You've been there: The misplaced headlamp. First-aid supplies scattered. Hydration reservoir growing mold. Gear chaos sounds laughably trivial–until it's piled atop a hectic weekday schedule and becomes the tipping point that keeps you from leaving home. "People often say, 'I don't have time to get organized,'" says Standolyn Robertson, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. "But time is exactly what organizing buys you."
1) Dedicate a space Whether it's a single closet or corner of the garage, store all of your hiking and camping gear in one place. Nothing will defeat you faster on Thursday night than trying to find stuff in five different spots. Get off on the right foot, says Robertson, by starting from scratch. "If it doesn't wig you out, pull everything onto the floor." Now put it all back together using this easy-access system.
2) Customize shelves Install a modular system that allows you to move shelves up or down to accommodate gear and boxes of various sizes. "Eight inches of empty space is a waste," says Robertson. She likes Elfa brand shelving systems (elfa.com), which The Container Store occasionally sells at significant discounts. Lowe's and The Container Store offer thorough installation videos online.
3) Label everything The more containers, the greater the need to keep them straight. Put stickers on the ends, so it's easy to grab and return gear at a glance. (Use a labeler to avoid masking-tape mess.) "When there are no labels, folks tend to just stow stuff wherever," says Robertson.
4) Compartmentalize "Keep like with like," says Robertson, who prefers The Container Store's see-through plastic boxes ($2-$20; containerstore.com). As you'd expect, these durable containers fit neatly together. Store lights and batteries in one, stove and cookware in another, and so on. Multisport mayhem? Start with large, sport-specific boxes (hiking, biking, climbing, etc.) and store individual containers within.
5) Think vertical Store lightweight items up high: They're easy to pull down–and put back. Sleeping pads (best stored flat) can go on a top shelf that's only inches from the ceiling. Put sleeping bags (stored in oversized mesh or cotton storage sacks) on top or one shelf down. Leave enough vertical space down low to fit bulky gear like backpacks and tents.
6) Hang essentials Even jackets that do double-duty–say, your favorite around-town fleece–should hang with backpacking gear. Robertson advises discipline. "Start putting your hiking items somewhere else," she warns, "and suddenly nothing is where you remember it being."
7) Corral footwear Keep all shoes and boots at or near floor level, where they're easily accessible and won't rain dirt on other gear.
Hang hydration reservoirs. CamelBak makes a dryer ($12; camelbak.com) for its Omega bladders. Or rig your own with a wire hanger; bend it so it slips into the opening and forces the walls apart for thorough drying.