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Imagine sitting down for the first time in 5 miles, as you take a break from the trek to your next campsite. The sun is beating, and you’re thirsty, but what’s this? You left your water bottle at the bottom of your backpack? Oh no, looks like you’re going to have to unpack (and repack) all of your gear just to get to it.

It’s the little things like these that will make you glad you learned how to pack a backpack correctly. To give you all the tips you need, here’s a quick guide to help you get moving in the right direction.

Get a Proper Backpack

group of backpackers walking through a mountain ridge

First things first, make sure you get yourself a proper backpack. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to backpacks, so there are two primary factors to consider: fit and volume.

Fit

How well a backpack fits will determine how comfortable you are on your hike. If it’s too snug or too loose, hangs a little low or comes up too high, you’ll be in for a miserable hike. Most packs come in three sizes so that you have room for adjustments, but it’s still recommended that you seek an outfitter for proper measurements. Here are a few points to consider:

  • Most of the weight should rest on your hips. In fact, roughly 80% of the weight should be on your hips. You might have thought your shoulders would take the brunt of this pressure, but if they did, you’d be in agony for your entire trip. So to get the best fit, always adjust your hip strap first.

  • Tighten the shoulder straps next. But make sure you don’t pull them too tight, otherwise some weight will be taken from your hips and put onto your shoulders. Ultimately, these straps should feel comfortable on your body with no gaps above the shoulders.

  • Clip your sternum strap. It should sit about one inch below your collarbone, providing extra support and balance. Make sure it’s tight enough to rest flat and taut against your chest, but not tight enough to impede your breathing.

  • Be conscious of where the backpack is regularly rubbing against your body. These places might become hotspots over time, indicating that the pack isn’t a good fit for you, or needs to be adjusted further.

Volume

Volume refers to the amount of space inside of your pack, usually measured in liters. The backpack needs to be large enough to store all of your gear, but not too large, otherwise you’ll be lugging around useless weight. Generally speaking, 45-65 liters is going to be your sweet spot for most trips. Obviously, you can go bigger or smaller as well, depending on how much (or little) you plan to take with you.

Grab Your Gear

man standing on a mountain with a backpack while holding a red sleeping bag

If you want to know how to pack a backpack, first you need to know what to bring. Again, most of this will depend on what type of trip you’re planning. But there are some things that most of you will want to bring no matter what, including:

These are just the essentials, but you’ll probably want to bring a headlamp with you as well. For warm weather backpacking, you can get away with fewer layers and a quilt to sleep in, but things change once you enter the shoulder months. Especially if you plan to trek at higher elevations.

For colder, more unpredictable climates, you’ll want to bring a mid and outer layer to wear. A cold weather sleeping bag will help you fall asleep (and stay asleep), and you may consider bringing something like long johns to sleep in. Of course, don’t forget your hat and wool socks too.

For a more complete backpacking checklist, hop on over to our guide HERE.

How to Pack a Backpack

Packing the Bottom

You’ll want to be careful when you pack the bottom of your backpack, because you’re essentially sealing away anything that gets shoved down there. Unless you feel like unpacking the rest of your gear, you won’t be able to get at the items packed at the bottom.

To minimize the need for reorganization, most backpackers will put the things at the bottom that they know they won’t need during the day. This includes their sleeping bag, pillow, air mattress, extra pairs of clothing, and other mid-weight items that won’t be touched until they’ve made camp again.

And it’s important to remember that the bottom should only be reserved for mid-weight objects in particular. If you go any heavier, all of that weight will be sitting on your lower back, which can cause pain and discomfort after enough time. Not to mention, things like your sleeping bag and pillow will provide a nice cushion for the rest of your gear, and you won’t be using them until nighttime anyway.

Packing the Middle

man in a gray jacket carrying a red backpack

Alright, now it’s time to load up the middle of your backpack. We’ll be dividing this area into two sections – middle front and middle back.

Middle Front

This is the area in the middle that’s farthest away from your back. You’ll want to put your lightest items here, otherwise you’ll throw your center of gravity off. Toiletries, a towel, your pillow, and a change of clothes are all great items to slip in this section of your backpack. In addition to slotting in smaller pieces of gear, you can also use this opportunity to cushion and insulate some of your clunkier items. Slipping a towel or some of clothes between your hard and heavy gear will prevent it from sliding around, making noise, or getting beat up while you walk.

Middle Back

This is the area in the middle that’s closest to your back. Your heaviest items will want to go here, to keep the center of gravity close to your body, so your pack won’t swing around while you walk. Ideally, you’ll be able to put your tent body (and poles, if there’s room), cooking gear, stove with fuel, water reservoir, and food in this place. Just keep in mind that you’ll still have a hard time retrieving items from here during the day, so only put food here that you don’t plan to use until dinner or on a different day.

Packing the Top

When referring to the top of the pack, we’ll be mentioning both the inside of the pack and the lid that covers it. This is where your frequently used items should be placed, so that you’ll have easy access to them at a moment’s notice. Your headlamp, snacks, first aid, sunscreen, rain jacket, compass, and possibly water treatment (depending on its size) should go up here.

If you still have extra room up there, consider placing some of your other lightweight items in this area too, such as lip balm, toilet paper, and a camera. Just don’t overpack, otherwise you run the risk becoming top heavy.

Packing the Accessory Pockets and Straps

a group of trekkers walking through the mountains with backpacks and poles

Don’t forget to make use of all the other pockets, loops, and pouches when you’re packing your backpack. For example, you’ll want to keep your water bottle in one of the outer side pockets – a small umbrella could also find its home here.

There are also pockets in the hip belt that create a handy storage area for an energy bar, a small knife, small camera, or phone. On the body of the backpack, you’ll also find a front pouch, often referred to as a kangaroo pocket since it’s made from stretchy mesh. I don’t use it too often, but it can be a convenient place to store something like a rain jacket, hand sanitizer, or a small trowel to use when nature calls.

And then there are the loops and cinch cords, which I’ve always found to be the most useful external storage locations. Oftentimes, you just can’t fit all the big stuff directly inside your backpack. The tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and cooking gear would barely leave enough room for you to shove anything else inside. That’s why I make it a point to strap my sleeping pad and tent poles to the top and bottom of my backpack. They don’t really need to be protected from the elements, and keeping them on the outside really opens up a lot of space inside the pack.

Packing Systems

Now that you know how to pack a backpack, let’s take it one step further and create an organization system. There is no “right way” to organize your gear, but there are pros and cons to doing it certain ways. Some people don’t like to use stuff sacks, Ziploc bags, or other containers because they add weight. Others use them religiously (like me) in order to keep similar items grouped together, so they always know where everything is.

Even if you’re somewhat against the idea of using storage containers, I would suggest you still use them for some things. Compression sacks are great for your sleeping bag and clothing, allowing you to keep more space open for other items inside your backpack. And when you’re in bear country, it’s always wise to keep food items and other smelly objects (like toothpaste) inside an odor proof bag. If you brought a bear canister along, you can stuff these items inside there as well.

Waterproof Your Pack

man standing in the mountains with an orange backpack and red coat

With a backpack that’s been nicely packed, there’s one more thing to think about before hitting the trails. You bring a rain jacket for you, but what about your pack? Wet gear is a surefire way to have a miserable backpacking experience, so you’ll want to take measures to prevent that from happening.

Buying a good waterproof rain cover will save you a lot of hassle later on. If you plan on spending any significant amount of time backpacking, I guarantee you’ll get caught in the rain sooner or later. Most backpack rain covers are cheap, but even if they weren’t, I’d still suggest getting one. And if you really want to be prepared, consider adding a coat of waterproofing spray onto your new backpack rain cover for added coverage.


Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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