Your Guide to Last-Minute Backpacking

5 tips for getting into the backcountry—faster
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Whether you’re an experienced backpacker or just getting started, it can be difficult to find the time to get out. With work schedules and busy lives, many of us have only one or two days per week to spend nights outdoors. By the time a day off rolls around, it can be tough to find the time and motivation to pack up, plan a route and drive to a trailhead—only to hike out in the twilight.

But there are a few steps you can take to get out there at the last minute. Regardless of your experience level, there are tips and tricks to make your experience in the outdoors more enjoyable—that begins with the packing process. We spoke with REI outdoor instructor Lindsey McIntosh-Tolle to learn five ways to help you prep better and hit the trail faster.

Create a personalized packing list

What and how you pack your bag are personal choices that vary depending on experience, desired level of comfort and the type of experience you are looking for. There are numerous lists out there to help you decide what to bring. Print out a premade list—which should always include the 10 Essentials—or make your own checklist and post it in close proximity to where you store your gear. When it’s time to hit the trail, all you’ll need to do is refer to the list (and the weather report) to make sure you’re outfitted appropriately.

And don’t just bring the basics, says McIntosh-Tolle: “Be honest with yourself about what is going to make you happy while you’re out there.” Creating a personalized list allows you to prioritize the gear that’s most important to you. For example, if you’re someone who tends to get extra chilly at night, you might want to pack extra layers or a set of camp booties. And, don’t be shy about bringing a fishing pole if you know that is how you would prefer to spend your afternoons by the lake. “If you know that there is something you enjoy that would really put the experience over the top (art supplies, bird guide, kite, etc.), then it is worth bringing it along. This is where those personalized packing lists come in,” McIntosh-Tolle adds.

Keep a bag partially packed

Keeping your backpack partially packed can help you get out of the house faster. A pack with extra pockets can make it easier to add and subtract necessities like a first-aid kit, headlamp, waterproof jacket, warm hat and sunscreen. If you can keep these items pre-packed in pockets, then when you go to pack the larger and heavier items in the pack’s main compartment, you won’t have to move the items around and out of the way. The more items you can pre-pack, the faster you’ll be able to get out; and since the essentials for a backpacking trip are the same regardless of how long you will be out, it’s all a matter of efficiency. In addition, many items, like a tent, stove and fuel (provided it’s topped off), can be packed ahead of time.

Some items shouldn’t be pre-packed, like your sleeping bag, McIntosh-Tolle says. When off the trail, it’s best to store your sleeping bag loosely in a large storage sack. For the items that can’t be packed ahead of time, that’s where a staging area, described below, can come in handy.

Learn More: Sleeping Bag Care

Create a staging area

As tempting as it might be to pack your bag, and then set it and forget it, McIntosh-Tolle says there are certain items (like your sleeping bag) you shouldn’t store crumpled up, or that you can’t pre-pack—like your water, which you’ll fill prior to packing. A staging area is the best spot to organize these items, and you can keep your checklist nearby. What this staging area looks like will depend a lot on the space you have available. A simple, large plastic bin will work fine for many folks, while others might want to designate a spot in their closet where they can store items in a bin or on shelves.

A staging area lets you stay organized and load up your gear faster when it’s time to hit the road. “The more experience you get, packing your gear becomes a lot more automatic,” McIntosh-Tolle says. “Getting to that point is going to be a lot faster if you just know this is where you store all the stuff you’re going to need, and have a list that you know works.”

In addition to gear, a staging area is a good place to keep sealed prepared foods and water bottles or a hydration reservoir, where these items are easy to grab and fill. If you eat instant oatmeal in the mornings, for example, keep several packets in a larger bin with other nonperishable staples like granola bars and chocolate. Tea bags, coffee, dried goods and instant meals can also be stored here, so long as you’re getting out enough to use the items before they go bad.

McIntosh-Tolle notes that keeping freeze dried and dehydrated ingredients on hand can make meal planning and prep much easier. Because these items are shelf stable, it's okay to prep a few meals ahead of time, and leave them in your staging area. Be proactive about figuring out what meals work for you and do the prep early so you can get out to the trailhead without having to stop at the store.  

Care for your gear and replenish items after each trip

After each trip, McIntosh-Tolle says, it’s good practice to dry your gear and air things out. Check on items that may need replenishing before repacking, like your fuel, first-aid kit, headlamp batteries and/or water purification system, if you use tablets or drops. If there are items you need to buy in order to replenish your kit, make a list now, while you unpack and care for your gear. “The better care you take of your gear, the less you’ll have to do repairs and such and the less you’re going to have problems crop up and delay you getting out,” McIntosh-Tolle says.

Be sure to clean your gear as you store it, as layers of grime can build up and damage equipment over time. This applies to cookware of course, but also clothing, your sleeping bag, and even your trekking poles. The cleaner your gear, the longer it will last. And cleaning mud and dirt off your gear in between trips can help prevent the spread of invasive species.

You’ll also want to think about repairing any torn or damaged gear, like patching holes in your tent, re-waterproofing your boots, and re-sealing the seams and zippers on your tent or waterproof shell, if needed. While you might have found a great temporary fix while out on the trail, it’s good to be proactive and implement a long-term solution, which will help your gear last longer. Finally, now is a great time to refine your packing list. If there is gear you packed and didn’t use on this trip, consider leaving it behind on the next one. If there was something you missed while you were out, add it to the list.

Create a location wish list

Most of us don’t get to spend as much time in the outdoors as we’d like—that’s where a backpacking wish list can come in. When you can’t go backpacking, set aside a little time to do some research, and as you come across hikes you dream about doing, add them to the list. That way, when you can head out, you know exactly where you’re going.

“Sometimes that’s the thing that takes the longest for people, is just figuring out where to go,” says McIntosh-Tolle. When you find a hike that piques your interest, do some research to figure out the level of difficulty, best time of year to visit and how many days it will take to complete. Guidebooks and REI’s Hiking Project often address those questions and more. The more you prep, the less daunting the task of getting out at the last minute will be.

Learn More: Intro to Backpacking

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