“One of these days I’m gonna get organizized” is how Travis Bickle put it in Taxi Driver. These late Winter days give us a great chance to rethink, or perhaps really think for the first time, about how we organize our pack. I’ve talked before about Situational Awareness in a general sense and this is a concrete example of that. Knowing where your gear is when you need it can literally be a life saver.
The first part of knowing where to find your stuff is actually pretty simple in theory at least. If you always put things where they belong they will be there when you need them. This is one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to do. There are really only two places an item should be; in its storage place or in use. In the real world there is a third place which is where you set it “just for a second” while you grab something else. This is fine so long as you keep track and of course isn’t fine when you realize the next night that you’ve left your stove or water filter, or god forbid both, miles behind on the other side of a mountain or three. That’s why I try to resist that urge to set things down and take the extra time to tuck them away where I’ll expect to find them later.
OK, but where do things belong? That is the second part of knowing where to find your stuff and the only person qualified to answer that question is you. The key to this step is developing a system so you have one to follow back there in step one. There are some basic concepts to keep in mind and some things you’ll probably want to avoid, but ultimately it comes down to what works best for you. The type of pack you are using and type of gear you carry may have an impact on your choices as well so what works on one type of trip may need to be altered as things change.
Keeping the weight centered and close to the spine will help with balance and fatigue. If the load is shifted too high you become top heavy which means you will be fighting your load more than you need to and risk losing your balance on trail. If the load is shifted too low or away from the spine it will put a strain on your shoulders as the pack pulls your whole body backwards. That can be especially dangerous on steep climbs but even on level ground forces you to work harder to carry your load.
It can help to think of your pack in terms of thirds when considering balance. Split horizontally the top and bottom should be lighter with the center containing the heaviest items by volume. Split vertically the left and right sides should be lighter with the center again holding items with the most mass. If you have heavier items that make sense to carry in a zone outside the center try to counterbalance with additional weight on the opposing side.
When looking at how I use the things I carry with me I also find it can be useful to think in terms of thirds. Dividing things by when and how I use them lets me group them together and prioritize access to them logically. I put shelter and sleep system in one group, food, fuel and mess kit in another with clothes and incidentals in the third.
Shelter and sleep system are only used in camp so they don’t need to be easily accessed on trail. They also are relative low weight items so work well as the bottom third of your pack. Some packs have a specific compartment for this at the bottom. Even if your pack doesn’t you can just load these items first. You can loosely pack them to maximize space or use stuff sacks but keep your expected water exposure in mind. You’ll need to keep your sleep system dry for it to work properly and you may have to put your tent away wet if drying isn’t an option so dry sacks or plastic bags may be a good idea.
Food, fuel and cooking equipment tend to be some of the heaviest items people carry. These things generally aren’t used on the trail unless you are stopping for a hot lunch or taking hot beverage breaks on a Winter trek. That along with their density makes the center of the pack a good place for them. Spreading items around can allow you to maximize space but storing food in a stuff sack or using nested mess gear make it easier to take things out of the pack when you need access. I prefer the latter approach so smaller items aren’t swimming towards the depths of my bag.
The upper third and outer pouches of my pack I use for clothes and incidentals. I have a primary dry sack that holds my strategic reserve; sleep wear, sleep socks, extra trail socks and usually an emergency sweater or fleece depending on conditions. These are clothes I don’t expect to need to access on trail and are very important to keep dry. If everything else fails and all my other clothing is soaked this is the stuff that will save my butt. This sack also serves as my pillow with varied results depending on how fully stuffed it is. Clothes that might be needed on trail are either on top of the main compartment or in external pouches for fast access depending on how likely I think they’ll be needed.
Keeping things you might need on trail in places you can reach easily means you are more likely to use them. My regular pack has belt pouches that I make good use of. One side has three Clif bars and hard candy which I can access without breaking stride. The other side has my bug dope, head net, sun screen and lip balm all of which again can be in my hand without stopping if I want. Being able to access them easily means I don’t wait until it is too late to add some fuel or put on sunscreen. I use a water bladder and tube for the same reason; easy access means it gets used.
The top lid pouch on my pack contains small but important items such as my lantern, first aid kit, maps, sanitary wipes, a small spindle of string and another of paracord. These pouches are easy to access on trail as well as in camp so perfect for corralling smaller items and anything you can’t afford to waste time looking for like the first aid kit or light source. The side pouches on my pack work great for longer items so I put my tent pole in one along with my fishing rod while the other side holds my rain gear.
Once you come up with a system and stick to it for a while it really doesn’t take much effort to keep it up. The benefits keep coming though. Whether you are throwing together a pack for a last minute trip and don’t forget anything or find yourself getting out on the trail faster in the morning because your hands seem to know where to put everything even before the instant coffee kicks in, it really helps to have a little bit of organizization.
So that is a bit on how I do it and my thoughts behind it, but really that isn’t what is important. What matters is that you have a chance now to think about how you do it. Are there things that you might want to rethink? A little thought now can take us a long way on the path less traveled by.