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Doing It by the Numbers, or …
The Organization Woman Goes Paddling

By Tamia Nelson

July 26, 2011

Picture the scene: The midsummer sun warms a sand beach on a river whose waters carve a channel through Québec all the way to James Bay. A faded yellow Old Town Tripper wallows in the shallows, weighed down with enough gear for a month in the bush. Four large, bright‑orange dry bags bulging with food and gear are lashed to the thwarts, along with a single, dark‑green Cordura rucksack that rattles every time a wavelet smacks against the gunwale. (It holds the cook kit and camp stove.) More gear is distributed around the boat's odd corners — painters, paddles, bailers and sponges, throw bag…

Now lift your gaze from the water's edge. A man and a woman are quartering the beach, scanning the sand for any items that might have been dropped or overlooked. Occasionally one of them casts a worried glance toward the northern horizon, where black storm clouds are rapidly massing, fitfully illuminated by jagged tendrils of lightning. A few minutes later, as they push the big canoe off and the current grabs the bow, a freshening breeze carries the sound of distant thunder.

Fast‑forward to the last hour before dark, after a long day spent battling a relentless headwind and lashing rain. At least the gale brought a blessing in its wake: It grounded all the biting flies. But the Old Woman has now sloped off to bed, and the mosquitoes are back, mounting attacks in force. Meanwhile, the two exhausted paddlers stumble about in a tiny clearing, oblivious to the bloodthirsty horde, thinking only of rigging their tarp and tent, setting out the ingredients for a quick meal, and changing into warm, dry clothes. Both of them are longing to slide into their sleeping bags. That's the plan, at any rate. Yet there's a snag. The tarp isn't where they thought it was. There are four identical orange dry bags. Which one holds the tarp? That's the Big Question, and there's no easy answer. As a lingering drizzle dampens the two paddlers' spirits even further, the mosquitoes enjoy an unhurried meal.

Happily, the next day dawns clear. There's not a cloud in the sky. So the paddlers hurry to drape their sodden garments over hastily strung lines. Then they set about the task of sorting through their gear. They're determined that they'll never repeat the mistakes of the last 24 hours. From now on out they'll have a place for everything, and everything will be in its place. In short, they've both signed on to …

The Organization Manifesto

As I'm sure you've guessed, Farwell and I were the two canoeists on that Québec river. And back when this scene played out, dry bags were something of a novelty. Many boaters still used military surplus rubber bags. They came in any color you wanted, so long as it was black. The few commercial alternatives didn't give you much more choice. You took whatever color was on offer or you did without. Which is why we had four identical orange dry bags. Make no mistake, though. They were good, sturdy bags, with genuinely watertight roll‑top closures and rudimentary shoulder straps. (We hadn't yet learned to use tumplines.) Two of the bags held our food. The other two held everything else, except for the cook kit. But which bag was which? There was no easy way to tell. And even when we got the right bag on our first try, we could never be sure exactly where in the bag we'd find the item we were looking for. The only way to proceed was to empty the bag completely. Now, on the morning after the Case of the Missing Tarp, we decided that this state of affairs couldn't continue.

The upshot? We spent the day sorting, labeling, and organizing. It proved more difficult than we thought it would. The orange bags could be numbered, and the numbers were easy to see at a glance, but all our stuff sacks were dark blue. Still, we did what we could. And it did the trick. There were no repeat performances of that first dismal night. But we knew we could do better, and when we got home we set about finding the solution that had eluded us on the river.

In the end, it proved to be a simple matter of …

Distinctions and Differences

We'd already made a start by numbering the dry bags after our riverbank epiphany. But the spidery numbers we'd inked‑in back then were already fading, so we smartened them up with a laundry marker. Now each bag had a big, bold number on both sides. We could identify it at a glance. Every bag was also given a specific job. The benefits of this straightforward fix were obvious: (1) We'd never confuse food bags with gear bags and end up putting our bedding in a bag that formerly held smelly foodstuffs. Not only is this a no‑no in bear country — you don't want your sleeping bag smelling like bacon bits, do you? — but it saved us a lot of pointless rummaging. (2) We could easily segregate "dirty" stuff (tent, tarp, foul‑weather gear, boots) from "clean" items like camp clothing, drawing supplies, and bedding. Our cook kit and stove stayed put, however. The rucksack was just the right size for them, and there was no mistaking it for something else. It also held each day's lunch. That saved us from having to open one of the big food bags while under way.

The next step was to shake the "blues" — our blue stuff sacks, that is. This was easy to do. We just bought a rainbow‑hued selection of sacks in a range of sizes, then assigned each color a distinct role: green for clean clothes, blue for sleeping bags, red for health‑and‑comfort items… It didn't matter which color meant what, of course. (And our color code has changed several times over the years.) The important thing is that we always knew what was what.

Cracking the Color Code


This strategy served us well for many years. Sadly, though, our orange dry bags are no more. Granite, sand, and stray sparks from the campfire eventually took their toll. When we started putting patches on patches, we replaced them. By this time, however, we had a choice of colors, and color replaced numbering as our primary means of identification. We also added several traditional canvas Duluth packs to the collection. These weren't waterproof, but they were just the right size to hold a dry bag. And the tumpline headbands were a welcome alternative to shoulder straps on long portages.

Packs Old and New

We were also simplifying and streamlining our Big Trip kit. This helped, too, especially on those rare occasions when our color‑coding let us down. Fewer things in our packs meant shorter searches. After all, if you have to look for a needle in a haystack, it's good if the haystack is a small one. Of course, Big Trips are just a small part of any paddler's year. Day trips and "weekend adventures" are a lot easier to fit in around the many obligations of work and family life, and packing for these shorter trips is a lot less complicated than outfitting for a month in the Territory. Much of the time, it's as easy as grabbing my getaway pack and heading out the door — though amphibious jaunts impose additional burdens, what with the need to squeeze nearly everything into bicycle panniers (the boat takes up all the space in the trailer). Still, even small outfits need organizing. The key, I've found, lies in …

Product Placement

I was reminded of this by someone else's misadventure. A kayaker capsized above the lip of a falls, almost under my nose. He needed a lifeline, fast. But when I went to grab the rope I always carry in my getaway pack, it wasn't where I'd expected it to be. It had worked its way down to the bottom of the rucksack, buried under everything else. I fished it out in only a few seconds, and the kayaker's story ended happily, but it could easily have gone the other way. Sometimes a few seconds can make all the difference in the world.

The bottom line? I decided that a housecleaning and general tidying up was long overdue. So I reorganized the contents of my getaway pack. Things I might need in a hurry (like my rope) went where they'd be easiest to get at, along with the mundane items that I use every day (my lunch bag, for instance). Other items (spare clothing, poncho) were relegated to the nether regions. Simple, eh? But it could save somebody's day someday. It might even save mine. And it led me to formulate …

The System

As the name suggests, this is a comprehensive scheme for maximizing efficiency under way. Do you think efficiency is just for the workaday world? Then think again. Efficiency is nothing more or less than making the most of your time. The minutes you spend with your head in a pack could instead be spent watching shooting stars, wetting a fly, or stalking an elusive warbler, camera in hand. However you like to spend your leisure hours, chances are that searching for that I'm-sure-I-put-it-somewhere item in the dim recesses of a dry bag isn't high on your list of fun things to do. The System aims at minimizing such downtime. It's intended to help you get the most out of the days you spend in the backcountry. And it's wonderfully simple. There are just four essentials:

  1. Make a list
  2. Color code everything possible
  3. Think distinct
  4. Prioritize packing

Now here are a few words of explanation:

Make a List  Nobody I know has a perfect memory. I've even seen experienced boaters head downriver without a spare paddle. (They brought a spare. They just left it in the car.) So use a checklist to make sure you don't leave something vital behind when you head away from the put‑in. There's only one exception to this rule: If you keep a fully stocked getaway pack for short trips, and if you never fail to top up the food and other stores immediately after every use, you can safely forgo a checklist. But I'd make one anyway, if I were you. After all, checklists have another function. They help you winnow out little‑used, nonessential items from your kit. That's important, too.

For most of my life, I kept my checklists in the notebook that doubled as my journal. Now I use my Kindle. (I also have a copy in a notebook, just in case.) But this is one time when the medium's not the message. The important thing is to make and use a checklist. 'Nuff said?

Color Code  Stuff sacks and dry bags now come in every size and color imaginable. Take advantage of this to make the job of finding stuff easy. You're not assembling a matched set of luggage, are you? So devise a color code to identify different classes of items (e.g., food, shelter, clothing) and then stick to it, at least till the trip's over.

Think Distinct  This follows immediately from the Color Code principle. On long trips, when there are lots of bags in your boat, make sure each is assigned a specific function — and that every one is instantly recognizable. Use color, shape, numbering… Whatever works for you. Just do it.

Prioritize Packing  It seems like a no‑brainer, and it is. Don't wait until lives hang in the balance to discover that your throw bag is at the bottom of a pack in the bottom of your boat. Keep emergency gear where it's instantly getatable. And stow the things you'll use during the day where you won't have to burrow for them. (Keep foul‑weather gear ready to hand, too.) Put only the stuff you won't need till day's end in the bottom of the bag(s).

That's it. Simple, right? Just common sense, really. So why did it take me so long? I don't know. But now you do. And you might was well learn from my mistakes. It's a lot easier than learning from your own!

Efficiency. It's not a dirty word, and it's not just for the workplace. Efficient packing sets you free — free to do the things you enjoy. It's no fun spending your holiday with your head buried in a pack, after all. So take a lesson from Organization Woman: Do it by the numbers. And be sure to color your world, too. Then you'll be free to do what you came to the backcountry to do.



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