So you’ve thought about taking a backpacking trip.  “We should go backpacking,” you say to your friends in the room while you’re surfing Tripleblaze.com.  Then you realize you don’t even know where to begin.  I like to begin by deciding where to go.  There are several things to consider when choosing where to go backpacking:

1.  Where can I backpack?

You can backpack and use “dispersed camping” in wilderness areas, most national forest areas, BLM areas, and in some national parks.  Grab a map of your state and see what’s available. Then, go online and do some research on that particular area. Recently, when looking to see what the regulations were for our nearest national forest, I found this handy page on their site:  http://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/gmug/recreation/camping-cabins/?recid=32366&actid=34. While it listed some specific areas, it also gave me access to a more comprehensive document on the dos and don’ts of dispersed camping in this area.

An overnight trip to this reservoir in the Grand Mesa National Forest could be fun and is allowed, as long as you camp more than 100ft from the reservoir itself.

2.  What time of year is it?

In Colorado, snow at high elevations make mountain backpacking difficult until late June at the earliest.  Many choose this time to backpack in the desert when spring run off provides water for springs and streams, and temps are cooler.  For our trips, we usually plan to go on or after July 4th.

In July of 2010 there was still snow on the trail around 12,000 ft.

3.  How far is the area from your home?

We like to plan to backpack at places we can get to within 6-8 hours. Otherwise, you’re spending a full day on each end of your trip traveling to and from the trailhead. Trust me, after five days in the wilderness, the thing you’ll want more than anything else is your own bed and your own shower. For our Weminuche Wilderness trips we leave after work, drive about 3.5 hours to a small campground, spend the night, get up, and drive the last two hours to the trailhead and begin our hike.  On the way out we’ve got a manageable 5.5-hour drive home.

4. Once you’ve chosen a location, you have to choose a route. 

At this point, I find it’s best to get specific and get a book and a map.  Books like Hiking Colorado’s Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness Areas have been a huge help to us when planning trips.  Our Weminuche Wilderness map (National Geographic and Lat40 have great ones) are necessary too. They provide valuable information on routes and trails.

For example:

Page 14 of the book details the Highland Mary Lakes Loop.  It provides information on length, difficulty, maps you can use, and how to get to the trailhead.  As if that weren’t enough, it continues for three pages describing the route in detail, and it provides a map.  We’ve been known to tear pages out of books, or make copies, to take with us on our trips.

Now, when it comes to choosing a route, you have to think about several things:

A.  How long do you want to be out?

If you average 8 miles a day, then you can do a 24-mile loop in about three days.  That’s an easy way to figure it, but then you’ve got to think about the elevation changes and difficulty of the trail too.  You may only be able to cover 6 miles in a day if there are lots of hills involved.  If you’re unsure, err on the side of caution.  There’s nothing wrong with finding the trail easier than you expected and having a few extra hours to explore your evening camp or laze about in the morning.

B.  Is there water on this trail?  Hiking to a lake or reservoir is great because you know you’ll have water at the end, but what about along the way?  Look to your map and detailed description for information on river crossings, possible streams up high, and lakes or ponds that might be around.

Streams like this one were plentiful on the lower portions of our Squaw Creek trip last yearHowever, during the few hours we were up over 12,000ft, finding water was more difficult.

C.  How strenuous is it?  Part of the point of backpacking is to enjoy your trip and relax.  For us at least, that means not climbing 4,000ft in elevation in four miles.  Trails that say “extremely strenuous” are usually off limits.  Make sure to read on, though, and find out why the trail is considered strenuous.  Is it because it’s long?  If so, that’s not a problem if you’re planning to spend a few days out there.  Is it because of rough terrain and elevation gain?  If so, you may want to look around for some other options… or not.

D.  Is there any information on popularity?  Sometimes you can find information on how popular a trail is.  For instance, “lots of people love to hike the eight miles to Conundrum Hot Springs for a nice soak in the fall.”  That short sentence tells me that as much as I might like hot springs, I probably don’t want to backpack on this trail if I’m looking for peace and solitude.  Then again, if a trail is popular, there’s a reason.

The 11-mile hike to Avalanche Lake near Carbondale, CO was strenuous and yet extremely popular.  Then we saw why.

In the end, finding a great place to backpack can often take a bit of research and time, but for a quality trip that leaves you ready to go again, it’s best to do your homework first!

Click here to read Part II – Sleeping Gear.

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