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Top tips: Efficient backpacking trip planning, preparing, & packing

Disaster area! A hugely disorganized mess in Amanda's 600-square foot Denver apartment prior to my first ever guided trip.

Disaster area! A hugely disorganized mess in Amanda’s 600-square foot Denver apartment prior to my first guided trip in 2011.

The first year I offered guided backpacking trips and courses in 2011, preparations for them were disastrously inefficient. My systems were nicely refined for solo thru-hikes, but I learned that groups of up to 10 clients for 3, 5, or 7 days at a time entail much more: more logistics, more food, more group equipment, demo gear, and of course more responsibility and higher expectations.

An all-nighter preceding my departure flight was standard, and I still never felt like I’d finished everything I’d wanted to. Gosh, if leaving for a trip is this difficult, why not just stay home?

This year, my backpacking trip planning, preparing, and packing went much more smoothly. During the weekend before I left for a 3.5-week stretch in the Appalachian Mountains with 5 trips and 50 clients, for example, Amanda and I were able to construct raised beds in the backyard, drop in on a neighbor’s house party, and go out for a nice dinner.

How have I decreased the stress and time associated with planning, preparing, and packing for a backpacking trip? Here are my five top tips:


1. Dedicated space for gear and supplies

In 2011 I was still renting month-to-month, storing all of my possessions in a friend’s basement during the summer, and crashing in Amanda’s tiny Denver apartment between trips. I wasted a lot of time shuffling through tubs trying to locate what I needed for the next trip. (Tip: Buy see-through tubs.) I solved this problem the next year by buying a house with ample storage space. Now, I can keep clothing in my personal closet, sleeping bags in a downstairs closet, boxes of food on shelves in the boiler room, and all of my equipment — backpacks, shelters, stoves, etc — in the garage.

Shelving & tubs in the garage for large items and small -- pots, shelters, compasses, water treatment, etc.

Shelving & tubs in the garage for large items and small — pots, shelters, compasses, water treatment, etc. Oh, and a lot of shoes…


2. Early preparations

A day or two before I leave, I pack everything in my suitcases or my car. But I’m only packing at that point, not still packaging food, finalizing gear lists, or reserving backcountry permits. Those tasks are tackled in the months and weeks prior to a trip, when I’m not up against a hard deadline like a plane flight.

Finish early the pre-trip tasks that can be finished early, such as food prep. Last-minute, I only want to be doing last-minute tasks, like packing my suitcases and cleaning my cat's litter box.

Finish early the pre-trip tasks that can be finished early, such as food prep. Last-minute, I only want to be doing last-minute tasks, like packing my suitcases and emptying my office trash cans.


3. Comprehensive lists

Prior to every trip, there are dozens of small but important items that must be completed. The list is remarkably consistent across trips, i.e. before every trip, I must make maps, purchase airfare, set an email auto-reply, configure SPOT messages, etc. Naturally, I use a spreadsheet to track the status of each task so that I can always be working towards getting something done, not trying to remember what else still needs to get done.

A screenshot of my trip to do list. I could never keep this information in my head -- too many small details.

A screenshot of my trip to do list. I could never keep this information in my head — too many small details.


4. Templates

The personal and group gear I need for an upcoming trip is identical — or at least very similar to — what I took on some trip in the past. Ditto for calories: I know exactly how much and what types of food my body demands for trips of particular durations and intensities. Why reinvent the wheel? If I have accurate backpacking gear lists and food menus from previous trips, I only need to make a few tweaks to prepare for the next one. If you haven’t yet done enough trips to perfect your templates, duplicate the templates of someone who has.

Gear lists from past trip serve as useful templates for future ones. There will likely be few changes if the trip is in a similar location and at a similar time of year.

Gear lists from past trip serve as useful templates for future ones. There will likely be few changes if the trip is in a similar location and at a similar time of year.


5. Mass assembly

For tasks with considerable setup time, I complete large batches and stockpile the leftovers for later use. This is especially the case with food packaging — assembly goes quickly once I have out the scales, measuring cups, bowls, and plastic bags. So instead of preparing food for just the next trip, I prepare food for the entire next season. For really big batches, I’ll even hire a neighborhood kid to help out. Aluminum foil windscreens, toilet paper, balm jars of sunscreen and Bonnie’s Balm, and Aquamira water treatment are examples of other items that can be assembled in mass.

The end-of-season contents of my grab bag of snacks. By having a season's worth of ready-to-go food, food prep is as simple as walking downstairs and grabbing the number of bags I need.

The end-of-season contents of my grab bag of snacks. By having a season’s worth of ready-to-go food, food prep is as simple as walking downstairs and grabbing the number of bags I need.


Now it’s your turn! How do you minimize the time and stress associated with planning, preparing, and packing for your backpacking trips?

15 Responses to Top tips: Efficient backpacking trip planning, preparing, & packing

  1. Craig Gulley October 23, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    I have a spreadsheet but I have tried over the years (with only about 70% success) to use and pack exactly the same gear only changing temperature of top and bottom quilt and food (and standardizing on the meals) this means I can really just grab my gear and go
    With as much business travel I do I don’t have a lot of time to prepare

  2. Paul Mags October 23, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    My strategies are similar including the centralized gear area and the totes. A lot of my gear is organized, pre-packed and ready to go. With the exception of a sleeping bag or quilt, everything is often in the appropriate pack. If I have to switch to a different pack because I need more capacity, that takes all of five minutes.

    I’ve drank deep of the Costco Kool-Aide and buy a lot of staples in bulk. I a not scrambling at the last minute to get supplies.

    I can, and have, been ready for a trip in 30m or less. Not because I am a particularly fast packer, but because I did a lot of the prep work well ahead of time.

  3. Dana "HDMama" October 23, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    Try doing all that while living in a RV! Because my space is VERY limited, I only keep what I use. Exception being I have 3 sleeping bags, 0/30/45 degree. I keep comprehensive list of my items and store all my gear in a see through tote in the underfloor. I don’t do food prep until a day or two before.

  4. Tracy October 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    I’m much the same, food is always the biggie .. I now save all my food lists .. calories total, weight, etc. and make up my food needs from them .. cut out tons of time for me. If I’m off trail hiking, I spend more time pouring over the topo’s. Group planning is another ball of wax.

  5. Kircher October 23, 2014 at 2:10 pm #

    A habit I’ve tried to develop over the years has more to do with unpacking my gear following a trip. I try to make sure I restock and repair everything before I put it back in its proper storage space. Things like band aids in the first-aid kit, soap etc….
    That way you don’t have to worry about it later when you’re packing for the next trip, or worse forget about it until you’re back outdoors and unable to do anything about it.
    It also makes spur of the moment trips much more doable and less stressful.

  6. Willie C October 23, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

    One thing that has helped me pack without a list is to think about the actual things I’ll be doing while out. I’ll be sleeping, so out comes the shelter, pad, etc. I’ll be eating, out comes the stove, pot, spork, etc. By distilling the array of tasks that come with a backpacking trip down to easily digested bits I’ve been able to greatly improve my efficiency while packing. Also, it seems like food buying and prepping is the longest part of my packing, so I keep my food sack packed with the non-perishables for the next trip, along with a list of perishable items that I want to take. Shopping list and most of food packing done.

  7. BeeKeeper October 23, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

    After finding myself short a day’s food on the trail due to scrambled last minute packing for 6.5 days and leaving 3.5 days at a resupply, I created a new system for prepping each day’s food in advance.

    I’m using gallon ziplocks to store one day’s food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks) minus snacks. I devised a coding system so I could rotate my meals.

    Breakfast is always the same, so I stock each bag
    Lunch rotates between 2-4 items (those get marked on the outside of the bag as 1, 2, 3, 4)
    Dinner rotates (those get marked on the outside of the bag as A, B, C, D . . .)

    If I’m going on a 3-day trip, I’ll grab Bag 1A, 2B, 3C – then I have 3 different lunches and dinners. I can remove from the bags if I don’t need a meal and restock it later. For example, if I don’t need breakfast on day 1 and dinner on day 3, then I’ll just take 2 bags, and add an extra lunch if need be.

    I add my snacks separate as those are dependent on terrain, mileage, number of days, etc.

    Might sound complicated but it sure takes the stress out of packing. I’d rather take care of these details in advance.

    Beyond meals, I have my gear in a dedicated room and organized in bins and drawers, and use lists to verify everything is taken care of. It helps with efficiency and frees my mind from those memory tasks.

  8. Michael Glavin October 23, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

    my secret is using a single, simple gear system that will work in virtually any conditions for my local area (Northwest). Then, I keep all of it, clothes included, in one place along with my standard list. Keeping lots of Via, instant grits and a gallon container of alcohol usually means I can pack for a weekender without even a trip to the store. Also, I have an extensive map collection with maps of all the local spots. I can go from my first idea to the door in about 45 minutes, including prepping food. One time I got a call in February from my climbing partner who suggested we backpack the Olympic Coast that weekend in rare dry weather. I went from call to the Ferry terminal in 29 minutes.

    Customizing gear for specific trips is the recipe for agonizingly inefficient prep…..

  9. asolo October 24, 2014 at 12:55 am #

    Most of these ring a bell. On the technical side Google Docs work well for spreadsheets and Wunderlist for the todo list (it can also be used on a smartphone, so you can shop and check items off the list as you go).

  10. John October 29, 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    I keep lists for my gear. It it’s all organized in my garage in cabinets and bins. I keep a stockpile of dehydrated meals in vacuum packed bags in my freezer. Clothing is the one thing I don’t seem to be able to get a grip on for some reason.

  11. Mark Murphy November 1, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    Thats how I go about it,except having a dedicated gear place.Having gear all over the place is stressful and can be confusing.i usually fill my pack weeks in advance how I’m gonna have it,then discard gear Im not using and empty pack contents in its own place.

  12. MandrakeTrekker November 11, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    I tend to organize, make lists, etc. But when it comes time to travel, it happens unexpectedly, and I find myself NOT using those lists because I don’t have the time for them – I just rampage thru closets, throwing things in stuff sacks and inevitably forget something. When you start having a family and children you will find that trips sometimes present themselves unexpectedly when your parents or friends are willing to help out watching them at the last minute. I cope with that. I left my original home in Eastern Europe with nothing but a suitcase to come to the New World over 2 decades ago so I don’t stress out as much about these things I guess as some other people.

  13. Horse November 12, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    I stock up on food and snacks and make up my trail mix in a 30 pound container. I prefer to dehydrate all of my own foods and meals so I know what is in them. My cloths are always packed and ready my food is single serve in a zip just add water. Oatmeal, trail mix, and dehydrated fruit, and protein shakes will get me threw about any trail. I think a lit of hikers are aware of the importance of protein to help your body recover after a huge day on the trail but quality of protein is very important. I here so much about calories and carbs if you just need energy bring sugar cubes and extra tooth paste. Or honey sticks. Pie rest form of carbs sugar and flower but eating flower seems a bit bland.

  14. Dogwood November 26, 2014 at 8:10 pm #

    I feel, simplicity and efficiency in backpacking trip prep is an extension of the simplicity and efficiency in my off trail life. I’m at the point in my life where they feed into each other. When my off trail life is simpler my backpacking life is simpler and vice versa. This has been a conscious shaping to make the two that way and the willingness to – let go – of some things, the extra materialistic and mental baggage.

    I no longer am gear or gear wt obsessed. I was becoming a gear whore. Your garage is a fraction of what all my backpacking gear and hiking outdoor/supplies resembled, and consequently, the lack of funds in my banking accts. That’s alarming since I haven’t done the hikes in Alaska and abroad as you have. I’ll save the UL nirvana for someone else on that merry-go-round or in the earlier stages of that journey. It’s shockingly alarming to me that even after a long distance thru-hike where people have reached an enlightenment of the consumer driven and materialistic culture we live AND make a decision to move away from, it seems they are being drawn back into it, but with gear.

    I’ve carefully considered my hikes realizing what the majority of my hikes entailed. I adjust as necessary largely staying to one UL base kit swapping out critical components as each individual hike dictates but still staying fully integrated. It saves a ton of time. This means pre-hike researching common weather patterns, elev, exposures, resupply options, water logistics, style of hiking I’m going to employ, etc are critical. I’ve only been able to arrive at this current process through a core knowledge obtained by many trail miles(25K +) and many nights outdoors(who knows) and more than a few garage, basement, and spare bedroom scenes resembling those pictured. I had to get focused on what the main goal was – gear, gear wt, buying “stuff”, obtaining the “perfect” UL/SUL kit or backpacking/outdoor activities. I made the decision to devote more resources like time, money, logistics, etc to backpacking and being in the outdoors without everything having to be perfect(if there is such a thing). This snowballs into less complexity and greater efficiency for me – less time preparing for hikes. It gets me to my life goal – more trail miles, more nights in the outdoors, in short, largely because I know myself and the willingness to let go of so much of the complexity and anal habits.

    I make lists though not to such great lengths as I used to. More of what I do in regards to trip prep has become instinctual like muscle memory. I have it in my mind and work off that dialed in template which, again, isn’t as complex as it once was. And, since I’m always planning more hikes and am regularly prepping(hikes and non-trail life have many crossovers for me) I’m not getting so overwhelmed doing so much in a short period this way. For example, it’s customary every time I go shopping for at home food I’m learning about trail food applicability and coming home with some kind of trail food or techniques for the trail. I have this crossover mindset almost continuously.

    Food used to be a major time consuming task largely because I was gram weenieing it to the extent that I was always trying to reach a nirvana daily food wt of 20 oz/day, 3200+ daily caloric load), measuring all manner of nutritional data, etc. AND that I was often mailing resupply boxes(that’s an entirely other issue though). With much practice, and the willingness to “let go of holding on too tight” my trail, and off trail diet, is less of a time consuming chore. My food is largely bought and prepackaged and tweaked a bit almost identically as you’ve pictured Andrew separated into ready to go snacks, dinners, and b-fasts. Other bins hold hygiene or small misc categories of stuff: socks over here, shoes over there, shelters here, sleeping bags/quilts hanging over there, shirts(long and short), shorts, shells, insulation pieces, accessories(hats,gloves/mittens, gaiters etc).

    Trip planning is completed just as a hike – incrementally constantly joyously staying at it working through it enjoying the pre hike journey as much as the actual boots(UL trail runners) on the ground journey.

    I have necessarily had to adopt some of these new persepctives as result of several hikes where I had to suddenly change up the hiking direction or with altered hiking timeframes or suddenly available time to hike. Spent almost 2 yr’s planning a CDT NOBO(lots of alternates adding on some 500+ miles to a CDT thru on other trail). Six wks before leaving to NM work called. The only way I could do the CDT and all the other trail miles that I could see was planning a SOBO. Got all the reversed direction planning done in less than six wks(maps, 16 resupply boxes already all set to be mailed going NOBO, kit set-ups, town stops, traveling arrangements, permits, etc). BRRH! Felt like my head was going to explode when I was doing the replanning though. Suddenly unexpectedly had a few wks off. Took me 14 days to totally plan a Colorado Tr thru immediately followed up by 5oo+ more miles of hiking in Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe, and Big Bend NPs and Texas. I don’t hike those 30+ MPD avgs either. Had three wks to totally plan a BRT/Superior Hiking Tr thru immediately followed up by a Sheltowee Trace Tr thru(I also had a River to River Tr thru ready to go but backed out of the R2R at the last minute). Those, “in a crunch” pre hike prep experiences made me better able to do it again in the future – as long as I’m not planning walking across Alaska or coast to coast in one shot. 🙂

  15. nikita April 7, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    I have a master gear list of everything I own, including weight of each item, organized in categories (sleep, shelter, survival/navigation, etc.). All items are stored in clear totes labeled to match those categories. I also have ‘car camp’, ‘warm backpack’ and ‘cold backpack’ checklists – organized in those same categories. Prepping for a trip is as easy as pulling up the appropriate list and pulling from the correct boxes.

    I also have a ‘need’ list.

    My daypack is set up all the time, including snacks, but those items are duplicates and not included on the lists. The only things I have to do to head out for a dayhike is grab my PLB, camera and water.

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