When storm clouds hang low over the lowlands and feet of snow clog alpine passes, there is no better cure for the winter blahs than making plans for a big adventure. Something to dream about. Friends to coordinate. Permits to secure. A backpacking trip on the horizon turns a chore (repair the holes in your tent) into an exciting piece of trip prep.
So, make a fresh pot of coffee or tea, drag out those topo maps and let’s plan your summer backpacking vacation.
These WTA volunteers on a backcountry response team trip in Mount St. Helens backcountry were treated to some pretty spectacular July views while also helping improve trails. Photo by Annie J.
1. The volunteer trip
There are several advantages to signing up for a WTA volunteer vacation or backcountry response team trip with WTA. First off, we do most of the planning, and in the case of the volunteer vacations, the cooking. You just need to pack your gear and show up, ready to help some trails. Sure, you'll come out of this trip feeling incredibly virtuous. But here’s the real secret: trail work is also fun. Sometimes you stay at a basecamp and work on one cool project. Other times you move along a trail and stay in a different place each night. Either way, these are awesome ways to get out with some interesting folks you might never otherwise meet, check out a new place and maybe run reconnaissance for a future personal trip. Plus! You are helping maintain our trail system, and in some cases keep trails from falling off the map entirely. Win, win, win.
Your backcountry trip checklist
__ Create a My Backpack account if you don't already have one.
__ Check the volunteer schedule between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11 to find a trip or two you're interested in.
How to make it happen:
Check out the different trips on on Feb. 4, 2023.
Get ready to register. That means creating a Registration opens on Feb. 11, 2023.
Clear your calendar and make sure you can take the time off before signing up. (It really helps us out when we can count on volunteers who sign up. We build our packing lists for tools and projects based on how many people we have on a trip. Especially for small crews, one person's absence can make or break a project.)
Oh, and if you haven’t volunteered before? Maybe put in a day of trail work or two before you sign up just to be sure you don’t, er, have a different idea of fun than we do.
Alpenglow on Mount Rainer from Klapatche Camp on the Wonderland Trail. Photo by Anna Zuckerman
2. The permitted trip
When there are permits in place, you are probably looking at a particular kind of wilderness experience. One that is iconic and spectacular and requires the protection of a permitting system to keep it that way. Whether you are tripping along the ridgelines of Seven Lakes Basin in the Olympics, circumnavigating Mount St. Helens on the Loowit Trail or trying for a shot at an Enchantments or Wonderland Trail trip, these are classic hiking vacations. But! They are in fragile environments and are incredibly popular. So, you gotta get your ducks in order now. Because some permits and lotteries open in February, you don’t want to wait until July to start planning.
Dig into trip reports and go a few years back. They’ll give you ideas for when the trail is likely to become accessible and where some choice camps might be.
If you are coordinating for family or friends to join you, check in or meet up and see what folks are really up for. (It can be easy to think an 11-mile day is no problem in January and curse your past self come August when you are hauling 40 lbs of gear around Mount Rainier's Northern Loop.)
Want to extend a 4-day trip into a full week or have some less experienced folks along? Build in a few layover days. It is a true luxury to not have to move camps each day, and you can always explore during the day with a hike or trail run if you’re the type who needs to move through the backcountry to enjoy it.
3. The alternative to a permitted trip
You will need a Plan B if you are after permits and want to ease the sting of disappointment if the plan doesn't come together. Alternatively, you might want to skip the hubbub and just check out some less popular and still quite stunning trips. From the Pacific Crest Trail to Mount Adams, the Kettle Crest to the Mountain Loop, there are some epic routes that are worth a week in their own right. Some of them bordering the permitted areas offer similar views. It just so happens that they don’t require quite as many permits logistics as the current classics.
If you plan to try for a walk-up permit, build out a parallel itinerary in the same area. Pull together a second set of maps and leave your second itinerary. If you end up needing it, you already have another trip pre-planned.
Places like the Pasayten Wilderness are full of trails that can make for some epic loops. Photo by Ginevra Moore.
4. The DIY Loop
Loops are the best. Loops you dream up yourself? Even better. WTA has been working in places like the Pasayten, the Entiat and Goat Rocks Wildernesses to clear important connector trails and open up potential loops.
When you can't loop, do a key swap.
How to make it happen:
Narrow in on a region you might be interested in. Then, grab a map or open up a digital map on the largest screen you have and see what the possibilities look like. Don't forget to be creative with your loop shapes to extend your trip (or have a shortcut if you want the option of an early exit.)
Once you have a few ideas, it's time to fact check them. In places like the Pasayten, a lot of old trails are fading from the landscape and might not be tough to find or use. In other places, wildfires may have choked a trail with downed trees for dozens of miles. This is where trip reports and calls to the ranger station come in.
Go check it out. Take your sense of adventure, a backup plan and be sure to file a report on the condition of each of the trails on your loop.
5. Family trip with kids
Getting your entire family unplugged for a full week is pretty incredible, but only when they're having fun. There is a fine balance between challenging your kiddos and signing up them for a sufferfest. So, if you want to plan a big summer trip with your family, whether your kids are tots or teens, it pays off to start planning now, and build up to the trip throughout the year.
How to make it happen:
Start with smaller mileage. There is no reason that you can't plan to hike 2-4 miles a day, if you can find camps that work. The advantage of this is that you can make a 20-mile loop, or a 12-mile trail into a 4 or 7 day adventure. You can also add in a few base camp days, where you explore side trails or splash in a lake on a lazy sunny afternoon.
If your kids are older than toddlers, involve them in planning the trip. Let them make some of the decisions (about what to eat, or help choose possible camps) and help gather gear together. The more ownership they have on the trip, the less resistance you might meet a few days in.
Work up to the big trip with overnights and weekends. Find your routines and shake down gear as a family. Get your kids used to moving miles a day and helping with camp chores.