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 as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and many years 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

A moose along the Teton Crest Trail, North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Thanks to hitting the trail early, friends and I saw this moose along the Teton Crest Trail, in the North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park. Click photo to read about that trip.

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.
• Enjoying more solitude when hitting the trail ahead of most backpackers.
• Seeing more 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 swim in a lake or creek while the sun is higher and the temperature warmer.

I’d love to read what you think of my tips or any tricks of your own that help you hit the trail faster. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A hiker nearing the Alice-Toxaway Divide in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Chip Roser on an early-morning hike from a camp in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

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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A backpacker hiking at dawn above the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, Yosemite National Park.
Mark Fenton hiking at dawn above the Lyell Fork of the Merced River in Yosemite. Click photo to read about that trip.

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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A backpacker on the Tanner Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Todd Arndt beating the heat by hiking up the Grand Canyon’s Tanner Trail in early morning. Click photo to read about “the best backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.”

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 Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.

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