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

Backpacking trip planning education at Backpacking Light

Gaia GPS is our favorite trip planning and navigational software. We recently launched the How to Use Gaia GPS Masterclass detailing its use and features.

graphic reads: How to use Gaia gps - a backpacking light masterclass
The How to Use Gaia GPS Masterclass is the newest piece of educational content in our education portal.

For a detailed overview of the skills and tools you need for trip planning, check out the Trek Planning Masterclass.

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

And don’t miss How to Use the Garmin InReach, our other highly useful masterclass.

Overwhelmed by electronics? Watch our Member Q & A:

Backpacking trip planning software

  • 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.

For more in-depth information on trip planning software, read our Navigation and GPS App gear guide:

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

Podcasts about backpacking trip planning, navigation, and route design

Episode 33 | Digital Route Planning – Traditional route planning tools like paper maps are still useful. But once you combine them with modern digital tools, you’ve created a powerful and flexible route-planning system.

Episode 5 | Navigation – General navigation advice using one of Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Adventures treks as a case study.

Episode 56 | Portable Battery Chargers for Backpacking – Electronic navigation tools need charging. This podcast dives into portable battery chargers, their pros and cons, and tips to keep them functioning well in the backcountry.

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

Skills articles on backpacking trip planning and navigation

An in-depth look at the process of route planning with a focus on off-trail adventures:

Two alternate methods of backcountry navigation:

An article that looks at trip planning from a logistical rather than an electronic standpoint.

A look at the implications of using a popular 3D map software to plan trips:

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

Gear for navigation and trip planning

The Garmin inReach Mini 2 – the lightest and most reliable satellite communicator:

The Garmin Fenix series of watches integrate with the Mini, offer tracking, fitness monitoring, altimeter & GPS, solar power, and more:

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

Conversations in our community about how to plan and navigate backpacking trips

We have an entire forum topic dedicated to Trip Planning. The best use case is soliciting ideas and feedback about specific locations from other community members:

Backpacking Light members discuss the recent updates to the Garmin inReach Mini:

Our community compares popular satellite communication devices:

Other threads of note:

a screenshot of satellite imagery with notes written on it in yellow
Crowdsourcing information on Backpacking Light’s forums is an excellent way for getting information while trip planning. Photo: Ryan Jordan.

Stories about backpacking trip planning and navigation

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

An essay about using bicycles to access interesting new areas:

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

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.