Photo: Forest Woodward

“How much farther do we have to go?” our participants ask, desperation on their faces. The sun is still high in the bright blue sky, light filtering and dancing through the forest as we ascend to the sub-alpine of British Columbia’s Coast Range. Burdened by the unfamiliar and unruly weight on their backs and suffering through quarter-sized blisters on their soft feet, the girls aren’t sold on the joys of backpacking quite yet.

Photo Courtesy Of Beyond Malibu

“It’s within walking distance!” is Alissa’s favorite response, said with a smile. She understands the agony, the barely bearable feeling of a backpack on the first day. Yet experience reassures her that it’s not forever. At camp that evening, the once heavy foe becomes a resourceful friend, revealing warm layers, satiating snacks, books, journals and cards. Soon our participants will be nestled in cozy camp chairs, warm beverages in hand and liberated feet in tow, experiencing their first taste of true backpacker’s amnesia.

Alissa Swank knows how to backpack in style. For years we worked together as guides at a mountaineering camp for high school students; she was one I always looked to for tips on how to bring comfort and class to the mountains.

All of us know to pack the requisite tent, sleeping bag, pad, stove and food. But what else might we add to our small list of possessions for the trip? Alissa has narrowed her “luxury” items down to five categories: comfort, entertainment, organization, ambiance, and fun food. While keeping in mind that your items might look different, these groupings will help you pack for your next adventure.

Clockwise from the top: Therma-Rest chair, watercolor supplies, Therma-Rest NeoAir XLite, rain jacket, water bottle, multi-purpose cup/bowl, Therma-Rest sleeping bag, puffy jacket, MSR pot (with popcorn!), MSR Pocket Rocket, propane, hat, approach shoes, sunglasses, waterproof clothes bag, tent, down booties, dopp kit, Alissa with her Therma-Rest pillow. Photo: Jenny Abegg

  1. 1. Comfort: Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow & Chair Kit

Photo: Forest Woodward

Sure, you can make a pillow out of a clothes bag stuffed with your dirty socks and underwear, maybe wrapped in your down puffy, but let’s be honest: is the jacket pillow ever that comfortable? Packing a Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow assures a good night’s sleep; equally as indispensable is the Therm-a-Rest Chair Kit that turns a sleeping mattress upright for some comfy lounging. There’s no reason not to add mere ounces to your load when they can provide this much comfort and relaxation.

  1. Entertainment/Creativity: Watercolors 

Photo: Jenny Abegg

When inspiration strikes in the mountains, you never want to be found empty-handed. Watercolors and paper, a journal, harmonica, whittling knife, or crosswords—small items can provide hours of fun!

  1. Organization: Dopp Kit 

Photo: Jenny Abegg

Alissa makes her own Dopp kits (check her out on Etsy!) that combine function, waterproofing and style. Stuff sacks of different sizes can also be helpful for organizing various items, packing up and keeping everything dry. Here’s a tip: the bigger your stuff sack for clothing (you can even use large trash compactor bags!), the easier it is to stuff items in cracks and corners for a well-organized pack.

  1. Ambiance: Candles 

Photo Courtesy Of Beyond Malibu

In the wilderness, little touches can go a long way. You may be a purist and choose to enjoy your beautiful surroundings as is, which certainly has its time and place. But perhaps you enjoy adding a little ambiance—a lantern or candles, a small speaker or a bottle of hooch. Hanging out with friends around a glowing orb with a few fun supplies trumps circling up in the darkness every time.

  1. Fun Food: Popcorn

Photo Courtesy Of Beyond Malibu

Freeze dried meals can get old, and when you have some time on your hands and creativity in the reserves, preparing food can be a fun way to spend time in the mountains. After all, you’re always hungry. In addition to elaborate dinners, Alissa has fun getting creative, surprising her participants with rice crispy treats, chilled-in-the-snow pudding, or even Easter egg hunts. One of her favorite snacks is popcorn, made perfectly when shaken over the camp stove with a little oil or butter.

Back at basecamp, crisp air moves up the coastal inlet and through the forest, hinting at the passing of summer. A week of mountain adventure has come and gone. New groups now arrive via boat, landing on the wooden dock smelling fresh and looking eager. Under canopies of maple and cedar trees, we circle the participants up and go through their packs, helping distribute the weight correctly and surveying the contents. Sticks of deodorant and cell phones are thrown to the wayside (to the dismay of the teenage girls) and journals, layers, and food are often added. These are changes that alter the quality and dynamics of the coming week, and this is no different on a personal backpacking trip. What we pack matters. So, what will you choose to bring with you on your next trip?