THREE-PILE PROCESS - A Backpacker?s Guide to Making Every Ounce Count: Tips and Tricks for Every Hike (2015)

A Backpacker?s Guide to Making Every Ounce Count: Tips and Tricks for Every Hike (2015)



The next step is done at the end of your trip once you are back home, but you might find that you will take this step over and over again.

I spend weeks preparing for a trip. If I know I have one planned for the last weekend in November, I will start putting my pack together during the first week of November. I will pack and unpack, weigh the items, and pack again. Then, I unpack it all, and pack again. This helps me know that I have everything I will need for the trip and helps me practice where it all goes in the pack, which keeps me organized on the trail. I keep packing it all in the same place, and this process just helps me to do so. My wife goes crazy during this time because I have it all upstairs in the living room.

Then during the trip, each morning, when we break camp to go to the next stop, all the items go into the pack the same way, in the same pockets. Remember Chapter Ten? Because I practiced this packing and unpacking ritual, I remember where everything goes.

The three-pile process comes into play after each trip. Once I return home, I take a much-needed shower (per my wife’s standing order), then after the shower, I get a good night’s sleep. Once I have recovered from the trip, I start to unpack all my gear, usually that following weekend.

As I unpack, I make three piles. This is when I start culling items from my pack, if there are any items that need culling. I will spread out my tarp, and then I start unpacking. For each item I grab, I ask myself one simple, easy-to-answer question. My answer will determine which pile I will use for that item.

How often did I use this item?

✵ A lot?

✵ Hardly at all?

✵ Never?

Pile One

Pile one has all the gear that I used a lot—basically multiple times a day.

Obviously, I would put my hammock and sleeping bag in this pile even though I only used it once a day. The thing is, that when I did use this item, I used it for hours at a time while I slept or rested. I also add to the pile my water filter, cooking pot, and so on. These are items that I can’t possibly survive without, even though I used them only once or twice a day during the trip.

Other items that would go into this pile are my fire kit, personal kit, knife, hat, gloves. Trekking poles, the pack itself, and even my sunglasses, all go into pile one.

Remember, this pile is where you will put items that were actually used during the trip.


Pile Two

In this pile, I will put all the gear that I seldom used. I usually don’t have too many items in this pile anymore, but starting out, I would put in my plastic trowel. I would also put uneaten food here because I might have taken seven trail bars but eaten only five. On the next trip, I would take five trail bars because I remembered what I put in pile two on the previous trip.

After enough trips, you will find that you will be able to plan your food supply so well that by the time you reach the parking lot at the end of a trip, you will have already eaten all the food. I have actually gotten my snack bag planned so well, that I have eaten my last candy bar at the truck while we were loading it up to start back home. For me, that is smart planning and good organization.


I have a long length of 550 paracord tied up into what looks like a donut.


To follow the three-pile process to the letter, many items, like my paracord donut, would end up in this pile because I only used it one day and only once that day during the entire trip.

Pile Three

This pile is for the items that you absolutely did not use at all, at any time, during the entire trip. Items like your extra batteries, extra socks, and the game camera.

Okay, let me explain that one. On some trips years ago, I would hear Bigfoot stomping around in camp, so I started taking the game camera when we would car camp. This bad little habit fell over into my backpacking trips as well, because it only weighed 1 pound 8 1/4 ounces. It ended up in pile three and was eventually culled from the pack.

Some other items that may go into this pile are extra bandanas, my DIY wood saw, compact radio, water bag (sometimes I would take extra water bags “just in case”), bug spray, sunscreen, too many fire-starter items, my compass, and even my first-aid kit and multi-tool.

Although I did not use my first-aid kit, as little as it was at the time, I still put it in pile three because I want to follow this process to the letter.

At some point, other items that ended up in pile three were extra clothes, like my insulation layers.

On the trips when the forecast called for very cold weather, we planned on it being even colder up on the mountain, so I would overpack the thicker items of clothing. I have gotten better and have culled some clothes and/or replaced them with clothes that are lighter and have less bulk. You might want to go back and review Chapter Eight. At some point those items ended up in pile three. I do not put uneaten food in pile three because I kept the food in my food bag, and I did hit the food bag, every day.


So now all your items should be in one of the three piles. Good job here. Now, what to do with each item?

Culling Items

Start with pile two, take the items that you seldom used, and ask yourself, “Did I really need to take this item?” If you answered yes, put that item in pile one.

The length of paracord, for instance, always starts in pile two because I only touched this item a time or two, but I must have it, so I put it in pile one during this part of the process. To follow the rules, however, the donut starts out in pile two.

You may have used the plastic trowel only once, but you can use a tent stake to dig a hole if necessary. So put the trowel in pile three because you are now learning how to look at items within your pack as dual-purpose items.

Do this with every item in pile two. Pick an item and decide if you really must have it. If you do, then put it in pile one. Pick another item, ask the same question, and if you don’t really need it, put it in pile three. Do this for each item until pile two is gone. Take all the items in pile one and put them back in your gear closet so you can take them on your next trip. Take all the items in pile three and absorb them back into your life at home. Do not plan to take those items again because you already asked yourself if you really needed the items, and you told yourself “No.”

If you follow this process to the letter, as I do on each trip, you should not have a pile three after enough trips.

Here’s a secret: I always have a pile three after each trip—even if I have only an item or two. If after your next trip you still have a pile three, don’t be too rough on yourself. It happens to the best of us.

We want to have fun on our trips, so we tend to take items with us that are fun but not really needed, which is human nature. But these items take up space and add weight, so just decide what you really really really need on a trip. Look back at Chapter Five to review the list to help with your decision.

Good luck and let me know how your progress is going. I hope you get a lighter pack.