up shot of a garmin inreach mini displaying gps data
The (recently updated) Garmin inReach Mini is the gold standard for light-and-functional satellite communicators, but more and more competitors are coming onto the market. Photo: Ryan Jordan

Stories about Backpacking Trip Planning and Navigation

Are you curious about how Backpacking Light authors are using software, electronics, and their navigational skills to assist their adventures? Check out these articles from backpacking

Check out a story about planning a solo backpacking trip for the first time:

Navigation doesn’t just begin when you hit the trail, but when you have to get on the trail. Whether by bike or by bus, there are other ways to get to your trailhead.

Four stories that heavily feature off-trail navigation:

a canoe sits on a riverbank under an overpass
Long time Backpacking Light author Emylene VanderVeldon’s story “Escape from COVID-19 at Corona Ridge” is a rollicking adventure tale with lots of good route planning details. Photo: Emylene VanderVeldon

What do Backpacking Light Members say about Navigation and Planning?

We have an entire forum topic dedicated to trip planning where you can solicit ideas and feedback about specific locations from other community members:

In addition, check out these other recent forum topics:

Search and Browse: More Discovery Tools

a close-up of hands pointing to maps
Planning a trip doesn’t have to be hard. It can be fun – especially with some help! Photo: Ryan Jordan

Help us Maintain this Page

If you found value in other related resources at Backpacking Light that you’d like to share with our community, please post them in the comments section below. No external links or resources, please – there are other places in our forums appropriate for that.