Despite our best intentions to simply park, shoulder gear, and walk into the woods, every backpacker has probably wasted 30 to 60 minutes at the trailhead at least once. We’ve all lovingly waited for that friend to rearrange everything. But hiking time is limited and valuable—and sometimes hitting the trail quickly can be the difference between catching sunrise/sunset, pitching a tent in the light, or sheltering your gear before a storm hits. It’s a no-brainer that we should be spending as much of our trip time as possible actually in nature instead of at the trailhead. By prepping and packing with greater intentionality and having an arrival plan, most adventurers could save anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes of trailhead time to reinvest at camp, on the summit, or settling in back at home.
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This guide offers a detailed, time saving strategy for hikers waking up in their own residence and driving to a trailhead in the morning. Of course, similar principals could be applied to any possible timeline, carpool, or travel situation.
Step 1: Pack your backpack
No surprises here! The first thing to do is pack your backpack. I recommend starting this process at minimum two to three days prior to your trip, allowing enough extra time to acquire anything that is missing or broken (and you’ll feel less stressed). To be specific, pack your pack with every single item, including food and water, loaded exactly as you will carry it out into the wilderness. The goal is that when you arrive at the trailhead, you won’t need to make a single adjustment, or even open your pack once. The only exception to this rule is perishable food being transfered from fridge to pack. By keeping everything ready to go in one place, no critical items will be left on the floor at home or in the car. Food tip: Remember to pre-load your first round of snacks into easily accessible pockets and leave yourself a reminder to grab things out of the fridge.
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Step 2: Pack your outfit
Lay out every piece of clothing and gear that you will wear, hold, or carry in your pockets (but not in your backpack) as you hit the trail. Common examples include wallet and keys, shoes/boots, trekking poles, sunglasses, camera, watch, knife, sunscreen, lip balm, etc. I recommend storing these items in an XL sized, zippered tote bag. Between this bag and your backpack are EVERY single item (except perishable food) that will come with you into the backcountry and NOTHING else whatsoever.
Step 3: Pack your trailhead kit
This is the third and final bag, and the one that will house everything that comes along for the car ride, but not on the hike. Once again, XL zippered tote bags work great here. This kit could include a change of comfy clothes, all your car snacks, extra water bottles, post-hike electrolyte drinks, coffee, guidebooks, or gear that you might need to add to your backpack based on hyperlocal trailhead info. For instance, packing a bug-proof shirt in case mosquitos swarm you at the car. Learn more about trailhead kits here. You might also consider adding extra nicknacks or perishables like hand sanitizer, TP, sunscreen, batteries and bug juice to potentially help out the more forgetful members of your party.
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Step 4: Get dressed and load the car
It’s finally go-time! You’ve done all the hard work already, and there are only a few small tasks left (besides eating a huge breakfast and drinking tons of coffee). Start by moving perishables from the fridge into your backpack as soon as it strikes you. Don’t delay; don’t risk forgetting them! Next up, get dressed. For any drive shorter than four hours, I will commute in the clothing that I plan to start my hike in (pulling them from the outfit bag). If the drive is longer than four hours, I’ll wear my comfiest clothes and change at the trailhead. Loading the car is the final step. For the drive, stow your pack and outfit bag in the trunk and keep the trailhead bag (with snacks and drinks at the top) accessible in the cab.
Step 5: Arrive at the trailhead
Because of such excellent foresight, ideally nothing separates you from blissful hiking! All that’s left is putting up your parking pass, applying sunscreen, hitting the bathroom, pulling out your backpack, changing into and grabbing all of the remaining gear from your outfit bag, and locking the car. All said and done, you should be ready to hike in 5-15 minutes!
While no plan can guarantee everything will be smooth, I believe that any time dedicated to smart packing is time well spent. An extra hour at home is well worth saving 30 minutes of futzing around at the trailhead. Lastly, be considerate of your partners! Is it respectful of their time to sort out food distribution and other last minute packing needs while they wait for you at the trailhead? Of course not! So put in that packing time ahead of time! Your friends and itinerary will thank you. Happy hiking!
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Photos by Joey Schusler, Elise Giordano and Forest Woodward.