Backpacking in Michigan: Tips & Trails

Ultralight Backpacking in Michigan: A lone hiker navigates a serene forest trail, immersing themselves in the natural beauty of Michigan's wilderness

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

Backpacking in Michigan is a breeze with over 13,000 miles of diverse trails, ranging from coastal dunes to inland forests, offering options for hikers of all abilities to explore picturesque landscapes year-round.

Scenic highlights include rivers and woodlands on the Manistee Trail, shoreline views on the North Country Trail in the northern Lower Peninsula, old growth pine hikes in Hartwick Pines State Park, fall foliage in Traverse City, and climbs overlooking mining sites in the Upper Peninsula.

In this post, we will explore the realm of ultralight backpacking through the landscapes of Michigan, providing you with essential information for your upcoming outdoor adventure.

We’ll highlight the TOP 5 trails in Michigan across two categories: day hikes under 30 miles, and multi-day trips with opportunities to resupply water every couple of days.

Key Tips for Backpacking in Michigan

  • What to expect: Southern routes feature easy trails through flat hardwood forests, while northern trails offer more challenging hikes over hilly terrain amid dense conifer forests along Lake Superior. Trails are mostly unpaved with natural surfaces like dirt, gravel, roots, and rocks, providing uneven footing.
  • Essential gear: Equip your backpack with quick-drying synthetic clothing layers, a rain jacket, and pants. Include a basic first aid kit, a bear canister for food safety, and bear mace, which is required for safety in some northern areas.
  • Wildlife: Michigan hikers should be aware of potentially dangerous wildlife, including black bears, grey wolves, moose, deer, and rattlesnakes. While encounters with these species are unlikely, it’s advisable to remain cautious. Additionally, deer carry ticks that can transmit diseases.
  • Wild camping is limited by restrictions on public and private lands. Some designated wilderness zones allow backcountry camping if you get permits and follow regulations on fires, water use, etc. Good options include Nordhouse Dunes, parts of Lake Superior, and remote islands like Isle Royale. Since unattended camp areas are scarce compared to the west, planning ahead for your tent is a must. Though remote treks using long trails are popular, lodging may be needed due to the terrain.
  • Best times to go: The best times for backpacking in Michigan are early summer when the trails are clear and waterfalls are flowing, and early fall when the crowds have died down and fall colors emerge. Prepare for changeable weather by bringing layers and rain gear. Make reservations for backcountry campsites ahead of time.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 30 Miles)

Here are the top day hikes where ultralight gear will truly enhance your hiking experience:

  1. Mosquito Falls and Chapel Falls via Chapel Loop (10.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. The Manistee River Loop Trail (19.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Escarpment Trail (8.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Upper and Lower Tahquamenon Falls (10.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Potawatomi Trail (17.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Top multi-day trails for any backpacker with water resupplies every two days:

  1. Grand Marais to Munising via North Country Trail (42 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Waterloo-Pinckney Trail (33.8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. Boardman/Ottaway River Trail (41.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. The Dragon Trail (38.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. Fred Meijer White Pine Trail (93.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

Michigan experiences a diverse climate across its various regions. Let’s look at Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula.

Upper Peninsula

  • Spring (March-May): Daytime highs 30-50°F, occasional snow transitioning to milder conditions.
  • Summer (June-August): Averaging 60-75°F, characterized by outdoor activities and pleasant weather.
  • Fall (September-November): Daytime highs 50-65°F, cooler nights, spectacular fall foliage.
  • Winter (December-February): Cold, with highs around 20-30°F, abundant snow for winter sports.

Lower Peninsula

  • Spring (March-May): Daytime highs 40-60°F, occasional rain, blossoming trees and flowers.
  • Summer (June-August): Warm to hot, averaging 75-85°F, often humid, occasional thunderstorms.
  • Fall (September-November): Daytime highs 55-70°F, cooler nights, vibrant fall foliage.
  • Winter (December-February): Milder, highs around 30-40°F, moderate snowfall.

We suggest checking weather forecasts and terrain conditions before heading out. Plan long or exposed hikes on clear days. Begin early to avoid storms and bring a sturdy tent. Always have backup plans in case of severe weather.

Before you grab your backpack, take a look at the weather statistics for Michigan Center:

JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High °F313445596978827972604736
Low °F182028394958626153433324
Rain/Snow (D*)6579101011109877
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.

FAQ

Can I have a campfire while camping in Michigan? 

When camping in Michigan, you can have campfires, but you need to follow rules. Only use established fire rings in specific campgrounds. Don’t have fires outside of these areas when there’s a high or extreme risk of fire. Check with local authorities about fire bans and restrictions, which can vary by location and time of year.

What are some safety tips for backpackers in Michigan?

For an exploration trip, tell park rangers your route and when you’ll be back. Take a map, compass, or GPS if there’s no phone signal. Watch for sudden weather changes. Bring extra food and layers. Hike with a friend for help if needed. Keep food safe from bears and stay calm around wildlife. If you see a black bear, back away slowly; don’t run from cougars.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while hiking in Michigan?

Exploring the mountains and national parks means you may see black bears, so keep your food and smelly stuff locked up tight. If you spot a bear while exploring, move away slowly and don’t look it in the eyes. Cougar attacks are rare. But be careful around moose, especially if there are babies, while exploring the mountains. If a moose charges you, hide behind a tree. Watch out for poisonous snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes when exploring the mountains and parks in warm weather. Stay far from all animals while exploring trails. Bringing bear spray gives extra safety while exploring mountains and national parks.

What are some tips for backcountry fishing in Michigan?

When you’re out fishing while backpacking in the beautiful nature of Michigan, focus on catching trout, bass, pike, and panfish. Make sure to pack lightweight and compact fishing gear, such as a collapsible rod and a small tackle box, to fully enjoy the outdoors. Opt for artificial lures and flies, as they are lighter than live bait. Target moving water like rivers and streams, which are abundant in nature and hold more fish. It’s best to fish early in the morning or at dusk when the fish are more active in the great outdoors. For a more secluded experience, consider obtaining a backcountry permit to access remote lakes and streams with less fishing pressure, allowing you to immerse yourself in the tranquility of nature.

How long does it take to hike the Michigan section of the North Country Trail?

The Michigan part of the North Country National Scenic Trail is over 1000 miles long, going through the upper and lower peninsulas. If you walk the whole Michigan part, it takes about 2-3 months, covering 10-15 miles a day. If you’re short on time, you can do 100-200 mile sections in 1-2 weeks. The really beautiful and secluded parts in the western Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula might take longer because of tough terrain.

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