Trip Planning 101

Picture of a map marked with a route.

As winter sets in here in the U.S. my thoughts almost always turn to planning my next bigger adventure. Whether that’s a backpacking trip or a road trip to take in new hikes, the time to deep dive into research is a welcome opportunity. It gives me the make reservations and get excited for the time to come. And to start getting my trip plan together.

Robert Burns understood both sides of a well thought out plan.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Robert Burns

But he also understood the importance of a plan. Of being prepared. That being prepared, we are ready for those instances where things don’t go according to plan.

Be Prepared… the meaning of the motto is that a scout must prepare himself by previous thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he is never taken by surprise.

Robert Burns

Being prepared in hiking means that I have a plan – sometimes very simple – for every hike I take. Whether its a short day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip or anything in between, I make sure to do at least the basics of a trip plan. Because if something goes wrong I want to make it easier to be found. There are some basic elements that are part of each plan:

Deciding Where to Hike

This seems pretty obvious. You pick a park and head out. Right?

Well, sort of. Each time I take a hike I take a bit of time to think about how far I’m willing to travel to get to my destination. I’ve been known to drive up to three hours for a day hike. If it’s more than two hours one way, I will consider the time of day that I will be hiking and determine if I’d rather stay overnight in advance of my hike. I’d rather be well rested than take a long drive, hike and then head home. I also think about whether or not I want to hike in the dark or in inclement weather.

The destination I select is often also driven by how far I want to hike or what kind of experience I want to have. When I’m looking for a quick hike, I’m more likely to look for local county parks. If I’m looking to get milage in, a State Park or longer trail like will be my choice. If I’m up for a workout I have a few go-to parks where I know I’ll be challenged. For a backpacking trip I look at how far I want to go before I sleep, my skill level, the weather and terrain.

Looking for ideas to get started? Head over to the Links & Inspiration to Get Outside! page.


Once I know where I’m hiking, things get a bit easier. I check weather conditions, I may call the park or trail association for more details, visit websites that have trail conditions or join forums specific to my chosen trail/destination. I’ve met with others who’ve done the same trip to get their insights. I collect all that information so I can move on to the next step.

Before I hit the road, I put together a trip plan that I share with my family. They know the details of when and where I expect to be and have the information they need to alert authorities if I don’t check in or return at a specified date and time. If I’m traveling with a group, we make that plan together. I do this no matter whether I’m heading to a local park or on a week-long trip.

Prepping my gear has become relatively easy. I always have my day pack ready to go. I just need to quickly check the weather to see if I want to add specific clothing, add a water bottle and check my snack bag. My pack includes the 10 Essentials. Always. It’s hanging by the door ready to go.

For a backpacking trip, I pull out my larger pack, review the contents to make sure I’ve got my tent and/or hammock, sleeping bag and cooking equipment and food. To that I’d add any clothing beyond what is in my pack and any comfort items (books, games, etc.). The terrain and weather I’ll be experiencing might also necessitate specialized equipment.

I can usually be ready to leave within an hour because everything has its place in my pack and it’s stored, with a few gear exceptions, ready to go.My ability to be efficient in the preparations is from a few years of experience. Know that if you’re just getting started, it might take you longer. Thats OK. The more you focus on preparation, you will find a routine that works for you. It will become habit.

If you’re interested in my gear choices head on over to the Gear & Gadgets page.


To me this is the most important part of trip planning. Communicating your plan is how you stay “found” when heading on trail. By communicating your plan (route, photos of you and your gear, checkpoints, etc.) you provide valuable information that can help in your ability to return from the trail. If an accident happens, you also have someone looking for you sooner than if you don’t let anyone know where you are going. This is especially important for solo hikers or if you are responsible for a group.

There are various ways to communicate your plan. For a day hike I might simply send a text to my family letting them know where I’m headed, if I’m meeting anyone and when I expect to be back. I also always carry my Garmin SPOT and have it turned on when I’m solo or in a group. It allows my family to track my location and I can use it to call for help if needed. Some might think it’s overkill for hikes close to home, but carrying and using it makes my family more comfortable so it’s what I do.

Image of the spreadsheet of Ruth's Trip Plan for her Isle Royale trip.

For bigger hikes or backpacking trips, I will prepare a more formal spreadsheet that provides details on my itinerary that might include:

  • Trip dates
  • Where I will leave my car or what transportation I’ll be taking
  • Trail name(s)
  • Miles I expect to cover each day
  • Where I’ll camp
  • Times I’ll check in
  • Possible variations to my plan
  • A date/time by which my home team knows they need to start looking to see why I haven’t checked in, or start official processes to send help.

The plan also includes phone numbers for local agencies to where I’ll be hiking, my insurance information and anything else I believe will be helpful.

In some cases, like the example above, you need to file a trip plan when you obtain your permit for land use. This would be a case where making a call a few days in advance to the park to go over the basics of your plan with a ranger can be helpful. They can advise on any suggested changes due to local conditions.

It’s not a bad idea to take a photo of yourself and your gear. Again, it’s another helpful bit of information that helps get you found. When my plan is as good as I think it will be I email it or make hard copies of all the information for my home team. I also leave a copy in my car if that’s how I’m getting to the trailhead.

While all of this sounds rather fatalistic, being in the outdoors does have risk. Confronting it head on and preparing for the worst is better than no plan at all. What I do, might seem overkill to some. That’s fine. Each of us needs to do what makes us comfortable.


All it takes is a quick google or search on your favorite social media channel to find groups with advice on trip plans. You need to look for what resonates for you and that gives you information in a way that you prefer. Some of my favorite places to help put together a plan can be found on the Links & Inspiration to Get Outside! page.

If you’re in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area this next week, I’ll be presenting a session – Trip Planning 101 – at Midwest Mountaineering on Tuesday, December 3, 2019 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. that’s free and open to anyone. Come on by and let’s chat about your plans!

Copyright Ruth Wikoff-Jones, | No Use Permitted Without Prior Permission

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