Backpacking & Organizing: an unlikely pair?

Backpacking in California, 2015

Backpacking in California, 2015

If you've never gone backpacking* before, getting ready for it can be weirdly mysterious. I've watched this process before, when I've helped friends get ready for their first backpacking trips. They don't quite know where to start. When you have to carry everything on your back, the impetus to lighten the load is powerful. But just knowing that really doesn't help. The problem is that without having already gone through the process of packing a backpack and living out of it for a few days, you probably don't have the tricks and tools that make this kind of adventure appealing. 

You might be wondering what backpacking has to do with organizing. In essence, both backpacking and organizing offer systems for simplifying your life. For a backpacker, the motivation to minimize is clear: you don't want to carry more than you have to when you're hiking. It hurts. Organizing seems a little more opaque at first glance; after all, you don't have to carry all the stuff you own with you every day. But you do pay for the stuff you own, in various ways; you pay for space to keep your stuff in. Every time you move, somebody has to carry all that stuff. Maybe you keep a storage unit, instead of getting rid of the stuff you don't want in your home space. 

Paradoxically, some of the most profound experiences I've had with Home Harmonizers have nothing to do with stuff. Like backpacking, organizing is not about the gear - it's about the people, and the experience, and what you can learn from it. I wish more backpacking articles talked about that. But there is a logic to the nuts and bolts approach. Taking leaps in bite-size chunks makes the whole experience a little easier to approach. So I'm going to break it down for you, and come back around to organizing again at the end.

Backpacking is pretty simple, when you get right down to it. The way I've started thinking about preparing for a backpacking trip is from a place of survival. The question I start with: What do you need to survive in the wild?

At first, the answers are almost second nature. Food, water, shelter. There! That's all. But go much beyond that, and the answers aren't so intuitive - at least, not until you get used to the process, and it becomes intuitive all over again. 

Easiest and quickest: protein bars. These are high-density calories and perfect to keep you on your feet for long days of hiking. But while they take zero time to prepare (win!), there's something way more satisfying about hot food than pre-prepared food when you're hiking. 

Which brings us to the complicated bit: the backpacking stove. Tons of models. Tons of kinds of fuel. The old-school kind were complicated enough that I backpacked without any stove for a few years. (I still haven't gotten tired of protein bars, though.) Thankfully, there are simpler models now, like the PocketRocket that weighs about 3 oz. and is remarkably durable. The stove paves the way for all kinds of awesome backcountry feasts.

I'm a huge fan of freeze-dried dinners. It's not just that they're chock-full of salt - these things actually taste delicious. I've brought them with me to conventions before, so I can make food for myself and avoid restaurant prices and lines. Oatmeal is great for backpacking too - any excuse to carry less weight on those trail days. Basically, anything you have to add water to when you're cooking it means you're saving weight on water.

Food-related things I usually forget: a pot for cooking in (doubles as a bowl for eating out of). A lighter to fire the stove up (pretty crucial). I never forget my spork, though.

Seems simple! You drink it! But unless you want to take your chances with giardia, which I will tell you is no fun, you'll need a good filtration system to make the water safe(r) to drink. And at least two 32-oz bottles to carry it in - more if you're on a trail with long distances between water sources.

A map is a must-have when you're backpacking. While most water sources cross the trail at some point, and while you can usually extrapolate from the terrain around you where you're likely to find water, it's not a good idea to gamble on whether or not you'll find water. Such gambles have ended relationships. I don't recommend them.

Oh, the possibilities... in wilderness first aid terms, shelter means protection from your environment. Think ways of staying dry and warm. Into this large category fall footwear, tents (or not), sleeping bags & pad, clothing, rain gear, and an enormous amount of other stuff. 

I won't go into every detail, but I will say this: less is more. Less weight to carry means less strain on your body. Fewer barriers between you and the world mean a more intense experience, and probably a more fulfilling one. I don't backpack with a tent any more, because I want to be able to see the stars when I sleep. Instead, I carry a waterproof backpack cover, and a bivvy sack - or bivouac sack - that keeps me mostly dry, and lets me watch the sky when it's clear out. It has a handy face-net to keep mosquitoes away, too.

That should give you an idea of how the backpacking system works, if not all the particulars. Let's jump back to organizing. 

The questions I ask most clients are deceptively simple. I start with broad strokes along the lines of "What do you want to do more of in your home?" Whether the answers are "work," "have friends over," or "have quiet, separate spaces for everyone who lives here," those answers help chart out a path for the work to follow. Despite the differences in how people want to use their space, the answers all boil down to one simple thing: everyone wants to create spaces in their house - using stuff - that shift the focus from the stuff the own to the people who will use the space. Whether it's a cozy reading room for an introvert or a family room slathered with sofas for a family that's always throwing parties, the goal is the same: make the space work for the people who use it. 

Given how much I think about how to make spaces work for people, it's hard for me to imagine taking a different approach to the question. It would be like getting ready for a backpacking trip by asking "what will I be sorry I didn't bring" instead of "what do I need?" Both questions are good to ask, don't get me wrong. But if you only think about what you might regret not bringing, you'll probably find yourself with a pack that weighs as much as you do - and that does not make for a good backpacking trip.

Why not approach your home space with that perspective? Ask yourself, "what do I need to make this space work for me?" Save the decisions about what to do with specific things you already own until after you have a game plan for your space - and if those things don't fit your plan, don't be afraid to let them go. After all, it's up to you what you make of your home. So go make it awesome for yourself.

*To clarify: I'm talking about the kind of backpacking where you're hiking on trails, in the backcountry. That whole "backpacking around <insert city name here>" is a whole different beast.