Camp Routine

Camping in a Hammock
Camping in a Hammock

When I’m backpacking solo, I have a very well-defined routine for setting up and breaking camp that keeps me organized even if I’m tired. If you don’t stay organized, it is really easy to lose gear or forget to do critical chores.

To give you a practical example: I  carry a very small swiss army knife which is attached to a mini-biner on my backpack. Whenever I take it off the biner and use it, I immediately put it back on the biner when I’m done. If I don’t and stick it in my pocket, there’s a good chance that I’ll misplace or lose it. It’s happened.

Now you’re probably thinking that I’m an obsessive compulsive nutter, but trust me, staying organized and keeping track of your gear is very important when you are hiking lightweight and solo because you have a lot less functional redundancy than you’re probably used to. I have redundancy in my clothing system (a rain layer, clean thermal sleeping clothes), water purification (water filter/purifier, chlorine dioxide tables), water storage (2 water bladders), fire (lighter, emergency matches) and lighting (headlamp, solar-powered LED), but that’s it. I carry as little extra gear as possible.

Here’s my 3-season camp setup routine, in order:

  1. Hang bear bag (suspension system and food)
  2. Fill and purify water bladders. Return water filter/purifier to pack pocket
  3. Set up shelter
  4. Inflate sleeping pad/loft sleeping bag
  5. Pull out night gear. Pack the rest in a waterproof liner and pack
  6. Retrieve bear bag
  7. Cook dinner
  8. Wash up, myself mostly
  9. Hang bear bag (food only)
  10. Arrange night-time gear
  11. Write or record a journal entry
  12. Plan next day’s route for the 40th time
  13. Fall asleep at sundown or earlier

Ok, so the first thing I do after site selection is to hang my bear bag, because doing it in the dark is a real pain in the butt. After that, I get all of the water I need for cooking dinner, breakfast next morning and for the first half of the next day. This lets me break camp quickly in the morning without a lot of fuss. Sometimes getting water means hiking to a stream or spring that’s out of sight of camp, so having my bear bag suspended frees me from having to worry that it will be stolen or looted by the local wildlife.

Next, I set up my shelter or I’ll often hang up a bug net of some sort if I’m sleeping in a lean-to.

After that, I pull out my sleeping pad and inflate it and/or lay it out where I’ll be sleeping, and then pull my sleeping bag out of its waterproof sack and lay it on top of the pad to loft up. Next, I dump everything else out of my pack, figure out what I need for the rest of the evening, and put the rest back into my waterproof pack liner inside the backpack. If I have room in my shelter, I’ll keep this stuff next to me at night, but if I’m in a hammock, I’ll secure it to a tree nearby. All the stuff I think I’ll need, like my map, my sleeping clothes, and a hat or balaclava gets stuffed into my shelter until I’m ready for it.

Once my shelter and sleep system are set up, I start dinner. I’ll go get my bear bag but leave the suspension system intact so I don’t have to re-hang it from scratch in the dark.

I’ll start my stove, boil some water, add it to my freezer-bag dinner and stick it in a pot cozy for 15-20 minutes or so. While this is happening, I’ll usually wash my face and neck to get clean, but I never leave my fire unattended to do this. When dinner is ready, I’ll eat and then pack my smelly garbage, pot cozy, and remaining food into my bear bag and hang it again for the night.

When I get back to my shelter, I arrange my gear in the same configuration each night, with my boots near my head. I put my glasses and a head lamp in one of them so I can find them easily in the dark if I wake up at night.

After that, it’s quiet time. I write or record a journal entry, read my map and try to visualize the next day, and then quickly fall asleep.

Camping in a Tarptent
Camping in a Tarptent

I also have a routine for breaking camp that looks like this and is biased toward a fast departure the next morning.

  1. Get dressed for the day: clothes and boots.
  2. Visit privy or take care of business elsewhere.
  3. Take down bear bag. Pull out snacks for the day and stow in outer pack pockets.
  4. Cook breakfast if I want a hot one, or eat it cold.
  5. Pack sleeping bag and pad in backpack.
  6. Pack sleeping clothes.
  7. Pack food bag.
  8. Pack water.
  9. Pack shelter.
  10.  Pack external pockets (toiletries, rain gear, cooking pot).
  11. Quick check of site and then leave.

By now, my camp routine is firmly established in my mind and I run through it automatically. But there was a time, when I was getting back into backpacking, when I used to write my routine on a piece of paper, so I could remember the order in which I wanted to do things. It might not seem like setting up camp is a complicated process, but when you break down these steps into sub-tasks, it adds up to a lot of activities.

If you don’t have a well established camp routine yet, try writing up all of the things you need to do after site selection and before falling asleep. Ultimately, codifying your routine will keep you safer, help you identify holes in your gear list, and maximize the amount of down time you have to enjoy in camp before dark.

Written 2009. Updated 2015.

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16 comments

  1. This blog posting is so helpful and timely for me! I recently started backpacking again after a 30 plus year hiatus. Setting up and breaking camp is daunting.

    Recently, I placed all my night time equipment in a stuff sack and forgot that I put my headlamp in there. I was sure I lost it on the trail when I didn't find it in it's usual storage place. I didn’t find it until the next morning. Fortunately, one of my redundancies is a tiny toggle light I use on the top of my pack. I held it in my front teeth when I got up in the middle of the night. Funny to admit!

    Writing down the routine is brilliant. I would love to read what others do this way. I need to work this out for myself.

    One of my hiker buddies and I are planning a couple of easy hikes so we can focus on ironing out camping routines.

  2. What a great writeup! This is extremely valuable to someone like me who is just trying to get started in backpacking. I've tried many times to think through how I would like to do things and in what order so as not to spin my wheels or waste lots of time. This is a big help.

  3. Wow. I'm glad I could help both of you out. After you get the routine down everything becomes pretty automatic: you pack the same way each trip (more or less) and so it's easy to find stuff when you need it. It also cuts down on the time you need to spend pitching or breaking camp. But I confess, I still need one hour in the morning to get packed up.

  4. Nice article Philip. My routine is similar, just that I do not need to bother about a bear bag. And because I use a BushBuddy Ultra for cooking, collecting some wood needs to be added. I also like to sit outside if the weather allows and enjoy the views and sounds of nature.

    btw, do you already have your Scarp 1 seam-sealed? If so, how long did you let it dry?

  5. Hendrik – I haven't sealed my scarp yet. When I do, I'll probably let it dry for 3 days, though 1 should probably be enough.

  6. I just heard that Chris Townsend didn't seam seal his at all and is doing fine in it since quite a while =)

  7. I love hiking and I love being in camp — but I hate setting up and breaking down camp (takes so much time!). Two things that have helped me a lot (and I'm NOT a 'pro'!): (1) breaking my gear into bags, 'personal hygiene', ;spares', 'medical kit', 'cooking gear' etc, and (2) thinking through my 'next day' before I go to sleep so that (in the morning) the items I'm least likely to need over the course of the day go into the pack first (i.e. bottom) and the things I'll most likely need go in last (i.e. top). I hate digging all the way to the bottom looking for stuff which — if I'd used my brain — should have been right near the top….

  8. Nice article, Phil.
    It would be good to see article like this in the walking magazines, rather than the piles and piles of gear reviews!
    :-)

  9. Your comment about your SAK on a clip is essential.

    At home, I am a slob. But in the field I make sure everything immediately is stowed when not in use, zippers and buckles reclosed immediately, etc. You never know when something will disrupt your attention – or require immediate relocation – you don’t need gear sprinkled about.

    In addition, I set up camp planning to take it down. All knots are slipped so that just a tug will undo a tarp. When taking camp down, I leave lines attached to the tarp and wrap them in a coil sealed with a slipped loop under the last two wraps. This way the line is neat in the pack and is ready to deploy when needed. Maybe setting up for the night can be done leisurely, but if you are trying to create some cover before a storm moves in – you want everything immediately at hand.

  10. Thanks! I’m printing this one!
    I see you use a hammock and/or single wall tent. What brands are they?

    • The top photo is a hennessy hammock and the bottom is a Squall 2 from Tarptent. I’ve since sold both, but they’re fine shelters. Today I mostly use an 8×8 silnylon tarp and a mountain laurel designs duomid for longer treks.

  11. Great article. After another solo hike where I bum around for at least an hour before getting out on the trail, I figure it’s time to find some ways to speed up. I like the idea of writing down your routine to get in the habit. I just need to force myself to do one step after the other instead of messing around for a bit in between.

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