Organization ON the Trail – Family Backpacking & Adventure Planning

Organization on the Trail // #familybackpacking #adventureplanning

One of the first things we realized, when we decided to take on the family adventure of hiking the 93-mile Wonderland Trail, was that we would need to be super-organized, both in advance of, and while on, the trail.

Here’s the specifics of how we stayed organized during our family backpacking trip.


One of the ways I stayed organized, during our 12-day family hike on the Wonderland Trail, was to have this waterproof map bag hanging on my front at all times. Inside, I kept all of our trail information, so that it was available to me while hiking.

Without stopping to set down my backpack, open it up, and dig, we had key information available at a glance.


I can’t say enough good things about this pouch! It acted like my personal BRAIN for the duration of the hike.

  • It was the perfect size. (we used the small SealLine map case)
  • I didn’t end up falling into water, and (shockingly!) it didn’t rain even a drop during our 12-day trip, but if it had, I have zero doubt that this pouch would have kept everything inside dry. It is thick plastic, with a durable seal, and completely see-through.
  • It was small enough that it only hung on one side of my body and didn’t interfere with my trekking poles or movements,
  • but it was large enough to allow me to see all my information without opening the pouch, so we could stay organized.

Inside, I kept:

  • file0460My Mount Rainier waterproof topographic map, re-folded outwards each evening to show the next 20-or-so miles of trail. (For hiking at Rainier, especially on the Wonderland, a topographic map is a must! The elevation changes are frequent and strenuous, and thus a topographic map is incredibly helpful, as well as being important for safety, in case you get lost off-trail.)
  • The Wonderland Trail elevation profile— Because the Wonderland Trail is over 22,000 ft of elevation gain and loss over the course of the trip, this elevation profile is a great way to get a quick visual picture of what each day will be like— how far up, how steep, how long the incline will last, etc.
  • A pen + a sharpie— I took my handy-dandy BIC 4-color pen because it makes me smile to have multiple color options from one cute little pen.
  • My 3×5 paper journal, where I wrote down trail memories & big-picture observations/ideas I had while on the trail. (I got mine at Ikea– it’s a dot-grid style, similar to the pack of 3 in the link.)
  • Our entire menu plan, including each day’s snacks. (We ate 3 meals a day, plus 4 snacks per day, and each day was different, so this was a critical piece of info.) Keeping this inside the see-through pouch meant we always knew what snacks to grab from the packs, mid-day. It also allowed our older boys, on the last half of the trip, to run ahead to the campsite and get started making dinner, because we could easily locate and transfer the correct dinner ingredients to their packs.
  • A written list of which things were in whose packs— I referred to this less as the days went on, because by about day 4, we all knew this stuff by heart. But the first few days, this list was really helpful, so we didn’t have to waste time wondering when we stopped for snacks, “Wait! Who has the afternoon snacks for today?”
  • Smaller, more detailed 1-page trail maps we picked up from ranger stations— these can sometimes give more detailed information (i.e., distance between two trail points, which side-trails you’ll pass when) than the larger Mt. Rainier map.
  • Bright-orange trail-marking plastic ribbon (which I’d write a note on with the sharpie)– this came in handy several times over the course of the trail, as the trail would sometimes split, or the signs weren’t always ultra-specific. Doug & I had one a full Mount Rainier map between the two of us, and we often were separated (either in the morning, when I’d take off about 30-minutes ahead of them, with our 3-year-old, Theo; or in the evening, when they’d go on ahead, since they could hike faster, and we’d bring up the rear and make it to camp once dinner was already cooking and the tent was already being set up). During the course of our hike, we hit a handful of times where I knew it wouldn’t be immediately clear to him which way we might have gone, and so I’d tie the ribbon to a branch in the direction we took, with a little note. One time, I used it to also hang their snack onto a branch, because it was time for the morning snack but they hadn’t yet caught up and we had their snack.
  • My half-sheet trip summary with vital information about each day– on a half-sheet of paper, I had outlined each day with the following basic info: Day #, day-of-the-week, # of miles, a special note if we needed to pick up a food and/or fuel cache at a ranger station on that day, what our ending campground was, and the elevation changes each day.

Here’s an example from our longest day:

Day 6- (Fri) – 11.3 miles – Nickel Creek (+600, -100, +100, -1500, +500, -50, +150, -800, +150, -2000)

This information especially helped us on the hardest days, to track our progress, and to know what was coming. It helped me mentally prepare myself for just how hard each day was going to be, and alerted me as to which parts I’d need to “buck up” for.  Each morning over breakfast, I would go through this information with everyone, and I really think it helped all of us persevere through the hard parts.

Having all of this information easily accessible, in the pouch, made it so I didn’t have to wonder where it was, or go digging for it, during our long hikes each day.


Each member of the family had different roles throughout our hike–

  • Doug: make breakfast; put up/tear down tent & rainfly; make dinner (although for the last half of the trip, the older boys took this on so they could run ahead and hike at their own pace) and wash all pots/utensils afterward; laundry; get all food into bags and hung up on bear poles each night.
  • Jess: oversee/pass out snacks & lunch while hiking during the day; img_1614
    keep Theo (our 3-year-old) motivated and moving; keep us on-track organizationally (i.e., maps/planning/etc); set up tent insides (sleeping pads, got sleeping bags unfolded & zipped into the special configuration that let all 9 of us share 4 sleeping bags); organized/distributed the food caches when we picked them up; set out about 30-minutes early from everyone else with Theo each morning so we could get a head start and everyone else could hike more quickly; dealt with all blisters/scrapes/first aid/etc.
  • Ethan: helped Doug set up tent outside; helped make dinner; often helped carry Theo across difficult terrain.
  • Baxter: helped me set up the tent insides; got water for mealtimes; gathered trash during meals and snacks.
  • MeiMei: sang songs and told stories to Theo; ran ahead to pick berries for Theo & Luke, which helped motivate Theo, a lot, AND helped him hike at his pace without stopping; kept Luke entertained and happy while we got the tent set up each night.
  • Silas: often gathered trash at meals and snacks; sang songs and told stories to Theo; also picked berries for the little guys.
  • Moses: carried the toileting bag, so he dug it out for all of us, and waited until we were done to pack it back into his bag, at the needed times; also picked berries for the little guys.

By knowing who was responsible for what, it allowed each person to step up and take responsibility for their part. It made for less fighting/blameshifting, because each child knew what things they needed to do. And through repetition, each of us got better and faster at doing our parts.


Video- Theo enjoying berries:


We are not, by nature, super-organized people, but for the trail we found it helpful to keep our packs extremely well-ordered.

Here is how we organized our packs:

  • Each person carried their own clothes in a waterproof stuff-sack (except for the 3-year-old and baby, obviously– Doug and I carried theirs)
  • Each person carried their own personal gear that might need to be accessed mid-day in their backpack “lid” (beanie, headlamp, bandana, paper journal, and pen) — incidentally, we used these inexpensive headlamps that I found on Amazon for the kids, and I came to prefer them over my expensive Black Diamond one. They are more intuitive to use, and worked great.
  • Each person carried their own water bottle(s).
  • Each person had a different set of community-gear items they were responsible for carrying.


This is how we divied up our community (non-personal) gear:

  • Doug (dad)Tent + rainfly, tent footprint, tarp, 1 sleeping pad, dinners, Cookpot + all cooking/mealtime gear (including our lightweight, compact stove, white gas canisters, oil, spices, sporks, etc.), our bag of random supplies (this had things like paracord, extra trail marking tape, extra lighter, etc.), a one-gallon vinegar bottle (sometimes filled with water, if we were hiking a section of the trail with limited water)
  • Jess (mom)– carried Luke, diapers, wipes, first-aid kit, all papers/permits/maps, candy-motivation for Theo, an empty one-gallon vinegar bottle, sleeping pad the first 2/3 of the trip.
  • Ethan (14)– carried snacks (when a family of 9 is eating 4 snacks a day, snacks are surprisingly heavy!), 1 sleeping pad, 1 sleeping bag
  • Baxter (12)– carried lunches, 1 sleeping pad, 1 sleeping bag
  • MeiMei (10)– carried 1 sleeping pad, 2 sleeping bags (so her pack looked fierce and full, but weight-wise, was quite light)
  • Silas (8)– carried breakfasts
  • Moses (6)– carried the toileting kit (toilet paper, a trowel, and hand sanitizer)
  • Theo (3.5)– carried himself around the mountain on his own two feet
  • Luke (18 mos)– rode in his carrier, snug as a bug.

{If you’re wondering whether that’s the full list of items we took, YES. If you’re wondering if I really linked to the right tent (it’s a 4-man), YES. I’ll explain our thoughts– and why we went for ultra-pared-down gear– in the next Backpacking & Adventure article.}

By keeping ourselves very organized and clear as to WHO was carrying WHAT, we were freed up from having to think very hard when things came up like:

  • Each time we stopped for a snack— I’d look at my list in my pouch, and Silas would pull out the right snack for that day.
  • “I need to go #2!”— Whoever said this would know– Moses is your man for getting out the ziplock of toileting gear.
  • When the big boys asked if they could run ahead and make dinner, we knew they’d need to exchange some weight with Doug and we could send them on ahead with the cooking gear & the correct dinner for that evening.


By keeping our trail information, jobs, and backpacks carefully organized, our loop-hike around Mount Rainier was much less stressful than it could otherwise have been.



  • Do you have other questions about our trip?
  • Any organizational tips you’d add?


Click to read:

Gear list & packing list here:

Read about our adventure, starting on day 1, HERE:


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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast ( I write and wrangle kids.

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9 Responses

  1. Matthew Farnell says:

    This is awesome. I’ve been reading through your posts on the trip – great job both on the articles and on the trip itself! I wish I would have documented some of our trips in this way. I was surprised by 4 snacks per day! We usually have breakfast and dinner, and then if it is a hiking day, each person gets a small bag of trail mix and a granola bar. Each person can eat their lunch anytime, but that has to last them until dinner! But I guess you could count the trailmix as multiple snacks, since it has nuts, dried fruit, pretzels, etc in it.

    • Jess Connell says:


      Ben advised us to use (for trail mix) 2-3 ounces per person for a snack. So I don’t know how that relates to what you’re giving each person?

      For the short mileage days (5-7 miles) we often only used 2-3 snacks per person. But for the longer mileage days (10-11+) we were glad for the 4 snacks a day. Sometimes we saved a snack from a low mile day to get us through a longer day. (I didn’t mention that before), but I’m pretty sure on our two days with Michael we had 5, sometimes 6, snack breaks… Whereas we might have only eaten 1-2 snacks on that “laziest day” of 4-5 miles.

  2. Stefan says:

    Hi – inspiring. We also have 7 kids 2-14 here in Seattle. Have you shared the lists you’ve referenced ( packing, daily menu, pack contents) as files?

  3. Audrey says:

    Hey Jess,
    Can you tell me what type of watch you used? And what did you carry to take pictures? Your pictures turned out great, by the way. What other digital equipment did you have – like a cell phone or other sort of gps? Thanks!

    I also wonder if you carried additional batteries for the headlamps? Did I read there was a resupply stop along the way?

    • Jess Connell says:


      Doug’s solar-powered watch, here:

      has an altimeter. The main thing is just not to leave it in altimeter mode, or it will drain the battery.

      This is the current model of the camera we used (Canon Powershot Elph):
      It’s compact and lightweight and easily fit into our fanny packs, pockets, and backpack lids.

      SD CARDS:
      We took three SD cards for photo/video memory. We took 2– 128 GB SD cards:
      and one smaller one. (I ended up wishing we’d taken more.)

      I did have my iPhone and took some photos & audio with it, but most of our photos & videos are from the Canon.

      Yes – we dropped some extra headlamp batteries in our resupply bin, and didn’t end up needing them.

      One reason the Wonderland Trail is a great route is because there are 3 (technically 4, but 2 are really close to one another) resupply points where you can cache food, fuel canisters, diapers, wipes, anything you need to refill. We started out at one location, and had two caches, so that we went 4 days with each supply stash.

      Hope this helps!

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