What a Mess: Tips for Avoiding the Nightmare Pack Out


What A Mess!


Tips for Avoiding the Nightmare Pack Out

For most of us, it is a fact of life. Anyone who travels a lot knows there usually comes the point where the packing process stops making sense. You know your trip is going to be great, but as soon as you start getting your gear ready, nothing seems to fit right and your good attitude starts falling apart.

Whether you need to get everything into one bag you can squeeze into the overhead compartment, one bag you can carry comfortably on your back, or fourteen bins that all fit into the modular puzzle of your sweet dirtbag van setup; these tips will help you clean up the mess and pack effectively.

Even if you are supposed to be packing right now, do not despair—you can probably read these in less time than it will take you to find your spare headlamp, or your extra-fluffy argyle socks, or your collapsible spatula.


1. Feet first.

No matter what you have planned for your trip, you are going to be doing a lot of walking; this is true whether you are flying into an American city for a long weekend and a business trip, or quitting your job to backpack across the country. You will be in airports, on sidewalks, on trails. Keeping your feet happy will be crucial.

You need to be specific as well as economical. How many different types of shoe do you need? How many pairs, and what kind, of socks?

If you are our weekend business tripper from earlier, maybe you need one pair of dress shoes and one pair of shoes to wear while you’re exploring. Do you need your gym shoes or your high heels?

If you are the thru-hiker, perhaps you only need your trusty boots and a pair of cheap flip-flops for your rest days. Do you need your tennies?

Do not pack a million pairs of socks. How many pairs do you need? If you are in meetings all week, one pair per day should seem suitable. If you are living in the woods for weeks on end, you do not necessarily need clean socks—you need comfortable, wool or synthetic socks that perform when dirty or wet.  

The nightmare pack out in full effect

The nightmare pack out in full effect

2. Choose clothing specific to climates and forecasts.

It may seem obvious that if you are going to the Seattle, Washington area, where it rains one day out of every three on average, you should bring a rain jacket. However, to pack for the economy as well as comfort, you need to layer clothing effectively.

I use a top-down method. Start with an outer layer and work backward. If you need your 700-fill down jacket for your late-fall climbing trip to the Utah desert, pack what you want to wear under it next. If you need your trusty, bulletproof Gore-Tex shell for your expedition to Patagonia, your down jacket becomes the next layer.

This top-down style will help you eliminate redundant layers as well as ensure that you can always get warm when you need to. Build out with accessories like beanies, gloves, and balaclavas, but again, be economical—do you need your driving gloves, your skiing gloves, and your polyester “Elmo” stretchies?

4. Find a way to organize gear spatially.

You can tape off sections on your garage floor, use five-gallon buckets, use bins, or use separate rooms in your house—one way or another; you need to find a way to get your gear separated and organized into spatial categories that make sense to you.

I use bins. I find that I can lose anything by throwing it into a pile on my living room floor, but if there is a bin for it, I just drop it in and move on.

3. Prioritize versatility and eliminate redundancy.

An attitude toward versatility will save you both the most time and the most space in your packing. Again, avoid over-layering.

Think about your specific situation: is there a chance something will become unusable when you need it (e.g., you get caught in a snowstorm, and your down jacket gets wet)? If so then pack two of the item—or at least a suitable replacement.

Thinking back to our feet-first mentality, will you need a trail shoe and a hiking boot, or will one or the other work just fine? You can apply the one-or-both method to almost anything. Think about electronics—do you need your phone and your iPad, or is it just as easy to leave the iPad at home?

Whatever you decide to do with your iPad, or your “Elmo” gloves, or your collapsible spatula, make sure to have fun during your pack out. For better or for worse, it is the first leg of your adventure, which you are creating for yourself.

Act like it.

TravelSam AndersonPacking