Hiking and Backpacking in Wisconsin: Tips & Trails

Backpacking in Wisconsin: A sunny trail through the woods

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

Wisconsin offers stunning scenery for hikers and backpackers, ranging from the dense northern forests of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to the scenic bluffs along the Mississippi River. A particular highlight is the famous Ice Age Trail (IAT).

Interested in going? Not to worry. This post provides ultralight hiking and backpacking tips to plan your Wisconsin adventure, focusing on traveling light and preparing well to enjoy its beautiful outdoor spaces.

We’ll showcase the TOP 5 trails in Wisconsin, categorized as shorter day hikes of 25 miles or less, as well as longer multi-day routes with resupply points available every couple of days.

Key Tips for Hiking and Backpacking in Wisconsin

  • What to expect: Wisconsin has over 12,000 miles of diverse hiking trails that wind through forests, prairies, along rivers and lakes, over hills and valleys, and across farmland. Terrain varies from rugged and rocky to flat and sandy. Well-traveled trails are mostly single track and wide enough for one person while less used trails can become overgrown and narrow.
  • Essential gear: Wisconsin weather can be unpredictable, so it’s important to have versatile gear. Pack light and breathable layers, such as moisture-wicking shirts, fleece jackets, and rain shells, to adjust to different temperatures. Don’t forget insect repellent. It’s crucial to have a navigation device like a compass or GPS, along with detailed maps, to navigate the winding trails.
  • Wildlife: Wisconsin’s forests, prairies, and waterways are home to an array of wildlife, some of which can pose hazards to backpackers and hikers. Bears, including black bears and the less common grizzly bears, inhabit northern Wisconsin and will defend themselves and their cubs if surprised or threatened. Venomous snakes like timber rattlesnakes live in isolated pockets of the state. Coyotes and wolves roam the wilderness and may confront pets or humans that get too close. Smaller critters like skunks and raccoons can be aggressive when approached. Standing water may contain snapping turtles with powerful jaws.
  • Wild camping: You can camp in various places around Wisconsin, but there are rules to follow. In national and state forests and areas managed by the DNR, you can camp anywhere if you’re at least 100 feet from water and 50 feet from a road or trail. However, in certain wilderness areas, you must camp in specific spots with permits. Some public lands may have specific camping zones or might not allow camping at all. If you’re on private land, you need the owner’s permission to camp.
  • Best time to go is from spring to fall. Late spring and early fall provide moderate weather with fewer insects. Summer offers long days but can be hot and humid. Early fall showcases colorful foliage. Winter hiking is possible in the south but limited in the north. It’s advisable to avoid early spring due to muddy trails.

Top 5 Day Hikes (Under 25 Miles)

Here are our favorite day hikes in Wisconsin, where using lightweight gear can enhance your experience even more:

  1. Lake Geneva Shore Path (21.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. IAT: Upland, West Bluff, and Johnson Moraine Loop (14.7 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. IAT: Spring Lake Segment (14.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. IAT: Gibraltar Rock Segment (8.6 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. IAT: Lodi Marsh Segment (8.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Top 5 Multi-Day Trips

Explore these beautiful multi-day trails in Wisconsin, where you can locate resupply points at least every two days:

  1. IAT: St. Croix Falls to Gandy Dancer (27.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  2. Ahnapee State Trail (41.2 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  3. IAT: Monches to Kettle Morraine State Forest (44.5 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  4. Elroy-Sparta State Trail (34.8 miles).
    See on AllTrails.
  5. IAT: East to South (314.4 miles).
    See on AllTrails.

Annual Weather Averages

Wisconsin has a temperate climate with distinct seasons:

  • Spring (March to May): Cool temperatures (40°F to 60°F) with potential rain and muddy trails.
  • Summer (June to August): Warm temperatures (70°F to 85°F), occasional thunderstorms, and high humidity.
  • Fall (September to November): Cooler temperatures (50°F to 70°F) with spectacular fall foliage. Rapid evening temperature drops require layers.
  • Winter (December to February): Cold temperatures (20°F to 30°F) with snow. Winter sports are popular. Specialized gear is needed for winter backpacking.

Before you pick your gear and start your trip, check out the typical weather for Wisconsin (Madison):

High °F283245597079828072594532
Low °F141728394959636153423019
Rain/Snow (D*)4469111111119765
Note: This table is approximate; weather can change with altitude.
D* – Days of rain or snow.


Can I have a campfire while backpacking in Wisconsin?

Campfires are generally allowed while backpacking in Wisconsin, but there are some restrictions. Fires must be in a fire ring or pit and kept small. Fires are not allowed during high fire danger times. Backpackers should check with the land manager about specific campfire rules for the area they plan to visit.

How to deal with wildlife encounters while backpacking in Wisconsin?

When you come across animals while backpacking in Wisconsin, it’s crucial to stay safe. Keep your distance, avoid provoking them, and make noise so they know you’re there. Never approach or feed wild animals. If you see black bears, back away slowly without making direct eye contact, and make yourself look big. For wolves, stay calm, don’t run, and try scaring them away by yelling or throwing rocks. Leave snakes alone and give them space.

What are some safety tips for backpacking in Wisconsin?

Venture into Wisconsin’s captivating wilderness for a backpacking adventure immersed in nature, but don’t forget to plan and prepare. Before following winding trails through pristine forests, acquire a detailed map of the terrain and inform others of your intended route. Pack bright, visible apparel and sturdy boots for maneuvering on uneven ground. Bring along whistle, flashlight, first-aid supplies, food storage bags and plenty of water to stay safe if you become lost. Make noise and keep food sealed to avoid unwanted bear encounters. With adequate provisions and preventative precautions taken, you can fully embrace the call of the wild while backpacking across Wisconsin and revel in the scenic natural splendor it has to offer.

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