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5 Tips to Prepare You for a 30+ Day Backpacking Expedition

“Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance.”

Extended backpacking expeditions are growing increasingly popular, from the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail on the West Coast to the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail on the East Coast. Are you interested in joining the ranks of hikers who complete one of these epic thru-hikes? Whether you consider yourself a newcomer or a native to the wilderness, successfully completing your own 30+ day backpacking expedition or thru-hike requires ample planning and preparation. In order to make the most of your time on the trail, consider these five ­tips:

1. Familiarize yourself with your destination

Spend some time learning about the location you’re going to. Knowing about the region’s climate and landscape will help you decide what clothes to bring, how much water you’ll need to carry, whether you’ll need to carry bear spray, etc. Study up on your maps to determine travel logistics to, from, and on the trail. Additionally, check in with online trail blogs or relevant land management websites, or call the local ranger station, to learn about trail regulations regarding permits, bear canisters, and campfires.

Gaining a bit of familiarity with the region you’ll be spending 30 days in can also help you better understand and appreciate your surroundings. What plants or animals can you keep an eye out for? Should you expect to swim and fish, or keep an eye out for prickly pear cacti and desert iguanas? And if you’re traveling to an international location, are there any phrases in the local language that might help you communicate? As a rule of thumb when planning for an expedition, the more you know, the better off you’ll be.

2. Fuel yourself: planning for adequate food and water

Once you have all your trail logistics planned, you can start planning to fuel yourself. You’ll need to pack enough food to power you through long days on the trail, but not so much that you’re carrying around excess weight. Consider lightweight options, such as instant rice, dehydrated beans, pasta, or even pre-made dehydrated meals, as well as dense, high-energy trail food like nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate.

Your destination’s landscape and climate will largely determine your water carrying capacity needs. You’ll need a much higher water capacity if you’re backpacking in the desert than in the mountains with running streams every mile. Perhaps two 1-liter water bottles will be sufficient, or maybe you’ll also need a hydration system to boost your water capacity to 5 or 6 liters. Once you have your water needs figured out, make sure you have a reliable water treatment method, such as a recently-cleaned water filter or a new bottle of aqua-mira. And as water is arguably the most important resource for backcountry travel, it’s not a bad idea to carry a back-up method; consider throwing an extra bottle of iodine tablets in your pack in case your pump breaks or your aqua-mira leaks.

Photo: Drew Robinson

3. Be emergency-ready

Regardless of how much you expect for your expedition to go smoothly, there’s always a chance that things can deviate from your plan. A thorough wilderness first aid kit can help you through many medical obstacles you may encounter in the backcountry, from blisters to headaches. It can even help you improvise a splint or sling if necessary.  It’s also a good idea to obtain some sort of wilderness medical training, such as a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder certification, before spending any extended period of time out of immediate reach of frontcountry medical responders.

Personal Locator Beacons and SPOT devices can also be vital resources during a backcountry emergency. These devices can send messages to the frontcountry if things go awry and you are in need of help. A variety of these devices exist on the market, so do your research to select one that best suits your needs.

4. Make a gear list and test your gear

What kind of gear will you need on your trip? Based on the weather patterns of where you’re going, will you need to bring plenty of warm layers, or will a mid-weight wool shirt and a rain jacket suffice? Once you decide what you’ll need, take a look at what you already own, and figure out what you will need to purchase or rent. Studying up on recommended gear lists and blogs can help you make wise decisions about purchasing and packing the gear that you’ll need most, so you’ll be well equipped for nearly any conditions you face in the backcountry.

Next, get comfortable with your gear before you head into the backcountry. Develop systems to efficiently pack your bags or keep your down jacket dry.  Understand how to quickly set up your tent, so if you’re caught in a rainstorm, you can set up shelter before you get too soaked. Also, check that all your gear is in good working order: that your tent stakes and there are no holes in your rainfly; that your fuel bottles are filled and your stove is in good working condition; and that you have enough Aqua-Mira or Iodine tablets to last you the whole month.

Perhaps the most important piece of gear you’ll bring on your expedition is a good pair of boots. Breaking in your boots before the start of your expedition can greatly increase the odds that you will have happy feet at the end of a long day. If you plan on purchasing new boots before your expedition, allow for at least a couple full days to wear them around.  Consider even walking up and down some hills to break in your boots in a variety of directions.

Photo: Kevin Kaminski

5. Prepare yourself physically

An extended expedition requires a high level of physical fitness, especially if you want it to be a fun experience and not a grueling and painful boot camp. Summiting a mountain with a 50-pound pack will certainly be more pleasant if you start with a good fitness base. Give yourself plenty of time before your expedition to get fit.  You’ll thank yourself when you finish your first day with plenty of energy left in your tank.

A few months before the expedition begins, incorporate training into your daily regimen. Get comfortable climbing up steep hills, flights of stairs, and unpaved terrain.  Develop your cardiovascular endurance by going on runs around your neighborhood or in the hills behind your house. Additionally, strengthening your legs with squats and lunges will help you power up hills even after your pack is weighted down with a newly replenished food stash. Maybe go out on a weekend backpacking trip with some friends.  Get creative with your training, and have fun with it.  

My high school coach always talked about the 7 P’s: “Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance.” Though it’s been many years since I played team sports, I’ve found that the 7 P’s apply just as much to backcountry expeditions as they do to after-school sports. Take time to study up on your destination, plan our your food and water, prepare for emergencies, test and get comfortable with your gear, and do some physical training. Follow these five tips while preparing for your expedition, and you’ll be heading into the backcountry in style. 

Cover photo: Justin Dong

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We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Megan MacKenzie

san francisco bay area native and maine transplant, living semi-nomadically in wyoming, utah, and idaho for the past year working in outdoor education and wilderness therapy. otherwise you can find me on my road bike...