Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…


Having read this description of all the stuff you might take with you on a trip, you might wonder how to select, organize, and pack all this stuff before a trip – and how to avoid forgetting critical gear.

Make a list

At some point while you are not in the middle of actually packing for a trip, make a list of the equipment that you use on the range of trips that you take. The best times to do this are either long before you are in the throes of packing for a trip or right after you finish packing… assuming you have a few minutes left before your 4:00 a.m. departure.

Both approaches have their problems.

Besides requiring actual foresight, making your list far in advance of a trip may leave you vulnerable to decisions that are a bit, shall we say, abstract. You may find that you take things you don’t really need (because they sound so cool in the catalog) or that you under-equip yourself (because the description of that 3 oz. Wonder Parka seems so much more reasonable in the warmth of your family room than when you pull it out of your pack during a raging storm on day 4 of a 7-day trip.)

Creating the list at the last moment carries its own set of risks. Obviously, your list may end up reflecting the needs of that specific trip and not more general requirements that you need to consider for later trips. You may also (if you are like me) be doing everything at the last possible moment on too little sleep.

In any case, I have a standard list. I consult it as I pack for almost every trip that has me out for more than a single night. It includes virtually everything that I might take on any type of more-or-less typical trip, including some items that I won’t need on all trips. I cross out unneeded items as I pack. I used to begin my packing ritual by printing a copy of the list and then checking off each item as I got it out.. However, the process has evolved a bit over the years and I’ll describe my current approach here.

Gear storage

A list is no good if you can’t find your equipment, so it pays to develop a semi-organized approach to storing your gear between trips. Making this task a bit more complicated is the fact that some gear is probably only used on extended trips (sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc.) while some is used more often (certain clothing, personal gear, etc.). So, all of my equipment is not in a single place. Here is what passes for my system:

  • My backpacks live in my garage. Much of the purely-for-backpacking gear stays in the backpacks.
  • Certain items are needed for almost all trips. I store these (also in the garage) in large plastic storage containers so that I can find them immediately.
  • A few large items, such as tents and bear canisters, are stored on a shelf in the garage.
  • Most of the specialized outdoor clothing (down jacket, shells, etc.) lives in one end of my closet.
  • A few small items that I might use between trips (headlamps, gloves, etc.) are kept in a drawer in the house.

Everything is not in one place, but I know that I can get my hands on all of it very quickly.

The packing process

Since I have a good idea of what I need to take these days, I probably could pack with no list at all. So I begin by just “going at it” – I bring out the plastic storage boxes, the backpack, etc. and just pull out all of the stuff that I can think of that I’ll need. Using a large space (our bedroom – I have a very understanding wife!) I lay gear out so that I can see everything in one place, more or less organized by function.

It helps to imagine things I might need to do on the trip. For example, I will eat – so I imagine eating and preparing meals: I need a spoon, a cup, a stove, etc. It could be cold and rainy: I imagine dressing myself for the worst conditions from the inside (underwear) out (to my shell).

When I’m done I have all of my gear (except for food) laid out on the bed in some sort of order, and I can see all of it at once. Now I get out my list (see link above) and check the actual gear against the list. I go through the list from top to bottom. Each item could fall into several categories:

  • Not needed for this trip.
    I cross it off the list.
  • Need for this trip and already out for packing.
    I check it off on the page, but only after I actually look at it in the pile.
  • Need for this trip but forgot to put it in the pile.
    I stop right then and there and locate the gear. Only after I add it to the pile do I check it off.
  • Need for this trip but don’t have it.
    I create a separate short list of items I need to go out for, including those that will require a trip to the store. I’ll take this list with me when I go out – and only check them off of the main list after I return and add them.

Next I deal with the aftermath of this list-checking. I find any remaining forgotten gear and make a quick trip to the store to pick up anything that turned up missing. (I find that I rarely miss anything these days.)

Being cautious – especially on long trips – I typically go over the list one more time. Then I turn to food packing.

Packing food

I won’t have a lot to say about this topic here, since much of it has been described in the Cooking/Eating section. I use a similar approach, although more advance planning is necessary for organizing food, especially on long trips. (Obviously, I won’t have most of the food for an upcoming trip in storage in my garage!)

  • I begin by simply counting the number of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks I’ll need.
  • I determine what I will eat (considering the factors described in the Cooking/Eating section) and acquire the meals and/or ingredients.
  • I get everything out and start organizing, mixing, and packing.
  • I organize piles so that I can see and count all of the meals.
  • For short trips I just throw everything into a couple of Ziploc bags. For longer trips I may organize more coherently.

Once all of the food is organized I move it to the same room where the rest of the organized gear is laid out.

Loading the pack

This actually turns out the be the easiest job since all of the hard work has been completed by this point. In fact, except for the warm and clean surroundings, it isn’t much different than breaking camp. I don’t worry too much at this point about what I may have forgotten because I was careful about keeping track as I assembled all of the equipment.

I can do this whole process – from start to finish – in an evening for any normal trip. If pressed, I can probably do it in about two hours, as long as I have purchased the food in advance and I don’t have to run out and buy anything in the middle of packing.

The only special consideration here is that I may need some of the trail gear while I’m on my way to the trailhead – dark glasses, photography equipment. I handle this in one of two ways. Gear that I am certain I will use may go into a special bag in the car. I’ll check that bag carefully before leaving the car and hitting the trail. Other equipment (sun screen, etc.) can stay in the pack, come out briefly when needed, and return immediately to the pack.


Along with the gear I’ll need on the trail, I also organize stuff that I’ll need when the trip ends. This will vary depending upon post-trip plans: hopping in the car and driving home requires less gear than a post-trip overnight hotel stay with a nice dinner. I make a short list for this equipment as well. I usually pack it separately into a small duffle that can be stored out of sight in the car.

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