How to Plan a Hiking Route: 5 Steps to Success

With any outdoor adventure, the key to success lies in what you do at home before setting off and taking to the trail. In this post, we will reveal the five most important pre-hike steps every hiker should take to ensure their outing goes off without a hitch.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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One of the most important means of ensuring you enjoy a successful, drama-free day in the hills or mountains is doing a little bit of pre-trip planning.

In addition to ensuring you avoid any unwelcome surprises and have all the hiking gear you need for your perfect route, doing so should also help to quell any pre-hike jitters and let you hike the trails with confidence.

Below, we offer a five-step guide on how to plan a hiking route to show you how it’s done.

How to Plot a Hiking Route in 5 Simple Steps

1. Source Your Maps

Your starting point, whether for a simple day hike or epic multi-day distance hikes is always getting your hands on some good hiking trail maps – these should clearly show features such as trails, elevation, and any other relevant information for your hike (starting trailheads, river crossings, shelter, etc).

GPS Units

If you use a hiking GPS in addition to your paper maps, always ensure you have downloaded the most recent and up to date version of your units maps before you set off!

Wherever you happen to be in the world, the chances are that there will be a selection available for the area in which you plan to do your hiking, camping, or backpacking.

Most maps geared towards outdoor pursuits range from 25000:1 to 100000:1 in scale, with the first figure representing the meters of actual terrain represented by one inch of distance on the map.

As a general rule, we’d recommend buying the most detailed and up-to-date map you can get your hands on.

2. Read Trip Reports

Sometimes, even the most careful examination of a map doesn’t give you the full picture of the conditions or terrain you’ll meet in the field. What may look like a few hundred yards of scree that you can skip across in seconds on your map may, in fact, be a labyrinthine boulder field that will require an hour or more to scramble your way through. And that thin, innocuous-looking blue line cutting through your trail may well turn out to be more of a raging torrent rather than the gentle stream you imagined.

Given the above, it’s well worth putting in half an hour or so at the computer scanning recent trip reports for anything that might prove problematic.

3. Identify Hazards

The number of hazards you might encounter on any hiking trip runs into the dozens.

Before heading off your trip, you can spare yourself any nasty or trip-ending surprises by identifying any potential hazards and, if necessary, adjusting your route to avoid them.

Some of the more notable hazards you might be able to identify on your map pre-trip include sketchy river crossings, steep slopes if heading off-trail (marked by tightly packed contour lines), avalanche-prone slopes, passes that are likely to be snowbound, sheer cliffs you wish to steer well clear of if hiking in low visibility, exposed ridges that might put you in danger should a thunderstorm arrive, boggy terrain that might slow down your progress, north-facing slopes that might be icy in winter or early spring, or sections of coastal routes that become impassable at high tide.

In addition to identifying potential hazards, it’s also a good policy to locate and establish a suitable recon point in case you happen to separate from your hiking companions.

Finally, in summer months in warmer parts of the world, it is also well worth taking a moment to identify any water sources to avoid carrying less H20 than you’re likely to need.

4. Call Ahead of Time

If you’re heading into a national or state park, the chances are there will be a ranger station or park office you can call or website you can visit to get recent updates on trail conditions and discover any potential issues that might complicate or thwart your trip.

If you aren’t heading to an established park area, then another way of getting some pre-trip info is to look online for local hiking groups, mountain rescue teams, or mountain guides and give them a buzz or shoot them a quick email.

5. Estimate Your Trip Time

Calculating how long your hike will take is an essential part of pre-trip planning. Hikers are often prone to biting off more than they can chew by embarking on routes that they will struggle to finish in the time they expect. As a result, they run the risk of having to complete their hike after nightfall and dealing with all the added risks that entail.

While online trip reports and route descriptions can give you a rough idea of how long any hike will take, when reading these resources it’s well worth bearing in mind the different fitness levels of different hikers, being honest with regard to your own capabilities, and remembering that trail conditions may vary greatly from the time of the report to when you plan on doing your hiking.

Protip: In addition to your maps there are several useful route planner apps found online such as Outdoor Active or Komoot. These tools also double up for planning cycling or running trips as well.

If your hike is headed off-trail, moreover, or plan on taking on a trip comprising sections of multiple trails, then it’s unlikely you’ll find any online reports with accurate time estimations.

The most effective way to calculate how long any hike will take is to use Naismith’s Rule, which advises allowing one hour for every three miles of hiking plus an additional hour for every 2,000 feet of ascent. If on a 9-mile hike with 3,000 feet of ascent (calculated by totaling up the overall elevation gain given by contour lines), therefore, you should allow for roughly 4.5 hours of hiking time, though this may vary depending on your fitness levels and trail conditions.

How to Plan a Hiking Route: Conclusion

Once you’ve planned out your trip, remember to collect all your trip info and navigational devices and get ready to hit the trail!

Last update on 2023-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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