Backpacking in Iowa: Tips & Trails

Ultralight Backpacking in Iowa: Hikers on a low hill trail in Iowa

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Backpacking in Iowa seems challenging but actually offers nice scenic trails through woodlands, prairies, and along rivers for mild hiking.

The northeast and eastern parts of the state have more hilly, wooded trails to explore in parks like Maquoketa Caves, Backbone, and Wildcat Den. Though fairly flat, nature lovers can enjoy the easy, picturesque trails and may see wildlife.

This post will delve into the world of ultralight backpacking across Iowa’s landscapes, equipping you with key information for your next outdoor adventure.

We will spotlight the TOP 5 trails in Iowa for two categories – day hikes under 25 miles where you can return home each night, and multi-day excursions where you can resupply every couple days.

Key Tips for Backpacking in Iowa

  • What to expect: Prepare for moderately challenging hikes in Iowa, with steep ridges and muddy river banks. Though the state isn’t very hilly, you can climb bluffs for beautiful views. Encounter farm animals in rural areas and expect hot, humid summers with storms and mosquitoes. Be ready for muddy shoes in marshes and wet trails.
  • Essential gear: Bring breathable clothes for hot days and sudden storms. Carry bug spray and netting for mosquitoes. Use a water filter for creeks and rivers. Bring a GPS or map and compass for tricky prairie trails.
  • Wildlife: Iowa’s hiking trails harbor few dangerous animals, but key hazards exist. Poison ivy grows commonly and can cause painful rashes if touched. Ticks inhabiting grasslands and woods may transmit harmful diseases. Iowa is also home to some venomous rattlesnake species to steer clear of. While very unlikely, coyotes or bobcats could potentially be encountered on the trails.
  • Wild camping: Wild camping in Iowa is challenging due to limited public lands for camping. Iowa’s flat terrain makes discreet camping difficult, though some forests or rivers offer hiding spots for tents. State parks generally prohibit overnights, and natural areas may allow brief, low-impact stays occasionally. The Loess Hills State Forest offers free primitive camping along Jones Creek Pond, but overall, options are mostly limited to paid campgrounds in parks or obtaining private landowner permission across the state.
  • Best times to go: The best time for backpacking in Iowa is typically late spring to early fall, around May to September. The summer months of June to August are popular due to milder weather and suitable trail conditions. This period allows for enjoyable hikes through Iowa’s varied landscapes. Fall, from September to October, is also a good time with pleasant weather and the added beauty of autumn foliage.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 25 Miles)

Elevate your outdoor experiences with these amazing day hikes, utilizing ultralight gear to enhance your adventure:

  1. Brent’s Trail (8.1 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Geode State Park (7.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Pleasant Creek Lake (8.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Dozer Cut, Bunker Hill, and Badger Ridge Trail Loop (6.3 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Paint Creek Unit Loop (13.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

The best Iowa trails for multi-day hikes with resupply points accessible at intervals of no more than two days:

  1. Wabash Trace Nature Trail (62.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Cedar Valley Nature Trail (52 miles).
    See on Iowa By Trail.
  3. Chichaqua Valley Trail (26.1 miles).
    See on Iowa By Trail.
  4. Heart of Iowa Nature Trail (32 miles).
    See on Iowa By Trail.
  5. Raccoon River Valley Trail (89 miles).
    See on Iowa By Trail.

Annual Weather Averages

Prepare for quickly changing Midwest weather any time of year with temps ranging from below freezing in winter to hot and humid mid-summer:

  • Spring (April-May): Mild temps of 50-70°F, wildflowers blooming, wildlife emerging, minimal bugs. Be prepared for muddy trails.
  • Summer (June-August): Hot, humid days around 80-90°F allow maximizing daylight on the trail. Lots of mosquitos and high humidity. Avoid mid-summer weeks over 95°F.
  • Fall (September-October): Cooling temps of 50-70°F and fall foliage provide nice conditions. Be ready for rain. Fewer bugs than summer.
  • Winter (November-March): Frigid temps ranging from highs of 30°F to lows below 0°F, so limited trail accessibility. Best for experienced winter backpackers.

Prior to choosing your gear, review the weather data for Iowa (Burlington):

High °F323749627382858376644935
Low °F152030425262666456443119
Rainy days8891112111098999
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.


Can I have a campfire while backpacking in Iowa?

Campfires are regulated while backpacking in Iowa and generally prohibited during dry conditions due to the risk of prairie and forest fires. Portable backpacking stoves are a safer alternative for cooking meals. If fires are allowed, use established rings in designated campsites only. Check for burn bans and fire danger warnings which restrict fires during summer and fall.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Iowa?

Exploring remote areas in Iowa demands careful planning. Bring detailed maps and a compass or GPS, as trails can be tricky in rolling prairies. Wear bright colors during hunting seasons. Stay updated on weather and find shelter in electrical storms. Be cautious about flash floods after heavy rains. Use bug spray to avoid mosquito-borne illnesses. Purify water from backcountry sources to stay safe. Share your hiking plans when alone and think about a satellite messenger. Avoid marshy spots to prevent getting stuck or losing shoes in mud.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Iowa?

Be careful around animals in Iowa’s backcountry. Stay away from grazing livestock like cows and bison. Make noise to avoid surprising snakes in prairie grass and woodlands. Don’t approach wild animals. Use bear bags to store food right. Check for deer ticks regularly. If bitten or stung, remove the insect carefully and clean the wound to prevent infection. Carry a first aid kit and meds for allergies. Although Iowa doesn’t have big predators, its residents can harm if provoked.

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