Decide what kind of trip you want to have. Do you want to day hike, fish, hunt, forage, or rock climb? These activities will determine what kind of terrain you explore and how many miles you may want to cover per day.
Gauge your fitness level. What are you capable of now, and what can you be capable of by the time you take the trip? If you’ve never hiked with a weighted pack, you should plan day or weekend trips with someone who is experienced to get a feel for the demand. Other things to consider are the varying abilities of your hiking group. It’s always safer to underdo mileage and difficulty the first time out.
Quench your thirst. Wherever you decide to hike, you have to know there will be accessible water. Look for rivers and lakes on topographical maps, reach out to the local forest service or wilderness management and ask about water access on the trial. Remember, always camp and wash dishes at least 200 feet away from water sources.
Watch the weather. In the mountains, there can often be snow as late in the season as July. Be prepared if you’re at elevation, and remember that deserts tend to be deceivingly cold at night. Before you head to the trail, take a look at a 10-day weather forecast and be ready with rain gear in case a storm hits.
Be wary of the wilderness. The great outdoors offers man plenty of pleasures, but you’ll need to be careful of predators like bears, cougars, and bobcats. Always make sure your food is securely tied up in a tree or locked in a bear-proof canister. Be sure to keep boots in your tent or turned upside down so the creepy-crawlers don’t settle in overnight.
Check the details. If the trail you’re hiking ends at a different place than the point you started, you’ll need to plan for a shuttle to get back. It’s a good idea to call a regulatory agency like the forest service or BLM and see if they have any updates about the area before you depart.
Familiarize yourself: Get to know the area, either by researching, reading reviews, and reviewing the route on a topo map, or by exploring the area on foot in advance through day hikes. The second option will help you gauge how quickly you hike in that terrain so you can plan how many miles you want to cover.
Plan ahead. Like Yellowstone in July, some trails can be overcrowded with excited adventurers. You might think about choosing a less-popular trail that can still offer some of the flora and fauna of a flagship trail, with less people around.
If it’s your first time out, consider hiking with an experienced outdoorsman or an expedition group that can help you learn how to pace yourself, teach you trail etiquette, and show you how to set up camp. Pitch your tent in flat, rock-free areas that are close to water and offer some kind of wind break, like a treeline. Be respectful and don’t camp too close to the trail. Since the outdoors is a shared space, it’s important to give other hikers and campers room to seek out what they enjoy about the wilderness (which is often the solitude it offers). Don’t be disruptive or loud in camp and if you’re camping with pets (or kids), keep them close on the trail and make sure you clean up their messes.
Other wilderness ethics require you to be knowledgeable about fire regulations. If the fire risk is high, if the season has been dry, or the night is particularly windy, skip the fire all together. Never go to sleep with a fire burning. The goal, as always when out in nature, is to leave no trace—so everything that came with you, leaves with you.
While in the wild, remember the Survival Rule of Three’s: Three minutes without air, days without water, and weeks without food. Above all, practice common sense—know your threats and pay attention, stay engaged with the surroundings, and don’t rely solely on the trail. Carry a topo map or GPS system and you’ll ensure you have a safe and fun backcountry excursion.