I live by checklists; it’s in my blood and it’s the cornerstone of my profession. If planning checklists aren’t a vital component of your outdoor adventuring, now’s the time to make the change.

There’s nothing worse than showing up to a campsite for a weekend getaway with the wrong gear (well, no gear is probably worse). Even for overnighters or single day hikes, not having the proper gear can be uncomfortable or dangerous. Finding out your first-aid kit is poorly stocked is a dangerous surprise after taking a nasty gash on the knee. If you’ve been in a similar experience, chances are you’ll never forget that item again. But do yourself a favor: make a list and check it twice to avoid ever being in that situation in the first place. It’ll save your trip from disaster and perhaps it could even save your life. Need an example? Check out my checklist for Mt. Kilimanjaro.

So, get ready…here’s how you can keep track of your stuff. 

Step 1: Use a method that works for you
As a business student, I love Excel. For me, a gear checklist is a perfect reason to fire up a new worksheet. But not everybody loves it as much as I do, and that’s fine! The back of a napkin can be just as effective if it’s accurate. The most important part of any gear checklist is knowing where it is, knowing it’s up to date, and being able to adjust it quickly and easily for your needs.

Step 2: Start with what you have
A wishlist or replacement list is a good thing to have, but start at the beginning. Take an afternoon and throw all of your camping, hiking, whatever gear in a pile in your garage and start writing. This is a good time to add items specifically for these activities (digging around your house for toothpaste and sunscreen every time you hit the trail is inefficient, so add these items now and keep them there). If you haven’t already, keep your gear in a dedicated camping/hiking box(es) so that you can grab and go.

Outdoor Gear Checklist for Camping

A place for my stuff and my stuff in its place.

Step 3: Making your master inventory
Inventory everything (and I mean everything!) and store it in your dedicated boxes as you go. Make a side list of things you need but don’t have. Options to consider when making your inventory (will vary depending on your level of OCD-mine’s high): category, subcategory, product company, product name, product description, product quantity, product material or fabric, product weight, product size (packed & engaged), and any notes of your own. If items need repairing or are nearly empty (ie. bug spray) note that and return to it later.

Step 4: Consider each outing individually
You’ll likely not want to bring every piece of equipment you have for every adventure, so consider your environment and the type of activity (day & night temperature, precipitation, water availability, ground cover, sun exposure, length of daylight, hazards, remoteness). A checklist for a backcountry thru-hike will vary from a weekend state park camping trip. Have a preconceived notion of what you’ll need before you even check your inventory. If you’re missing necessary gear, consider your options before making an investment. Can I rent the gear, can I borrow from a friend, or should I invest in a high quality addition to my permanent collection? Backpacker.com has an excellent set of gear checklists for all sorts of occasions.

Outdoor Gear Checklist

Willing to bet this man uses a checklist. Photo via asaf antman, Flickr Creative Commons.

Step 5: Update post-outing
With your list(s) made, don’t fall complacent! You’ve already done the heavy lifting, now’s the time to keep everything accurate. Update your master inventory as soon as you return from a trip. Used half your moleskins? Note it. Dropped your compass off a cliff? Note it. Broke a tent pole? Note it. You won’t have to deal with these issues immediately, but now you won’t forget to.

With the right planning, you’ll know exactly what you have and the condition it’s in at any given moment. Checklists may seem like overkill to some (and yours certainly don’t need to be as thorough as I am), but remember that failing to plan is planning to fail, and in the wilderness failing can quickly become an emergency situation.

Have a good system? What is it? Or perhaps…share your tales of forgetfulness with us here (we’ve all been there)!