How to pack your backpack

An improperly packed backpack can not only be uncomfortable, but it can cause muscle strain, injury, headaches and trip stifling pain. A pack that’s off balance or fits loosely can result in loss of momentum, which tires you out sooner, or may even result in a fall. A fall with a heavy pack on can be devastating. Let’s take a few moments to investigate how one should properly pack a backpack for your next, or first, trip. Your body will thank you.


Primarily goal:

You’ll want to make sure that any heavy items in your backpack will be low, and close to your body. This will increase your stability on the trail, as packing heavy items up high creates a high of a center of balance. This will make negotiating with fallen logs, steep steps, and ridges a challenge and can even be dangerous. These bulkier items will typically be your sleeping bag, tent, and of course water. You don’t want to over stuff any particular area of your backpack, as this will cause bulges that will create uncomfortable lumps against your back, especially if you have a thin pack with a weak frame. Items that you’ll need often should be packed high or in easy to access pockets around your pack. Generally, you’ll want to avoid packing items on the outside of your backpack, as swaying will drain your momentum as the items swing, and you may snag and tear items that are not protected from the pack. This is especially risky if the outside items are tents or sleeping pads.

How to pack a backpack
Bottom up: Sleeping bag, tent, sleeping pad, pillow, sack of essentials, rain gear (outside pocket), cooking equipment, headlamp and fire starter (in pockets). The items in the photo align with where they should resign in your pack.

Sleeping bags will typically be the first thing you place into your backpack. Using a compression sack, cinch down your sleeping bag to a size that fits into the very bottom of your pack, and stuff it in as far as you can. Usually, a more horizontal layout will work best. Having the sleeping bag here will serve a few purposes: it’s usually the last thing you need out of your pack, and it’s usually one of the heaviest items you pack. I recommend using a water proof compression sack, as you need to protect your sleeping bag from the elements. Even a rain cover isn’t adequate here, as rain will run down your back, and absorb directly into your sleeping bag from the back panel of your backpack.

Tents and shelter normally go in next. Don’t use the stuff sack that your tent came in. This will create bulk, and take up way too much space. Instead, simply stuff the tent fabric inside your backpack as far down as you can get it (not the tent poles and stakes), and use it to fill in any gaps that your sleeping bag may have created. As for the tent poles, often sliding these in vertically is your best bet. Slipping them in in the gap between the back of the backpack and your sleeping bag usually works pretty well, and keeps these weight close to your back. Stakes can be used to fill in small gaps in your backpack (as a whole, not individually). Need more internal space? You can also slide these into the water bottle pockets of your backpack, using your compression straps to secure them in place. Some exceptions can be made here. Sometimes you’ll anticipate lots of rain on a trip, and you may not want to dig through your backpack to find your tent. Instead, you may opt to sacrifice some stability in exchange for easy access, and strap the tent to the outside of your backpack. Some, not all, backpacks have straps that can be used for this purpose.

Sleeping pads, pillows, extra clothes and other less accessed items should go in next. These are things that you may not need until you get to camp.  You can safely store these items in just about any way you want, but they should be inside the large internal storage of your backpack. Again, do not rely on a pack cover to protect these items from the rain, especially your extra socks and underwear. A waterproof roll sack will do a good job, and weighs very little.

Food, stoves, cookware, bear canisters and the like will need to go in next. These are items that you will access often, such as when cooking or preparing meals, grabbing snacks, or filtering water. While these can be bulky and heavy, you’ll want to store these on top for the sake of convenience. You do not want to dig to the bottom of your backpack in a rain storm looking for that bag of rice. Be careful that your cookware is stored in a way that it will not pose a danger to puncturing other items, such as your water bladder or rain jacket.

Quick access items like rain jackets, fleece, gloves, headlamps, compass, map, bug spray and other items That you may need at a moments notice have many options. You’ll want to store these where you can get to them. Many packs offer stretch rear pockets that are great for rain jackets and gloves. If you don’t have a easily accessible spot, you can store these in the top of your primary compartment. Headlamps, maps, compass, and all of these items should go in smaller compartments, or in the lid of your backpack. If this isn’t an option, you will need to find somewhere you can store them to get to them quickly. A cargo pocket, or hip belt pocket is a great place for your compass and map.

Note the consistency of how things are packed. No bulges, and pack space is used entirely.
Note the consistency of how things are packed. No bulges, and pack space is used entirely. I could have packed everything lower, but instead filled the pack, keeping it closer to my body for a better center of gravity. 

Other packing tips:

After you’ve pack your items away, compress your backpack down using the tension straps located around your backpack. This will hold your gear in place, stabilize your load, and prevent sway.

Bug spray should be stored inside a water proof container, such as a Zip Lock bag, in case of leakage. Especially that of the Deet variety, as it can actually dissolve some materials such as nylon and similar plastics.

I always recommend packing food alone in it’s own waterproof container. This not only protects the food, but protects your pack from leaks and crumbs, which add scents to your backpack and creates temptation for little critters to eat their way through.

If you pack your backpack, and the bottom is loaded to the point that it’s rounding out, and you have some room in the top, decompress some of the items and allow them to fill the space of your pack. This will allow the pack to maintain it’s natural shape, it will feel more comfortable, and the weight will sit closer to your back.

Don’t overload your backpack. Packs are meant to hold a certain amount of weight, and beyond that the frame will not provide enough support.

Although ideally, you want everything to fit inside your backpack, some items like foam sleeping pads will only fit outside of your pack.

Remember, how you pack your backpack is ultimately up to you. Experiment, and find a way that works for you.


2 thoughts on “How to pack your backpack

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