How to Plan a Self-Guided Hiking Trip

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If you love hiking and traveling, eventually these two interests collide. Once you’ve got some mileage under your belt on shorter trails in your own backyard, there’s an itch to follow your curiosity onto a multi-day overnight backpacking trip, perhaps even in another state or country. Maybe you’re an introvert who doesn’t like group tours, or maybe guided treks are too expensive. If you’ve decided to plan your own self-guided hiking trip but aren’t sure where to start – start here! This list covers everything you need to consider in the planning process so that you don’t find yourself up a trail without a trekking pole, so to speak.

Choosing Your Ideal Hiking Trail

So you know you want to plan your own self-guided hiking trip, but you have no idea what trail is best for you. Don’t be overwhelmed – this is the fun part where you get to research different hiking trails around the world!

Ideally, you are choosing a trail that suits you best and then organizing your trip dates around that. If you start with inflexible trip dates that are already set in stone, you might end up shoehorning in a trail that really isn’t ideal during that season. Or, perhaps you’ll force yourself to choose a route because it fits the season, even though it’s a cut above the difficulty level you’d normally go for.

To help narrow things down, it’s important to develop a set of criteria about what you feel comfortable doing and what your perceived limitations and priorities are. 

Some of the most relevant considerations include:

  • How many miles per day do you feel capable of hiking?
  • At what elevation might you experience altitude sickness?
  • Is it important for you to have access to amenities like bathrooms, showers, and wifi, or are you looking for a wilderness route?
  • Do you crave solitude or would you prefer if other hikers are around?
  • Do you want to camp or stay indoors at hotels or mountain huts? 
  • How much weight do you want to carry on your back?
  • Do you prefer frequent access to potable water or are you ok with filtering from natural sources and sometimes carrying extra water?
  • Do you have fears about wildlife, heights exposure, or certain weather conditions?
  • Are you up for purchasing new gear that fits the terrain, or do you need to stick with what you already own (this is mainly a budget question)?
  • Are you worried about a language barrier?
  • Where can I go on my passport vs. where would I need a visa?

When I was planning Project Multi-Trek, my back-to-back solo excursion of five different long hiking trails, my main criteria were the following:

  • I get altitude sickness at 10,000ft or above (sometimes even at 9500ft).
  • Any more than two weeks on the same trail starts to feel like endless drudgery.
  • I can hike 20 miles a day, but I’m much more comfortable hiking maybe 12 miles a day, especially with a heavy pack.
  • I’m a purist and I’m also cheap, so I want to camp as much as possible and carry all my gear.
  • I’m uncomfortable with too much snow or ice, but am ok with a few patches as long as I have my microspikes.
  • I don’t like loose scree or extremely narrow trails with sharp drops.
  • I don’t speak other languages well.
  • On an American passport I typically get at least 90 days in most other countries or the Schengen Zone.

Knowing these things about myself helped me decide what to Google. I searched key phrases like “ten day hiking trails”, “best multi-day hikes around the world”, “best long distance hiking trails”, “two week hiking trails”, etc. First, make note of all the trails that simply look beautiful and sound interesting to you. Then, drill down by researching each of those top picks individually. It should be easy to find out the elevation high points, how long it usually takes to complete, if it’s easy to get around in that country if you don’t speak the official language, if camping is allowed, whether the trail is well-signposted, and so forth. You could make an excel spreadsheet comparing all of this information.

I ended up with about ten trails that fit my criteria. A handful of them were in Europe, and the rest were in far flung places that would take more effort to fly to. Since I wanted to do more than one trail but I don’t have bottomless pockets, I realized the easiest thing to do was pair together the trails that were geographically closest. That way the flight, bus, and shuttle times in between each one would be minimal. I ultimately chose the West Highland Way in Scotland, Hadrian’s Wall in England, The Kerry Way in Ireland, Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Italy, and Switzerland, and the Slovenian portion of the Alpe-Adria. 

If you’re not sure how to answer some of the criteria prompts above, or how to translate your answers into operable information, here are a few tips:

  • For those who experience altitude sickness, most don’t have symptoms until maybe 9000ft or above. However, I’ve seen it happen to people at 7000 or 8000ft too, especially if they’re coming from sea level. Have you ever experienced nausea, lethargy, or dizziness on past trips at elevation?
  • Some of the most popular long distance hiking trails in South Asia, particularly Nepal, are very high in elevation. The high point of Annapurna Circuit is almost 18,000ft.
  • The amount of miles you can hike per day on flat land with a small pack is going to be different than on undulating hills with a large pack. If you’re not used to carrying a large pack but you want to for this trip, do some training in advance. If you do not want to carry weight, you could choose a trail that always intersects with hotels or huts, such as the Camino de Santiago, so you won’t need to haul a tent. Or, you could choose a route that can be serviced by baggage transfer companies or sherpas/porters.
  • A lot of the popular European long distance walking trails are known for having amenities including refuges, hotels, and frequent access to towns and water pumps. American thru-hikes are more remote and tend to surprise foreigners, particularly Europeans, with the lack of amenities. 
  • A handful of trails in the United States do have huts similar to the European style, including the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in New Hampshire, LeConte Lodge in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, or Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon.
  • Eastern European countries may have bears or wolves. South America may have pumas. Desert terrain may have scorpions and snakes. Australia may have spiders, crocodiles, dingoes, or kangaroos. Mongolia has snow leopards, brown bears, and grey wolves. Norway has bears and wolverines. Many Western European countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, don’t have predators. Wildlife is not something to be scared of while camping there, although domesticated animals like cows can get in the way! Iceland also doesn’t have predators.

As you narrow the options down to your final two or three favorite trails, do some reading about the day-to-day itineraries of these treks before you make a final decision. You don’t need to dig into every tedious left and right turn the trails take, but you’ll want to be aware of the big picture. Which days do other hikers consider to be the hardest, and why? Is there a section that requires scrambling over boulders, crossing a narrow bridge, or climbing ladders? Is there a section that’s known for being extremely boggy and wet? Most trail reports will include a good overview of the highs and lows.

Try Googling “Trail Name trip report”, “what are the scariest/hardest parts of Trail Name” or “best and worst stages of Trail Name“. You could also check a site like AllTrails where users log reports about their recent experiences. This is helpful because users comment on current trail conditions, whereas blog posts might be a few years old. AllTrails is a worldwide service; hopefully there is a more localized website that offers the same thing for your specific trail. For instance, in Washington state, the Washington Trails Association trip reports are preferred to AllTrails. For the Tour du Mont Blanc, there’s The Hiking Club‘s Trail Updates newsletter. For the Appalachian Trail, there’s the WhiteBlaze forums and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Trail Updates. There are also many Facebook groups.

If you’ve done all this and you still can’t choose, put it in fate’s hands (not really; maybe just use this for inspiration): The Best Long Distance Hikes for your Zodiac Sign.

What Season is Best for Your Hike?

Congratulations, you’ve chosen your favorite hiking trail! Now it’s time to pinpoint the ideal time of year to embark on your adventure. Very few are accessible year-around.

Trails at high elevations are not going to be ideal in wintertime, unless you’re an expert mountaineer with an ice axe. Desert locations are obviously going to be brutal during the country’s summer months. But, there are more minute things to consider. When is the trail the most crowded? When are the bugs the worst? When are the wildflowers in bloom and the waterfalls rushing? If you have to do any water crossings, when are the rivers and creeks highest? Do the local towns, transportation services, and amenities shut down in shoulder season when there are less tourists? Does this location have a fire or flood season? Are there any local festivals or other events you’d like to tack onto the beginning or end of your hike?

Here are some examples:

  • The Tour du Mont Blanc is best in late June to early September. Any earlier and you have too much snow obstructing the path. Any later, and local amenities start to close for the season (including the refuges, groceries, and cable cars).
  • The UTMB ultra-marathon race of the Tour du Mont Blanc happens in August, which makes the trail very crowded.
  • The midges in Scotland are the worst in July and August.
  • Yosemite and Yellowstone fire season is generally July through September.
  • Colorado has afternoon thunderstorms during the summer, so it’s best to hike early in the day and get below treeline before they roll in.
  • America’s desert southwest (Arizona and Utah) monsoon is generally July to mid-September. This can cause dangerous flash flooding in canyons.
  • The best time to hike in Patagonia is between September and March, when days are warmer and longer.
  • You might time a trek in Mongolia alongside the Naadam Festival in July, or a Scotland trek with the Highland Games (of which there are many).

Accommodations and Permits

Now that you’ve chosen your hike and your season, it’s time to narrow down your exact trip dates. It’s very likely that your hike requires hut, refuge, or hotel reservations, possibly some kind of permit, and/or that you pitch a tent in designated campsites which may or may not require advance notice. 

Some countries do allow wildcamping, in which case you’ll need to study up on the rules. For instance, while Right to Roam laws are very lenient in Scotland and you can pitch a tent almost anywhere for free and without notice, you do have to get a permit if you want to camp within the bounds of Trossachs National Park. While wildcamping is not officially prohibited on the entire Tour du Mont Blanc, the rules change so much between France, Italy, and Switzerland and at different elevations that it’s almost easier not to bother.

In countries that don’t allow wildcamping, permits are sometimes needed for remote backcountry camping (dispersed sites that a vehicle couldn’t pull up to for car camping). 

On popular trails, accommodations or permits need to be booked/applied for way in advance. Check availability before making too many plans, because this may dictate your trip dates for you.

This campsite in Trossachs National Park in Scotland requires a permit.
Refugio Elisabetta Tour du Mont Blanc
Refugio Elisabetta on the Tour du Mont Blanc

Some examples:

  • A Grand Canyon below-rim camping permit must be applied for 4 months in advance via lottery. Phantom Ranch cabin accommodations must be applied for 13 months in advance via lottery.
  • Rifugio Bonatti and Rifugio Elisabetta on the Tour du Mont Blanc have a normal booking process, but it sells out very far in advance. For my hike, I planned the entire thing around the one day Bonatti had availability. The campsites were not as tricky; some of them you can just show up.
  • If you want to stay in mountain huts in Slovenia, it’s best to become a member of the Alpine Association of Slovenia to get 30-50% discounts.
  • For some trails such as the Inca Trail in Peru or Pacific Crest Trail in California, you need a permit in order to hike in general, regardless of what accommodations you choose.

Physical guidebooks are good assets for pre-trip planning, and some trails have their own websites with detailed information about accommodation options. There are also tons of reliable blog posts out there. You might Google “Trail Name day to day itinerary” or “where to stay on the Trail Name” to find results about which accommodations other hikers tend to choose. 

When comparing the different recommendations from these sources, keep in mind that some accommodations are farther away from the actual trail than others. There’s nothing worse than hiking all day long, arriving at your destination for the night, and realizing that your campsite or hotel is not actually directly trailside – it’s another mile off-route. People may choose such an accommodation if it’s cooler in some way; perhaps it has a better view. Or, perhaps it’s a backup option when the closer ones are full.

Even if you plan to stay at particular accommodations each night, take note of alternatives and keep a list of them on hand during your trek. Any number of things could happen to entice you to make a detour from your original route. Maybe you have bad weather and want to stop short one day to set up camp a few miles early. Maybe you make friends on the trail and want to camp at the same place they’re camping. Maybe you run out of cash and the place you intended to stay doesn’t take cards. Having some backup ideas of other places to stay along the route provides peace of mind.

Besides showers and toilets, a big component of what makes an accommodation worthwhile is whether it has charging outlets for your phone or GPS. You should be hiking with some kind of portable charging device anyway just in case, but it’s good to save that for emergencies if you can, plus you can only use it so much before it needs to be charged too.

Route Variations

Some long distance trails have multiple route variations. For instance, The Kerry Way in Ireland can be completed in anywhere from 8-12 days, or probably faster if you’re really hardcore. Some people might split off from the classic Rim to Rim route in the Grand Canyon in order to add a side hike up Clear Creek or across Tonto. One of the hardest parts of planning your self-guided backpacking trip is choosing between these options.

Generally I’m inclined to choose whichever route is the “classic” route described by guidebooks and blogs. I assume it’s classic for a reason, and if you take a detour off the main route you might miss out on some fundamental characteristic of your trail (even if what you’re replacing it with is supposed to be more spectacular). However, I do often regret not branching out and trying to include route variations. On the Tour du Mont Blanc I would have loved to visit Lac Blanc, but I was too focused on sticking to the main drag. In retrospect I now know Lac Blanc would have been even prettier than the main route I chose.

It’s hard to know these things in advance. If you have hesitation, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the classic route, but if you’re feeling frisky, go ahead and Google possible variations. You may only be there once in your lifetime, so make the most of it! There are some deviations you don’t even need to commit to in advance, especially if they don’t interfere with your pre-booked accommodations (sometimes trail variants still converge back with the main route by the end of the day). Keep the options in the back of your head and see how you feel once you get out there.

When it comes to the timeframe rather than the route itself, that’s a bit easier. The shorter itineraries are for people who are combining multiple stages into one day. How many miles can you conceivably cover in one day, and better yet, how many do you want to cover? It’s not a race, but of course you may only have so much time off work, or you may enjoy challenging yourself with greater mileage.

Longer days allow you to add more variations and detours into your route. When I hiked Hadrian’s Wall, I aimed to do it in 6 days, but I really wish I’d gone for 7 or 8 days. There are a lot of museums and Roman ruin excavation sites off the trail, which is the entire point of doing this hike. Some of these museums are only open from 10am-2pm or 3pm, otherwise known as prime hiking hours. Ideally you’d go to the museum early when you wake up and start hiking after, or hike all day and hit a museum late in the afternoon, but neither option is possible. 

Preparation

You’ve booked your hike and it’s on the calendar! Now it’s time to prepare. You already know you should be training to get your body ready for the trip, and that booking flights and somewhere to stay near the start of the trail is essential (plus transportation to the trailhead, if necessary). What else is there to consider in the final hour?

Emergencies

Every country has an emergency phone number, and many wilderness areas and national parks have a mountain rescue number too. Find out which ones pertain to your trail and save them somewhere you can access them during your hike.

Do you have a Garmin InReach or other emergency communication device? Does it work in the country you’re visiting? Here is a list of place where the InReach may be limited.

When choosing your trail, you already learned about any dangers inherent to the landscape. Be sure to also Google what to do in case you run into these issues. For example, the way you should react to a moose is not the same as what’s advised for bear encounters. Not all shelters are made equal when it comes to lightning safety.

What kind of public transportation options service the area? If you get hurt or sick and need to come off the trail and head into town, but it’s not bad enough to need helicopter evacuation, then hopefully there is some kind of shuttle company or bus line that operates nearby.

In a worst case scenario, you could need medical evacuation or mountain rescue. This is why it’s a good idea to purchase a travel insurance plan that includes outdoor recreation, like the World Nomads Explorer Plan. Spot Insurance is specifically for outdoor recreation. You can compare different travel insurance providers and plans through Travel Insurance Master. Technically Search and Rescue is not supposed to be at the hiker’s expense in many areas of the United States, but rules vary depending on circumstances (were you doing something stupid?) and location, and you could still have medical costs.

Please do keep in mind that the chances of facing dire situations and getting hurt are very low, but knowing you’ve studied up and have the right tools is a huge mental help when it comes to paranoia. Make the unknown known.

Gear

Does the gear you already have work for this new environment? Coming from the desert canyonlands of the southwestern United States, I did not have the necessary rain gear to handle the United Kingdom. I am so glad I popped into a shop in Glasgow prior to my West Highland Way hike to buy an extreme waterproof rain jacket! The one I brought was much too flimsy.

If you’ll encounter snow on the trail, do you have microspikes for your shoes for traction?

If you have to do any creek crossings through water, are your shoes quick-drying and up for the task? Maybe you need waterproof sandals to change into?

Do you usually cook dehydrated backpacking meals, and is that worth it on your upcoming trek? If it’s a remote wilderness trail, then absolutely. If you’re going through towns a lot or being offered food at refuges, then carrying a fuel canister, stove, and expensive backpacking meals might just be extra weight and inconvenience.

Do you need bear spray, and is it allowed on your trail? Most people don’t know that bear spray is not allowed in Yosemite National Park. Do you need to hang your food or secure it in a bear canister, as is required in many North American parks?

If you’re staying in refuges, do they require you to bring a bed liner? Do you have to have your own, or can you rent one onsite?

Perhaps this falls under “gear” – will you need to change currencies while crossing borders during your hike? Are some accommodations cash only? You’ll need to hit ATMs prior to departing so you have enough cash on hand to check in.

How will you get cell service abroad? Personally I use an eSIM.

What navigation app will you use, besides physical maps? I use GAIA. I download offline maps for the trail (and any variations) so I can follow along as I hike in airplane mode, but I try not to rely on it. These are not always accurate and the more you look, the more it drains your phone battery.

If you plan to carry all your gear, especially if you’re camping, is it lightweight enough? Maybe the tent you use for weekend camping trips feels like a burden for a longer trek like this. Personally I don’t go ultralight with a tarp, but my Nemo Hornet tent is about 2lbs, which is much better than my old REI Half Dome. Conversely, if you don’t want to spend the money to update your gear – are you fit enough to carry what you have? Or are there things you can leave behind? There are a lot of “gear shakedown” posts on the internet to help with this.

If your tent is not freestanding and requires hammering stakes into the ground, will you be in terrain where this is possible? Will you have soft forest ground or is the trail mainly a rocky canyon landscape?

No matter where you’re going, consider the 10 essentials and remember to Leave No Trace.

Keeping Organized

I used to think I was too Type A and my excel spreadsheets must be overkill, but I’ve noticed other hikers referencing their own similar documents on trail! Here are screenshots of examples:

You can save these on your iPhone in the “Files” app. Printing out paper versions creates risk of your itinerary getting wet, torn, or lost. Although I suppose you might do both; a phone can get lost or broken too.

Notice there’s not a ton of information about the daily walks themselves. These spreadsheets are mainly about accommodations and transportation. On my first trip I did create a daily itinerary with information about mileage, points of interest along the trail, and pertinent navigational information, but this was indeed a bit extra. A good guidebook will already have this information, and you can also reference your maps and GAIA app along the way. From prior research I am always aware which sections of the trail will be trickiest (for example, on the TMB everyone knows the last day has ladders), but otherwise I usually just read about the next day’s route a night or two before. It’s good to be surprised!

Information you might consider including on your spreadsheet: accommodation check-in and check-out times, prices, cash vs card, if you paid in advance or must pay upon arrival (and what currencies they’ll accept), any special rules (do they have quiet hours? No fires allowed?), what amenities each accommodation offers (drying room, laundry, showers, bathrooms, wifi, bed liners for rent?), if there are any ATMs, outdoor shops or grocery stores available during each stage of the hike, if wildcamping is allowed on individual stages, what the water sources are during each stage, etc.


My hope is that this overview of how to plan your own self-guided hiking trip will take some of the mystery and intimidation out of the process. It can be daunting to venture to a foreign country or into a wilderness area you’ve never visited before, but the best way to combat this is with research and preparation. Once you’ve gone through these steps and taken all possible precautions to ensure a good trip, all that’s left is to let go and have fun!

Is there anything still holding you back from planning your own trekking adventure? Drop your concerns in the comments and I’ll do my best to help if I can.

Bon voyage!

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How to Plan a Self Guided Hiking Trip

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