Backcountry Camping - Planning Your Trip
Expectations: Are you looking for a relaxing weekend or physically challenging one?
Think through what you want your trip to be like. Chances are, with proper planning, you can design a hike at Shenandoah National Park that meets your desires.
Physical Ability: How physically fit are you (and each member of your group)? Are you used to hiking in steep mountain terrain with a loaded pack? Be sure to gear your hike to the least-fit member of the group so that everyone can enjoy the trip.
Skill Level: A highly skilled person will be able to read a topographic map, orienteer with map and compass, be able to find an appropriate pristine campsite if pre-existing sites are unavailable, properly hang a bear bag, know how to cook over a camp stove, bury human waste properly, and otherwise practice Leave No Trace principles.
Length of Trip: How many backcountry nights are really possible? If you will have a lot of driving or other travel on your first day, your first night should be spent in a nearby campground, lodge, or motel. At the other end, might you need to shower before your trip home? Often a five-day trip will mean fewer days in the backcountry. Think it through. Secondly, how many miles do you plan to hike each day? Unless you know you are capable of more, for adults of average fitness, we'd suggest 1-4 miles on the first day (assuming you start by noon in the spring or summer, or by 10:00 a.m. in the late fall or winter). Then you could probably hike 6-8 miles each day thereafter. However, know yourself (or the weakest member of your group); this may be too much.
Terrain and Vegetation: Shenandoah National Park has mostly steep, rocky mountain terrain! While there are a few short, rolling hikes several miles long, if you go any distance, you'll be climbing and descending mountains. Because of the terrain and the vegetation, finding campsites is often challenging. On your topographic map you'll think you have found the perfect flat area to camp, but when you get there, there could be a briar patch or a dangerous snag such as a standing dead hemlock or oak. Look at your map to find several potential areas to camp and plan to give yourself more time than you think you'll need. You will have the best luck in finding amazing campsites if you are skilled in off-trail navigation.
Putting the pieces together: Now that you have the trip parameters set for your specific situation, begin looking at maps and guide books to plan an itinerary which will meet your needs. Here is a Trip Planning Worksheet you can download to help plan your itinerary.