by Diane Spicer
Packing a backpack seems like a no brainer.
Just dump your heavy hiking gear in the bottom of your pack, and light stuff on top, right?
Or maybe the least used gear on the bottom?
What about bulky but lightweight gear like a sleeping pad?
Hmm, the tent never changes size or weight, so where does it fit best?
And where should the food go?
Wow, perhaps there's a bit more to packing a hiking backpack than you'd first think.
But you're in the right place. These tips on packing a backpack will get you ready for the trail in no time flat.
Kinda hard to pack when you don't have a pack, right?
If you need some tips on how to buy the best backpack for your hiking trip, read this.
Wondering if you've got everything you need?
Here's all of the best hiking gear.
If weight is a big concern for a lengthy hiking trip, read these pointers for lightweight backpacking gear.
Now that we've got that all squared away...
how to pack your backpack pointers, in three easy steps.
The very first step in learning how to pack your backpack might be counter-intuitive:
Instead, do this:
To make packing your backpack even more precise, a pre-step is to go over all of your gear, even the new stuff.
Look for rips, abrasions, frayed seams, poor stitching, non working zippers or fasteners, or anything else that would cause you trouble or discomfort on the trail.
Think beyond good weather scenarios. It's important to determine if your current gear would stand up to wind, rain, snow, extreme heat or other conditions.
Stand up and take a long, hard look at your circle.
You'll notice that some of your hiking gear is bulky but compressible (jackets, sleeping bag).
Some of it has a fixed size (cook pots, stove, water bottles, tent).
And some of it is "stuffable" into the nooks and crannies of your pack (rain fly, clothing, food bags).
Go ahead and sort your gear into those 3 categories by making three big messy heaps.
You'll tidy up in the next step.
To reduce the volume of your bulky gear as much as possible as you're packing a backpack, use stuff sacks and compression sacks.
Already dialed in on what those are? Skip down to the next step.
To give you a thorough answer to that question, let's look at some examples of each of these storage options before you begin packing a backpack.
Stuff gets stuffed into your stuff bags, you pull the draw string closed and lock it with a plastic cord lock, and voila! everything is in one neat, compact parcel.
Now you can stuff it into your pack wherever it will fit.
But there's more to it than that.
You can go two ways with purchasing a stuff sack:
reasonably water repellent
and available in various colors and volumes
like this REI Co-op Durable Stuff Sack.
Just a bit more costly but ultralightweight (meaning less fabric and therefore a higher probability of tearing) and weather resistant, made of sil nylon with reinforced seams.
You may want a bag that can take the punishment of being used as a food bag ("bear bag" hanging from a tree) like this Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Stuff Sack.
Both of these examples have something you really want:
You can also attach a carabiner to the pull handle to hang it, like this Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate Locking Carabiner from REI Co-op.
Always have at least 2 carabiners clipped onto your pack. You never know when they'll come in handy, but they will, trust me!
Compression sacks are different from stuff sacks because they have at least 3 straps that run from one end to the other, with a handle on each that you pull as tightly as possible.
Water repellent compression sacks like this Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Compression Sack are good enough if you're going to keep the sack inside of your waterproof backpack or double walled tent at all times.
Step up to water proof compression sacks like these if you absolutely want to remove the possibility of moisture.
I use three different volumes (color coded) of compression sacks on my trips to segregate my socks and underwear, bulkier clothing, and sleeping bag.
Let the name reassure you that whatever you put into it - food, socks, maps, electronics - will stay dry.
But expect to pay more for this reassurance, because the materials need to be durable and able to omit water under tough conditions.
my humble opinion, investing a few more dollars into a dry bag gives me
peace of mind as I'm packing a backpack to head off into wet or wintry wilds.
bags make great food storage containers that you can hang easily with a
D ring on one end, or a carabiner that you bring along (see above for a
Not sure about food handling precautions at your campsite?
Here's good advice from REI.
You don't need a compression dry bag for food (crunch!).
But this Sea to Summit eVAC Dry Sack from REI Co-op will make sure your nutrients don't spontaneously rehydrate in a downpour.
It also has a vent that helps drive air out, sparing you the indignity of kneeling on the bag.
Be sure to turn down the top on a dry bag at least 3 times to ensure a watertight seal, and keep it away from sharp rocks.
For a compression dry sack that is as lightweight as possible, try this Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Dry Sack.
It makes packing a backpack even easier.
And it's fun to see how small your gear can become, leaving lots of room in your backpack for everything on your gear list.
Now that you've tamed your volume problem, turn your attention to putting your gear into your pack.
We'll assume that you have a top loading backpack, and that you're packing a backpack at home rather than at a campsite.
Your spine is what's most important here.
Use it as a reference point to steer by as you are packing a backpack.
Now let's get to work.
Now shift your attention to your center of gravity - the area closest to your spine.
Heavy items like food and water (hydration reservoir) should be layered above that bottom layer near your back.
To keep these heavier items from shifting, stuff more clothing or your tent/rain fly/tarp around them.
Always segregate your fuel bottle from your food:
If you use an inexpensive roll up sleeping bag pad like this one, you will attach it to the outside of the pack with straps when you're all done packing a backpack.
If you use an inflatable sleeping bag pad, you can use one of the external pockets for storage, or stand it up lengthwise inside the pack if it fits.
If it's really tiny, it rides along with your sleeping bag at the bottom.
Here's a great tiny and lightweight choice: Sea to Summit UltraLight Sleeping Pad
The large top zippered pocket(s) will hold your frequently used gear:
Smaller pockets hold your first aid kit, bug repellent and head lamp - items you hope not to need but want to get to fast when you do.
Store your very small personal hygiene kit in a zippered pouch inside a zip locked plastic bag to minimize odors.
Have your rain gear handy in an external pocket, especially if the weather is unpredictable.
Don't be the hiker digging through the backpack in a downpour, getting everything wet and risking hypothermia.
Decide where tent poles will go: inside the pack, in an external pocket lashed down tightly, or under the top lid of the pack (not recommended, as their stuff sack is slippery).
Ditto for hiking poles, although it's easiest to put them, tips up, into an outside pocket so you can grab them fast.
My personal preference:
Avoid having lots of things attached to the outside of your pack because they snag and catch on things along the trail, causing a loss of balance and/or reduced stride length.
Don't clip or hang cups or bottles or pots on the outside of the pack for the same reasons.
Plus it just looks
and sounds junky!
Don't neglect to snug up the compression straps on the outside of your pack once you're finished loading up.
Anything else sharp (crampons, microspikes, tools) needs to be wrapped in protective materials and stowed inside your pack, or on the outside of the pack with the tips covered.
Carry duct tape wrapped around a water bottle or hiking pole in an external pocket for field repairs.
Once there are no items of hiking gear left around you in your circle of spilled gear, and you feel good about your packing job, put on your pack and take a walk.
This is called a gear shake down hike, and that's exactly its purpose: to probe for where things seems a little shaky!
Imagine your load moving with you as you visualize yourself crossing a slippery log or clambering over rocks.
In the rain.
It's much better to figure out that your packing job is less than stellar on a shake down hike, than to set yourself up for a miserable first day on your backpacking trip, right?
Packing a backpack in three easy steps - can't get much easier than that.
You've invested time and effort, and that marks you as a smart hiker.
Now you've got a foolproof backpack packing system that will make you smile on the trail.
Need a review of the steps in packing a backpack?
Memorize what goes where, make a sketch or take a photo, or write it down for future trips.
Why reinvent that particular wheel?
Then you can concentrate on more important things, like your delicious backpacking menu.
Packing A Backpack In 3 Easy Steps
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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