Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Going Solo: Organizing Backcountry Gear

Camping_Equipment_(542927498)I read with pleasure Dan Crane’s recent post “The Anxiety Of An Empty Backpack.”  I always thought it was only women who had problems deciding what, and how to pack.  Friends have told me that my motto is to “Make every trip an expedition!”

Many women have anxiety about traveling alone, but filling a 40-50 lb pack with gear and going out into the “howling wilderness” by themselves can be another matter altogether.  Since packing for a backpack can seem so onerous, time-consuming, and just plain confusing,  I came up with short-cuts over the years to save time, and to lessen the ever-present fear of leaving something important behind.

I have always brought a journal with me as I walk the Adirondack backcountry.  At the end of each journal entry I write the same exhortation:  “Stay Packed!”  Stay packed, right?  Well, this bit of self-persuasion has never seemed to work.  Perhaps the secret to packing properly is actually in the process of unpacking, to keep your gear together, and to make sure that your gear doesn’t wander away on you.

The day after a backpacking trip, all the gear gets rather unceremoniously dumped on the living room floor to be sorted.  The first step – hanging up the tent, fly, and groundcloth to dry – was established one April, back when April was cold and unpredictable.  I was caught in heavy rain and snow and, returning to civilization, was in no mood to unpack.  I let my tent stay in its stuff-sack for two days, and when I pulled it out – ugh!  It was covered in a fine brown mildew!  Gross!  I quickly washed and rinsed it with soap and water and aired it out, but no amount of scrubbing could take out the little brown spots.  So now the tent always comes out of the pack first, and is hung on the clothesline outside.  The sleeping bag is next, unfurled and fluffed up, and hung beside the tent .

Next, the clothing gets sorted – converted from a balled up, odorous state into a form more suitable for a woman’s laundry.  Then the food bags come out, with their  half-filled entrees and sometimes now-unidentifiable contents.  All food goes into a designated food bin, to await further consideration.

With tent, sleeping bag, clothing, and food unpacking chores attended to, the next step has always puzzled me- what to do with the rest of the gear?

Obviously, the stove needs re-filling, the batteries in the headlamp need replacing.  The mess kit needs washing.  But it is late on a Sunday evening, and Monday morning will be here soon.  The crux of the problem seems to be the desire of your gear to wander around your house in your absence.   You don’t want a piece of gear which is essential to your trip to wander the house in search of another adventure without you.   To lessen the gear’s natural tendency to wander, I keep it confined to one area of the house, so it is ready to be packed up at a moment’s notice.  The other key is to have a special list, a “blist”, (a “b-list”, which is a pun of the word “blister”) which is a typed “backpack list” of all the possible items you might need in their order of importance.)  To facilitate packing, I have reserved a closet, sideboard, and several tables in the living room to put it all back together into the pack again.

I have a sideboard cupboard, where odd bits of loose gear go until the next outing.  There are two large bin-like areas on each side of the bottom of the cupboard.  On one side is placed all the cooking gear-  washed (and sometimes unwashed) pots and pans, and on the other side, there is room for shoes, bug gear, and a myriad of little cardboard boxes for stowing away those “must needs” (duct tape, electrical tape, citronella oil bug repellent, anti-itch cream, and the first aid kit.)  This area is for items that are supposed to come on the trip.   And for those items which, for whatever reason, don’t go anywhere anymore (binoculars- which got too heavy, ancient cameras which require film, candle lanterns with glass globes, little stuffsacks with nothing stuffed in them), the endless little bits of gear that many of us have obtained over the years- these get crammed into the two large sliding drawers in the top section of the sideboard.  Don’t want to see your gear?  Is Monday morning here?  Just stuff it away in the cupboards and wait for the next trip to arrive.  (But wash your dishes first!)

The other secret is a small, narrow closet for all the large gear- tents, groundcloths, tarps, sleeping bags (on top, so they don’t get squished!)  and the dozen or so sleeping pads which seem to have multiplied in the absence of direct supervision. At the bottom of the closet are items which I first obtained some two decades ago, gear which is now covered and buried by other gear of a much more “modern” nature, piling up like some sort of queer indoor geological strata.  Which is handy in a way. If I think I might need something, or need to quell the itch to buy something, I go to my closet first, and peel away the layers of tents, tarps, groundcloths, poles, sleeping bags, pads and other strata which have appeared over the past two decades- and it’s definitely in there!

Packing occurs in the reverse – on the Wednesday evening before a weekend trip, the tent gets hauled out of its resting spot, and is patiently spread out and wrapped up in a burrito-like fashion on the living room floor, so with a flick of the wrist the tent unfurls into the proper position for fly, tent, and groundcloth on the forest floor.  Packing tables in the living room lie waiting to accept their load of gear.  The cupboard doors and drawers of the sideboard are opened!  And packing begins in earnest.

Photo: Camping gear (courtesy Wikicommons user wetwebwork).

Related Stories

Teresa DeSantis is a freelance cartographer, organic gardener, and backwoods explorer.

She is currently working on a book of her experiences in the out-of-doors. She can be contacted at teresadesantis@studioboreas.com

6 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    Organizing Backcountry Gear. A rather funny article Teresa. But really I was looking at the stuff I have here and I find my gear in somewhat of a disorganized organizination. A true oxymoronic state of affairs I attribute to having to car camp to get into the ADK’s, canoe or hike for a week or two, then race the wife back to her work. I am retired, of course. I have boxes of dried foods. Boxes of line. Boxes of batteries, lightes and steripens, mUVs, and GPS’s. Boxes of stoves. Boxes of pants, boxes of pots, boxes of frying pans boxes of saws and blades, boxes of lanterns and boxes of empty bags. Boxes of boxes that have old boxes that had boxes of things in them. Even a White box stove or two. All set up in a spare bedroom, that used to be where one of the kids was. No, I didn’t box her, she was just too big.

    A few years back I decided this stuff needed organizing and made a set of book case like shelves to store the myriad of boxes. I moved the boxes out to the hall way and got the shelves in just fine. ‘Corse, I went on a nice little trip before I could get my boxes back in. The boxes had grown when I returned, much to my dismay. My wife had moved in! She had boxes of quilts, and boxes of threads piled around my room. Her kniting had spred like a spiders web around that room. She had her reading books piled willy nilly all over my shelves. So now I live from trip to trip out of boxes in a hallway. “You should not have went!” was her only reply to my somewhat heated question “Why?”
    Organizing Backcountry Gear? Not possible says I.

  2. Teresa DeSantis says:


    What a good response! Yes, you have to watch out for both boxes breeding and women’s knitting getting out of control.(FYI: my knitting sits sedately on top of the above sideboard.) Good luck with your gear and hope you have fun out and about this spring and summer.


  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    I guess I’m a cheater when it comes to packing: I never fully unpack, so packing is quick and easy. I usually only take a handful of items (dirty clothes, sleeping bag, tent, pots, filter, empty food wrappers) out of the pack, and leave most everything else inside. It makes the process a lot less stressful.

  4. Paul says:

    Many years ago we did a loop around the flowed lands and over the top of Algonquin on the way out. My friend’s burly nephew (who went onto climb many of the earths really big mountains) carried a cast iron pot for us strapped to the outside of his enormous pack. It was like having an ox with us! Look at how things have changed now. The last time that same friend and I climbed some of those mountains again in the same area a few years ago we probably each had a pack that weighed about the same as that pot that the kid carried for us!

  5. Brad says:

    What a fun read. Knew I wasn’t the only one. I actually find the packing process quite enjoyable, but rather hate the unpacking, if only because the little adventures are over for the time being…

    Every piece of clothing or gear that is oft used is a favorite of some sort or just plain indispensable and has a feel to it that is unique and a story that I can often revisit for a mental pick me up.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox