How to Pack a Backpack
When you’re on the trail, your backpack will carry everything that you need to sustain yourself for days or even weeks in the wilderness. How you pack all those items on a daily basis is going to be important for efficiency and enjoyment.
Packing your bag poorly can lead to painful poking in your back or a lopsided pack, which will be very uncomfortable while you hike. You’ll also find that a poorly packed bag will lead to lots of wasted time.
Having to dump out most of your pack because something you need in the bottom of your bag can be quite annoying.
After you’ve done that a few times, like all experienced backpackers have, you’ll quickly develop a system for packing your bag efficiently.
In general, carrying light loads and minimizing the amount of gear that you take on backpacking trips will make packing your bag easier. A bag without a lot of extra gear will greatly reduce clutter.
Every experienced backpacker has their own method for packing their backpack. The more practice you get, the better you’ll become at packing your bag in a way that best fits your style.
When you get really good at it, you’ll know where everything is in your bag, you’ll be able to pack up all your gear quickly, and you’ll rarely have pull an item from the bottom of your bag.
- Use hip pockets for items that you’ll need during your hike.
- Gear that you’ll need in camp should be placed towards the bottom.
- Gear that you may need during the day should go towards the top.
- Heavy items should generally be placed close to your back.
- Lighter items can be placed farther away from your back.
- Keep your stove fuel away from your food.
- Keep an equal balance in your pack so one side isn’t heavier than the other.
- Don't hang items off the back of your pack if at all possible.
Here’s an example of how I typically pack my bag on an average 3-5 day trip:
1) Hip belt and shoulder strap pockets:
I usually start by packing my hip belt and shoulder strap pockets for the day. These pockets are always easily accessible, so they’re a great place to put small, important items that you’ll need throughout the day.
In one hip pocket, I’ll put a few bars and snacks because it’s important to have lots of small meals throughout the day.
In my other hip pocket I always carry sunscreen and lip balm along with my knife, a small lighter, and my headlamp.
If I have room and the trip necessitates it, I might also carry my compass, bug spray, and hand sanitizer in my hip pockets for easy access.
I use my shoulder strap pouch to cary my camera and sunglasses, which are also items that I use constantly throughout the day.
My shoulder pouch is easily accessible and a more protected area than my hip belt pouches, which rest on the ground when I take my pack off.
2) Main body of my backpack:
Remember that with an ultralight backpack, you’ll probably have a more minimal frame. If you’re not careful, you may end up with items that form weird pressure points in your back and you’ll have to readjust.
The bottom of your pack is a good place to store gear that you won’t be needing throughout the day.
I always put my sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack first, which is a common approach. Consider leaving your sleeping bag’s stuff sack at home, because you probably won’t need to use it on your trip and you’ll free up additional space in your pack.
If it looks like rain, now would be a good time to line the inside of your pack with a trash bag, to add additional protection to your sleeping bag, which is one of the most important items in your pack to keep dry.
Next, you’ll want to continue packing the main body of your bag with items that you won’t need until camp. Your sleeping pad, cookpot/stove, and your shelter should go in next, assuming your shelter is dry.
If your shelter is wet, you can put it in the mesh outside pocket of your pack to help it dry out and to keep the rest of your gear from getting wet. You can put the poles and stakes of your shelter on the outside of your pack for convenience.
The next items that I generally pack are my puffy coat and my extra clothes bag, which I rarely need until I get into camp for the night. If the weather looks nice, I’ll pack my raincoat in too.
Then I put in my food bag, which I’ll have to pull out for lunch, but there won’t be too much gear above it. If you pack your food bag on the very top of your pack, it will heat up from the sun and some items will melt.
If you’re sharing food with a partner, consider breaking your food into two bags, one with dinner and breakfast and one with lunch and snacks.
That way one of you can put the dinner and breakfast at the bottom of your pack, because you will only need those items in camp, and you can put your lunch and snacks closer to the top of your bag.
The last things I usually put in my main compartment are my rain gear and a stuff sack with items that I might need during the day, like my first aid kit, toiletries, duct tape, and Ziploc bags.
Stuff sacks are good for organization but don’t overdo it. I like to carry a couple of different colored stuff sacks for organization, but I rarely put larger items in stuff sacks.
3) Mesh outer pocket and water bottle holders:
The mesh area on the outside of your pack is a great place to store gear that you want easily accessible, but won’t often need to grab while hiking.
It’s also a great place to put wet items, like your shelter or wet clothing that you’re trying to dry while you hike.
I often carry my map in a waterproof case in my mesh back pocket. If I’m hiking with a partner, they can easily grab it out, and it I’m not, I can swing my pack around to grab it if necessary.
I also often carry my water filter in my back mesh pocket for easy access on quick breaks. I generally also put my trash bag, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer in my back mesh pocket as well.
Many ultralight backpacks also have external loops that are great for carrying your trekking poles or ice axe when they’re not in use.
For water, I rarely find that I need to carry more than 3-4 liters when I hike, so I always use the water bottle holsters on the sides of my pack.
If I’ll be camping at a dry campsite or going on a long dry stretch, I fill up my entire water supply at the last reliable source and make sure to drink until I’m well hydrated.
Some hikers use water batters in their backpacks while they hike, but that’s generally not my style. If you do this, be very careful about gear that could poke a hole in your bladder and cause a leak in your bag.
When you‘re done packing your bag, make sure to tighten any compression straps that seem loose to pull the weight closer to your back.
Always try to avoid hanging extra items from the outside of your pack. They will sway from side to side while you hike which can throw off your balance, can make unwanted noise, and can snag on tree limbs or brush.
Now your bag is packed up efficiently, you’re ready for a fantastic day on the trail!