Any hiker can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to get more time to do what they love best outdoors. Whether it’s covering more miles, extra time to enjoy the views, take photographs, fish, get some extra swimming in a lake or even (gasp!) a mid-afternoon nap.
Lead photo: 15,000 ft afternoon nap and photo time—Peruvian Andes, Cordillera Huayhuash
Efficient Backpacking Tips – Thru hiker tested
While some of these Efficient Backpacking Tips are my own habits, most are common sense tips that accomplished thru hikers have been using for years. Many thanks to my world-class thru hiker friends Andrew Skurka and Flyin’ Brian Robinson for insights on how they achieve the most miles every day.
Help to Better Hike Your Own Hike
Luckily, these tips work for all hikers—even mere mortal hikers (myself included) who are not focused on making 40 mile days. All of us can can use these Efficient Backpacking Tips to spend less time on mundane tasks and get more time each day to do what matters most. To Better Hike Our Own Hike—whatever that means to each of us.
1) On Trail – Efficient Backpacking Tips
Spend less time on mundane tasks and more time having fun
You likely spend far more time than you realize on trail stops for mundane tasks—making clothing adjustments, collecting and treating water, putting on sunscreen, accessing maps/trail guides, etc. By doing necessary tasks most efficiently and eliminating unnecessary ones, you might get most of that time back to do the things you love be it hiking a few more miles before dusk to reach your favorite campsite, or stopping midday to meditate on the glorious view from the rim of a canyon.
Why “short” stops rob you of time for fun
Perceptually, the time spent on “short” stops to do mundane tasks seems inconsequential. But it isn’t! When you tally up all those stops at the end of the day (say, with a GPS), you’ll likely find that you’ve spent at least 1 to 2+ hours stopped for various reasons. I have also done some observations of hiking with clients, and an average stop to take a pack off, find something, fiddle with it, put it in the pack again and start walking is around 4-6 minutes. And many people stop 2 to 3 x per hour.
If you do the math over an 8 hour hiking day, that’s 1.1 to 2.4 hours of stopped time—and that’s likely a conservative estimate. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather spend the time taking photos or getting a few more miles down the trail, than fiddling around with mundane tasks.
Organized Pockets. The more the better.
Well organized pockets are your best timesaving friend. The goal is to access everything you need during the day from your pack or pants pockets. This minimizes stopped/fiddle-with-gear time for mundane tasks and maximizes fun time. To do this, keep all the gear you need during a normal hiking day organized in pants and pack pockets where you can quickly find and access it.
Where I store my gear to save time
My goal is to access most of my essential gear while I walk—and if possible, even do tasks while I walk. For example, accessing food and eating it while I walk is pretty simple. Here’s my strategy for storing gear I may use during the day:
|L shoulder strap||Camera on a quick release bracket. I can take the camera off, shoot a photo and put it back in less than 10 seconds. Not only do I save time, I find that I get more photos and better photos vs. other camera storage methods. See my Best Backpacking Cameras and in particular the video of the bracket in action.|
|R shoulder strap||(when taken) Tracking Device, Garmin inReach or SPOT, in a shoulder strap pocket. This keeps the antennas free of my body for good reception and I can use it without stopping.|
|Rear lg. pocket||TP and hand-sanitizer, headlamp, rainwear, North Face 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip light fleece shirt, gloves, warm hat, larger 2 liter water bottle (full if I need additional storage), sunglasses case, spare maps and guidebook pages, stored flat in a gallon Ziplock freezer bag. Sometimes a small ditty bag with 1st aid, foot repair stuff, camera battery, etc.|
|R side pocket||1 Liter Platypus (or Sawyer) water bottle. I can grab it, drink & put it back while walking.|
|L side pocket||Day’s food in a quart Ziplock freezer bag, my Sawyer Squeeze water filter, alcohol stove fuel in this great Twin Neck Fuel Bottle (I don’t like to keep fuel inside my pack!).|
|R hip belt pocket||Some snack food like a bar and a small bag of gorp. See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious for more info on backpacking food and recipies.|
|L hip belt pocket||Sunscreen, bug spray in pocketable 0.5 oz bottle, water treatment tablets along with a knife or scissors. (I can collect and treat water in a matter of seconds without taking my pack off. 20 to 30 minutes later it’s ready to drink.)|
*Note: Gear in this post is excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List
Cargo Pants Pockets
I like CARGO PANTS like these with lots of pockets:
Of particular note is that this is shaping up to be a big tick season. For those that are worried about Lyme, Zika and other tick/mosquito transmitted diseases, insect repellent cargo pants like ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants, might be an attractive option. These when combined with gaiters or tucking your socks into your pants legs, should provide a good below-the-belt deterrent against ticks and mosquitoes. This is per the US CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control) section on “Maximizing protection from mosquitoes and ticks.”
And, while applied insect repellents only last 8-14 hours at best, factory treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). Finally I’ve listed a shirt since it adds two pockets for gear storage, and gives the option to have top to bottom insect protective clothing. (Tuck your shirt into your pants.)
|Pants std||REI Sahara convertible pants (14)||Great pants, good pockets, readily available. Ex Officio and many others make similar pants|
|Pants bug repellent||ExOfficio BugsAway Ziwa Pants Men’s and Women’s||For ticks. Continuous insect repellent. Avail in both M’s and W’s. Light, cool, sun protection. Great pockets. Also available at REI|
|Shirt bug repellent||Exofficio Bugs Away Halo Long Sleeve Shirt Men’s and Women’s||Completes insect repellent clothing. Light, cool & widely available via Amazon, and REI.|
|Gaiters||Dirty Girl gaiters (1.2 oz)|
REI Co-op Activator Gaiters
|Optional, but does seal ankles against tick entry. Tucking pants into socks also works.|
What I put in my cargo pants pockets
|L hip pocket||iPhone 6 Plus in a pint Ziplock freezer bag (great!). I access it for a multitude of uses.|
|R hip pocket||Day’s map, guide pages, milage sheet, and Fisher Space Pen in a quart Ziplock freezer bag. Possibly my gloves, if I’ve taken them off (they stay warmest in hip pockets if it’s cold).|
|Front cargo pockets||If my pack doesn’t have hip belt pockets, I store that gear here. Otherwise these pockets are free for “as-needed” storage for gear that needs quick access.|
|Rear pockets||During colder weather hikes these hold my gloves and hat when not in use – e.g. hiking uphill and getting hot. Otherwise they are free for “as-needed” gear storage. But these are usually the smallest and least useful of pants pockets.|
|Zippered pants pocket of choice||My ID, cash and credit cards in a plastic bag. Especially on trips where I might need to take it out to buy stuff, like a small store along the AT. (And in general I like to have my iPhone, ID, cash and credit cards on my person at all times.)|
|A shirt pocket||Compass if I am using it frequently. (or on lanyard around neck)|
Efficiency gains for two hikers
- Obviously, pocket access becomes faster and easier if you can get some help accessing pack pockets
- In addition, you can share items like sunscreen, bug spray, and water treatment. E.g. your pack holds the water filter, while your partner’s pack has the bug spray and sunscreen.
- This makes even more pockets available for gear storage. And it should be fairly simple to get everything needed during the day into an easily accessible pack pocket.
Case Study – “A place for everything, and everything in its place”
Hiking one spring morning in a cold rain I had a fairly pressing bio-urge. I stopped, took my pack off and looked for my TP and hand-sanitizer in the usual place. Not there! After nearly 10 minutes of rifling through my pack, the bio-urge far greater and with damp gear strewn around me, I finally found the TP in one of my cargo pants pockets. (I had moved it there before leaving camp because I had expected to use it soon.)
Moral of the story: even with good intentions, it’s best to keep putting the same stuff in the same place every time! Deviate from this and suffer the consequences. While the above story is amusing (at least in the retelling) not being able to locate your wind-shell, warm gloves and hat when on a windy ridge, late in the day with temperatures dropping to near freezing, is a lot less fun and possibly more serious.
2) In Camp – Efficient Camping Tips
Evening Camp Routine – ideally 20 to 30 minutes
Having a well thought-out routine to set up camp and cook dinner saves time. It also makes for a far more relaxing evening, leaving enough time to enjoy sunset across the lake while sipping your hot chocolate.
Before making camp
- My evening camp routine starts with opportunistically collecting enough water to cook dinner about 30-60 minutes before arriving in camp (unless I know that good water will be quickly available in camp).
- Usually I prefer to cook with treated water as I don’t have to worry as much about a complete boil or boil time. And evening hot drinks only require 140° to 160° F water.
- If it’s late in the day, I locate my headlamp and hang it around my neck so I don’t have search around for it as evening turns to dark.
Arriving at camp – first tasks
- If cold: I immediately put on warm clothes and especially get on dry socks and warm footwear. (my hands and feet run cold). Down Booties are fantastic!
- Then my first task when arriving in camp is to get my cook set out and start the right amount water boiling for both meal and hot drink. (For maximum efficiency your stove/pot combo should be able to boil all dinner water at one time.)
- Tip: Avoid stove/cooksets combos that are tippy, non-wind resistant and need tending. You want to put water in a pot, light your stove and leave it mostly unattended to boil water while you perform camp chores. The two best systems the Jetboil, and the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri bundle. I discuss these in detail in my post, The Best Backpacking Stove Systems.
While waiting for the pot to boil I start my other camp chores:
- I collect additional water in both my 2 L and 1 L squeeze bags.
- Put Chlorine Dioxide water treatment tablets in my 1 and 2 L squeeze bags—it’s faster and easier than squeeze filtering. This gives me enough water until mid-morning the following day.
(Then I am done with this chore—no hand numbing collection and treating of freezing water is needed the next morning.)
- I setup my shelter and unstuff my down. This allows plenty of time for the down to fluff up and hopefully dry out if needed.
- Tip: Down fluffs up faster in the evening when it’s not super-compressed. And in the morning, with cold fingers and frost on your sleeping bag, it’s a lot easier and faster to stuff it back into a larger stuff sack. If necessary, I size up in backpack volume to accommodate my preference for larger down stuff sacks.
Once the water boils:
- I pour some water into my dinner in a Ziplock bag and set it aside to re-hydrate for at least 10 minutes.
- I pour the rest into my mug for my hot drink (usually homemade hot chocolate mix).
See my: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly for more info on backpacking food and recipies.
- I consume my hot drink while my meal rehydrates, possibly doing more camp chores as necessary.
Prep for the next day’s hiking
It’s a lot easier to do next-day prep the evening before when it’s warmer and you are more awake. With your camp and gear in order, you can break camp quickly and efficiently the next morning.
- I organize food for the next day in a Ziplock baggie and locate breakfast food and coffee at the top of food sack. Last, I appropriately store food per park reg’s.
- I organize maps and guide pages, etc. for the next day.
- I look at maps and guide book pages, and mileage charts, and figure out my goals for the next hiking day. Miles, water sources, navigational difficulties, stores along they way, etc.
- I make notes on what went well today and what I could do better in the future.
- Constantly assessing, learning and making adjustments is a key to efficiency and meeting your goals.
Morning Camp Routine
- Like dinner, in the morning the first thing I do is light the stove to boil water for coffee.
- While I wait for the water to boil, I start my morning camp chores.
- Sometimes I leave the most hand-numbing tasks until I have a warm cup of coffee to wrap my hands around.
- I usually do a light wipe-down of cookware in the morning. It’s faster and doesn’t freeze hands. (I do a more thorough cookware cleaning in the evening).
- Last thing before leaving camp is to strip down into your hiking clothes. You’ll likely need to set out at a brisk pace to get warm. But if you’ve got your clothing right you’ll be warm in 5 – 10 minutes and can settle into your normal hiking pace.
For those that have cold hands (like me)
Mornings can be tough if you have cold hands. Temperatures are the coldest, your metabolism is still in sleep mode, and you’re handling a lot of cold gear. Here are a few tips to keep your paws warm.
- In cold weather, fingerless gloves (Glacier Glove fingerless fleece) are great for manual dexterity and speeding up camp chores. They save time from taking gloves on and off, and keep your hands warmer.
- I usually put my gloves on inside my sleeping bag and warm them up a bit before getting out. That way I get out of my bag with super warm hands and gloves. I find this gives me the best chance to keep my hands warm while handling cold gear.
- If it’s cold, wrapping my hands around a hot mug helps me warm them between spells of handing cold gear. Stuff sleeping bag. Warm hands around mug. Put away shelter. Warm hands around mug…
- Per above, I avoid collecting, treating and handling water in the morning. This is best done the evening before.
3) Clothing Adjustments
In colder weather, you can spend a lot of time adjusting clothing especially if you are consistently getting sweaty and hot going uphill, and freezing on ridges and downhills, all conditions common on the trail.
The layering system sounds attractive, but it takes a a lot of time to stop, take your pack off, put-on or take-off a layer, put your pack back on and start hiking again. In addition, stopping inevitably makes you colder! Moderate but consistent movement (it needn’t be at all tiring or strenuous) is the key to keeping warm when it’s cold.
Here’s how I keep warm with a single set of clothing, without stopping
- I put on just enough clothing to keep me warm when moving. Overdressing, getting hot and then sweating out is a great way to get wet and then really cold. It’s very easy to get clothing wet, but it takes a long time to dry it out in cold and damp weather. Wet clothing is cold clothing and unhappiness.
- I only add warmer clothing when I can no longer stay warm walking at a comfortable pace.
- Of special note: I find that for the same weight of a windshirt, a light fleece shirt (like the North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip) has far greater temperature range for comfort. It’s far warmer than a windshirt, does an OK job in wind, and is far less clammy and more breathable than a windshirt. (By the time it’s cold enough and windy enough to warrant a fully windproof barrier, my rain jacket does a fine job—and it’s cold enough that condensation is not a huge issue.)
Here is my go to clothing system for hiking in the cold (excerpted from my 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List )
|Shirt||Ibex Indie Hoodie 1/4-Zip (8.8)|
Patagonia Capilene Zip-Neck T
|8.0||Neck zipper key to warmth management|
|Mid-layer top||North Face TKA 100 Glacier 1/4-Zip||7.9||For use as a mid-layer (and as a “windshirt”)|
|RainJacket||Outdoor Research Helium II||6.4||Use as “windshirt” only when very cold|
|Pants||REI Sahara convertible pants (14)||Ex Officio and many others make similar pants|
|Underwear||Patagonia briefs Mens or W’s||2.0||Dry fast, will rinse/wash most days|
|Shoes||Altra Superior Trail-Running|
Brooks Cascadia Trail-Runners
|18.0||Altra: Light, huge toe room, super comfortable!|
Brooks: tried and tru trail favorite.
|Socks||DeFeet Wolleators or|
SmartWool PhD Light Mini or
Darn Tough 1/4 UL w cushion
|1.8||Key to keeping feet warm is to keep moving.|
|Warm hat||OR Option Balaclava (1.8)||1.8||Warmer than a hat|
|Gloves||DuraGlove ET Charcoal Wool (2.5)||2.5||Great liner glove – light, warm, durable!|
|Rain Mitts||REI Minimalist Mitts|
MLD eVENT Rain Mitts (1.2)
|1.2||Wind protection and warmth|
|Warm jacket||Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket (hooded)||10.5||For rare rest stops. Moderate/consistent movement is key to keeping warm when it’s cold|
How I use my clothing system
- I regulate my temperature by making clothing adjustments without stopping. Too hot: take off hat and gloves (put in rear pants pockets), also can unzip fleece shirt and base layer, and possibly push sleeves up. Too cold: reverse the procedure.
- If it’s extremely cold and windy, I will use my rain jacket as a windshell. (unzipping your rain jacket all the way is a major cooling force.)
- Finally, if I really do need to stop, my warm down jacket comes out mighty fast! I store the jacket as the topmost item in the main bag of my backpack.