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Tiffany Chou's gear, tested in urban parks, sits next to a log on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington.

How To Use Urban Trails and City Parks to Train and Test Gear for Backpacking Trips

As one WTA staffer trained for a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike while working a full-time job, she found that urban trails and parks saved her time and gas money as she built strength and dialed in her gear for her long-distance hike. Here's how she did it, and why it makes sense. | by Tiffany Chou

Urban hikes are a wonderful way to get outside with the convenience of being right in your neighborhood. Many are lush and green, and perfect for stepping away from civilization for a while without having to travel far. And they can be even more than that; they can be useful if you’re gearing up for a big trip, or you’ve got new gear that you haven’t gotten to try out yet. With efforts like the Trail Next Door campaign getting urban trails more available and accessible, trying out that new backpack or building up your stamina outdoors is easy to do close to home. 

backpack full sitting on trail
Photo by Emma Cassidy.

When I was training for my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, I was working a full-time job, so heading out into the backcountry to train or test my gear wasn’t always an option. Luckily for me, with urban hikes everywhere, I didn’t have to travel much to find many places to get ready for my trek.

In preparation for my long-distance hike, I discovered several reasons why training and testing gear in urban parks and trails was an excellent option:

  • I didn’t have to travel far from home, so I spent way less time getting to and from my hike and more time actually hiking. 
  • If I didn’t like my gear, I wasn’t stuck with it with no way to switch it out.
  • If a critical piece of gear malfunctioned or was found to be broken, I wasn’t actually in any trouble because I was so close to home. 
  • With the variety and easy access of urban hikes, it was easy for me to find the terrain (dirt, gravel, concrete, grass, etc.) and features (forest, open space, elevation gain/loss, distance, etc.) I was seeking to train or test gear on. 
  • It was easy to plan hikes around the weather, whether that be good weather for conditioning or bad weather to make sure my gear held up. 
  • Urban hikes are fun! Many are in beautiful areas with plenty of greenery that allow for escaping the hustle and bustle of city life. 

What gear can I test?

Hiking gear: Footwear, backpack, water

One of the most important aspects of backcountry gear is arguably your footwear system. Finding the right shoes, socks, and possibly insoles can prevent hot spots, blisters, and foot pain, all of which are much harder to deal with in the backcountry than at home. Going for a long urban hike, especially with a full pack if your eventual plan is backpacking, is a terrific way to test out your footwear and make sure those problems don’t arise on your backcountry adventures. Additionally, it can be really easy to find different terrains to test your footing on in different urban hikes so you know how your footwear system will handle diverse situations. 

Trail winds through winter forest at Dead Man's Pond in Puyallup by Tiffany ChouFrom soft surfaces to gravel to stairs, local trails like Dead Man's Pond in Puyallup offer up variety for training. Photo by Tiffany Chou

A well-fitted backpack can really make or break a backpacking trip. Make sure that yours works for you while testing out your footwear by packing it full of the rest of your gear (add some extra weights or bottles of water to simulate more weight if you like!). You can also test out trekking poles, whether they’re new or you’re just interested in seeing if you like using them. I initially thought I would never use poles, but after adding more weight to my backpack, I was surprised to find that I preferred hiking with poles; trying different options out while the stakes are low on an urban hike can help you figure your preferences out!

Tiffany Chou at 400 miles into her thru-hike. Local trails are ideal for figuring out a system for water and bugs that will still work 400 miles into a thru-hike. Photo by Tiffany Chou

Water is an essential part of any backcountry trip, and there are many different ways that people choose to carry water. If you’re not sure what your favorite methods are, test out how you feel about using water bladders or water bottles (soft, hard, plastic, metal, insulated, etc.) while hiking on an urban trail. 

Camping gear: Set up a tent, try out a stove

If you’re planning to camp outside, you probably don’t want the first time setting up your shelter and sleep system to also be the first time you need it. Your local urban park can be an ideal place to practice setting up and taking down camp if you don't live someplace with a backyard. Many parks have open spaces to try out your new tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag for the afternoon. 

Of course, food is also a really important part of any backcountry trip, and you’ll want to make sure you know how to use your kitchen gear. If you’ve got time for a picnic, bring your new camp stove and a fuel canister; get some practice using it by making yourself some tea or coffee to go along with lunch. 

Clothing: Rainy day run-through

Not all clothing is created equal! Getting caught in bad weather with rain gear that doesn’t keep you dry in the backcountry is the worst, so try it out with lower stakes on an urban hike first. Wait for a rainy day (not rare in the PNW!) and pop on your raincoat, rain pants, and waterproof boots to make sure they’re actually waterproof. Try a rain cover on your backpack and see if it stays dry. Testing rain gear is especially important if you’re recently re-waterproofed your gear or you’ve never used it before. 

Because it’s relatively easy to time urban hikes with the weather you’re hoping for, you can also test out other clothing. Issues like chafing or rubbing can take a bit of movement to discover, and trying on clothes in the dressing room isn’t enough. Put on that new athletic shirt or pair of hiking pants in warm or wet weather to see how it holds up when you’re sweating and getting damp under your layers. 

On a cold day, pull out the fleece or puffy jacket you’ve never worn outside to go hiking and take breaks on an urban trail. You’ll get a good sense of whether or not your warm layers will be able to keep you warm both while you’re hiking and hanging out at camp. 

Electronics: Headlamp, satellite communications

As much as we try to escape technology while we’re out in nature, some electronics and battery-powered devices are vital to our safety while in the backcountry. A crucial piece of gear to test is a GPS, satellite beacon, or two-way satellite communicator. These devices can be difficult to use in the city because of tall buildings and other obstructions, since they need a clear view of the sky to work. It can be easier to find a clearing on an urban trail to verify your devices are working properly!

Another critical piece of gear is a headlamp. Many urban parks are open for a short while before dawn and/or past dusk, and they’re great places to test out the brightness of your headlamp. You don’t want to end up in the backcountry without a decent light source, and it can be difficult to tell if your headlamp is bright enough without trying it outside in the dark, particularly if you intend to do any night hiking.

Anything else! (Get creative)

There is plenty of other gear that you will likely primarily use in the backcountry, but that also can be tested out within city limits. Jump around puddles in gaiters, try out that new insulated mug to see if it’ll actually keep your coffee hot, take a break in that camp chair, or see if your bug spray actually deters mosquitoes. Many things you want to use in the backcountry can be tried out first on urban hikes, which will give you the confidence to use that gear when you’re far away from home.

Tiffany Chou posing at the highest point on the PCT, Forester Pass in the SierraTiffany Chou posing at the highest point on the PCT, Forester Pass in the Sierra.

Training in the city

A majority of the training I did for my Pacific Crest Trail hike was done in the city. For several months before I left, I slowly added jugs of water to my backpack to increase weight and went on long walks. Having urban trails around made it so easy for me to get mileage and elevation in, and I could actually get more mileage in than I otherwise would in the backcountry because of the time I saved on traveling to and from trailheads. It also meant I could easily get some training done almost every day, since I could comfortably fit in an urban hike after work, and finish shortly after or before it got dark. 

One of the best parts about training on urban trails was that I always felt safe while training or testing my gear. Even if the sun went down, I knew I was close to civilization, I had cell service, and other people were usually around. If something were to go wrong, I could call a friend or ask a bystander for help. 

With the Trail Next Door campaign efforts making urban hikes more accessible than ever, finding spaces to test out gear and train for larger trips nearby is becoming easier and easier. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I had to safely make sure my gear was right and to train my body to embark on the biggest backcountry adventure I’d ever attempted because of these wonderful outdoor spaces right around the corner. 

Tiffany Chou is WTA's communications coordinator and an 2022 alum of WTA's Emerging Leader program. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019.