The Secret To Packing Perfectly

Have you ever parked your car, psyched for a hike, only to be let down as soon as you step out because it's much colder or stormier than expected? Or that your planned route is out of condition? You probably wished you brought an extra layer, or beta for an alternative route. Luckily, that problem can easily be solved by packing a trailhead kit—a customized assortment of alternate clothing, gear and supplies mostly intended to be left in the car. This kit enables you to add to or change out your current clothing or packed gear at the last minute based on real time, hyper-local conditions at the trailhead. The kind of stuff that Google can’t prepare you for ahead of time.

It’s easy to underestimate how cold things actually get in the mountains when you’re packing for a trip in the comfort of your own home. That’s why a good trailhead kit usually includes an alternate, warmer version of any piece of clothing you are wearing or have packed, but aren't certain will be sufficient. For example, if I’m planning to pack a thin, ultralight puffy jacket (like the 8.8 oz Filament), but I’m concerned it might not be warm enough, I’ll put a standard weight down jacket (like the 13 oz Transcendent) in my trailhead kit. If I plan on packing a standard down jacket but I’m less than confident it will be sufficient, I’ll pack a down parka (like the 18 oz Incandescent) in my trailhead kit. Then, when I step out of the car, I’ll have a better sense for which to bring and which to leave behind. If I hadn’t packed a trailhead kit, I might be stranded with the wrong jacket and wind up getting cold. Avoid loading your kit with items that are very similar to what you’re already packing; providing yourself with more of the same options isn’t as helpful.

You can also stock other types of gear in your trailhead kit. In the past, I’ve changed out Gore-Tex® boots for trail runners, MICROspikes® for snowshoes, a tarp for a tent, and even added four extra liters of water to my pack when returning hikers mentioned that our only planned water source was dried up. I’ve also taken to including the appropriate regional guidebook on the off chance that my trail is closed and I need an alternate option on the fly.

Trailhead kits are most helpful in spring and fall and for short to medium length trips or travel outside your local region in unfamiliar terrain. Early morning arrivals provide the most accurate readings for nighttime temperatures. Altitude and exposure are also factors to consider. If you think your kit is barely warm enough to handle 7 a.m. conditions in the parking lot, you’ll definitely need a warmer puffy to camp 4,000 feet higher at an alpine lake.

Trailhead kits are least helpful for long multi-day trips or thru-hikes when short-term weather information at one access point on the trail is less relevant to the wide array of conditions and terrain you’ll experience over 5+ days in the wilderness. And don’t forget that trailhead break-ins are another concern when packing a kit for longer trips, too. If you bring one anyway, make sure it’s stowed away as out of sight as possible.

A bonus function of a trailhead kit is to provide creature comforts for the drive home. After loading up with alternate tech clothing and gear, finish the kit off with a small bag of clean, comfy clothes. Sandals, deodorant and baby wipes are also highly recommended.

In a perfect world, the gear we’re planning to pack is exactly what we’ll need and a trailhead kit is unnecessary. But we don’t hike in a perfect world. We hike in a variably chilly, windy, rainy, snowy type of world ridden with inaccurate trip reports, unpredictable weather and questions that cannot be answered at home by a forecast. For those questions that can only be answered in between parking the car and walking into the woods, I recommend a trailhead kit.