Backcountry Trip Planning

Planning a backcountry trip is an involved process, but we are here to help! We encourage you to call our backcountry office at (540) 999-3500 ext. 3720 to speak with a backcountry Ranger. This phone line is staffed on Monday and Thursday. Messages left on other days will be answered as soon as possible. In the meantime, consider your expectations and think through the following things to consider:

  • Evaluate Your Physical Ability: Are you used to hiking in steep mountain terrain with a loaded pack? How many miles and what elevation gain can you hike over multiple days? Be sure to gear your hike to the least-fit member of the group so that everyone can enjoy the trip.
  • What is Your 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.
    • If you are still learning these skills, contact the backcountry office for help in planning a beginner trip.
    • While physical ability should be geared to the least fit, skill level can apply to the most skilled if that person is prepared to teach others proper backcountry techniques. We would suggest at least one highly skilled person for every four beginners, with a backup plan in place if the highly skilled person is incapacitated.
    • If you are unfamiliar with these skills altogether, consider taking a class or traveling in a group with someone willing to teach you. There are many resources out there to help you learn. Backpacking classes may be offered at universities and from groups such as the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).
  • Determine the Length of Your Trip: Give yourself plenty of time each day to arrive in and set up camp. If you will not have time to travel, hike, and set up camp before dark on the first day of your trip, consider spending your first night in a nearby campground, lodge, or motel. For your return journey, include some time to clean up your camp, pack up the car, and travel safely home.
    • Consider how many miles you plan to hike each day. For adults of average fitness, we 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 6-8 miles each day thereafter. Know your limits and the limits of your companions.
  • 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. Finding campsites is often challenging. Areas that seem like promising camps on topographic maps could be covered in a briar patch or a dangerous snag such as a standing dead hemlock or oak. Identify several potential areas to camp and plan to give yourself more time than you think you'll need.

Suggested Backcountry Trips

The following trips itineraries are available as downloadable pdfs. We suggest that you print a copy of your selected itinerary and bring it with you along with a topographic map. Topographic maps are available from any of the visitor centers or online from the Shenandoah National Park Association or the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).

Trips are marked with two scales of difficulty: camping and hiking. Camping levels, beginner/experienced/advanced, refer to the ease of finding suitable, legal campsites, and your level of experience backpacking. Hiking levels, easy/moderate/strenuous, refer to the difficulty of the hike itself. If you are an experienced hiker, but do not have much experience with backpacking skills such as orienteering off-trail, one of the beginner trips may be for you.

Be aware that the difficulty of any trip can vary from the given levels with adverse weather conditions and other environmental factors. For example, rain can heavily impact stream crossings. The timing of your trip can also impact the availability of easily accessible campsites. It can become more difficult to find legal campsites during weekend trips and trips on heavily traveled trails.


Last updated: December 15, 2017

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Shenandoah National Park
3655 U.S. Highway 211 East

Luray, VA 22835


(540) 999-3500

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