Today on Backpacking Essentials, we’re going to discuss one of the most crucial planning decisions, how you are going to get to your destination.
Getting to and from your trailhead is definitely not the most fun part of setting out into the rugged outdoors, but it is the part that could most easily ruin a trip. Missed flights, lost reservations, and misplaced luggage could all keep you separated from your adventure filled vacation. Planning out your trip methodically with some alternatives and being open to improvisation will help minimize the effects of unforeseen circumstances.
(Mt. Rainier National Park)
Once you’ve chosen a destination, how are you going to get there?
In recent years we have flown to major US airports, rented a car, and then driven to the national parks and cities we intended to visit. This allows us to get to the region quickly and still cover a good geographical area on our travels.
The second option is going on a full blown road trip! Road trips used to be our go-to method of travel (and may be again in the future). It is far cheaper than air travel, you can bring more gear, and you don’t have to have the anxiety of denting that rental car. If you have an RV, roadtripping is definitely a priority since you can take your home with you on the road. The trade off is time. Traveling 1500 miles by car or RV is going to take a couple of days each way (that is, if you vacation hard like we do. We typically cover 2500 and up to 5500 miles in 10 days), whereas flying is only going to take the better part of a day.
(Rest area, Great Smokey Mountains)
When we were in college we didn’t have much excess money for traveling so taking my Jetta TDI cross country cut costs considerably (we traveled 2647.87 miles round trip to Arizona for only $195.94 worth of diesel). This allowed us to visit 3 national parks, multiple major US cities, and some other sites you’d never see if you were flying.
(Four Corners National Monument)
If you are planning for more regional travel you may be able to take a train, like Amtrak, or a bus. I’ve done both and I’d avoid buses if at all possible. They can be cheap but are very slow and can be quite uncomfortable. Trains aren’t much better (though much more novel for us southerners) but may be a good option if you aren’t traveling too far and just use it to get closer to your final destination (see our post on our trip from New York to D.C in an upcoming #TravelBackThursday). We’ve taken an Amtrak to and from New York/DC a few times to cut cost for rentals we didn’t need in either major city (yay Metros!) and to avoid parking challenges.
(On the Metro, Washington, DC)
When booking flights we usually have set dates in mind. I work a 4-on-4-off schedule which allows us to get 12 days away while only using 4 days of PTO. If you have a bit more flexibility in terms of which days you travel we’d recommend booking flights on off days, like Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Flights tend to be cheaper in the middle of the week than on Mondays, Fridays, and weekends since this is when business travelers and weekend travelers are coming and going.
We typically stick to Southwest Airlines but everyone has their airline of preference, or you can just go for the best deal. We really like Southwest because their hub is at Love Field in Dallas, the open seating has always worked well (we’ve never been separated), we use their frequent flyer program, and the first two checked bags are included which is great when you need to bring loads of gear. They are also very consistent in delivering quality service, and we have never had them cancel a flight on us unlike a few other airlines (cough cough, American and Frontier). Normally we search for a combination of the cheapest direct flight (more on this in a minute) and rental car. This can take a bit of time and research as often different airports will have wide ranges of flight prices and rental prices and rarely are the cheapest options at the same airport. Furthermore, depending on your destination and your itinerary, it may make sense to arrive and depart from the same airport, which is often the cheaper option. If you are traveling a large distance once you reach your destination, arriving and departing from different airports may be more convenient and allow you to squeeze more fun out of your time away. Don’t be surprised though if the costs are significantly higher for one-way flights and rental cars.
Once you’ve made it to the nearest airport it’s time to rent a car. We normally rent through Enterprise because Kate has a corporate rate through her employer and we have mostly had positive experiences. We’ve also used Hertz a few times which was fine, and a few lower cost companies as well (Sixt comes to mind). We would recommend against the lower cost companies, as we have had them pull some pretty shady sales practices once you arrive at the desk and you’re a captive audience. We would generally just prefer to pay a little more for a better, more streamlined experience. We don’t usually pay for the extra insurance since Texas requires liability insurance to extend to rentals as well (check your insurance policy to see what they cover and know that you may have to pay loss-of-use damages if you wreck the car). We also typically just put a single driver on the car for the trip, as some rental agencies charge additional fees for multiple drivers. Make sure to get a rental reservation well in advance, and know that they generally don’t require any up front payment. If you walk up for a rental it will cost exponentially more than you would pay if reserved months in advance, and you run the risk of them being sold out (ask us how we know, we forgot to book a rental car on one trip). We also typically will get the biggest car available at the low end of the pricing range. This typically leaves us in a compact car but occasionally you’ll find full sized cars and SUVs for comparable prices.
Once you’ve loaded up your gear and made it out of the airport it’s time to make your way towards your trailhead. In most cases we will be leaving the rental agency around noon since we typically take the first flight out. Then we always make a beeline for the park. Some may prefer to spend a night in a hotel and relax a bit, but we usually try to cram as much travel on the first day as possible to minimize how many days we are stuck in a flying or rolling tin can. We will typically make it to the park in the late afternoon or early evening and camp in a car accessible site for the night.
(Car camping at Fish Creek Campground, Glacier National Park)
This gets us as close as possible to our trailhead, lets us set up quickly, search out some food, and get some much needed rest before an early morning. We also use this as an opportunity to check our gear and find last minute supplies like fuel (compressed fuel is obviously not allowed on airplanes), bear mace (this either, besides you’re unlikely to encounter a grizzly at 35,000 feet), and anything that may have been left at home (see my toilet paper fiasco of 2015 in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Part 1).
The next morning it’s time to set out. We highly recommend starting out bright and early. We aim to be at the trailhead no later than 9 am, and in most cases are hoping for earlier. This helps if there are any last minute things found missing, to find a good parking spot to leave the rental for a few days, and gives us plenty of time on the trail in case the hike is more strenuous than expected. We also typically get the first pick of camp sites. Depending on the park or trail, you will likely need a backcountry permit that you pick up from the park service. Sometimes you can pick this up the day before to get an earlier start, but you may need wait for the office to open to get it your first day on the trail.
(Olympic National Park)
Finally, lets talk about some tips to make your trip go a bit smoother. First, direct flights. Not only are direct flights faster, they also are lower risk. Every time you have to make a connection you run the risk of delayed or cancelled flights, and the risk of your baggage going on its own side adventure. The direct flights often cost a little more but a lost bag could mean losing a day or more on the trail. We also recommend packing your bare essentials in your carry on bag (street clothes, toiletries, and all your non-camping gear).
We traveled to Connecticut with Kate’s parents and brother a few years ago to visit her extended family. Her parents and brother checked their bags (sacrilegious in our household unless taking packs) for the short weekend getaway since it was included in the cost of the flight. Lo and behold their baggage was lost on the flight and it took 10 hours to locate and receive the bags. In this case it wasn’t a big deal since we were staying in town anyway, but it could have been avoided since everything would have easily fit in a carry on. It also means you can avoid waiting 30 minutes for your luggage at the carousel after your flight (yay first in line at the rental agency).
Second, always book and double check your reservations. When we went to the Pacific Northwest in 2017, our car rental reservation didn’t go through and we were stuck at the counter with no reservation and no more cars available. We were able to find a car at another agency but double checking our reservation would have saved us $1100!
Third and lastly, get on the road and the trail EARLY. We cannot stress the number of times we have run into snags (poor weather, traffic, strenuous trails) where being out early totally saved our bacon! We could have ended up missing out on some great parts of our trips if we had left later in the day than we did. For example, when we went to the Grand Canyon for New Years Eve 2017, we started our hike before dawn and were able to make it down to the Colorado river and back by early afternoon, which was much farther than we had originally planned (also vigorously discouraged by the park service, don’t tell on us). At Yosemite National Park the crowds on the Mist trail can be intense, and we managed to beat most of the crush by heading out early.
(Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park)
We really hope this post was useful to you as you plan the logistics of your journeys. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or feedback for us! We would also love to help you plan your next adventure, you can always shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like some personalized help.