I can't tell you how many times I get asked how I find the trails I hike. Not to toot my own horn here (but I'm going to), over the years I've become somewhat of an expert at finding the hidden trail gem or tackling more popular hikes when no one else seems to be on them. Now I'm going to share my biggest secrets about how to plan a hike.
I find 90% of my hikes on the internet. The web is truly a valuable tool and now more than ever there are tons of online resources for planning hikes. First, determine what area you want to go explore. If you have no idea, simply Google "best hikes near X location" and see what pops up. Here's a look at a few of my favorite online hiking resources and what they do best.
Blogs are a great place to start if you don't know an area very well. Typically, they will give a 3,000-foot view with articles labeled "X amazing hikes near Vancouver" or whatever it is you're looking for. Typically, these are the most popular hikes that everyone knows about in a particular area. If you're looking to get off the beaten path, you'll need to dive deeper than a blog.
Hiking Specific Apps
I love AllTrails.com (both the website and the app) to access some of the deeper cuts, or lesser-known hidden gems of an area. What I love about AllTrails is that it not only gives you difficulty, mileage, and trailhead directions, but it also tells you if the hike is crowded or not. User reviews also let you know what the local conditions are like. The map is also extremely useful, I'll use it to get a route traced on my GPS.
Online Forums and Trip Reports
If I can't find the information I need for burlier hikes or mountain climbs, I'll typically look to online forums and trip reports. Trip reports vary in quality, but typically they involve a first-person account of what the trail was actually like. A good trip report will tell you how difficult the trail actually was, what the conditions were like, and if there was anything that differed from the original route description. Simply Google the trail you're looking to hike and add the words "trip report" at the end.
Pick Up a Library Card
Getting a library card in my adult life opened up a whole new world to me. Instead of spending my precious dollars on buying travel and hiking guides, I can simply check them out at the library and do my research. I've found everything from photogenic hikes to multi-pitch trad climbs with my library card. So adventure on bookworm!
Head to a Local Gear Shop
Local gear shops are awesome community resources. I love heading into the maps section of my local gear shop and talking about hiking trails and backcountry adventures. Typically, gear shop employees share your passion for hiking, so strike up a conversation about hiking and pick their brain for some excellent hiking trails. Not everyone is willing to share so quickly, but many people who share a passion for hiking are happy to talk about their favorite wilderness area. See if you can discover a new spot by getting out from behind your screen and having a conversation.
Don't Rely on Social Media
I actually rarely use tools like Instagram to find hikes. In fact, Leave No Trace warns us that geotagging specific trails actually harms the environment. If I see a photograph I absolutely love, I make it a point to save it and check out the area it was taken in. For example, if someone tags Arizona, I'll look up awesome hiking destinations in Arizona and see what I can find. I'm not looking for that specific spot, but I'm interested in seeing what a larger geographic area has to offer.