Three hikers walking on the ridge

Backpacking basics: How to plan an overnight hiking trip

Waking up outside is always memorable – and it can get even better by hiking into a place that’s only accessible by foot. Getting to a remote location on an overnight hike is an amazing experience, but it does require more preparation and commitment than a day hike.

Overnight hiking (a.k.a. backpacking) means you carry everything you need to camp and hike with you, so some planning is required – but it’s worth it. Here’s where to start:

  • Choose where to go backpacking: The first step is picking a trail.
  • Plan for the size of your group: Figure out who’s joining you, so you can sort out gear, food and logistics.
  • Pack essential gear and clothing: Since you’re carrying everything, there are some things to consider.
  • Plan your backpacking meals and water: Water treatment and tasty, lightweight food makes for happy hiking.
  • Learn from experts: MEC hiking workshops dish up good advice for beginners.

Choose where to go backpacking

First up: picking a destination. You’ll want to find a trail that matches your skill set, works with the time you have, and fits within your budget. Hiking guidebooks, outdoor magazines and online forums are good sources to browse for ideas; asking other hikers for suggestions is great too.

How to estimate hiking time

When you’re figuring out how many kilometres to hike in a day, you’ll want to consider the terrain and the pace you want to travel. Steep, rugged terrain will slow you down, and things like tides on coastal hikes may mean you need to plan your days carefully. A trail that may only take a couple of hours to tackle with a small daypack may take all day with a full overnight load.

As a rough estimate, most experienced hikers can cover about 3–4km per hour on a well-established flat trail. Add about 15 minutes for every 100m of elevation gain on the route. And then underestimate both the hours you plan to hike in a day and the distance you think you’ll cover.

location-specific things to find out

Once you’ve got a trail in mind, do a bit more research to start finalizing the details:

  • Transportation: If your trail finishes in a different spot than it starts, you’ll need to plan a car shuttle or another way back.
  • Climate and weather: The time of year you’re hiking will impact your packing list. Low (or high) temperatures, water sources and even how many bugs to expect can be impacted by the season.
  • Permits and reservations: National and provincial parks often require you to get a backcountry permit, and in many cases you’ll need to reserve your tent site too. Some popular trails, like the West Coast Trail, limit the number of users on the trail to keep it enjoyable for everyone.
  • Local regulations: Can you have campfires? Are there food lockers or do you need to bring bear proof canisters? Do your research for where you’re heading.
Two backpackers high-fiving with a mountain view in the background

Backpacking buddies: good company, can help carry the load. Photo: @littlewood.photography

Plan for your group size

Group size and individual ability are important considerations. The larger the group, the longer it will take to do anything – from planning the trip to actually completing it. Heavy loads will magnify differences in physical ability. Plan to regroup regularly at places you identified at the start of the hike. When you regroup, give everyone equal time to rest (don’t just blast off when the slower paced people catch up). On longer hikes, plan for rest days and try to schedule them at the nicest campsites, the ones with a good water sources or places to swim, shelter from the elements and conditions that don’t favour midges and mosquitoes.

Along with sharing trail stories, hiking in a group means you can share common items, like pots, a stove and water treatment, so that the weight can be split between multiple people’s backpacks.

Group leader and trip plan

It may be wise to assign a group leader, usually the most experienced person in the party, to take responsibility for planning, route-finding and keeping a comfortable group pace. The leader can also be responsible for bringing first aid and safety equipment, making sure everyone is equipped for the outing, and checking that everyone in the group understands the Leave No Trace principles.

Before you leave, always complete a trip plan to tell someone about where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Leave the plan with someone you trust and don’t forget to contact that person when you get back safely.

What to bring backpacking

Once you pack up a tent, sleeping system, stove and fuel, something to treat water and food for the days you’ll be out, you’ll discover how much more gear (and weight) you’ll have to carry on an overnight trip than for a day hike. Use our backpacking checklist to make sure you don’t forget something crucial – but make sure you don’t overload yourself.

The two most common problems for new hikers are inappropriate footwear and carrying too heavy a load. It’s easy to bring too much. When you make plans with your group, figure out the best way to divide the common items, like stoves and pots, so that you can split the weight between different backpacks.

How to save on gear

Looking to build up your backpacking gear closet? Ask friends to see if you can borrow their gear to try out different brands, or check out MEC gear rentals (also great if you’re tight on storage space). The MEC Gear Swap and online marketplace sites are also good options to find deals.

Overhead photo of backpacking gear, arranged in a grid

The overhead gear shot is a classic pre-trip image. Photo: Daryl Phillips, an MEC expedition grantee who carried this for 6 days on the Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park (with film gear to document the journey).

Backpack for backpacking

The backpack you choose should have an internal frame, padded shoulder straps and a comfortable, padded hipbelt. Larger packs are adjustable and usually come in a range of sizes to suit different torso lengths. You’ll be much more comfortable with the right-sized pack, and staff at your local MEC store can help you find a good fit. When you try it on, load it up with weight so you get a more realistic feel.

If you’re new to overnight hiking, you might consider renting a large-capacity pack for your first few trips – MEC offers backpack rentals.

Tent and sleeping gear for backpacking

Does your trail have huts for hikers to sleep at? If not, you’ll need to bring a tent. And if you are planning to stay in a hut, it’s a good idea to have a contingency plan for your trip in case the hut is full, or you have to stop short of your final overnight destination.

Since you’ll be carrying everything on your back, you’ll want to use a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad designed for backpacking, not car camping. These are made of durable but lighter weight material, and pack up much smaller than car camping gear.

MEC offers gear rentals for tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads if you’re just getting into the activity. When you’re ready to purchase your own gear, check out these articles for helpful advice:

Hiker taking her boots off with an orange tent in the background; scene is on a beach

MEC Label tent in its natural environment. Photo: The Lady Alliance, one of MEC’s community partners.

Hiking boots for backpacking

Although some hikers enjoy wearing trail runners or approach shoes even for long-distance trails, you’ll probably want to upgrade to supportive hiking boots. Backpacking boots are high-cut to stabilize your ankles, and are stiff to prevent foot fatigue as you carry a heavy pack and cross rugged terrain. Make sure you break in your hiking boots at least a month before you go on your trip. Breathable, moisture-hiking hiking socks are also super important. Learn more about how to choose hiking boots.

What to wear backpacking

The clothes you wear for day hiking (or even working out) will likely also work for your backpacking trip. Clothing layers are key for overnight hiking, since it’s easy to pull layers on and off as temperatures change. And of course – no cotton! Make sure your hiking shorts, long johns, pants, t-shirts, underwear and sports bra are made of quick-drying materials that wick moisture.

Packing and preparing food

The amount of food to bring will depend on how hard you’ll be working, your age and even the temperature. Someone being active outside can burn about 3,200 to 4,500 calories per day. Check out our backpacking food and meal planning article for lots of helpful tips. Planning for some extra food is good (it’s part of the 10 essentials), but packing way too much food just means extra weight.

Canned foods are too heavy for backpacking, and you won’t have a cooler with you, so quick snacks and freeze-dried meals are popular options. Check the cook time for your food to make sure you bring enough fuel for cooking; it’s good to include no-cook options just in case your stove malfunctions.

Drinking water

Finding a safe and handy supply of drinking water is also important – even if it looks clean, all water should be filtered, treated or boiled to prevent water-borne pathogens from causing illness. Check that the water source you plan to use is viable year-round, and doesn’t rely on a snowpatch or a creek that goes dry in mid-summer. Flavoured beverages can also taste super refreshing after days of just water.

Packing your backpack

Properly distributing the weight in your pack is important to keep you comfortable and safe. Generally, light, bulky items go in the bottom of your pack. Heavy items, like pots and your food, should be close to your back and mid-way up your pack. Medium-weight or bulky things like extra clothing layers go toward the top. Check out our full article on how to pack a backpack for a video and plenty of tips.

Before you leave the house, weigh your pack. As a general rule, your pack weight shouldn’t be more than a quarter to one third of your body weight.

Backpacking workshops

Join a hiking and camping workshop at MEC for more tips from experts. And before you leave for the trailhead, always remember to check weather forecasts, tell someone about your trip plans and when you expect to be back, and stash a copy of your trip plan in the car at the trailhead.