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They’re experienced backpackers with a grim secret: Their friends won’t hike with them anymore. It’s not because Jamie and Joe snore or stink or stick grubby fingers in the communal peanut butter jar. Our couple is guilty of a far greater sin, and that’s poor planning. Jamie and Joe choke down bad meals by the dim light of a fading headlamp miles from campsites they never had a chance of reaching. They spend hours looking for lost gear and trying to get their bearings. They run out of fuel. They’ve even been known to forget the group TP.
But before you write off Jamie and Joe as backcountry boneheads, consider how many late nights you’ve spent pulling together a last-minute trip, then gotten to camp the next day and realized you’d forgotten something. Between work, family obligations, and other responsibilities, it’s easy to do. Just as easy is abandoning a trip altogether because “it’s too much trouble.”
You don’t have to, though, and here’s where Jamie and Joe can help you. With expert assistance from packing and planning professionals, we identified four key areas of improvement for our befuddled pair, then devised strategies to correct their bad habits. Jamie and Joe (they willingly volunteered, by the way) took the advice to heart, made simple changes, and turned themselves into backpacking dynamos. The moral is simple: If these guys can improve, you can, too.
Here are the four key areas our experts identified:
Finding The Time
Jamie and Joe put off trip planning until the last minute, largely because their itinerant lifestyle scatters their gear between storage units and friends’ basements. In addition, neither gets enough vacation time for leisurely exploration of the many trails near their Grand Teton National Park home.
“When we get a few days off, we’re rushing to make the most of them,” explains Jamie. “Things like tracing a route on the map fall through the cracks when you spend too much time searching for missing water bottles.”
Joe and Jamie typically spent too many hours packing, then hiked late into the night to reach camp, often getting lost in the process.
Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from
the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Home, Your Office, and Your Life.
“If you can organize one thing, you can organize anything,” Morgenstern says of the couple’s proven ability to juggle multiple job demands. “Rather than thinking of your scattered possessions as an endless maze of boxes and bins, think in terms of closets’ that happen to be sprawled across Jackson, Wyoming.” The key “is to take as much thinking and remembering out of the packing process as possible.”
- Don’t think “storage,” think “retrieval.” The goal is to create easy, quick, hassle-free access to everything you need. Think carefully about each piece of gear’s function and how often you’ll need it, then store it accordingly, putting the oft-needed items readily at hand. For example, don’t pack your only tent beneath the telemark boots you use twice a year. Keep the tent at hand and those ski boots packed away.
- Store all your backpacking gear in one place. Don’t bury long underwear in a box with your winter sweaters; keep it with your pack and stove so it’ll be handy for midsummer trips to the mountains. Morgenstern recommends using clearly labeled, see-through plastic bins that keep items clean, dry, and accessible.
- Inventory your backpacking gear and post a master list on the door of your gear closet (see Options A and B). “When you don’t see your stuff all the time,” cautions Morgenstern, “you tend to forget what you have and where it is. That wastes time and money when it comes to packing.”
Option A: Closet
- Hook to hang backpack
- Bin labeled “clothing”
- Bin labeled “miscellaneous” for the little things you take on every trip, like a flashlight, toilet paper, toiletries, and a knife
- Bin containing only winter gear: wool mittens, balaclava, etc.
- Bin containing cookware, stove, and fuel
- Unrolled self-inflating sleeping pad, with valve open, across the side or top of the closet
- Sleeping bag hanging from ceiling in a big, breathable sack
- Air-tight tin containing nonperishable food
- Laminated gear list and erasable marker on the door
Option B: Bins
- Don’t have a spare closet? Buy three large plastic bins and label them “cooking/food/toiletries,” “sleeping,” and “clothing.” Store them somewhere that’s dry and safe from mice. Then, you’re three steps ahead when it’s time to pack.
Mark the calendar, then divide and conquer
- Pick a date, mark it on the calendar, and plan around it just like you would a wedding. No matter how spontaneous you are, spur-of-the-moment trips rarely come together.
- Divvy up tasks among hiking partners. One can collect travel facts and maps, another the gear.
- Avoid the “last minute” trap. Create a false deadline a week or two in advance of the trip and take it seriously. Sticking to this due date will prompt the adrenaline rush of last-minute pressure, but then actually allow you a cushion of time in case you run into glitches.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel for every trip. Keep maps and other trail information in a file. To make the job even simpler, use the meal planner at the end of this article and our online gear lists.
“We took Morgenstern’s advice to heart and it worked wonders,” raves Joe, who inventoried and numbered all their boxes of stored gear, while Jamie typed a master list on the computer. Now they don’t waste time and money searching for “lost” gear and buying replacements. “Setting a false deadline 1 week in advance of our trips has also been great for us,” Joe adds, “because now we see holes sooner and aren’t running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
Money-saving tip: Make a storage sack by folding a bedsheet in half and sewing two sides closed. Store your sleeping bag, unstuffed and unrolled, in this sack between trips to keep the insulation from compressing.
Time-saving tip: Use the template below to create a trip planning/packing checklist. Fill out one for each trip, customizing it to your own needs. Save the checklists for future reference.
Time-saving tip: There’s nothing like opening your food container to find well-fed moths. Put bay leaves, found in the spice aisle at grocery stores, in the food container to keep bugs away.
Trip Planning Quick Sheet
Planning A Trip
“Even though Joe and I have been backpacking together for only 7 months, we already have a year’s supply of mishaps,” laments Jamie. “We figured 15 miles a day in November in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness would be a cinch because we live at a much higher elevation.” They turned around a mere 72 hours into their 10-day trip, having averaged only 7 miles per day due to numerous blowdowns along the trail.
Like those of many busy people, Jamie and Joe’s “adventures” become misadventures due to a lack of research and trying to cram too many miles into too little time. What’s more, their tendency to overpack (“we’re afraid to go to the zoo without proper provisions”) inevitably slows them down.
Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle
“Jamie and Joe’s situation isn’t unusual,” says Dr. Marlatt, equating it with research he’s done on New Year’s resolutions. “The people who fail (to follow through) are good at coming up with resolutions, but haven’t figured out how they’re going to carry them out.” Without a clear, step-by-step plan that considers potential snags, an ambitious goal will never become a reality. Every successful backpacking trip has three steps: pretrip planning, the trip itself, and a post-trip wrap up.
- Do the research. Joe started well by reading up on the 100-Mile Wilderness and ordering maps, but he didn’t go far enough and get up-to-date trail information from rangers or recent hikers. Had he taken this step, he’d have known about the blowdowns that obliterated much of the trail. After you call the land manager for information, log on to our message boards at www. backpacker.com/trailtalk to get the latest scoop from hikers recently in the area.
- Identify and plan for possible barriers to success. Are you physically ready for the terrain and length of the trip? Can the slowest person in your group maintain the pace? Do you have the skills and gear to handle the worst weather you could encounter? If you answer no to any question, modify your goals.
- Think one day at a time. Instead of picking a site as a goal and then calculating the miles you’ll have to hike per day, turn the process around. Estimate what you can accomplish each day under given conditions. By breaking your trip into daily chunks, you won’t be tempted to make sweeping generalizations that overlook important factors like elevation gain and trail conditions.
Technique to try: Let’s say you want to determine how long it’ll take to hike from Klondike Notch to the top of Yard Mountain in New York’s Adirondack Park. Here’s how:
Step 1: Figure the trail distance by tracing it with a length of string,
then lay the string next to the map scale. In this case it’s 1.25 miles. The average hiker’s pace is 2 mph on rolling, groomed trail, which means it would take 30 to 40 minutes to hike this section. But since it’s not flat from Klondike Notch to Yard Mountain, you need to figure in elevation.
Step 2: Count the number of contour lines that send you uphill and downhill to determine elevation gain and loss. On the map there are 7 descending contour lines. Each contour interval is 10 meters, so the descent is 70 meters. Translated into feet, 70 meters equals about 230 feet (1 meter equals 3.281 feet, so 70 x 3.281 = 229.6). Use the same calculations for the ascending contour lines (31 lines uphill = 1,017 feet).
Step 3: Calculate your hiking time. Every 1,000 feet of vertical gain adds 1 hour to your hiking time, so trekking 1,017 feet up Yard Mountain means adding 1 hour. The hike will take at least 1= hours. Don’t assume that descents are faster, since rock ledges or other obstacles may slow you down.
Step 4: Allow extra time if you plan to take photos or like to stop to look at flowers, or if trail conditions are tough.
- The Trip
- Be flexible. Surprises will happen, but if you’ve done your homework, you can improvise the rest. And realizing you can’t cover all the bases will keep you from getting frustrated when things don’t go as planned.
- Keep a log to record weather and trail conditions, pace, time spent eating and setting up/breaking camp, enjoying the view, plus other information that’ll help you plan future trips.
- Planning for your next trip always starts on the ride home.
- Learn from your “accidents.” By keeping a record of your trip, advises Dr. Marlatt, you can pinpoint poor decisions and avoid them next time.
- Assess as you unpack. Did you use each piece of gear? Leave unnecessary items home next time. Repair broken gear and make a list of food, first-aid, and camp supplies you need to replenish. Buy them on your next shopping trip.
To test their new skills, Jamie and Joe started planning a trek along the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, but soon found that snow still blanketed the high-elevation ridge. So, they opted for a shorter, less snowy route up Cascade Canyon and over Paintbrush Divide.
Thoughtful planning and excellent conditions made for a reasonable 2=-day, 20-mile trip, with hours to spare for lolling on sun-drenched rocks and photographing the Grand Teton radiant with alpenglow. They even had time for after-dinner games, a luxury they’d never enjoyed on previous trips. “We were always trying to go as far as we could and see everything in a short amount of time,” explains Joe. “This was so much more fun!” adds Jamie.
Getting Into Gear
“Joe and I are very frugal,” says Jamie. “If it’s not a good deal, we don’t buy it.” That makes sense, but a closer look reveals that Jamie and Joe fall prey to one of the biggest false exonomies plaguing outdoor-bargain shoppers: the “more is better” trap. Thinking they’ll buy the best gear they can afford, Jamie and Joe end up with equipment they don’t need, like the crampons and heavy boots that now gather dust in their closet.
Kristin Hostetter, Backpacker Equipment Editor, outdoor-equipment columnist for the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and former outdoors-store salesperson.
Many people buy gear based on what they might do, says Hostetter, not on what they actually do. “Jamie and Joe will save themselves money and frustration by thinking twice before every purchase. They should also sell the gear they never use and buy well-made equipment that suits their current needs.”
- Be realistic. Figure out what gear will work for 90 percent of your trips, regardless of what you might tackle in the future. Then wear it, crawl in it, set it up, or put it on, all while in the store, to ensure it’s right for you. Rent before you buy, if possible.
- Shop creatively. If you decide you like winter camping, buy a fleece bag liner ($90) to increase your bag’s temperature rating, rather than buying a new 0ºF model ($400). In Joe and Jamie’s case, if they’d tried zipping different sizes and brands of sleeping bags together, they’d be snoozing soundly. Instead, they bought a matching set, which fits 6′ Joe, but leaves tiny Jamie (5’4″) freezing because of the extra room in her bag.
- Resist sales pitches. The salesperson won’t be using this gear, you will. If you don’t like something or don’t feel right about it, don’t buy it. Break-in time aside, a good rule of thumb is that if it hurts in the store, it isn’t going to get any better after you walk out the door.
- Never shop with a full wallet. You’re more likely to buy on impulse something you won’t use.
- Learn how to shop for bargains. Scan bargain Web sites (www.rei-outlet.com; www.altrec.com; www.fogdog.com), catalogs (Sierra Trading Post, 800-713-4534; Campmor, 888-226-7667), and classifieds in hiking club newsletters. In mountain towns like Jackson, an outdoor adventurer can snag sweet deals on slightly used gear and apparel by stopping at yard sales and thrift shops and checking bulletin boards.
- Know what you want before you step into the shop. Fill out the following gear needs lists at home. Take them to the store with you. They’ll help you, and the salesperson, figure out what equipment is best.
- Boots Needs
- What’s your price range?
- What kind of terrain do you usually tackle? (e.g., maintained trails, cross-country bushwhacking, scree scrambling, sharp rocks and roots)
- How big and heavy is your typical backpack load?
- In what type of climate do you most frequently hike?
- Do you have any preexisting injuries or conditions, like a weak ankle or Achilles tendon?
- Tent Needs
- What’s your price range?
- How many people will be using the tent, and how big (tall and broad) are they?
- What kind of weather do you typically encounter on your trips?
- Which is more important, plenty of living space or light weight?
- Pack Needs
- What’s your price range?
- Do you prefer an internal or external frame? (For more on the advantages of each, see the Gear Guide, March 2000.)
- What’s your torso length? (See the Gear Guide, March 2000, for tips on how to measure the torso.)
- Do you need a specialty shoulder harness and hip belt (such as one made specifically for women or a big or tiny waist)?
- How many days is your typical trip?
- Do you frequently participate in overnight winter travel?
- Bag Needs
- What’s your price range?
- What’s the average temperature range during your typical trips?
- Do you most often camp in a wet climate or dry?
- How tall are you?
- What are your priorities in choosing a bag (for example, light weight, freedom of movement)?
- Are you a cold or a warm sleeper?
- Stove Needs
- What’s your price range?
- What’s the lowest temperature you’re likely to encounter when using this stove? (Multifuel stoves perform better than canister stoves lower temps.)
- Do you need a stove that can handle several types of fuel? Will you be using it for international travel?
- Will you be using the stove with a backpacking oven? (Some such ovens shouldn’t be used with “piggyback” stoves that sit atop the canister.)
Jamie and Joe solved most of their gear problems with some tweaking and trading for more appropriate models. For example, Jamie ditched her crampon-compatible heavy hikers and bought a pair of midweight boots that didn’t chew up her feet. Now their packs are lighter, and their shoulders and feet more comfortable.
Weight-saving tip: Pack everything you think you’ll need, then take out three nonessential items or substitute something simpler, smaller, or lighter. For instance, do you really need a pocket tool and a Swiss Army knife?
“Six months after our 100-Mile Wilderness trip, we still had extra food that we had no desire to eat on the trail or at home,” says Jamie. Thanks to their fire-drill packing habits and belief that freeze-dried is too expensive, Jamie and Joe would grab what they thought to be the cheapest, easiest fare: instant noodles, oatmeal, cans of Chef Boyardee, MREs (meals ready to eat), and other minimalist food that shortchanged their gourmet appetites.
Dorcas S. Miller, frequent Backpacker contributor and author of Backcountry Cooking: From Pack To Plate In 10 Minutes.
“Jamie and Joe eat just to survive,” says Miller. “If they put in a little time before the trip, they can have at-home meals with little fuss in the backcountry.” While eating well requires more shopping, repackaging, and measuring at home, the rewards-stoking your engine to go the extra miles, and actually enjoying your food-more than pay off on the trail.
- Spend a little extra time and money on food you really enjoy-spicy dinners, trail mix, roasted almonds, dried cherries, your favorite chocolate, whatever will boost your spirits.
- Plan for variety. Raisins, nuts, and M&M’s might be a great snack for a weekend trip, but on longer outings, your taste buds need a break. “Include variety in texture as well as taste,” advises Miller. Pack crunchy foods-nuts, pretzels, crackers, sesame sticks, corn nuts, malt balls-and chewy things-dried fruit, licorice, fruit bars, cheese. She recommends chocolate bars, hard candies, hearts at Valentine’s Day, and candy corn at Halloween for something different.
- Think lightweight. Jamie and Joe thought they were saving ounces and dollars by carrying MREs, but they weren’t. Dehydrated or freeze-dried food is far more efficient. Some freeze-dried foods can be costly, so shop around for what fits your budget. Supermarkets offer a smorgasbord of inexpensive dehydrated foods like couscous, instant grits and rice, Chinese noodles, instant hash browns and refried beans, dehydrated chili, as well as good old noodles with sauce.
- Dry your own. It’s easier than you think, and you’ll be able to reproduce mouthwatering home-cooked meals on the trail.
“This is so much better than what we ate before,” says Joe. At lunch and for snacks, they now linger over bags of dehydrated bananas, pears, and apples. At night, the couple marvels at their easy-to-prepare and flavorful cashew-ginger chicken with rice, and chili dinners. “Dorcas’s advice about treating yourself to good food is key; it’s made a big difference in our trips and our enjoyment,” says Joe.
The 3-Day, Two-Person Meal Planner
From supermarket or health-food store (check the recipes below for the exact quantities you’ll need, then check at home before you buy. Items are arranged in order by typical grocery aisle):
bell pepper (1)
raisins (large box)
dried pear halves (small package)
dried peach halves (small package)
dried mushrooms (small package)
dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes
kidney beans (2 large cans)
chicken in water (5-ounce can)
condensed mincemeat (small jar)
butter (1 stick)
Cheddar cheese (8-ounce package)
pepperoni (1.5 ounces)
jerky (2 medium strips)
sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)
chopped dehydrated onion
chocolate chips (small package)
flour tortillas (small package)
instant brown rice
Coconut Ginger soup mix (1 packet;
A Taste of Thai is good)
dehydrated vegetarian chili mix (the
mix by Fantastic is good)
graham crackers (small box)
fig bars (small package)
corn chips (small bag; Fritos is good)
pretzels (small bag)
hard candy, such as cinnamon balls,
coffee nips, caramels
malted milk balls
hot sauce (small bottle)
nut butter (cashew butter is superb)
quart-size zipper-lock bags (1 box)
permanent marker (for labeling bags
with contents and cooking directions)
oven roasting bags (small box)
freeze-dried corn (small package;
Just Tomatoes, Etc., 800-537-1985; www.justtomatoes.com)
Cashew-Ginger Chicken and Rice
- 2/3 Cup raw cashews
- 1 1/4 Cups freeze-dried corn
- 3 Tablespoons chopped dehydrated onion
- 1 1/2 Cups instant brown rice
- 6 thinly sliced dried mushrooms
- 1 Ounce Coconut Ginger soup mix
- 5 Ounces can chicken in water
At Home: Spread nuts on a cookie sheet and toast at 300ºF for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool, then store in a zipper-lock plastic bag. Combine corn, onion, rice, and mushrooms, plus seasoning packet, in a second zipper-lock plastic bag.
In Camp: Place bagged corn mixture and chicken in a pot and cover with water; mix well. Bring to a boil; simmer 5 minutes (adding more water as needed) or until done. Garnish with nuts.
Saturated Fat: 5.701
Dorcas’s Trail Chili
- 22 1/2 Ounces kidney beans
- 1 box dehydrated vegetarian chili mix
- 1 Ounce dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 1 Dash hot sauce (to taste)
- 2 Ounces Cheddar cheese
- 30 corn chips
At Home: Drain and rinse kidney beans, then dry in dehydrator or oven. Package in a zipper-lock plasic bag with chili mix and tomatoes.
In Camp: Pour contents of plastic bag in pot with 7 cups water. Stir well. Let stand 15 minutes to allow ingedients to rehydrate (add water if necessary; ingredients shouldn’t be above waterline). Bring to a boil and simmer about 5 minutes, until ingredients are completely hydrated, stirring continuously to prevent sticking. Mix 1 ounce cheese into each serving and sprinkle with half of the corn chips.
Dietary Fiber : 13.6
Saturated Fat: 5
Total Fat: 13.7
Lemon-Raisin Breakfast Bars
- 2 Cups raisins
- 14 Ounces sweetened condensed milk
- 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 Tablespoon lemon rind
- 1 Cup butter
- 1 1/3 Cups brown sugar
- 1 1/2 Teaspoons vanilla
- 1 Cup flour
- 1/2 Teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 Teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 Cups rolled oats
- 1 Cup chopped walnuts
Serves: 6 (2 bars per serving)
At Home: In a saucepan, combine raisins, milk, lemon juice, and lemon rind. Heat and stir until bubbling, then remove from heat to cool slightly. In a bowl, beat together butter, brown sugar, and vanilla to make a batter. Stir in flour, baking soda, and salt, then add oats and walnuts. Press all but 2 cups of the batter into a greased 13 x 9-inch pan. Spread raisin mixture on top of batter to within 1/2 inch of the edges. Sprinkle with dollops of reserved batter; press lightly. Bake at 350ºF for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool, then slice into 12 bars and package 2 bars per zipper-lock plasic bag.
Dietary Fiber : 5
Saturated Fat: 25.4
Total Fat: 52.5
Light and Lively
- 1 1/2 Ounces pepperoni
- 1/2 Cup Goldfish crackers
- 4 dried pear halves
- 2 pieces hard candy
- 4 malted milk balls
- 3 slices French bread
- 1 Ounce Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 bell pepper
- 2 Tablespoons nut butter
Here’s a lunch that provides lots of variety. If you’re a big person who gets hungry fast, you may want to increase the amounts.
Dietary Fiber : 20.7
Saturated Fat: 17.4
Total Fat: 57.5
- 6 Ounces condensed mincemeat
- 1/2 Cup chopped walnuts
In Camp: Crumble equal portions of mincemeat into 2 insulated cups or bowls. Add 1/3 cup boiling water to each. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir equal portions of walnuts into each cup before eating.
Dietary Fiber : 7.5
Saturated Fat: 1.7
Total Fat: 19.4
S’mores In A Bag
- 1/2 Cup crumbled graham crackers (about 1 1/2 crackers)
- 1/4 Cup chocolate chips
- 1/4 Cup chopped walnuts, toasted
At Home: Combine all ingredients and divide evenly into two small oven roasting bags.
In Camp: Squeeze as much air from the bags as possible. Make sure the bags are securely closed and submerge them in hot water until the chocolate has melted. Remove the bags from the water and spoon the contents into your mouth.
Dietary Fiber : .9
Saturated Fat: .9
Total Fat: 14.2
Traditional Filling Fare
- 2 flour tortillas, any flavor
- 1/2 Cup instant hummus
- 2 Ounces Cheddar cheese
- 4 Ounces pretzels
- 5 dried peach halves
- 2 medium-size strips jerky
- 4 fig bars
- 1/4 Cup gorp
- 2 Ounces yogurt-covered raisins
Super-hungry people may want to increase the amounts.
Dietary Fiber : 27.5
Saturated Fat: 64.8
Total Fat: 108