Jun 29, 20183000 views

How To Properly Pack Your Backpack

Ask a group of backpackers how they pack their bags and you’ll receive a wide variety of answers. While each person has their own personal preference, there are some general rules of thumb that serve well, especially for novices just learning the art. Packed well, your load should feel balanced and stable, with little sway as you stand.
Choose appropriate gear
Every trip has unique demands. Choosing the appropriate pack for the outing will keep you honest on your packing list and save your shoulders unnecessary weight. Obviously, the longer the outing, the larger your pack size will be. Winter months will require more warm (and bulky) layers, as well as potentially more gear like snowshoes or traction devices. Consider trip-specific challenges or special needs and pack accordingly. If you are traveling with a group, collaborate to reduce gear duplication. Does every person need their own stove and cookset? What gear items can be shared to reduce overall weight for everyone? Where I live in the often grey Pacific Northwest, rain is always a possibility regardless of season. I like to use a heavy duty contractor-grade trash bag to line my pack, placing items within it. It’s a lightweight solution that adds an extra layer of protection against the type of weather that is common up here.
Lay It Out
Once you’ve settled on a pack, lay out all the gear you think you’ll need for your travel. I like to arrange my gear layout by function: sleep system (tent, sleeping bag/pad, sleeping clothes), food (cook-set, stove, bear canister, meals, snacks), hydration, first aid, etc. Grouping items can help you see gaps in your preparation more quickly. It also helps to combine items for streamlined packing. Long underwear for sleeping can be stuffed into the sleeping bag compression sack, for example. Your stove may ride inside the cookpot, along with a small cleaning cloth, lighter, and spoon.
Bottom Third
Before getting started, it’s important to remember to fill and load your water bladder first if you are using one. Trying to push a wiggly water pouch into a loaded backpack is like trying to push a rope. It doesn’t work well! With that out of the way, the bottom of your pack is the perfect place to put items you won’t use until camp. If your sleeping pad rolls up small, this is a good place for it. Sleeping bags fit well here, and warm layers as well as camp booties can be stuffed into the crevices to make a solid base for the rest of your gear.
Middle Third
Heavy gear that won’t necessarily be needed during the day should go in the central zone. Keeping your center of gravity close on your back can reduce strain and overall instability. Weight too low on your back can cause discomfort, and weight too high can make you more prone to tipping. Bear canisters full of heavy food, cooksets and stoves, and fuel are all good candidates for the central zone. Be sure to pack any liquid fuels separately and below food in case of leaks.
Top Third
This is the zone for all the items you think you might need access to during your hike. Most backpacks have a zippered pouch at the top that is perfect for sunglasses, sunscreen, chapstick, map, and light snacks. At the top of the main compartment is a good location for your rain jacket, water filter, and bathroom supplies. My personal preference is to place my first aid kit directly on top here for easy access in case of an emergency.
Outside The Pack
Most backpacks have loops and extra straps for attaching unwieldy gear like ice axes, trekking poles, or crampons. Camp stools, climbing ropes, and bulkier sleeping pads can all find their home on the outside of your pack. Be mindful that gear here can easily snag on overhanging brush. Protective stuff sacks can reduce damage for items that may rip easily. Overall, limiting what you strap on to the outside of your pack is a good general rule.

Do you have any packing tips you’d like to share? How does your packing compare? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!
Mark Garcia, torymuller, and 10 others

Only thing I'd add to that is leaving extra space. Obviously the outside of a pack are great for storing quick access items like rain coat etc. But you might also want to store something there i.e. food, tinder (if you are the Bushcrafting type), or wet gear you want to dry out (tent fly, wet clothes etc). I picked up this habit when I was starting out with bikepacking. I had decided not to cook food, to keep my load light, so that meant stopping for each meal, instead of bring something to camp with me (and also waking up early to find breakfast). Now I tend to leave at least a few liters of empty space in my gear (hiking, or biking). Or leave an outside pocket free for any incidental requirements.
The inside items are all the items I want protected from the weather and do not need till camp. The only things on the outside of my pack are actually inside , sort of. I'm referring to the mesh pocket on the front of my pack. If the rain fly for the hammock is wet or damp it goes in that outside pocket. Water filter along with the trowel for cat holes. Anything else that requires easy to get to like rain gear. The two shoulder strap pouches are for snacks during the day and incidentals I might need. The two side pockets of the pack are for water bottles and sometimes the water filter goes i there.
Securing a Compression/Dry Bag with Sleeping Bag/Pad/Long Johns, Tent and Towel to the bottom, outside of the pack is the best. This keeps those items bone dry and readily accessible for immediate use and set-up. Also, Opens space inside the pack for rest of gear including clothes. The only other loose items that lash to outside of pack are an Axe, Rope and/or small Fire Grate.
This is just another point of view, but I personally never attach items like that to the outside of my pack. You only need that gear at the end of the day, when you get to camp and those same items also require the most care and protection from the elements - to the inside and bottom of the pack they go, at least for me. This also makes the load more comfortable, since you don’t have something so heavy and big so far away from your center of gravity swaying you around as you can see in this article’s feature photo. I guess you can get away with using a smaller pack and strapping stuff on the outside, but that’s just not my cup of tea. I like a clean, lean pack that’s big enough to swallow my gear without me trying to perfectly stuff every nook and cranny. It’s just more fun for me that way. ;)
Everyone has their own way I suppose. I find that a good, tough, drybag opens mainpack space and gives me immediate access to shelter and warmth. When I arrive at my site for shelter the first thing I do is set my shelter. Having a drybag lashed to outside bottom of pack keeps everything else organized until it's time to unpack. I find the lashed bag does not get in the way at all. Also, I can replace a worn dry bag for a new drybag, instead of an replacing an entire, expensive backpack.