Backpacking in Iowa: TOP 5 Multi-Day 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 offers immense variety for outdoor enthusiasts, from the dense forests of eastern Iowa to the vast prairies and loess hills of the west. Popular destinations include Yellow River Forest, Maquoketa Caves, and Backbone State Park.

And that’s what this post is all about – backpacking in Iowa. We’ll provide tips to help you prepare for backpacking in this diverse state as well as showcase the TOP 5 multi-day trails.

Interested? Let’s get started.

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 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 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 are 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 Backpacking Trails in Iowa

Discover Iowa’s breathtaking backpacking trails amidst varied landscapes:

1. Wabash Trace Nature Trail

The golden sun sets over a prairie landscape, illuminating a lone tree and distant woodlands on the horizon

Length: 62.2 mi / 100.1 km
Type: Point to point
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation Gain: 1548 ft / 472 m
Location: Iowa West Foundation Trailhead Park
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 12 700 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

Experience the 62-mile Wabash Trace point-to-point trail through Iowa’s rolling hills. It is a moderately challenging route popular for hiking, biking, and birding year-round. Enjoy farm fields and Loess Hills views, with some solitude during quiet times. Prepare for changeable weather on this rails-to-trails route, rich in natural beauty. Overall, it’s a memorable journey through quintessential Iowa landscapes.

2. Cedar Valley Nature Trail

A prairie landscape regenerates after a burn, with tender new grasses sprouting amidst the charred remains of vegetation

Granger Meador, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr

Length: 52 mi / 83.7 km
Type: Point to point
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation Gain: NA
Location: Evansdale
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 9250 calories
More Details: See on Iowa By Trail

This 52-mile trail follows the Cedar River through scenic Iowa bottomlands. Easy year-round hiking on paved and limestone surfaces. See lots of wildlife in the 25-mile Important Bird Area. Visit native prairies and historical sites. Connects communities, parks and trails. Enjoy natural beauty along the wooded banks and open views. A great Midwest trail to observe plants, animals and landscapes.

3. Paint Creek Unit Loop

An overgrown forest trail winds through dense vegetation, barely navigable after years of disuse

Length: 13.5 mi / 21.7 km
Type: Loop
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 1653 ft / 504 m
Location: Yellow River State Forest
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 4800 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

Journey through scenic countryside on this challenging 13.5-mile loop trail near Waterville, Iowa. A hilly route rich in natural beauty, perfect for backpacking, birding and camping from April-October. Stop to take in panoramic views from high ridges. Free backcountry camping with registration at one of four campgrounds. Parts of the trail are shared with equestrians and can get muddy. With changeable weather, free camping and overlooked beauty, this is an Iowa gem waiting to be discovered.

4. Preparation Canyon Overnight Route

The Loess Hills glow in golden hour hues, with verdant valleys and ridges awash in warm light beneath vivid blue and pink sunset skies

Photo by Stephen J Taylor

Length: 13.1 mi / 21.1 km
Type: Loop
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 1571 ft / 479 m
Location: Loess Hills State Forest – Little Sioux Unit
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 4750 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

Try this challenging 13.1-mile loop trail near Moorhead, Iowa, perfect for backpacking, birding and camping. Enjoy some solitude on this scenic route with beautiful views. Best times are October through October. Features maintained trails in Preparation Canyon State Park and Loess Hills State Forest. Hike-in and primitive camping options available. A long, tough hike with minimal bugs and people. Trails can be tricky to follow at times. An overlooked Iowa gem with wooded hills, valleys and camping.

5. Brent’s Trail Extension

Green foliage along a woodland trail, creating dappled patterns on the path ahead on a clear, pleasant day in the Loess Hills

Length: 11 mi / 17.7 km
Type: Point to point
Difficulty: Hard
Elevation Gain: 2142 ft / 653 m
Location: Loess Hills State Forest – Little Sioux Unit
Estimated Hiking Calorie Burn: 4900 calories
More Details: See on AllTrails

Try this challenging 11.0-mile point-to-point trail near Little Sioux, Iowa, perfect for backpacking, camping and hiking with solitude. Best times are April through June. Bike 6 miles to the Murray Hill trailhead then hike the scenic Bent’s Trail with beautiful valley views. Dispersed camping allowed. The hills can be brutal and ticks are common in summer. An overlooked gem in western Iowa with rugged terrain.

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.

Alternative Backpacking Destinations

Not sure if Iowa is right for you?

Don’t forget to check out our backpacking guides for Nebraska and Minnesota.


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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Leading the pack is our editor-in-chief, Alex Jardine – an ultralight evangelist who's hiked over 10,000 trail miles across the globe. He's basically a walking outdoor encyclopedia. This dude loves testing out the latest and greatest products, so you can trust his recommendations are always well-informed and reliable.

We treat all our suggestions like advice from close trail buddies. No fluff, just real insights from folks who live and breathe the outdoor life.

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