By Michael Lanza
Years ago, in a visitor center in a popular national park, I overheard a conversation in which one person said to another, “Backpackers? They don’t start hiking until 10 or 11 in the morning.” I laughed to myself because I know how true that is in many cases. But I also found it amusing because I prefer to start hiking early when backpacking—and I know that it’s not just about what time you get up. Some simple and easy habits can help you get out of camp faster and on the trail earlier, bringing numerous benefits that really transform the experience of backpacking for you.
Are you a backpacker who doesn’t get out of camp very quickly, either due to your own inertia or that of companions? If your answer is yes, but you’d like to be more efficient about packing up and getting on the trail, this article will help you do just that. The tips below focus on making more efficient use of your time, which will help you get on the trail faster regardless of when you roll out of your bag.
I’ve learned and adopted the following practices over three decades (and counting) and thousands of miles of backpacking, including having worked as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. Those trips have been with a wide range of companions, including my kids from when they were very young through their teen years, as well as friends of all abilities and experience levels. Getting different companions packed and on the trail in a time-efficient manner in the morning demands, at times, different tactics—all covered below.
Please share your questions or thoughts about my tips or any tricks of your own that help you hit the trail faster in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Table of Contents
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Why Hit the Trail Early?
There are many benefits to starting your daily hiking before the sun rises high in the sky, including:
• Hiking more miles in the cooler hours of morning rather than in the heat of the afternoon, when every mile is much more exhausting.
• Enjoying greater solitude when hitting the trail ahead of most backpackers.
• Seeing wildlife, which are generally more active in early morning and evening and less visible during the middle hours of the day.
• Hiking during one of the two times of day—early morning and evening—when the sun is low and the light is much prettier for photography or just marveling at the landscape.
• Enabling you to cover more miles each day without having to hike any faster—essential for thru-hikers of any long trail, but also beneficial for backpackers who would simply like to see more in the number of days they have.
• Allowing time for a side trip to a summit, lake, overlook, or other point of interest not on your direct route.
• Reaching your next campsite with more time to relax, explore the area, or take a dip in a lake or creek while the sun is higher and the temperature warmer.
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No. 1 Have a Plan
The best way to ensure you get a slow and late start leaving your campsite in the morning is to not bother discussing a morning plan the night before. Let everyone move at their own speed and you will guarantee a slow departure because you have effectively ceded control of the group’s schedule to the slowest person and/or latest sleeper in your party.
Instead, discuss it the evening before and agree on a wake-up time and a departure time. It can be negotiable, but it helps inform the decision when everyone understands how far you plan to hike each day and how long that will take, as well as where you may want to spend time along the way to your next campsite and roughly when you would all like to reach that next camp.
There may be days when you decide on a later start—perhaps because some in the group need more sleep, or there’s great swimming or fishing at your current camp, and that’s fine. The point here is to take charge of your circumstances: Making no decision is essentially tantamount to deciding you will move slowly and start hiking later.
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No. 2 Organize Gear the Night Before
Another good strategy to assure a slow departure is to leave your campsite and tent looking like a tornado swept through in the evening. The more work you leave for the morning, the longer you will delay your departure.
Instead, organize your clothes and personal items in the evening to facilitate efficiency in the morning. If water bladders or bottles need to be filled with treated water before you commence hiking in the morning, do that the night before (or even before eating dinner, rather than waiting until everyone’s tired and doesn’t want to be bothered with a chore). Store your kitchen gear together so that it’s ready to use and quickly pack up in the morning.
In your tent, keep your sleeping bag and air mattress stuff sacks handy and pack or at least organize all clothing and personal items so that they go from tent to backpack in minutes in the morning. Encourage everyone else to do the same. Example: I always had my kids put their air mat and inflatable pillow stuff sacks inside their bag stuff sack when they first set up their tent; come morning, they’re not wasting time looking for small stuff sacks buried somewhere on a tent floor that’s littered with clothing and other stuff.
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No. 3 Pack Up Gear When You Wake Up
As soon as you wake up, deflate and pack away your air mattress and pillow, stuff your sleeping bag, break down your tent and start loading your pack. You can do these things while your stove is heating up water.
If any of that gear needs drying time before packing it up, that’s all the more reason to empty the tent, lay your bag in the sun, and unstake the tent and turn it upside-down to dry the floor in the sun (because the bottom side of the floor tends to collect the most condensation). With a freestanding tent, leave the poles in place because air will circulate through the tent, drying it faster.
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”