4 min read

A primer on trip planning

A primer on trip planning

So, you want to take a trip. You might have a well defined idea of where you want to go and what you want to do, you might just have the beginnings of an idea. It might be to a place you’ve been many times before, it might be to some place you’ve only read about. It might be a solo trip, it might be a larger group trip. What should you do to get plan for this trip so that you (and whoever is coming along with you) have a great time? Here are some things that I do when planning a trip.


I’m almost always hiking on some sort of public land. The best place to start is with the official site for the park/forest I’m considering. In Tennessee the state parks website generally has a good overview of the park and a high level map and list of trails and available campsites. The National Park Service has the same types of info, and I also find there’s often additional information about backcountry hiking options. Forest services (state and national) also have the same info, but it tends to be a little harder to sift through. If you’re patient and persistent there’s generally a lot of good info available there.

Tennessee state parks require reservations in specific sites, even for backcountry sites. Before you do much more planning it’s worth making sure that there’s a site available for the dates you’re considering. National Parks and forests are usually less structured here, requiring a general backcountry permit, but not a specific site reservation. The one major exception here is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Being the most visited National Park they require reservations and parking fees for just about every interaction you have within the park.


Free maps from the state or national parks are generally good to get a feel for what’s available, but there are typically better options available for on-trail navigation. I’ll typically do some exploring of the area I’m headed to using GaiaGPS, and will often compare what it’s got with OnX Backcountry and/or AllTrails. I’ve used Gaia and OnX to create custom routes where I can draw routes over trails to get a better idea of how far I’ll potentially be traveling each day, along with elevation changes. Mileage in the backcountry can be wildly different depending on the elevation changes. Five miles with little elevation change is a pretty easy hike, but five miles in the Smoky’s with several thousand feet of elevation change is probably pretty strenuous.

Whenever they’re available I always prefer to have a hard copy map with me as well. National Parks are typically covered well by the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps. While these tend to be less useful for navigating smaller portions of trails, they’re very useful for general planning, and it’s always a comfort to know you have a map that’ll work without any batteries. On occasion I’ll print a map from one of the online mapping apps mentioned above, but I haven’t yet found a way to print them that I love.


What am I going to eat?? Some people hike and get outdoors to simplify everything including what they eat. Backpacking meals that just require adding water are definitely an easy option. I often enjoy taking on a bit of a challenge, so will typically make my own meals. Here are some things I'll often choose from:

  • Breakfast: coffee, instant grits or oatmeal, banana, oranges, various protein/energy bars
  • Lunch: salami cheese & crackers, peanut butter & tortillas
  • Dinner: flavored instant rice pack & canned chicken, couscous, mac and cheese


  • Weather: I tucked this under the last section here, but that definitely doesn’t minimize how important it is to be aware of what the weather will be like. I’ll start checking a week or two out, and keep an eye on the forecast up until the day that I leave. I rotate through several different weather apps on my phone, but I’ll typically also consult the official National Weather Service forecast as well. If there are mountains involved, I’ve found that mountain-forecast.com to be worth consulting as well. At higher elevations the weather tends to be quite a bit different from what might be happening down in nearby towns.
  • Packing: Some things are always included (sleeping gear), some things are dependent on the weather (clothes, rain gear), some are dependent on how “luxurious” I want to be (keeping my weight at a minimum vs bringing a few luxury items). Water filtering and/or purification tablets, and my “essentials” bag will be included as well. I typically bring a small camp chair strapped to the outside of my pack, but if weight is a priority that’s an easy pound or so to leave at home.
  • Travel: For a typical weekend trip there’s generally not much to this beyond getting directions to my destination on Google Maps and figuring out how long it’ll take to get there to decide what time I need to leave my house.


How do you prepare for a trip? Are there other things you do when preparing for a trip? Have I overthought things here or are there significant gaps in my approach?