Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trip Planning: Packing

There is nothing with which I have a love/hate relationship so much as logistics.  Logistics (and really, the associated planning) is arguably the most important element in the success of a trip or expedition.  This little-appreciated point has been well-known for quite some time, especially in the military.

“An army marches on its stomach.” –Napoleon Bonaparte

“Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals study logistics.” –Gen. Robert H. Barrow, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps

Those who venture to the less-explored corners of the planet understand a similar reality:

“You show me an adventure and I’ll show you a lack of preparation.”  -Roald Amundsen, Antarctic explorer

“Prior planning prevents poor performance.”  -The “5 Ps” of Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School

The unavoidable fact is that planning takes work, and it’s often not the kind of activity that those of us who play and work in the outdoors would really like to do.  Logistics is a (necessary) pain in the ass.  Simple questions like, “Where are we going?” “When are we going?” and  “Who is ‘we’?” must be answered.  Then there are the more complicated ones:  “How much fuel do we need to take for the stove for three people for 6 days in winter (plus one extra day just in case) at moderate altitude in moderate to severe weather conditions assuming we need to melt snow in addition to cooking?”  The answer to this question is not too difficult if you’ve done it before, but then toss in a couple judgment calls, and things get tricky.  A better re-statement might be:  “How much weight are we willing to carry in fuel for 3 people over 6 days assuming that everything goes perfectly and we’re really stingy with our stove use (and are we willing to suffer the consequences if we run out or get weathered in for a day or two)?”

Needless to say, the 3-month road trip that Susan and I have in the works has required me to do my homework (and there’s still more to do).  There have been questions of where we’re going, when we’re going there, where we’re staying, and who will be joining us for what parts at what times.  There have been maps to scour, guidebooks to peruse, route descriptions to read, and ascent plans to create.  There have been packing lists to write, gear to order, weather almanacs to reference, and ice conditions to monitor. There have been emails to draft, advice to ask, mail to get forwarded, family and friends to notify, a separate banking account to open, and the all-important health insurance to secure.

This would all be a lot simpler on the front-end if we just spontaneously packed up and left.  While my particular brand of planning might be a bit obsessive, I ultimately know that all the prep work will make life much easier once we’re actually on the road.  Even when I’m just going out for a day trip, I still like to have my gear packed the night before.  If you’ve ever let your “fly by the seat of the pants” friend be in charge of food for a trip and had ramen with canned tuna and hot sauce for breakfast, you understand the importance of good planning.  If you’re never had that sort of experience, count yourself lucky but heed the lesson.  Let’s just say that tuna and ramen doesn’t taste that great when it comes back up the second time.  Similarly, if you’ve ever tried to fire up the stove without a lighter, you can appreciate the utility of a thorough packing list.

So, here’s my idiot-proof packing plan:

1) Make checklist.
2) Make pile of gear.
3) Check gear off list.
4) Grab anything that's missing from the pile.
5) Put the pile in the appropriate bags.

While it sounds incredibly simple (and is!), it’s always the actual doing that’s the hard part. I can't count the number of times that I thought I could just pack on the fly the morning before a day of climbing and forgotten my helmet, my harness, my shoes, or any other number of things.  So, if you're looking for packing list ideas, you can find the start of our packing list here.


  1. Trip planning is one of my favorite things to do and that is why my friends call me Julie the Cruise Director. Of course, I am not planning climbing trips but I am sure I would be the one called on to do it if we were into that.

    Good luck with your planning!

  2. "Julie the Cruise Director"? That's awesome! It's not that I'm really that put off by planning--oftentimes it gets me really excited for the trip--but the trip itself is always way cooler.

  3. I am ALWAYS glad when I actually sit down and do this. I'm not saying it's the end of the world to run out of toilet paper on day three of a five day backpacking trip, but finding an alternate toilet paper is an "adventrure" I could have lived without.

  4. Luckily if we run out of toilet paper on this trip, we get to use snow, which I recommend everyone try at least once in their life.

  5. I hope you're going to be detouring through New Mexico on this fantastic trip! There are lots of great climbing areas here! :) Plus, we would love to see you - and you'd have a warm, free place to stay! :) Best of luck on the planning!

  6. We will most certainly be detouring through New Mexico! Now we just need to figure out when, exactly...