How To Plan Yourself An Amazing And Safe Adventure!

Planning properly for a hiking or backpacking trip ahead of time is very important, and can be fun. However, planning for adventures can also be daunting, and sometimes uncertain. The purpose of this article is to share my planning system that is efficient to utilize, but can give you a lot of information about an upcoming adventure.

Using my laptop, here are the 3 programs I use to plan my hikes:

  1. CalTopo (

This is a free online program that allows you to draw your route and create maps, and will give you an amazing amount of information from these created routes. It will give you distance, elevation, terrain, weather, and even the view from specific areas on the map you have created.

CalTopo is an incredible map building program, that allows you to draw routes for planning adventures.

2. Basecamp (Included with your Garmin GPS)

This is a program that interacts directly with your Garmin GPS.

If you do not have a Garmin GPS, you can still just use CalTopo as the core of your hike planning, and just skip this step and proceed to the next step, which will show you how to import directly into Google Earth.

With BaseCamp, you will be able to import your planned routes into your GPS, to take along as a reference and navigation aid.

3. Google Earth

While Google Earth is great to find points of interest all over the world, it can also be used to provide lots of information on your hikes.

You can import your created CalTopo map into Google Earth, and it will place your route on the globe, which is very helpful for planning your adventure.

Google Earth is a great app for viewing the world, but you may not have known that your CalTopo routes can be imported to create an impressive hike database.

It will also allow you to get a preview of the area you will be hiking, and help you anticipate landmarks, find potential campsites, and get a pretty good idea of what the terrain will be like.

Where to Start

First of all, start a free account with CalTopo (, and this will allow you to create your own maps. You will find tutorials and information for using CalTopo on their website.

There are multiple angles to find and research information on hikes, but I believe the best one to use is The Washington Trails Association ( You will find lots of information on hikes here, including recent trail reports.

I also recommend NWHiker (, for ideas for some amazing hikes here in the PNW.

Once you have found a hike that you want to plan, you can search for the trail by name in CalTopo, and this will give you a starting point.

I will not go into detail about creating routes here, since CalTopo has some very well-written tutorials on their site on how to do it, using the Mapbuilder function.

Once you have created your route, you can export it into a GPX file, and then import this file into Basecamp for use on your Garmin GPS.

Lastly, you can also export your CalTopo route into a KML file, which can be dragged from your saved location, right into Google Earth.I will now cover the basic steps necessary for this process. For the sake of this instruction guide, I will use Lake of the Angels as an example for planning a hike.

After searching for Lake of the Angels in CalTopo, I had drawn the route (solid line) to the lake that I will be hiking to.

Don’t forget to draw your route both to your destination, then back to the trailhead for an accurate calculation of miles and elevation. Typing the hike name in the label box will allow it to save your hike to your CalTopo account.

Once you have created your route and placed a marker on the trailhead (very important), you can now use CalTopo to estimate the distance, elevation and terrain profile.

By clicking on your saved map (under Lines & Polygons on the left sidebar), you will get a pop-up screen for your mileage (6.25mi), and also give you options of printing a map (highly recommended), and also reviewing terrain statistics.
This Terrain Statistics chart is handy for knowing what you expect on your trip. The elevation graph above indicates that the elevation you will need to climb to get to the lake will be roughly 3,945 feet. The mileage will be roughly 3 miles to the Lake, with 6 miles round-trip.
The weather is very important to be aware of during the planning stages of a hike or backpack. By right clicking on the trailhead marker you placed, you will be able to access the NOAA forecast option. This will give you a detailed weather forecast from

Once you are happy with your route, you should first save your route as a PDF map to take with you.

Taking a paper map is an important safely step, in the event that you lose a GPS signal. You can do this under the print menu, by selecting print to PDF. Make sure you drag the edges of the selection box to include your route from start to finish.

Now, you can export your route as a GPX file. This will allow you to import this GPX file into Basecamp.

Please note in the screenshot below, in this step, you can also export it as KML file for Google Earth. Go ahead and do this also.

In the CalTopo export menu, select Download GPX File, to create a file of the route you created that can be imported into Basecamp.

Import it into BaseCamp

Once you import the created route into your Basecamp Collection, you will now have it saved as a file that you can transfer onto your GPS. Then, you can easily transfer this file into your GPS, using the Transfer menu. This is helpful, so the route is already entered into your GPS, and you can use it as a reference as you navigate.

To import into BaseCamp, click the ‘Import into “My Collection’ option to bring the GPX file to your database.

The main reason that I import my created routes into Basecamp, is to have the ability to send it to my GPS. This allows me have to have the route stored in my GPS when I am on the hike, and I could also use it to navigate if I need it.

To move this created route to your GPS, select the Transfer option on the top bar to send the file to your GPS.

Import it into Google Earth

Now you can import your KML file into Google Earth, and have it overlayed over a 3D map of the earth.

What does this step perform?

Well, other than looking cool, it will give you ideas of what type of terrain you will encounter, and also will give you an idea of the views you will get. This will help you scout out in advance for some campsites, or specific photography compositions that you may be wanting to accomplish.

Just drag the KML file over the My Places folder up on the left, and it will import it as a CalTopo Export. You can then rename it as the hike name to stay organized.
This is what the route looks like once imported into Google Earth.

Creating A Google Earth Hike Database

Once you start importing your created routes into Google Earth, you can now create a database of mapped out hikes that you can tackle systematically.

You can create a folder for day hikes, backpacking trips, snowshoe routes, or whatever groups you want to classify your adventures into.

Photography Planning

Using Google Earth will also give you an accurate depiction of the terrain, and can be used for photography planning.

Google Earth gives a realistic preview of what types of views you will find at your destination, also. Here is the Google Earth image of the lake after I imported my route…..
….compared to the actual photo that I have taken near our campsite.


By using these 3 programs together, you can effectively plan your hikes by understanding the route, the distance, the elevation, and also “pre-scout” the area out by using Google Earth data.

*NOTE: Never head out into the wilderness without letting someone know where you are going. Once you save your route in CalTopo and create your PDF map, I recommend you provide this map to a friend or family member before you leave (you can also email it), so someone knows where you are headed and when you’re expected to return.*

Hopefully this helps you out, if so, please leave a comment and let me know! Never forget to plan and prepare properly, and have a blast out there!

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