A Backpacker’s Guide to Loop Hikes and Trail Shuttles
When it comes to planning a hike, particularly a multi-day adventure, my first priority is designing a trip that won’t require going back the way I came. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing an “out and back” hike, I’m hard-wired for seeking new ground. There are two ways to achieve this: designing loop hikes or designing linear hikes that utilize a trail shuttle at least once to get you back to your starting point.
Designing a Loop Hike
If you want to find a great loop hike, you don’t need to pull out a map and create it yourself (unless, like me, you default to the “old school” method of trip planning).
The Internet is chock full of loop hike recommendations, thanks to AllTrails.com, GAIAgps.com and any number of go-to sources. Once I’ve homed in on a potential loop, I check out the reviews posted by other hikers to see if they recommend hiking in one direction vs. the other, what the water situation is like on the trail and other important considerations they’ve shared after their hikes.
One thing worth mentioning is that a loop hike doesn’t always require the trail(s) to begin and end at the trailhead parking area. I’ve designed some pretty neat hikes where the trail portion of my trip ended a mile or two up the road from my car, which required a road walk back to my starting point.
Designing a Section Hike using Shuttle(s)
It may be easier to design a linear (a.k.a. “section”) hike than you’ve imagined. A growing number of National Parks (Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Zion National Park, Acadia National Park) and National Forests (for example, the White Mountain National Forest shuttle, operated by AMC) offer hiker shuttles, often provided through partnerships with private providers or private/public partnerships.
If you are hiking part of a long-distance trail, you may also be in luck. In fact, it is now possible to section hike the AT without ever using a car at all. When my hiking partner, Wayne, and I hiked the trail between 1985 and 2013 (the subject of my book, Appalachian Odyssey), we used a combination of public transportation and private shuttle services to take us to and from the trail on every hike that was outside our native New England. That meant we could simply get on the trail and walk. (See my blog post How to Section Hike the Appalachian Trail.)
Since our 28-year hike, the shuttle options have only gotten better. Here are four resources that cover the shuttle options for some popular long-distance trails (for others, just Google search the name of the trail with the word(s) “shuttles” or “hiker shuttles.”)
Trip Planning Considerations
- Assessment. As always, when designing a loop or section hike, consider the terrain, the season, the predicted weather and the ability levels of everyone on the trip. Choose a “per day” mileage that is reasonable based on all of them.
- Availability. If you are planning on using a ride service like Uber or Lyft to get you back to your car, make sure there is someone offering the service in the area (or that you are likely to have cell reception in the area) before you try to use it only to find out you are stuck.
- Research. Find out what shuttles other hikers have used. Most long-distance hiking trails have Facebook pages, where you can post inquiries about finding shuttles. Those who have done section hikes are often glad to share their learnings with you regarding shuttles and much more.
- Verification. If you are using a shuttle service to get to or from the trail, confirm both availability and schedule before you leave home. For private shuttles in particular, make sure the person or company operating the shuttle is still in business and verify they are expecting you on the date(s) you will need them. If I am expecting the same shuttle service to pick me up at the end of my hike, I confirm the date and time during my ride out to the trail. If you have cell service when you are on the trail, confirm the pick-up date by email or phone a few days before you expect to meet your shuttle. It’s better to be certain than to show up on some backcountry trailhead wondering where your ride is. In addition, if for some reason, your shuttle suddenly can’t make the pick-up on the planned date (something that has never happened to me), you have ample time to make alternate plans.