How To Pack For A Big Trip

how to pack for a big trip

You just can’t beat getting out of the office for a few days or a couple weeks to go skiing, backpacking, climbing, or mountain biking. But aren’t you tired of sweating the details, checking and re-checking, having all your stuff together when it’s time to go, and then knowing where everything is right when you need it? Boring, right? Here’s how you can change all that:

Wait until the last minute. There’s nothing like getting to bed early the night before a big trip and falling asleep knowing you’ve taken care of absolutely everything, and all you need to do is wait for your friend to pick you up, or get to the airport on time—except the adrenaline rush of having absolutely nothing done and running around like a madman or madwoman trying to find all your stuff. Wait until the night before you leave, if not the morning of the day. If you’re packing the night before, procrastinate even more by going to happy hour after work and knocking back one to five beers before you head home to start packing. If you have a nagging feeling that you “really should get going,” remember, packing is not fun; beer is fun. Do more beer and less packing.

Don’t worry about food. Another cool thing to do last-minute is remember that oh yeah, you might need some food for the trip. Head to the grocery store at 11 p.m. and just grab a bunch of random stuff that may or may not meet the various qualifications you’d usually have for adventure food, such as good taste, relatively light weight, and easy preparation. Better yet, pack little or no food, and don’t tell anyone until you’re out in the wilderness somewhere, preferably dinnertime. When everyone else is starting to cook, say something like, “So, could I eat some of your guys’ food? I was going to bring some, but I just ran out of time.”

Put unrelated items together. A common strategy is to keep things that have similar uses together in the same stuff sack, or area of a backpack. Like bike tools, or toiletries. This makes it easier to remember and is similar to the organization you have at home: you keep your toothbrush in the same room you keep your razor and shampoo, and you keep your hammer in a box with all your wrenches and screwdrivers. That’s great, but for some novelty, how about putting your toothbrush in with your backpacking stove, or keeping the rag you clean your bike chain with in your cooking pot? That way, every morning, you don’t have to spend all that mental energy trying to remember where things go—just throw all your shit in your pack together. Got an expensive camera? Toss it in with your trash from last night’s meal, and maybe some used toilet paper—or better yet, just put it all the way at the bottom of your pack, and then when you want to take a photo, ask all your friends to stop and wait for you to empty out your entire pack to get your camera from the bottom.

Separate your stuff at home so it’s harder to find later. Yes, when you bought your tent at the gear shop, it came in a handy stuff sack that held all the parts you needed to set it up. But what fun is that when it’s time to pack? Instead, try to separate the poles from the tent and tent fly and the tent stakes, so when you’re up at 2 a.m. the night before you leave, you have to locate four things, not just that one big bag. Extra credit for separating all your tent stakes and putting them in separate places—then you also have to try to remember how many tent stakes you actually need, i.e. “Let’s see, that’s one, two, three, four, five stakes, but I’m pretty sure I need more than that for the tent. Hmm, one for each corner, one for each door, yeah, six. Where is number six? Plus maybe one or two for guylines.” This can go on all night.

Keep some gear offsite. Nothing’s better than when your friend comes to pick you up for Your Big Super-Fun Trip and you hop in the car and say, “Hey, we just have to run over to my friend’s house across town and get my [backpacking stove, bike helmet, climbing shoes] real quick.” This is especially fun if you’re headed to the airport and you haven’t factored in any leeway for delays like driving all over town to pick up your stuff. And even more fun if you hit a ton of traffic on the way to the airport.

Don’t actually “pack” until you’re at the trailhead. Yes, it would save a lot of time if your stuff was already in the proper backpack and when you and your friend(s) arrived at the trailhead, you could just hop out of the car and start walking, riding, or skiing, with minimal delay. But that would be efficient. Here’s what you do: Carry all your stuff in a couple shopping bags or a duffel bag, and bring your backpack empty. When you get to the trailhead, start packing. This is the ultimate realization of waiting until the last minute (see “Wait until the last minute” above), and your friends will really appreciate it.

Leave something essential at home. “Hey, before we get too far out of town, could we stop at a store so I can buy some sunglasses? I just realized I left home without my sunglasses. And sunscreen. And tent. And food.” Another good move is to forget something really important, and discover it when it’s way too late to go back. Like “Oh shit, I forgot my tent poles” after you’ve hiked in six miles to a campsite (to forget tent poles, see “Separate your stuff at home so it’s harder to find later” above), or saying “you are not going to believe this” to announce you forgot the rope the moment you arrive at the base of an alpine climb you walked three hours to get to after you got out of bed at 1:30 a.m.

Pack too much. If you’ve done everything properly, you should not be zipping your bag shut any earlier than about 45 seconds before you have to walk out the door to meet your friends or leave for the airport. Ideally, at this point, you cannot zip your bag because you’ve packed way too much shit, and you can enjoy the adrenaline surge of unpacking, reevaluating, and repacking all your stuff, all while hyperventilating because you’re going to be late. If it does all magically fit in your bag and you’re on your way to the airport, hopefully it weighs 55 to 75 pounds and you can experience the joy of unpacking, reevaluating, and repacking all your stuff at the airline ticket counter to avoid paying a fee for an overweight bag.

Have a great trip!


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14 replies on “How To Pack For A Big Trip”
  1. says: Colin

    As always, a fun and funny article. I’m sure we’ve all done at least something from that list, but I was starting to feel actually anxious by the time I finished reading. A couple summers ago my friend and I both forgot stakes for our tents. Me because I had done a backyard test run with a new tent and neglected to repack the entire kit into the handy bag it all came in, he because it was an old inherited tent he neglected to inspect pre-trip. Of course we noticed only after driving 2 hours and paddling 3. Our wives were very gracious about it all. Happy trails!

  2. says: Wade

    When I was younger I was guilty of a lot of this, and not in any ironic way either! Nowadays, I’m a lot better about packing light, though I often have to get rid of a lot of “what-if” stuff on my shakedown.

  3. says: Eszter

    Also, any long weekend should involve multiple sports, like backcountry skiing, ice climbing AND mountain biking for maximum gear quantity.

  4. says: Cumulus

    I’m the opposite of that. I’m the guy with two lists (the packing list and the are you absolutely sure you packed that list) who still tells his carpool companion, “Wait, I’ve got to check my pack; I’m not sure if I packed my headlamp”, when of course I packed my headlamp (and my backup headlamp) because I just checked it off of two freaking lists.

  5. says: Evelyn

    Yes – sometimes packing for a trip is a good reason not to go . I always swear I’m going to replace that water filter before the next trip, and have you ever forgotten to wash your pots? Yuck! My ex and I used to be able to count on forgetting one important thing . My favorite forgotten items were spoons for a two week backpacking trip. We carved two spoons out of aspen. It didn’t really help the flavor of our food. That was 24 years ago. I think I still have them. I found out I was pregnant with our first child on that trip. So of course they are important. Each trip is remembered for its forgotten item . So it ain’t all bad to forget something.

  6. says: Jay

    I can vouch for the fact this is how some people behave, having found out at dusk, high up in the Andes, that my companion’s (borrowed) tent was missing all the poles and pegs!

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