How To Pack A Backpacking Pack
A Guide To Comfort & Convenience On The Trail
Trekking off-grid on a human-powered adventure with everything you need to stay alive on your back can be a pain—literally. Especially if you don’t have an organized approach to packing. However, even if you have a lot of gear for a multi-day trip, a well-packed backpack doesn’t have to feel as if you’re carrying your life on your shoulders. While there’s no one right way to pack, there are some general guidelines you can follow for comfort and convenience on the trail.
The heavier and bulkier your pack is, the more fatigue and inconvenience you’ll feel on the trail. Knowing exactly what to bring and what not to bring will take time and practice, but avoiding overpacking is the simplest way you can set yourself up for success. It’s easy to fall into the trap of bringing along a lot of gear just in case you might use it or need it. There are many ways you can lighten your load, but a surefire strategy for avoiding overpacking is to lay out all of your gear that you want to take with you and organize it into four general piles:
- Shelter and sleep
- Food and cooking
- Clothes & accessories
- Easy access
Organizing your gear into these four piles will help you visualize the sheer volume of what you’re trying to bring. Seeing it all laid out on the floor can help you whittle away the non-essentials, and the items you can most likely do without. Laying everything out can also help you make sure you aren’t forgetting anything, giving you peace of mind while you’re hiking. You’ll also be able to strategically pack your backpack in a more organized fashion instead of trying to create space for some last-minute bulky items you forgot after you already packed up.
Just because you’re carrying your life on your back for the next few days, doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable. Backpacking packs are designed to carry all of your gear in a beautiful, ergonomic, and breathable package.
Start by following the golden rule of packing for a backpacking trip: pack for comfort. This is best achieved by placing your heaviest gear at the center back of your pack, which helps to maintain your center of balance, and keeps your back, knees, hips, and ankles happy—especially across uneven trails and stream crossings.
The second guideline is to pack for convenience. Getting a big, heavy, cumbersome pack on and off while you’re hiking isn’t particularly easy, nor is it enjoyable. When you’re packing, try and keep the items that you think you’ll need the most frequent access to within reach of you or your hiking buddies. Load up your side pockets, top compartments, straps, gear loops, and hipbelt pockets with all your sundry and essential on-trail items.
Pack In Zones
Bottom zone: The bottom of your pack is reserved for items that are bulky and compressible, and that you won’t need to use until you make it to camp for the night. Your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes you plan on wearing later on in the trip are great items for this zone.
Middle zone: All of your heavy and solid gear goes in the middle zone. Pack your camp stove, food, utensils, and toiletries here, remembering to keep the weight centered close to your back so you’re more balanced and comfortable during your time on the trail.
Top zone: The top of your pack includes the remaining space in the body of the pack and the brain, which is often detachable. This zone is the perfect spot for any items you think you may need along the trail, like your first aid kit, snacks, water, electronics, or bathroom kit. If the brain of your pack also functions as a detachable daypack, you can also store your day hiking essentials here to save yourself time when you make it to camp and it’s time to ditch the backpacking pack for a quick adventure.
Exterior zone: Your exterior pockets (hipbelt pockets and side pockets) are easy to access on the trail, especially if you’re backpacking solo. To pack for convenience, your must-haves like a map or a phone, water, and headlamp are best stored here.
External zone: Your pack will also likely have daisy chains and attachment points. You can use carabiners to attach overflow gear here—but avoid attaching anything too heavy that can swing around and throw off your balance. A few things you might want to attach here include tent poles, trekking poles, a pair of sandals, or a camp chair. If you find yourself attaching too many things to the pack exterior, it might be a good idea to reassess what you’re bringing and if it’s really all necessary.
Throughout the packing process, you can stuff your loose clothing in all the nooks, crannies, and empty spaces around your bulky gear to help secure your load. This method also miraculously creates space. But, if you prefer to know exactly where all your clothes are so you don’t have to rummage around in your pack looking for that elusive extra layer or sock, you can use stuff and compression sacks to stay more organized. These can live in the bottom zone of your pack with your other squishable items.
Lock It In
Now that you have all of your gear loaded up in your pack, it’s time to get to know and use one of the innovative features your pack includes: compression straps. Remember how important it is to maintain that center of gravity? Compression straps are here to help. They work by tightening down straps that compress your load down.
Once tightened, these straps help keep that carefully packed load from shifting around while you hike by compacting empty spaces from hard-to-pack areas. Compression straps on the brain of your pack can help secure it down tightly once full so it isn’t bumping you in the back of the head during your hike.
While balancing your load and staying organized looks different for everyone, these guidelines can help you stay pain-free—during and after your hike. No matter what your pack looks like when it’s full of gear, the bottom line is to keep everything secure, manageable, and organized so you can hike longer, farther, and enjoy the views.
Rachel Jorgensen is a freelance writer based in Michigan, but doesn’t stay put for long. She’s lived in three countries, four states, and is always after the next adventure. When settled, you’ll find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog. Follow along @rjorgie