First Backpacking Trip: Picking the Trail

Sharing something you love can be one of the most rewarding experiences, so when two of my friends asked me to take them on a trip to teach them how to backpack I was over the moon, I was so excited. I was going to take them on the most amazing trip of their lives, they were going to love every minute of it and they’d be so impressed with my amazing backpacking knowledge! Then I started to worry. What if they didn’t like the trail? What if it was too hard and they didn’t have fun and they hated backpacking forever? What if they didn’t like pooping in the woods? What if I messed up somehow and led them off trail into a family of hungry bears that was used to human food?

As a result of my freaking out I may have overthought things a bit, and that includes choosing the trail, but I think I’ve developed a solid list of priorities that I would recommend for choosing a trail when you’re taking friends or family on a first backpacking trip.

  1. Take it slow: Make the trail shorter than it would be if it were just you. This is partly because adjusting to hiking with a pack is going to take even someone who hikes a lot some time, but also your breaks are going to take longer. Snack breaks, stopping to camp, trail intersections, wildlife sightings are all teaching moments that will need extra time. You may need only a few minutes to do your bear hang, but if you want your friends to get experiential learning opportunities that bear hang is going to take a while.
  2. Make it variable: Choose a trail that you can shorten if you need to, either by having a loop that can turn into an out and back, or know that there are trail intersections you can take. If something goes wrong, or if the weather is crappy, or someone gets a stomach ache, you don’t want the takeaway from a first backpacking trip to be “Embrace the Suck.” Save that for trip 3.
  3. Go Chasing Waterfalls: Have some treats on the trail. Lakes, waterfalls and vistas are key so your friends can experience the majesty of nature.
  4. Have some difficult bits: There’s no need to avoid elevation change or difficult terrain if you plan ahead and prepare for the extra time and talk through possible risks. If your friends want to go backpacking, they want some adventure and a sense of accomplishment, don’t walk them around a field and then congratulate them.
  5. Give Them Agency: Your friends should feel like they have ownership of and investment in the trip. Pick a couple of good options and explain your thought process, then let them pick the trail. Make sure everyone has a map and compass, knows the plan, and feels comfortable giving input.

Taryn and Nicole both live in Seattle, so the options for a trail that would work were pretty much endless. The biggest restriction was snowpack, and Taryn was super on top of researching and asking friends where the snow was impassable in June. We ended up looking at a couple of 15-25 mile loops in Olympic National Park and chose a loop just below Hurricane Ridge that included the Klahhane Ridge and Lake Angeles Trail.

The loop we took started at the Heather Trail parking lot, right before the park entrance. We went up the Mt. Angeles Trail then took the Klahhan Ridge trail down to Lake Angeles and out.

2 thoughts on “First Backpacking Trip: Picking the Trail

  1. Linda

    I would definitely have you as my guide. You certainly have a good understanding of the wilderness and a keen sense about the whole backpacking scenario. I am to old I fear to take this up now but I’m thankful to see all of the beauty and adventure backpacking has to offer through your excursions.
    Thank you
    Aunt Linda


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