PLANNING AN EPIC HIKING ROAD TRIP IN 8 SIMPLE STEPS

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Planning a hiking road trip is fun and exciting. You dream about hitting the open road, wake up ready to tackle another mountain, breath in that fresh alpine air, and witness some of the most stunning landscapes with your own eyes.

But let’s rewind a little bit. Road trips are exhilarating, but they can also be … overwhelming and stressful. When my friend came to me with the idea of hiking through northeast United States, we were at a loss of where to start. There’s so many decisions to make, and who knows what to start working on first. What should my starting point be? Do I have all the gear I need? What if I can’t go on a hike I really want to go on because I didn’t know I needed to book parking? How am I going to be the most prepared I can be and make sure I don’t miss any of the details?

First thing first, do not stress! These 8 steps below will guide you from the basic idea of a wanting to go on a hiking road trip all the way to the final checks you should be making before starting on your adventure. The most critical piece of advice is to stay organized – it’s the single best way to keep on top of all the details that planning a hiking road trip takes. In addition to the steps below, I’ll be providing examples from my own hiking road trip to give better understanding and depth to each step.

PLANNING A HIKING ROAD TRIP ARTICLE CONTENTS

Step 1: Make a spreadsheet
Step 2: Plan the road trip parameters
Step 3: List and prioritize all potential hikes and trails
Step 4: Make a preliminary road trip route
Step 5: Research the details
Step 6: Make an extensive gear list
Step 7: Confirm your details and make first week of reservations
Step 8: Final checks

STEP 1: MAKE A SPREADSHEET

The first step to planning a hiking road trip is staying as organized as possible. Making a spreadsheet to capture any and all information is vital in the beginning stages. Open up a new Google Drive spreadsheet so that you can share with anyone that may potentially be joining in on the trip. If you don’t have a Gmail account, I recommend making one. It’s quick and free, and one of the best platforms to edit and share live information with others. Create the following tabs before you start dumping in all of the fun and exciting information.

  1. PARAMETERS
  2. HIKES INFORMATION
  3. DAILY PLAN
  4. GEAR CHECKLIST

More information on what you’ll be putting into each tab is coming in the following steps.

In addition to the spreadsheet, also make a Google Drive My Map to start plotting your potential route. You can find maps under ‘New’, ‘More’, and ‘Google My Maps’ when you’re on the main drive platform page.

QUICK NOTE:

The following steps do not go into detail about the most optimal way of tracking expenses and splitting them amongst group members. If you are conscious about tracking expenses, it may be helpful to create an additional tab, ‘EXPENSES‘. You can track all purchases before and throughout the trip to ensure that all costs are split correctly, and you are sticking to a budget you set for yourself.

STEP 2: PLAN THE HIKING ROAD TRIP PARAMETERS

Your framework should be set. Now it’s time to start adding in some basic information. Within the ‘PARAMETERS‘ tab, start inputting information on the length of your trip, any budgeting guidance, who is coming along, and more.

Planning a Hiking Road Trip Basic Parameters
BREAKDOWN
  1. Duration: If you have a specific number of days in mind, that’s great! If not, put a range of about how long you think you want your road trip to be. It will be easier to narrow this down to more a specific number once you start filling in more information and gathering more details in your spreadsheet.
  2. Budget: There’s numerous ways to budget for trips. Planning out expenses per day, grouping it into specific categories, or just aiming to stay under a certain amount. Whichever it is, it’s important to write something down to refer back to when you start purchasing campground spots, gear, and other necessities.
  3. Group Members: This one is easy to fill out. It will be important later when each person starts ranking preferences, and what gear they have or need.
  4. Transportation: This is a huge category. It will impact how you’re going to get around from place to place and how much room you’ll have to pack all of your gear. Options could be your own car, a rental car if you’re traveling to a different place, or even a van that you can live out of. Document details on insurance and anything that may need to be looked at or fixed before leaving.
  5. General Area: It’s good to set this at the beginning stages of researching. There’s no need to get down to a specific region or state level, but having a large idea is important before starting to looking at specific hikes and parks.
  6. Start Point, End Point: If you already know where you want to start and end your trip, that’s great. If not, that’s totally ok. You’ll start to get a better feel for where these points will be when you fill in more details below.

STEP 3: LIST AND PRIORITIZE ALL POTENTIAL HIKES AND TRAILS

After establishing the basics, it’s time to get into the hiking details. You can’t start planning a hiking road trip without doing some extensive trail research! Within the ‘HIKES INFORMATION‘ tab is where you will begin to collect any specific hikes of interest within the general area you’ve set. Each individual should fill in the information below for the hikes they add to the sheet. Additionally, they should also set their priority level. After all the details are inputted, other group members will go to the hikes they didn’t add, and put in their own priority level.

For example, if Katie added ‘Mount Katahdin’ in the image below, I would go back and add my priority level when we have all potential hikes on the spreadsheet.

BREAKDOWN
  1. Hike, Park / Area, State: Collect the basic information so there’s a general idea of its location compared to other listed hikes.
  2. Priority Level: This category is a general overview of how people feel about the listed hike. Highlight green for high, yellow for medium, red for indifferent interest. If you need to add information about your choice, you can add it in the considerations. This section acts as a starting point to gauge overall interest in hikes.
  3. Duration, Length, Difficulty: A basic indicator of duration and difficulty is important to understand the commitment level each hike will take along the trip.
  4. Hike Type, Other Considerations: Document additional information that’s important to know. Specific trails that are better than others, do parking lots fill up quickly, booking a parking spot ahead of time, needing to rely on shuttles or have a someone with a second car, and so on.
  5. #: This column will come into effective in Step 4. It will help to brainstorm and organize the potential order of your route.

When all hikes are inputted and ranked, organize the rows so that all hikes from the same park or forest are placed together. It will be better organized and make it easier for later steps.

You may be thinking, why I am not inputting detailed information for everything I want to be doing on this hiking trip? I’m going to need some days off to relax and reset. Well, that step will come later. First, you need to start forming your route and have a better idea of how long you think you want to stay in certain areas. You can’t start planning a hiking road trip without focusing on the hiking!

STEP 4: MAKE A PRELIMINARY ROAD TRIP ROUTE

You should now have a very extensive table of hiking details. Priorities for all hikes and people should also be complete. Open up the Google Drive My Map you made in Step 1 and start pinning all hikes you have listed. Route planning is an essential part of planning a hiking road trip.

STARTING & ENDING POINTS

If you have a starting and end point, you should start seeing a route form across your pins. Begin at the starting point, and find the closest park that is a popular option in the group. Then, continue on to the next one from there. If there’s no ideal route forming, you will have to reassess the chosen hikes and priorities of the group. If that doesn’t help, perhaps changing the starting or end point will help with this.

Now is the time to decide a start or end point if you don’t have one yet. There are numerous ways to decide how to plot a route. One way is to start with one that is the farthest difference from the rest so you can get the extremely long drive out of the way first. Perhaps it would be better to start in an area where you plan to spend the most time. Another option is to start in an area that will have the most difficult hikes as you’ll be more fresh at the beginning of your trip. You get the point – there’s numerous ways to tackle this, but it comes down to what your group prioritizes as the most important piece.

As you go through this step, use the ‘#‘ column from the last step to track what order you will be going in. This should help as you brainstorm different route options.

OUTLIERS

If the outlier is only of average interest to the group, it will be easy to ‘X’ it out. There’s no need to dwell on small pieces like this when there is so much else to decide on.

If the outlier is of bigger interest to 1+ people, it’s worth the discussion to see what threshold others are willing to deal with. Maybe there are other parks or hikes in the area to look at, maybe the hike you want to do is similar to something else that’s more along your tentative route, and so on.

EXAMPLE

For our trip, we plotted all of our parks of interest in orange. We knew our starting point was Boston, so we marked it with a different color. For us, our priority was to start with the farthest park and work our way west. Knowing this, we started forming different route ideas, and marked our potential route order in the ‘HIKES INFORMATION‘ tab.

STEP 5: RESEARCH THE DETAILS

Now that you have a preliminary route set, it’s time to get even MORE into the details! Within the ‘DAILY PLAN‘ tab is where you’ll start compiling information about on reservations, accommodations, break days, and more.

Daily Plan Scheduling for a hiking road trip
BREAKDOWN
  1. Date, Day: Basic parameters to help keep organized.
  2. Start Location, End Location: A brief glimpse into where you will be each day. Tracking end locations will help when it comes to searching for campgrounds or other accommodation.
  3. Day Plan: This will be the bread and butter of your trip. Of course hiking is the priority, but you’re going to need some days to relax, grocery shop, and so on. It’s important to be as flexible as possible when sorting this out. Throw in a few more rest days than you think you’ll need. If the weather ruins your plan for a specific day, then you can cancel one of your rest days. It’s realistic that you will only be able to gauge the feasibility of your plan 3-4 days out even if you’re scheduling the entirety of your trip in this spreadsheet. Making reservations and confirming books will be discussed more in depth in a later step.
  4. Hours Driving, Miles (Km) Hiked: Driving and hiking are the 2 most time consuming activities to take note of when planning a hiking road trip.
  5. Accommodation: If you plan on staying at a campground, you should research to see how far in advance they usually sell out. Keep in mind they tend to reach full capacity quicker in summer months. Once you know where you are hiking, start doing some preliminary research on campground options in the area. If you plan on staying in AirBnb’s and hotels more, there could be more or less flexibility. Do some research in the areas you intend on staying inside for.
  6. Notes: This column acts as a catch-all for any details you’ve found in your research. Showering facilities, grocery stops, camp site reservations, and more. Checkout the screenshot above for more examples.
QUICK NOTES
  • Once you get into these details is where hiking becomes very different depending on the area you want to visit. For example, lottery systems and permits are very popular for a lot of parks in western United States. However, those are less popular on the east coast. If you are passionate about waiting around to get one of these permits, that means you’ll be spending a lot of time in one area and minimizing time in another. This is where flexible planning and having alternate options become extremely important!
  • It may be helpful to add an additional column ‘Confirmed Accommodations‘ if you want to keep better organized on what places you have confirmed, and which are still just potential options.

STEP 6: MAKE AN EXTENSIVE GEAR LIST

Changing focus a bit, now it’s time work on your gear list. None of this trip is possible without the proper gear for camping, hiking, cooking, and so many other things. Open up the ‘GEAR CHECKLIST‘ tab and get ready for some super-detailed organization. This tab focuses on sorting gear into 8 distinct categories. It will track which items need to be purchased as a group and which need to be purchased per individual, what should be packed for an overnight trip, and more. If this little blurb doesn’t make sense, there’s a lot more detail coming next.

BREAKDOWN
  1. Color: This column acts as a quick-glance status bar. It’s organized into items that need to be purchased beforehand, will be purchased as a group, will be purchased by an individual, or do not need to be purchased.
  2. Category: The category breakdown is flexible to how you choose to organize, but the above list worked very well for my last trip. If you want to change the organization, ensure that all items and categories are covered.
  3. Item: Do extensive research on what you should bring based on the area you’re going to and the activities you include in your itinerary. Keep in mind it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared when your list starts to look really long.
  4. Quantity: This column is dependent on what you include your list, similar to the Category column. It’s a great column to quickly organize and figure out if you have enough of one item, or if something needs to be purchased.
  5. Does person 1, person 2 have: These columns will help to clarify if the item needs to be purchased by the group and split the costs, or if a certain individual needs to buy an item ahead of time.
  6. Notes: This column acts as a catch-all for any purchase-related details. What people are currently buying, what costs are going to be split, designated grocery store items, and so on.
FORMATTING BREAKDOWN

The formatting below is what worked best for my trip. Feel free to change this to make it easy to read for the people going on the trip.

  1. Green: someone in the group has it; item and quantity are covered.
  2. Yellow: item needs to be purchased for the group; item can be purchased at a store.
  3. Red: item needs to be purchased for the group; item should be purchased online.
  4. Pink: item needs to be purchased for an individual.
  5. Red Text: belongs in a category other than backpacking item, but are all items that should be brought on overnight trips.
LITTLE GEAR TIPS
  • If you can, plan a grocery and shopping trip before the officially starts. My friend and I went around to grocery stores, Target, and REI (an outdoor coop) and purchased many items we needed before starting. If not, make sure you devote a part of Day 1 to shopping, and buy anything online you won’t be able to get in person.
  • If you plan on buying new boots, try your hardest to break them in before leaving on your trip. I also recommend bringing extra (like a lot extra) blister tape with you. I wouldn’t have been able to last on my trip without it! Additionally, if you are renting or buying a new tent or other gear, test it out to make sure all pieces are there and functioning before packing it up.
  • Check out this Extensive Hiking Road Trip Gear List to make sure you don’t forget any important items.

STEP 7: CONFIRM YOUR DETAILS AND MAKE FIRST WEEK OF RESERVATIONS

At this point, you should have all of your gear taken care of, and ordered anything you need to have ahead of time. We’re reaching the final stages of planning a hiking road trip that will undoubtedly create some epic memories! With your daily plan set, you will now need to pick an official starting day if you haven’t already.

It’s now time to start finalizing all of these nitty gritty details you’ve been working to find. Call parks for important updates, make sure all trails are open that you plan on using, find out the parking situation and if you have to make any additional bookings other than campgrounds, and any other details you should be watching out for.

RESERVATIONS RECOMMENDATION

Given all of this, I recommend to only go forth with officially booking and paying for the first week or so of reservations. Weather can change quickly and unexpected events can always happen. You will always have to stay flexible and have backup plans and even backup plans for your backup plans. Whatever happens, you have to make sure that you can make the best of any situation!

STEP 8: FINAL CHECKS

When your starting date is only a few days away, it’s time to do your final checks.

If you are planning on using your own car, check for things such as tire pressure, wiper fluid levels, changing your oil and filter, and so on. If you set-up a rental, call and confirm that all the details are in place.

Check the weather, and then double check it again a few hours later. In all seriousness though, weather is always in constant fluctuation. Try to keep an eye on it, but don’t get too stressed about the potential of a little rain storm on some days.

Go through your gear list again. This is probably the area I would stress the most. Yes, gear is replaceable, but you don’t want to find yourself on night 1 of a 3-day overnight trip and realizing you left your tent poles for the backpacking tent back in your car. (Trust me, it’s happened to me and I can guarantee it isn’t a fun time.)

YOU’RE DONE PLANNING A HIKING ROAD TRIP, AND IT’S TIME TO START YOUR ADVENTURE!

Finally, the day has come! Your trip is starting, and you couldn’t feel more prepared. You’ve put in all the hard work to setup your route, and make sure all the details are covered. Wherever you’re embarking on your trip, remember to make the best of every moment and to Always Embrace The Adventure.

Did you use this article in planning a hiking road trip? Let me know how it went below!

ARE YOU PLANNING YOUR OWN HIKING ROAD TRIP THROUGH NEW ENGLAND?

There’s plenty of articles and resources on the site to help you best prepare for your own adventure! Check out the 1-2 Weeks Ultimate New England Hiking Road Trip Guide to get a comprehensive look at the region, or read some article highlights below:

PRESIDENTIAL TRAVERSE: Weekend Trip in the White Mountains
FRANCONIA RIDGE GUIDE | 360 Views
BAXTER STATE PARK, Ultimate Guide
MOUNT KATAHDIN, Highest point in Maine
DOUBLETOP MOUNTAIN, Baxter State Park

Want to make your own epic road trip adventure but don’t know where to start? Check out these
8 Simple Steps to Planning a Hiking Road Trip that will bring you from a basic concept all the way to your final checks before heading out.

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PLANNING A HIKING ROAD TRIP

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