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.
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.
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.
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!