By Cameron Ownbey

If you are like me you often want to go backpacking but have some specific criteria you desire for your trip and don’t want to get in over your head. You want to see mountain peaks or wildflowers. You want to chase a river, or swim in a lake, or perhaps see a waterfall. So where do you start to select a trail?

Start by narrowing it down to what distance and difficulty you are in the mood for on this particular outing.  Length of trail each day and maximum elevation gain you want to encounter. For an average backpacker, 5-8 miles in a day is reasonable, depending on elevation gain.

The process:

1) Decide what you want.  If you don’t know exactly what you want the internet is a bad place to start.  You need a paper map with trails on it.  Go to your local map or sporting goods retailer that specializes in local trail maps.  Typically map sets come with a larger area map as a key to the smaller maps so you can get an overview.  Areas further away from populations will typically be more remote and have fewer people on the trails.  Areas that are mountainous will typically have more elevation gain associated with it.  Do a mental walk down the trail using the map, and look around to see what you might run into.

2) Choose a trail.  If trail name and lengths are listed then great, you’re ready to decide whether it’s for you.  If not you may need to make some educated guesses on length.  Trails typically have a number associated with them.  Choose a few trails that fit your criteria.  Study the map and terrain closely.  Does the trail follow a railroad track?  Do you want to be walking under power lines for miles on end?  Get a general lay of the land.  Write down the trail names and what map they are on.

3) Internet time.  Most trail description web sites do not have a very good search function however a good old search internet engine will do the trick.  Pull your trail results from multiple web sites. You will find that most descriptions will vary on the trail statistics.  (Refer to your map as they tend to be more accurate.) Take a good look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of the trails that interest you.  Determine which trail you prefer.

4) Make the call.  Don’t waste time driving 3 hours to a trailhead that you have not called ahead on.  It’s like making a restaurant reservation, really – it  gives you a current picture of the conditions on the trail you intend to hike. Each trail is managed by some entity.  It may be a National Park or State Park,  the DNR or maybe even county but look it up on the internet.  Give a call to the land management entity.  Tell them where you plan on going and ask if they have any information about that trail and area.  Make sure there is current access to the trail. You don’t want to get there and find out that the first half- mile of the trail washed out and is not accessible. Be sure to ask which passes or permits you are required to have to use the trail legally.  Include permits for parking your car.

Have fun

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