Everyone Loves Spreadsheets, Right?

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Sorry in advance for this post. For anyone who isn’t an obsessive planner, this entry will likely be drier than a fart in the Sahara.

Everyone has their own method of planning what to pack. When I was younger and had to pack for camping trips, I’d typically cobble together a little handwritten list on a handful of pieces of scrap paper; as a result of my ramshackle list, I’d often forget something. It was always something small, like perhaps I’d forget to pack a hat, but it just meant that I was that much less prepared than I should have been.

I had a friend a few years back who would physically pile the things he intended to bring in a corner of his room, weeks before he was due to leave. That was his method of preparing. A thought would pop into his head, “Oh, I should bring that straw wide-brimmed hat,” and the hat would join the pile. The problem was that he would often need to use something from the pile, and would inevitably forget to put it back in the pile. Thanks to his system, he once managed to forget to bring a rain jacket for a hiking trip along Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, and had to bail out one day into his trip.

Other friends are meticulous, almost obsessive, planners. They draw up lists and check them religiously against packing lists found online, usually tailored to their destinations, and/or post their lists to backpacking/travel forums for feedback. While I don’t go so far as the latter, I definitely do my research to figure out what kind of clothing and gear I’ll need for a given trip.

And that brings me to the main change I’ve made to my gear planning: spreadsheets. The advent of cloud-based tools like Google Docs means that I can put together a spreadsheet on my computer at home, and add to it or modify it from my work computer, or my cell phone, or wherever. I started planning with spreadsheets during the lead-up to my ill-fated Grand Canyon trip in 2015 (soon to be explained!), and have refined my method since.

An early draft of my packing list for my trip to China.


The spreadsheet is broken down into the following columns: a “Category” column, which serves as a broad descriptor of the item (for instance, “Backpack”); an “Item” column, which gives the exact name of the item, wherever possible (ie. “MEC Cragalot”); a “Weight” column, where the weight is given in grams; an “Owned” column, where I mark whether or not I own the item in question; a “Cost” column, where I list the cost of anything I don’t already own; and finally, a “Notes” column, where I add any other stray notes.

I break the equipment down into different subcategories, which get grouped together by row. For the China trip, I have a category that combines the three bags I’ll be taking, and then categories for equipment that will be packed in each of those three bags, followed by a category that consists of the clothing I’ll be wearing when we depart. At the bottom, two rows aggregate the weight of all the equipment: one row in grams, the other in pounds.

The beauty of using something like Google Docs is that if I buy something for the list, I can update it immediately. Alternatively, if I suddenly realize that I’ve left something off the list, I can add it, no problem. I’m sure there are better ways of preparing a packing list, but since I started using this method, I haven’t run into any issues with forgotten gear.

Unfortunately, when it came to packing for the Grand Canyon, my father and I both way overpacked; we each ended up hauling over 40 pounds of food and gear in our bags. But even that meant another lesson learned: from that point on, I would make sure to eliminate anything that I didn’t need, and to check and re-check whether there was anything on the list that could be omitted or replaced with something lighter. A light bag is a happy bag.

Yeah… we definitely packed too much gear…

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