How to Plan an Overnight Hike

Planning an overnight hike is something that eventually becomes second-nature. Trust me, if I had to, I could grab everything I needed for not just an overnight, but a multi-day hike, right now, in less than fifteen minutes!

But when you’re starting out, it can be overwhelming.

After all, you need to rethink so many things that have become automatic such as drinking water, sleeping arrangements and bathroom habits!

First thing’s first, regardless of what hike you are embarking on, the gear will be mostly the same so let’s get that sorted first! I found it useful to think of the rooms in your house to make sure you have everything covered. And from the get-go, remember that there is a tradeoff of weight - cost for almost all outdoors gear.

Hiking the Kepler Track in New Zealand

Your shelter + bedroom

You need a lightweight tent, a sleeping bag suitable for the temperatures you’ll be camping in and a sleeping mat.

Here is a super crash course in all three. For your tent, think of it as an investment. Once you buy a good tent, and you treat it well, you’ll likely be using it for life. I prefer tents with 2 doors and 2 vestibules so that when it's 1am and you are busting to pee, your adventure buddy will be grateful that you don't have to crawl over them. A vestibule means you don't have to cram all your stuff into your tent with you but will keep it safe and dry.  

Sleeping bags come in down or synthetic. Down is lighter but more expensive and loses its insulation properties when wet. Sleeping bags can come with or without a hood and can come in a mummy or rectangular shape. Mummy shapes with a hood will be the best choice for most people for winter camping. 

Hint: to keep your sleeping bag clean AND to add extra warmth, use a sleeping bag liner, which come in synthetic, silk or wool. 

Learn more: Sleeping Bags 101: A Beginner's Guide via Kathmandu

The world of sleeping mats is just as big as sleeping bags. Your cheapest option is a foam mat that you can pick up from Kmart for 10 bucks. The most comfortable is an inflatable mat. An inflatable mat is not your warmest option in winter though. It’s only air separating you from the ground after all. They can be down or synthetic-filled for warmth.These require a pump sack to inflate so that the moisture from your breath doesn’t cause mould to grow inside. 

You’ll want some sort of pillow arrangement. Some people use their down jacket. Some people stuff their sleeping bag sack with clothing. Some people use an inflatable pillow (moi!). Savages go without anything at all. 

Camping in Australia

Your kitchen

Not all stoves are equal. Consider weight, ease of use and the type of gas needed; some stoves use isobutane-propane gas canisters which are not recyclable, others use refillable fuel bottles which are environmentally friendly but bulkier. And don’t forget a method to light your stove! 

You don’t need all the pots and pans like back home. One pot with a lid (like this), a spork and a knife will do you just fine! The lid can be used as your mug too if you want to go super lightweight. I use an OtterBox Elevation 10 Tumbler because it reduces the chances of spilling my hot beverage everywhere.

Bring extra ziplocks for organisation (or reusable sacks) and extra plastic bags for trash (I know that plastic bags are a big no-no but I've still yet to figure out what to replace them with, that is actually backpacking-friendly).

Hint: your First Aid kit should include some waterproof matches so this will be your backup method.

Your bathroom

Number one rule is what you pack in, you pack out. And this includes your toilet paper so ensure you have a ziplock bag dedicated for this. 

Depending on where you camp, you may also need a trough to dig out a dunny! 

Hand sanitiser is also more convenient and will help you conserve your water. 

Lighting 

Everyone on the adventure needs their own head lamp. I use a Black Diamond Spot Headlamp and I love it because it is lightweight, waterproof and shockproof (and affordable). The red night vision mode means you won’t blind each other around the campsite at night. 

Hint: Add extra batteries to your First Aid kit

Camping in Mount Cook National Park

Clothing

There is no such thing as bad weather - just bad clothing! So the saying goes.

Please ditch the idea that you're going to look stylish in the outdoors. Once you're out there, you just want to be warm and practical.

I used to pack a change of clothes but if I'm just going for one night and the weather is moderate, I no longer bother (perhaps to my adventure buddy's dismay!)

An overnighter in the Bue Mountains

I typically backpack in the cooler months and generally pack the same layers each and every time:

  • long lululemon tights + long-sleeve lululemon top. Comfortable, sweat-wicking, antimicrobial and…it does look good!

  • Columbia PFG shirt. Lightweight, ventilated, sun-safe :) I put this on when it’s too warm for a long-sleeve but I still want some protection.

  • Mountain Designs Brass Monkey fleece pants. One of the best items I've ever bought! So cosy.

  • The North Face lightweight fleece with collar

  • Macpac Uber Light Hooded Down Jacket. Lightweight, snug, hooded, pockets.

  • Patagonia Torrentshell rainjacket. Lightweight (“we get it, you like lightweight gear!”), good pockets, sizeable hood, made of recycled materials!

  • beanie, merino wool socks, sometimes gloves, underwear, trail running shoes or hiking shoes in colder/wet weather

And where does all this go?!

IN YOUR BACKPACK! All the must-haves should fit into a ~40 litre backpack. And then depending on your personal preferences, you can adjust the size you need.

For example, because I always take camera gear, my journal and a book and because I love to go for multi-day hikes and need the extra room for extra food, I have a 65 litre backpack (North Face Banchee 65 pack).

You should also consider the weight of your pack. Backpacks come as light as less than a kilogram but you will find that lightweight backpacking gear is more expensive. It may time some experimentation and research to find out where you lie on the tradeoff curve.

Features-wise, consider pocket structure and if you prefer a top-loading or front-loading backpack.

Read more: Free downloadable packing lists for day hikes and multi-day hikes

Safety first!

Ideally, every individual should have a First Aid kit in case people are separated but realistically, you’ll probably share one amongst a small group. Everyone should be made aware of what is in it and where it is kept (NOT in the bottom of a heavy pack!).

The bare essentials of a First Aid kit should be a variety of bandaids and gauze dressings, sticky tape, a triangular bandage, alcohol-free cleansing wipes and antiseptic liquid/cream, painkillers, scissors and tweezers, waterproof matches and water purification tablets.

Camping on the Routeburn Track

Picking a hike

For hike ideas, tourism boards and National Park websites and offices are my first check-in points.

When it comes to picking one, consider duration, distance and elevation and ensure you pick something that is challenging but realistic. I also consider how easy it is to get to the trailhead; some hikes will require 4WD access. Another factor is whether it is a return hike or a circuit hike; a return hike means you will have to double back whilst a circuit hike means you walk in a loop. The main benefit of a return hike is that you already know the way and things often look different the second time and opposite way around! The main benefit of walking in a loop is that everything is new and this can be mentally more enjoyable.

And of course, figure out where you can camp. Some tracks will have designated camping areas whilst others will be a free-for-all. Even in the latter, there are certain ‘Leave No Trace’ principles that you must adhere to such as camping on durable surfaces away from wildlife and 70 steps away from water sources.

Make sure you have a topographic map and compass (and know how to use both) for more remote locations.

I also like detailed track notes. Wild Walks is a great source for us Aussies. 

The Coast Track in Australia's Royal National Park

Check weather and warnings

The National Park website and office will give you updated information about track status. This is important to check in case there are any closures or hazards such as flooding, fallen trees that might mean you need to hike off-track etc. 

It is also crucial to check the official weather board. Take note of the forecast for the days surrounding your intended hiking dates. For me, a slight chance of rain doesn’t mean that I call off the adventure but thunderstorms would. 

Water and food

The ideal situation is a campsite next to an abundant source of guaranteed potable water. 

The worst case scenario is that you have to carry all your water. If so, dromedary bags and collapsible water bottles will become your best friends. However, a Nalgene 1-Litre water bottle will go a long way in winter because you can fill it with boiling water to make it a literal hot water bottle. 

If there is a water source but you need to purify it, your most common options are boiling water, using water purification tablets or using a water filter like a UV SteriPen filter. Boiling water is time consuming so many people opt for the tablets which are also very cheap.

Let’s talk food - many a backpacker’s favourite topic of conversation. 

For an overnight hike, planning your food will not be as much of an issue as multi-day when you not only have to worry about the amount of food but how well it will all keep outside of a refrigerator. 

For those like me who like to eat healthily in day-to-day life, it’s important to accept that there will be nutritional sacrifices to make on the trail. Here are the ways I try to still get all my micronutrients in:

  • I’ve found that carrots and broccoli are the most packable vegetables for multi-day adventures

  • In the cold, a tub of hummus that has other vegetables mixed in like spinach will keep for 1-2 days

  • Some kind of super greens tablet or powder makes for a nice supplement

  • Baby food fruit pouches are a lightweight and pretty damn delicious way to get your fruit in

Here is a pretty standard menu of mine: canned chicken + curry kit + rice for dinner, tuna wraps with carrots, broccoli and hummus for lunch, oats, banana + nut butter for breakfast, baby food fruit pouches + various bars + chocolate + cheddar cheese + for snacks. In colder weather, you may find it hard to keep liquids up so pack lots of tea, hot chocolate and soup mixes. AND COFFEE.

Consider the amount of fuel and water that will be needed to prepare meals. As always, weight is another factor to think about. 

Hint: keep weight down by buying tuna in sachets. Coming back with leftover snacks is infinitely better than not having enough. Snacks are a serious major morale booster during tough sections of hiking or during lousy weather.

Let’s hit the trail!

Well, almost. Make sure you tell a couple loved ones of your plans; where you’ve parked, what track you’re hiking, when you plan on being back etc. You can even log in at some National Park offices in certain places.

Okay, NOW you can go!

Hint: keep a tasty snack and beverage in the car for a celebratory toast post-hike!

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This is by no means a comprehensive guide to planning an overnight hike. We have tried to walk the fine line between succinct and thorough! Let us know in the comments this has been helpful to you and if not, what you would like added!

Thuc Do of Thuc Creative

THUC DO

Thuc is a lover of beautiful words, grand landscapes and meaningful relationships. In addition to manning the She Went Wild digital desk, she is a freelance content creator in the outdoors and fitness spaces. You’ll likely find her in the mountains with her camera and a notebook and pen!

Follow Thuc’s adventures on Instagram at @thuc.creative