How to Pack a Backpack

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It seems deceptively simple: you’ve got your big new backpack, probably 65 or 70 liters, maybe even more than that — how hard can it be to get everything you need into that big sack?

The answer is, harder than you think. Keeping your pack balanced with easy access to the things you need over the course of the day isn’t rocket science, but it takes a bit of forethought. There are plenty of ways to plan out how you’re going to make sure your pack is set up for your success. My personal favorite is the ABCs. Read on to learn how to pack a backpack for hiking and backpacking trips.

How to pack a backpack

Accessibility

As you start packing your pack up at the trailhead, or after breakfast on day 10, the accessibility of your items is going to be one of your first thoughts. What can you afford to stuff into the bottom of your bag? What needs to be easily available to you throughout the day? 

The first item into my bag is almost always my dirty clothing, followed by my sleeping bag and pad (both water-proofed by a trash-bag for safety, of course). Following these, if I’m responsible for it, are the soft bits of my tent (rainfly, tarp, etc.), and then maybe some other group gear I’m taking that day. All of these are things that I most likely will not need until I am stopped for the night, and therefore are good candidates for getting stuffed into the harder-to-reach parts of my pack.

On the other hand, the last things to go into my pack are water, fuel containers, med supplies, maps, snacks, headlamp, permits, and sun protection. All of these are things I will want easy access to throughout my hiking day and generally live in the brain of my pack (the brain being the detachable part on the very top). These most accessible of items will be a combination of things you’ll need regularly (like a map) and things you’ll want for safety (water, sunscreen, med kit, rain jacket, etc.). Make sure you keep any medications or other things you personally may need in an emergency accessible to you!

Balance

Packing a pack is not just about the order you’ll need things though: you’ll also want to pack in a way that will keep you comfortable throughout the day. The key to that is making sure your pack is balanced.  

To do this, you’ll want to make sure the weight of your pack is centered and not making you top-heavy, or pulling you down. By packing generally heavier items in the center of your pack and close your back, and lighter items on the top, bottom, and outside of your pack, the weight will be centered close to you, and in the place that is most ergonomic. 

If you’re backpacking with a bear can it’s almost always your heaviest item: packing your bear can after your sleeping bag, so it’s not on the very bottom of your bag, but before your accessible warm layers, so you can stuff smaller soft layers around the outside and top of your bag, will help keep the bear can centered in your bag. Stuffing extra clothes and gear in the sides will help keep the bear can from leaning to the left or right.

If you’re not taking a bear can, trying to consolidate your food, cooking gear, and any other heavy items in the middle and center of your pack is going to be a lifesaver by the end of the day. Over the course of a long hiking day, a balanced pack can be the difference between a hard day and real physical pain or injury.

Compression

While accessibility and balance are all very well and good, knowing where you want your gear and getting it into your pack can be two very different games. I like to joke that packing my bag always leaves me a little sweaty — and it’s honestly not much of a joke. As someone who can get a bit obsessive about doing stuff right, packing a bag is a pretty physical task. I want to make sure that every nook and cranny of my pack is stuffed with something, all my clothes are smooshed into their smallest forms, and my pack is cinched down to a sleek, small, manageable form. 

While getting obsessive about it may not ultimately be productive, making sure that your stuff is packed tightly and you’re utilizing all of the external straps that will further compress your pack is well worth it. Not only does it help make sure you have room for everything you need to bring, but it will also keep your pack more balanced and comfortable over the course of your trip. 

Related to the idea of compression is the suggestion to minimize what you tuck into the outside pockets of your pack. I try to keep a water filter and my tent poles in the larger outside pocket of my pack: other than that, everything goes inside the body, brain, or hip pockets of my bag. I have a strong personal “No Danglies” rule — in my experience it only takes a few snags on bushes, or dropping your mug once, to make danglies seem like a bad idea. 

So …

While the ABCs are far from a comprehensive list of the things, they’re a great tool and the main principles of packing for a backpack. The truth is, over the course of a trip, packing and unpacking your pack becomes second nature. Especially on longer trips, you’ll quickly learn what you wish you hadn’t stuffed to the bottom of your bag, and what fits well where. You’ll learn what you want in your hip pockets (chapstick maybe? Your toilet paper baggie?) and what you want in your brain (lunch? Your naturalist’s guide to the area?), and where you can shove your dirty socks where you won’t run into them. It’s part of the fun of backpacking, and part of the awesome rhythm of being on a trip. And while it can seem frustrating or daunting, it’s really not: your just shoving your stuff in a bag. 

You got this.