Outdoor Resource Center

Planning a Long Distance Hike 2013

Contributor: Andrew Mazibrada, From: AndrewMazibrada.com


Trek is defined by the Chambers English Dictionary, 2010 edition, as:

Noun. A long arduous journey, esp. one made on foot.

This article is a short resume of the general principles involved in planning a long distance trek which can be defined more specifically as a multi-day journey of some considerable length. All this article is intended to do is to provide a springboard to more detailed research as the planning is more involved than a trip which lasts a few days. The likelihood of a surprising variety of weather, changing terrain and the potential for days without easy access to civilization are all hallmarks of a longer trek which require particular attention in the planning stage. Gear selection becomes almost an art form - take too much and your mileage will decrease and your body will suffer. Take too little and you are simply not prepared. Having a backup plan is essential as the prospect of an unexpected hurdle increases the longer the hike goes on. Fitness also plays a significant role. Plan, Prepare and Research.

Planning Stage

The Planning Stage must address the following:

  • Travel to the start of the hike and travel from the conclusion of the hike - how exactly to do you intend to get there and home again
  • Passes, licenses and documentation required for the trek
  • Route to be taken on the trek
  • Safe, emergency escape routes from the hike
  • Food and water during the hike
  • Contact with the outside world during the hike
  • Accommodation during the journey
  • Weather, terrain and conditions likely on the journey
  • Gear to be taken on the hike itself
  • Travelling kit and storage thereof

Gear Selection

Ultra-light philosophy finds its true calling when undertaking lengthy, multi-day journeys. Each item must be dual-use and/or essential. Nothing should be taken which is, in any way, superfluous. The lightest possible required equipment should be selected as part of one’s pack. Pack selection must take into account the likely ambient temperature, impending weather and terrain to be traversed. At one end of the spectrum, taking superfluous items is detrimental but, conversely, not taking items which are required to meet anticipated conditions is simply dangerous. There is a balance to be struck.

When considering clothing, you may want to split clothing into the traditional 3-layer system - base layers, mid or insulating layers and the shell or outer layer. Clearly, sometimes, not all three layers are required depending on your environment, but when selecting a pack for a journey, that basic principle should be foremost in your mind. Each layer should be manufactured from a lightweight, quick-drying, technical fabric.

Base Layer

Take two, or possibly even three, base layers. Used together, it is a versatile system. This should include a short-sleeved and thin top (I use 150g merino wool) for warmer conditions as well as a thicker, long-sleeved zip-neck top (I use the Rab Powerstretch). These two items are both base layers but both have more than one function. The former as a warm weather single layer, as well as an active base layer; the latter as a base-layer in cooler conditions, but also an additional mid-layer, between the thinner base layer and a thicker mid-layer, in very cold but still active conditions. I find a third base layer, such as a 200g merino zip-neck top, a useful addition on longer trips and also an extra layer for warmth if necessary. All will serve as hut-wear on alpine trips, or camp sleep-wear.

Mid or Insulating Layer

A mid-layer tends to be not only an insulating later which can be worn during periods of high-activity - and should therefore be extremely breathable as well as warm - but should also be capable of providing warmth during periods of inactivity, for example when camped. It may well be that a single mid-layer is not sufficient if the conditions and ambient temperature will vary significantly, but a single item that vents well, is breathable, water resistant and durable will meet most needs if your base layers are well chosen. I am cautious about down insulating layers for hikes - if down gets wet, it is virtually useless. A synthetic insulating layer like the Montane Prism 2.0 or Rab Xenon, which is warm, has a hood, is constructed in breathable Pertex fabric and which vents well, can be used when moving as well as at rest. It will also pack down better than a fleece and is relatively lightweight. This will extend the conditions in which well-chosen base layers beneath can be deployed - when moving, it may be that a thinner base layer will help regulate heat loss better than a thicker base layer, but at rest, a thicker layer would make more sense as the body loses heat more quickly.


Pants need to be multi-functional just as much as other layers. No more than three pairs should be taken - a warm weather pair (either 3/4 length or shorts), a cool weather pair and a waterproof layer. If possible, find pants (like the Montane Terra pants) that will vent well in warm weather but in cooler weather, when layered with your waterproof overpants, will keep out the wind. This means taking only two pairs and the consequential weight saving. Below these, I use X-Bionics Trekking boxers which reach to just above the knee, stretch comfortably, breathe well and keep out the wind.

Shell or Outer Layer

A shell or outer layer must be waterproof, not water resistant. On this topic, read Andy Kirkpatrick's excellent article on the Truth about Breathable Waterproof fabrics. However, a waterproof shell layer is essential if rain is anticipated as even possible. Over the years, several excellent waterproofs, in eVent and Gore-Tex Pro and Active-Shell, have been manufactured with minimal features and few seams which are consequently highly functional but extremely lightweight. Examples include the Rab Demand Pull-On and the OMM Cypher Smock. Both weigh around 250g. A waterproof shell need not be heavier than this in 3-season conditions. In terms of waterproof pants, the Go-Lite Tumalo is a good, simple choice with minimal features and very light. Your shell layer will function as a windshirt as well as a wet-weather layer and your overpants should be as comfortable for use as general pants just as your primary walking pants.

Eating, Drinking and Other Miscellaneous Items

You should carry a first aid/survival kit and know how to use it. Take a head torch and spare batteries. If you are not camping, you should still carry an emergency sleeping bag in case of an emergency. You should have the means to carry at least 2 liters of water if you are unsure of your ability to refill during the day. Planning water stops using detailed mapping is essential. Checking on the accuracy of the maps with local resources is also essential. Your cooking gear should be as light as possible and do not underestimate your fuel use. If possible, take a meths/woodburner combination (like the Trail Designs Ti-Tri Sidewinder Inferno) if you think you’ll be able to gather small, dry wood on the trail. If you are going to eat on the trail, be realistic about your calorie intake. Try to build in re-supply stops so you don’t carry all your food at once. Freeze-dried food is very good but tedious after a while.

The Backpack/Rucksack

Your backpack is the fulcrum of your trek. It is, after all, your home. I have posted On Rucksacks previously and it is a post worth reading. Whilst most backpacks will look similar, there are myriad arenas in which backpacks must operate and not all backpacks are created equal. No backpack is waterproof - everything you pack should be in dry bags. Primarily, you must understand what you are carrying, for how long each day and in what conditions before making a backpack selection. You must also know your hip measurements and your torso measurement.

Torso measurement is an easy process. For the purpose of fitting backpacks torso length is the distance between the point along the curve of the spine which is level with the top of the Iliac Crest (more commonly known as the Hipbone), up to the base of the neck or top of the seventh cervical vertebrae (C7 - the prominent bone or large knuckle at the base of the neck).

What features does a backpack need to have? A large, primary compartment is perhaps the most essential requirement. The simpler the design, the lighter the pack and that is the real aim. A light pack means no dead weight to carry. There is no need for lots of pockets, straps, clips and buckles. More important, what you are carrying will impact on the pack you choose: as materials and other kit diminish in weight, a less rigid pack is required for a supportive and comfortable fit. A below-17 lb. overall pack weight does not necessarily require a framed pack at all, and certainly means a pack with a minimalist frame, which immediately reduces the weight of the pack itself. Here is what you must consider:

  • The back-system should be comfortable, stable for the weight you are carrying and, if you sweat a lot on your back, permit some sort of airflow;
  • There should only be pockets on the exterior of the pack to allow you access to items of gear when you need them - either a pocket large enough to swallow items you do not want to have to rummage through your pack for and side pockets which are accessible without taking the pack off;
  • The shoulder straps should be either contoured and/or sufficiently padded that sustained periods of carrying significant weight will be comfortable on your clavicle;
  • Additional features should be kept to a minimum if present at all.

My favorite pack for 3-season hill walking is the 210 denier Gossamer Gear Gorilla. It is a perfect combination of functionality and weight. It has a single main compartment, three mesh pockets on the outside which stretch sufficiently to swallow any kit I need urgent access to or, in the case of the side pockets, access to on the trail. They also allow wet kit to dry. I can add bungee cord to create stability of items like trekking poles stored on the outside of the pack, but only need add what I want and where I want it. It is sufficiently durable for me not to have to be concerned about where I take it, but light enough at 690g.

Route Selection

Your route selection will depend as much on external factors such re-supplying as where you actually want to go. If you are hiking in a national park, this should be relatively easy. You need to research the terrain, the likely weather and have planned emergency escape routes. You need to know what the paths are like and how easy on-the-ground navigation is likely to be. Whether you take a GPS is personal choice but for longer treks where getting lost is likely to have far-reaching consequences, a GPS supplementing maps and compass is a very good idea. Most smartphones have GPS these days, or alternatively take a small unit like the Magellan eXplorist 310 with the maps of your route pre-loaded. Ensure that, if you are going abroad, that your GPS unit’s datum matches that of your local map. Have paper maps even if you have a GPS unit. Make sure you can re-charge the GPS unit or carry spare batteries. Know exactly how long the battery life is for your unit and learn to use it before you go.

Research the weather for the last few years in the area you are going for the time of year you are going. If it is in a foreign country, seek advice from the local authorities running the park - they will be more than willing to provide you with advice and assistance.

You will need to know in advance where you intend to sleep - if camping, check the local laws on wild camping - is it tolerated or even permitted? What sleeping bag will you need - what is the worst the weather can in the area you are hiking? Have a sleep system that matches it whether that is a single bag, or a bag that entails using your insulation layer(s) in an emergency. Make sure your sleeping mat is also sufficient for the time of year - a huge amount of heat is conducted through the ground in cold weather. A poor mat choice renders your expensive sleeping bag useless. Most of the down will be pushed on top by your body.

What do you intend to eat and drink? Is the water drinkable or do you need to take a filter? Can you pick up food supplies en route or do you need to take everything you intend to eat with you? Bear in mind that a 12.5 mile day, with around half a mile of ascent, will require 3,000 calories at least, probably much more. You might be able to get away with eating less for a few days but not eating enough will take its toll later in the trek. Build in a rest day - this will enable you, especially on a traverse, to allow for illness, injury or poor weather which forces you to re-evaluate a given day’s mileage.

Do you have a mobile phone that will receive signal on the trek? If so, enter the relevant number for the emergency services or mountain rescue. Leave your itinerary with someone you know, or the local park authorities, so they can track you down if you don't check in on your return - go read ‘127 hours’ if you don’t believe me.


You cannot expect to undertake even 5 consecutive days walking without some preparation. Extend that to weeks, or even months, and add in camping rather than staying in huts, eating freeze-dried food and some bad weather and you have a recipe for disaster if you are in poor physical condition. Whether it is fatigue or muscle damage - any physical malaise will ruin your trek, or worse. You must expect to prepare physically for your trek - whether this mean hitting the gym and doing cardio work, or simply walking a 9-12 miles during a few days per week since doing a 2 hour walk once a week for a few weeks is simply not going to cut it. Do any preparation with your pack on if possible. After a few 7 hour days with it, when you finally pack, you’ll be more inclined to ditch superfluous items.

A Long Distance Trek is the pinnacle of any outdoor walking. It allows you to feel genuinely at one with the outdoors and finishing engenders a sense of real achievement. Properly planned, it is a memory you will cherish forever.

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