How to Choose a Backpacking Trail

How to Choose a Backpacking Trail
June 3, 2024

Figuring out how to choose a backpacking trail to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure can be confusing at first. Fortunately, it's not that difficult if you follow some basic principles.

First, start by evaluating the distance and duration of the trail based on your experience level. Beginners should aim for shorter trails, gradually increasing distance over time. Next, assess the elevation gain; less than 500 feet for beginners, steeper for advanced hikers. Analyze the terrain for obstacles and technical sections.

Consider seasonal factors to pick the right trail for weather conditions. Lastly, check trail popularity to avoid crowds or find solitude. There's more to know that'll help you make the best choice for your next hike.

Evaluate Distance and Duration

When you're trying to choose a backpacking trail, start by evaluating the roundtrip distance and how long it will take. Knowing the distance and duration is crucial to plan your hike effectively and ensure it's suitable for your fitness level and available time.

First, consider the total distance of the trail. If you're a beginner, aim for shorter trails, around 3-5 miles roundtrip. This will give you a manageable hiking experience without overwhelming you. As you gain more experience, you can gradually increase the distance to challenge yourself further. Remember, the longer the trail, the more time you'll need to complete it, so plan accordingly.

Next, factor in the duration. The time it takes to hike a trail depends on various factors like your pace, the trail's condition, and the elevation changes. On average, hikers cover about 2 miles per hour on flat terrain. However, this can vary significantly if the trail has challenging features or steep inclines. Always add extra time for breaks, photography, and unforeseen delays.

When evaluating a trail, don't forget to consider the elevation. While this subtopic focuses on distance and duration, keep in mind that elevation changes can impact how long it takes to complete the hike. A trail with significant elevation gain might slow you down more than a flat one.

Assess Elevation Gain

To gauge the difficulty of a backpacking trail, take a close look at the elevation gain. Elevation gain refers to the total amount of vertical feet you'll climb from the start to the highest point of your hike. For beginner backpackers, it's wise to start with trails that have less than 500 feet of elevation gain. These trails will be easier on your legs and lungs, allowing you to build stamina and confidence gradually.

If you're seeking a more challenging experience, steeper trails with greater elevation gain can offer a more intense workout. Trails with higher elevation gain require more energy and stamina, making them suitable for more experienced hikers. Steeper trails not only test your physical limits but also provide rewarding views and a greater sense of accomplishment.

When assessing a trail's difficulty, check the trail ratings provided by guidebooks or online resources. These ratings often include information about steep ascents and descents, helping you understand what to expect. Trail ratings can give you a clearer picture of the trail's intensity, enabling you to choose a route that matches your fitness level and experience.

It's important to factor elevation gain into your overall assessment of the trail's difficulty. A trail might seem short in distance but could be extremely challenging if it involves a lot of climbing. On the other hand, a longer trail with minimal elevation gain might be easier than it initially appears.

Analyze Terrain Difficulty

After considering the elevation gain, it's time to analyze the terrain difficulty to ensure the trail matches your skill level and physical abilities. Start by evaluating the steepness of the trail. Steeper trails can be more challenging, especially if you're carrying a heavy backpack. Pay attention to the elevation gain, as it can significantly impact your pace and energy levels.

Next, take a close look at the trail's rocky sections. Trails with a lot of rocks can be tough on your ankles and require careful navigation to avoid injuries. If you're not used to hiking on rocky terrain, you might find it more tiring and time-consuming.

Additionally, check for any potential obstacles such as creek crossings or technical sections that require scrambling. These can add an extra layer of difficulty to your hike and mightn't be suitable for beginners.

It's also important to research trail ratings and reviews. Other hikers often share details about terrain difficulty, mentioning specific challenges like narrow paths or steep descents. This firsthand information can give you a clearer picture of what to expect and help you decide if the trail is appropriate for your skill level.

Lastly, consider how the terrain will impact your overall hiking experience. If you're new to backpacking or prefer a more leisurely pace, choose a trail with moderate terrain difficulty. On the other hand, if you're looking for a challenge and have the necessary skills and gear, a trail with varied terrain might be more rewarding.

Consider Seasonal Factors

Seasonal differences should have a high impact on how you choose a backpacking trail. This step can significantly enhance or detract from your backpacking experience and safety. Seasonal factors play a crucial role in determining which trails are suitable for your hike.

For instance, if you're planning a winter hike, it's wise to look for lower elevation trails in southern states. These regions typically offer more optimal weather conditions, allowing you to avoid the harsh winter obstacles found in higher elevations or northern states.

In contrast, summer is the perfect time to explore trails at high elevations or in northern states. During this season, these areas provide cooler temperatures and beautiful, scenic landscapes. Hiking at high elevations can also help you escape the intense heat that often plagues lower regions. Keep in mind that snowmelt in the spring could make some high elevation trails more challenging, so always check current trail conditions before heading out.

Spring and fall are transitional seasons that can offer some of the best hiking experiences if you choose trails suitable for the season. In spring, lower elevation trails start to thaw and bloom, providing a vibrant backdrop for your hike. Meanwhile, fall's cooler temperatures and colorful foliage make it a favorite time for many hikers. However, be aware of shorter daylight hours and rapidly changing weather conditions during these seasons.

Check Trail Popularity

Understanding trail popularity can significantly enhance your backpacking experience by helping you avoid overcrowded paths. Knowing how popular a trail is can guide you in choosing the best times to visit and ensuring a more tranquil hike.

First, research trail popularity online or through local hiking forums. This will give you an idea of which trails tend to be the most crowded and when. Popular trails often attract large crowds during peak seasons, such as summer and holidays. By planning your hike during less crowded times, like weekdays or off-peak months, you'll likely encounter fewer people.

Arriving early is another strategy to beat the crowds. Popular trailheads can fill up quickly, especially on weekends and during peak seasons. Getting there early not only secures you parking but also grants you a more peaceful start to your hike.

Consider seeking out less crowded trails. Lesser-known paths can offer solitude and a more intimate connection with nature. These trails mightn't have the same fame as popular ones, but they often provide equally stunning views and experiences.

Always have a backup plan. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your chosen trail could still be overcrowded. Having an alternative route in mind ensures you won't be disappointed. Research secondary options that are nearby and less frequented.


In choosing a backpacking trail, there are several factors to consider:

  • Distance
  • Elevation gain
  • Terrain difficulty
  • Seasonal factors

Don't forget to check how popular the trail is, as crowded paths can impact your experience.

By taking these factors into account and matching the trail to your skill level and preferences, you're setting yourself up for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

Trust your research, trust your instincts, and you'll have an unforgettable backpacking journey.

Frequently Asked Questions About how to Choose a Backpacking Trail:

What Is the 20% Rule for Backpacking?

The 20% rule for backpacking means you should limit your pack weight to no more than 20% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, your pack shouldn't exceed 30 pounds.

How to Choose Where to Go Backpacking?

When deciding where to go backpacking, assess your fitness level, research trail distances, elevation, and terrain. Consider the season, trail popularity, and logistics like water availability. Make sure the scenery aligns with your expectations.

How Many Miles Should a Beginner Backpacker Hike?

As a beginner backpacker, you should aim to hike around 5-10 miles per day. Start with shorter trips, 10-15 miles total, and gradually increase distance as your fitness and confidence improve. Enjoy the journey!

What Are the Big 3 Backpacking Trails?

The Big 3 backpacking trails are the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. You'll experience diverse terrain across these iconic trails, covering over 7,900 miles from Georgia to Maine, Mexico to Canada.

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