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Picture This!The Hills Are Calling!

Organizing Your Getaway

By Tamia Nelson

January 10, 2012

We're told that time and tide wait for no man, and it's safe to say this is equally true for women. Most of us have missed chances to get away simply because we ran out of time. Which is why I've given a fair amount of thought to making the most of any opportunities to escape to the backcountry, whenever and wherever they arise. My "getaway pack" was one result. I described it at some length in an earlier column, but a recent e‑mail from Jason, an In the Same Boat reader, reminded me that words aren't always the best tools for communicating:

I really like your articles and have spent a lot of time reading them over the past week or two. I enjoyed your getaway pack, and I was wondering if you had any pictures. I tried to start my own, but once I began putting all the stuff in, I found the pack was nowhere near big enough. Actually, I think all my stuff was too big to fit the pack. Anyway, it would be interesting to see some photos of your getaway pack. How do you keep the stuff organized so that you can get what you want quickly? I would be interested to see a "picture" article on this, because I think it helps a lot for people like me who have never done an activity or are only starting out with a few extended trips under the belt, to see what more experienced people have already done. And I do think you can learn from others' mistakes and not have to make them all on your own. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Indeed it is. Sometimes. And this is clearly one of those times. So here goes, Jason. This one's for you…


Picture This — My Getaway Pack

Of course, what follows is descriptive, not prescriptive. Don't make the mistake that Farwell did, many years ago, when he was so captivated by The Complete Walker that he set out to duplicate Colin Fletcher's outfit down to the smallest detail, overlooking the fact that Fletcher did most of his walking in desert and alpine environments, whereas Farwell's stomping grounds were soggy, boggy, buggy eastern lowlands. He should have known better — and in fact he did — but Fletcher's way with words still led him astray.

The bottom line? I'm writing about what works for me, on and around my home waters and hills. You'll have to adapt it to suit your own situation. To begin with, my getaway pack is an old‑fashioned, cotton‑canvas rucksack, a relic of the Cold War. It's heavy even when empty, and it's not much fun to carry when the load tops 35 pounds. But it's plenty sturdy. It's also just big enough for weekend excursions in my little pack canoe, impromptu hill walks, and occasional day trips on snowshoes. In short, I'm happy with it, but I don't expect to see many other paddlers using rucksacks like it.

The contents also change with the seasons — and with the passage of time. In fact, there've been quite a few changes since I wrote "Secrets of My Getaway Pack," and there will probably be many more in the future. Perhaps my biggest innovation to date is organizational. I no longer keep everything packed in my rucksack. Instead, I've set aside a corner of my office for my gear, and while certain essentials always stay in the pack, other items are added only as needed. I started doing things this way when I realized I was spending as much time removing unwanted or unneeded items as I'd formerly spent packing my pack from scratch. A compromise was necessary, and this was it.

Here's what the organizational nerve center of my getaway corner looks like today:

The Getaway Corner

As you can see, it's nothing much — just a couple of three‑drawer storage units perched atop a plastic shelf. It's not likely to be featured in House Beautiful anytime soon. But it works, and that's what matters. Small items go into the drawers, and larger gear fits in the space under the shelf (behind the daypack in the photo above), though when my sleeping bag isn't needed, it's stored in a nearby closet, along with extra foam pads, tents, and most of my outdoor wardrobe. There's one thing you won't find in my office, however: I keep only a small amount of alcohol for my Trangia cooker indoors. The rest is outside, in a shed.

So much for my office annex. Now let's look at what I carried in the main compartment of my getaway pack on a recent fall overnighter:

Take a Number!

You can just catch a glimpse of the flattened pack under the bulging stuff sacks. The numbers correspond to the items on the following list:

  1. Spare "smalls" (underwear and socks) and toilet kit
  2. Ditty bag
  3. Medical kit (plus water disinfection tabs and a Platypus water carrier)
  4. Big Agnes Insulated Air Core mattress
  5. Steel one‑pint thermos (not essential, but nice to have)
  6. Kelty Coromell sleeping bag (down‑filled)
  7. Belt pack for camera gear (empty)
  8. 25‑foot braided polypropylene line
  9. Extra warm clothes (fleece pullover, plus wool mittens and hat)
  10. Mini Trangia cooker, plus bowl, cup, and utensils, all in a plastic bag
  11. GSI Personal Java Press, with a bag of ground roast coffee inside
  12. 9‑by‑7‑foot tarp with attached guylines
  13. Poncho

Some items are missing from the photo above: my food bag, the clothes I wore on the water (these vary from season to season, obviously), and my PFD, with its complement of Essentials. My digital SLR and lenses are out of the frame, too. They travel in the belt pack ashore. On the water, they're tucked safely away in a modified ammo can.

Let's go back to the photo for a minute. Even a cursory glance confirms that a well‑organized pack is a bag of bags. And stuff sacks certainly help me keep track of my gear, in addition to playing a vital role in stopping small items from getting lost in dark corners. By the way, I have some new stuff sacks in a wider range of colors and sizes than those shown in the photo, and this augurs further organizational tweaks. But these lie sometime in the future. Waterproofing is a here‑and‑now concern, of course, and while the stuff sacks do their bit, more is needed. On beaver ponds and similarly sheltered or undemanding waters, I get by with an improvised pack liner (a jumbo‑sized heavy‑duty Ziploc bag, as it happens — I've left this out of the photos for clarity's sake). Individual items are also packed in tightly sealed plastic bags, with critical gear double‑bagged. When I expect to encounter rough water or difficult rapids, however, I don't cut corners. My rucksack then goes into a very large, and completely waterproof, dry bag.

That's the big picture. Now …

Let's Get Packing

I start by laying my pack out on the floor. My folded poncho slides into a full‑width internal pocket originally intended for a military shelter‑half (a rudimentary tent that Bundeswehr conscripts christened the "Dachshund Garage"):

Where the Dachshund Garage Goes

The medical kit and ditty bag follow, ending up side‑by‑side on top of the poncho. These take up most of the rest of the room inside the Dachshund Garage pocket, but at least the items are quickly accessible when the pack is fully loaded. The poncho also provides a much‑needed cushion against my back. (My getaway pack is frameless.)

The folded tarp is the next to go in. It rests against the internal pocket, with the "smalls" (underclothes and toiletries) bag above and to one side of it.

Tarp and Toiletries

Before continuing, I set the rucksack upright. The smalls bag helps wedge the tarp in place and keeps it from flopping forward. Subsequent loading operations now proceed by the numbers (see the annotated list, above):

Filling the Space

You may have noticed that — up to this point, at any rate — all the stuff sacks have been placed so their openings face up. This allows me to rummage through them without removing them, but it also lets me use the drawstrings as grab loops to extract a sack from the pack when necessary. Once I put my extra warm clothes (#9) in place (they're rolled, but not confined in a stuff sack), however, the food bag and sleeping bag stuff sack go in crossways, opening to the side. (NB I've omitted the food bag from the photos. On an overnight trip — and most getaways involve only one night away — it's not very large.) The polypro line (#8) tops things off:

Topping Off

Now it's just a question of pulling the pack's drawstring tight and cinching up the straps. My empty belt pack rests on top in the photo below, but in the boat it always travels under the flap. And note the water bottle poking out of a side pocket:

It's in the Bag!

Most of the time, the bottle is tucked safely away, with the pocket flap buckled down to keep it from straying. (Extra water — when needed — is carried inside the pack in a 1‑liter Platypus bottle or in a larger collapsible container lashed to a thwart.) The other side pocket holds a backup map and emergency food in doubled plastic bags, with enough oatmeal, cocoa, couscous, and dry soup to keep me going for three days.

We're not done yet. Backcountry wanderers soon discover that no pack is ever quite big enough in practice, however capacious it may be in theory. And my getaway pack is no exception. Which is why it's accumulated a number of ancillary pouches and pockets. You can see them in the photo below. Could you have guessed that I do a lot of my shopping in military‑surplus outlets?

Pocket Science


Let's take a closer look:


Good Things Go in Small Packages

The fancy strap pouch on the left in the large photo (you can see it in Panel A, as well) is a GPS Outfitters' Micro Pack. It holds either my Garmin GPS or a small point‑and‑shoot camera. The smaller pouch on the right in the large photo (and in Panel B, too) came from Bike Nashbar. It was designed to hold a cell phone, and sometimes it does. It also holds a matchsafe and a whistle (both on lanyards). The little dressing pouch that you can just see above the Micro Pack on the left (and in Panel C) carries my trusty Silva Ranger compass. The compass's lanyard is tied off to the pouch's ALICE clip, and I tuck the excess length beneath the flap to limit snagging. Last, but certainly not least, is the magazine‑and‑grenade pouch on the lower left, attached to the rucksack's waist strap (there's a close‑up in Panel D). It contains bagged bonk‑busters and a small sketch pad and pencil. It also holds a compact roll of bumwad and my GoGirl, both in plastic bags. No grenades, though.


There you have it. My own version of Colin Fletcher's "House on Your Back." And I'm happy with it. But …

It's Not a One‑Size‑Fits‑All Solution …

For peripatetic paddlers. For one thing, it's not suited to long jaunts. A three‑day weekend is about the limit. Longer trips — or expeditions into really remote country — demand more food and gear than my getaway pack could possibly accommodate. From time to time, though, I push the envelope a bit by utilizing the ski slots behind the side pockets (they've held tent poles, even an umbrella) and carrying my dry‑bagged sleeping bag outside the pack proper, but still under the flap. That said, the little pack's limitations aren't much of a handicap. Big Trips to far‑distant places are a long time in the planning, but the getaway pack is destined for other things. I keep it around to make the most of unexpected windows of opportunity in my life. And it does just that. Admirably.


Let It Rain!


No writer wants to admit it, but there are times when words simply aren't enough. As a reader recently reminded me, when he wrote to ask for more details about my getaway pack. So this week I've unlimbered my camera to reveal the little pack's innermost secrets, and I hope I've succeeded. Want to be ready to light out for the Territory (or your favorite beaver pond) at a moment's notice? It's easy. Just organize your getaway. Then go!



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