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.
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.
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.
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.
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.