Using Google Earth to plan for backpacking and hiking trips

Google Earth can be very useful for hiking and backpacking. You can usually find trail data online, and get a good idea of elevations and distances before even hitting the trail.

It can open kml/kmz files, and other mapping formats (like gpx). I was looking for a Northern Loop path, and eventually found one at GPSfly. It had a few extra side paths and didn’t fully go from Sunrise to Sunrise, so I opened it with WTracks and cleaned it up so the total distance would be more accurate.

After importing the edited gpx into Google Earth, I turned on the Parks/Recreation Areas in the Layers panel to see what would show up, and the results were mixed.

GE - layers ParksRec

A few campsites looked good, a few were missing, and Berkeley Park was obviously in the wrong spot. It did show a few waterfalls and Ranger Stations which was nice.

GE - Berkeley location confusion.jpg

I ended up using the map on the NPS site to cross-check where the campsites were supposed to be, and then manually added the camps to Google Earth.

Elevation Profiles

There are various Wonderland Trail elevation profiles online, but I did not find a Northern Loop one that I liked. So, I made my own. To view the profile in Google Earth, right-click on the path in the map (or side panel), and select Show Elevation Profile.

GE - Elevation Profile.jpg

In addition to showing elevation and distance, you can click + drag on the profile to select a portion of the trail. This allows you to easily measure distances between points on the map.

For example, I selected the trail from Yellowstone Cliffs to Fire Creek. Directly above the elevation profile (in the grey area) it gives you distance, elevation gain/loss, and other data. I used this to measure distances between camps and decide how far we wanted to hike each day.

GE - Elevation Profile usage.jpg


A tour is a virtual fly-through following a path. You can control zoom and speed options of the tour by clicking Tools > Options. Click the Touring tab to change settings.

Back in the main window, select a path and press the Play Tour button (which actually plays and records at the same time). This will start following your path.

GE - Play tour.png

When the tour has completed, click the Disk icon to save the tour, so you can play it later.

GE - Save tour.jpg

Watch Northern Loop fly-through tours on YouTube, or download the kmz to view them in Google Earth.

Training plan

I still remember a few years ago hiking about 4 miles with a kid on my back. This was not planned, and at the end of the day my hips and back were killing me. We didn’t exercise at all before the trip and paid for it with sore joints and muscles for the remainder of our stay.

On this backpacking trip, we will be carrying more weight over more days, so it’s important to get in shape. After some research online, we set a target pack weight for each person and then plotted out a training schedule to work up to those weights. One tip I read somewhere was to avoid increasing your pack weight too quickly as this could lead to injuries and cause setbacks while you recover. So, the weight increase is gradual. We also set a mileage plan (at the bottom in parentheses) to work up to the 7 mile days we are shooting for.

Right now we’re about 4 months out and have started hiking a few days per week.  We had some pretty sore muscles the first few hikes, but we’re already feeling stronger and more energetic.

Another tip that now seems obvious (but wasn’t at first!) was to hike with the actual equipment you plan to use. Wear the shoes you plan to hike in. Use the backpack. This helps you build the right muscles for your gear and work out any kinks that might arise such as improper fitting, rubbing, chafing, etc.

pack weight.jpg

2 adults, 5 kids, and a Mt Rainier adventure!

The aim of this blog is to chronicle our journey and share what we learn along the way with the hopes it might be helpful to others considering doing the Northern Loop Trail.

We are probably not the typical family you’ll see on the trail, so maybe this will encourage others to get out and spend some time together, enjoying nature!

This summer (2017), our plan is to hike the Northern Loop Trail at Mt Rainier. We initially were thinking of doing the Wonderland Trail, but due to a limited time-frame, we had to set our sights on a shorter trail. While we have done many day hikes and had lots of fun camping in the past, this will be our first multi-day backpacking trip as a family. With 2 adults and 5 kids, this should be an adventure!

With the hope of securing a reservation, we have applied for a wilderness permit (the March 15-30th window is almost over), and within the next couple months, we will be finding out if we have an itinerary, or whether we will be trying for a first-come, first-serve permit this summer!