Camp Routine for Backpackers

Camp Routine for Backpackers

One of the most important skills that you’ll want to develop for backpacking is a consistent camp routine so you don’t misplace important gear and you have plenty of time to get cleaned up at the end of the day, eat, and get a good night’s sleep. When the only belongings you have are the ones that you carry in your pack, it helps to develop a set camp routine that helps you stay organized, accomplish the daily maintenance tasks you need to get done, and gets you out of camp promptly the next day.

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 some redundancy in my clothing system (a rain jacket and pants, clean long underwear tops and bottoms for sleeping clothes), water purification (water filter and some backup chlorine dioxide tablet), water storage (a reservoir and two one lite bottles), but that’s it. I carry as little extra gear as possible.

Nighttime Camp Routine

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

  1. Hang bear bag
  2. Get water. Filter what I need for camp and collect a reservoir-full that I’ll filter in the morning
  3. Set up my 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. Eat
  10. Clean the pot and utensils
  11. Pack up my bear bag, cooking gear, and smellables
  12. Hang bear bag
  13. Arrange night-time gear
  14. Plan next day’s route for the 40th time
  15. 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 the 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 my 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 tent or a hammock shelter system.

If I’m sleeping in a tent or under a tarp, 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. If I’m in a hammock, I’ll hang my underquilt and stuff my top quilt into the hammock to let it loft.

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 the extra stuff in my pack next to me at night. If I’m in a hammock, I’ll secure it to a tree nearby or lay it underneath me. 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, and pour it into an instant dinner if I have one or let a soupy meal I’ve concocted simmer until it’s ready. While this is happening, I’ll usually wash my face and neck to get clean, but I never leave my stove unattended to do this. When dinner is ready, I’ll eat, wash my cook pot and spoons and then pack my cook pot, utensils, 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. When I’m in a tent, I’ll put my shoes near the front door and my glasses in the protective case that I store my personal items in like my wallet, kets, etc. If I’m sleeping in a hammock, I’ll stuff my shoes into my backpack and lay it underneath me where I can reach it easily. I store my personal effects and headlamp in my hammock with me.

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. I never have any problems falling asleep outside.

If I wake up in the middle of the night, I know exactly where to find the gear I need
If I wake up in the middle of the night, I know exactly where to find the gear I need because it’s organized the same way every time.

Morning Camp Routine

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. Takedown my bear bag. Pull out snacks for the day and stow them in my outer backpack pockets.
  4. Cook breakfast if I want a hot one, or eat it cold.
  5. Wash out my cook pot.
  6. Pack sleeping bag and pad into the backpack.
  7. Pack sleeping clothes.
  8. Pack food bag.
  9. Pack water.
  10. Pack shelter.
  11.  Pack external pockets (toiletries, rain gear, cooking pot).
  12. A quick check of the 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 downtime you have to enjoy in camp before dark.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

30 comments

  1. You’re back to hanging bear bags instead of using the Ursack?

    • I still like to suspend my ursack but at head height so the rodents can’t get to it and outside of camp. But most people still don’t use ursacks, so I included that detail for them.

  2. I’ve been backpacking for over forty years. Routine is a good thing. Even being OCD for the trip is a good thing. And I confess, I like still like hanging my stinky bag. I like throwing things. Different muscles alter a long day of humling and hiking. :)

    • I should probably emphasize that hanging a bear bag by throwing a rock over a branch in the dark is a good way to get a black eye or a concussion (ask me how I know). Another reason to get it taken care of first thing when you get to camp before the sun goes down.

      • How do you know?

        Well… you said to ask!

      • I discovered another reason to hang your bear bag when it is light. I was untying my bag the next day after hanging it in the dark the previous night, and discovered there was a bees nest at the bottom of the tree trunk that I tied my line around. I guess they must have been snoozing the night before. Those fellas didn’t seem to be in a very good mood and decided I was definitely not their friend.

  3. That’s a great tip to hang the bear bag when first getting into camp. I usually waited til after I ate dinner but it makes sense to hang it first to avoid the possibility of hanging the bag in the dark.

    In the morning I usually breakdown my tent and sleeping gear before I start breakfast. I guess my reasoning is that I want to get all work out of the way so that then I can enjoy my breakfast, clean dishes, then be on my way. I’m interested in knowing why you eat first then pack up. Let me know!

    • I usually gather things together while I cook…maybe stuff my sleeping bag/quilt into a stuff sack, etc. But cooking breakfast takes very little time for me. I boil water, add instant wheat cereal to it, wait a minute or two for it to rehydrate and eat. Chug a quart of water. Put everything into my pack and shove off. My food bag goes in the middle of my pack, so I can’t pack everything up until I finish eating.

  4. For those of us who may not have a comment to offer on the topic of this or any of your posts, I always wish there was a way, like you tube, to give you a simple thumbs up for the content of the article. This post gets a double thumbs up from me!

    • Yes. I agree.

    • +1 on the utility of this article. A hiking buddy and I did a quick overnighter this past weekend and talked a bit about our respective routines. We both agreed that having a regular and familiar pattern of actions to set up and break down camp is more valuable than any particular piece of gear we own.

  5. I usually do my daily washing of socks and underwear in the morning to sun dry on my pack all day, finish drying in my bag at night (if needed) and be ready for morning.

  6. I largely agree, but as for morning routine, I invariably swap the order between your items 1 and 2!

  7. A really good article, Philip! The exact order of some items (although I like yours!) is less important than following a fixed routine. You omitted tooth washing after dinner and breakfast; restorative dentistry is so expensive (despite insurance) that good dental hygiene is really important. (If you haven’t already found this out, you will!)

    • Love the, “Plan next days route for 40th time!” Your routine is similar to mine. I’ve never wanted to get to camp after dark for fear I can’t get my line hung. I admire those that stroll into camp late and successfuly hang a line in the dark. I like to cold soak my oatmeal in the morning, so start that first then pack everything but the tent, because by then the oatmeall is soggy enough to eat.

  8. Good advice.

    Another suggestion I have heard that seems like a good idea but one I have not yet followed is to take some time shortly after getting to camp is to find a suitable place for a cat hole and dig it in anticipation of later use. Having had the need when it was dark one time I can see the benefit of at least have a scout around for the possibilities even if immediate excavation is not preferred.

  9. I think you should get your procedure ISO certified–that will help you get more credibility and market saturation.

    Can you tell Grandpa is bored? He had rotator cuff surgery last week and pretty much can’t do anything with his dominant hand for several more weeks. The grandkids are off school because of coronavirus shut downs, gas prices are down–it’s a perfect time to go camping and backpacking! Oh wait! Grandpa’s wings are clipped and he has lots of physical therapy appointments ahead.

    Had I followed a procedure like what’s outlined in this post, I wouldn’t have lost my titanium spoon and binoculars on my last AT hike. Fortunately, someone found the binocs and returned them to me after I posted a comment on Guthook’s app about the campsite. It would have been useless to post anything about the site where I lost my spoon. I doubt anyone else will ever have the sort of mental breakdown that led to our choosing that spot! I’m going to review my routines and put something like this into practice. I learned a bunch on that two week AT hike that will go toward following a standard process when I camp.

  10. Thank you for this distilled wisdom to help us shorten our own learning curves.

  11. Anyone seen ‘Never Cry Wolf”? First thing, I pee on everything within a 120’ radius of camp. Then, I make certain to eat my candy bars first and place all tasty wrappers in bottom of tent or sleeping bag of fellow campers….I carefully set up trailcams in appropriate areas to capture the carnage. In all the years of camping in Colorado, I have never been successful in capturing anything other than fox, badger, squirrel, coyote and plenty of Camp Robbers in any of the footage. No bears or mountain lions….I think bear bags are over rated. But, perhaps, bears can smell gun powder and know to steer clear. LOL! Stay safe!

  12. Excellent article, being well organized helps the trip go much more smoothly. I like to minimize trips in and out of my tent to reduce wear and tear on zippers and extend the life of my tent floor by tracking less dirt and debris into the tent etc. I therefore organize camp and clothing items just inside the door of my tent for ease of access. Likewise, in the morning before I leave my tent for anything, it’s my routine to stuff my sleeping bag, and pack away all my tent items, again putting them near the door to be easily retrieved when I elect to pack up and move on for the day. It also keeps me from lounging too long in bed when I need to be up and hitting the trail.

  13. SEE? This “shows ta go ya” that a good camp routine saves time and gives you a pitched tent and a fully lofted sleeping bag at bed time – ESPECIALLY if it begins raining during dinner time.

  14. What tents are these?

    Great article, thank you for taking the time to write it.

    Funny how the steps are the same but the order different for everyone.

  15. What do you do with the clothes you hike in while your sleeping? Hang in your tent? Fold up?

  16. Great article. Do you widely separate your cooking/food storage spot from your sleeping area? How about hanging the clothes that you were wearing when you cooked/ate?

    • Yes, but I don’t do it probably as much or as deliberately as I should. I don’t backpack in Grizzly country and the Black bears where I do hike are still pretty timid with a few known exceptions. I just stuff my day clothes in my pack at night. If it’s a concern you could always just cook naked!

  17. The first thing I do before setting up camp is grab my grub bag line, find a sturdy tree away from the camp site and toss the line over a high branch. Anchor the line and tie the bag to the other end. Raise the bag to a comfortable level for getting in and out of. At bed time pull the bag up at least 10′ above ground level.

  18. So you all seem to the like the Usack.

    I been using a BV450 which I found out after I used it a few times is not a legal choice in the Adirondack High Peaks.

    It is a Pain to fit in a pack. I do like not having to find an appropriate branch.

    I tend to stash it about 100 yards from my tent after I set up camp.

    I usually eat about a hundred yards in the other direction from my camp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *