How to Pack a Backpack

Backpacking packing is an art form, and it is easy to tell the backpack of an amateur from that of a seasoned hiker or backpacker. Some of this ‘backpacking packing’ skill only the trail will give you, and you’ll find you become a better packer with each trip. Still, there’s no reason to start out at ground zero; stand on the shoulders of giants (like us) and you’ll have a good head start.  Here are some tips that will get you as close to a seasoned packer as a novice can possibly be.

But first, what are you going to put in that bag? That’s the first place where push turns to shove, and little mistakes add up to big problems. Your backpacking list: make sure you have a good one. You need to find the perfect balance between packing light and still packing enough, steering clear of the twin pitfalls of forgetting essentials and packing unnecessary items that will only give you a backache on the trail.  Have a look at our outdoor adventure backpacking packing list for a good place to start. 

Once you know what you want to take, gather it all together and put it where you can see it; spread out on the living room floor, perhaps, with the pack in the middle. Then, start packing!

There is a certain order that you should follow when you “stuff your stuff” into the pack, both for weight distribution and also for ease of reaching the items you’ll need most often. For example, you might think that the heaviest items should go to the bottom of your pack, but that’s usually not the best idea. To properly center the weight of the backpack over your hips, the heavier items should be close to your back and above the bottom one-third of the pack. However, with external frame backpacks, the heaviest items should be in the top one-third of the pack.

Internal or External Pack?

There is a significant difference in how you should fill up your pack, depending on whether your backpack is classified as “internal frame” or “external frame.”

Internal Frame

Your internal frame backpack will have three basic layers inside: the bottom, the middle, the top. 

The bottom layer: dark as night. Here you pack whatever gear you won’t need till camping time: your tent, if you have one, your sleeping bag, even your flashlight, if you’ll be camping before it gets dark. Some backpacks have a special strap for your sleeping bag, or a separate compartment at the bottom. If this is the case, use it for that purpose and, if there is room, add your small pillow or other lightweight items, taking care not to crush the sleeping bag too tightly (that’s bad for the filling).

The middle layer: where you should put all your heaviest items. This might include your stove,  cooking pot, and extra water. Heavy items are often bulky and awkwardly shaped, so make sure you “fill up the holes” with smaller, lighter items as appropriate.  The ideal spot for that heaviest item of all is dead center and close to your spine — resting on your sleeping bag, perhaps. This will  put your backpack’s center of gravity exactly where you want it for optimal stability and comfort. 

The top layer: everything you want access to throughout your hike. Sometimes there is a zippered lid compartment that is particularly easy access, and the perfect place for those quick-energy granola bars, compass, toilet paper and sanitation trowel. 

Snacks and other items that you’ll need to access quickly should obviously be at the top. That include hat, raingear, a small first aid kit and maybe a flashlight. This can all be stored in the top separate compartment of your backpack.

Also, you may want to take some compression sacks that allow you to shrink bulky items to a manageable size, and consider getting a very light-weight sleeping bag.

What about all the hooks and elastics you see on the outside of your backpack? How much can you string along the outside? Use them for things you really need quick access to, but don’t overdo it: those external items can easily snag on rocks and trees in your surroundings and hamper your progress, and they also tend to upset your pack’s beautifully engineered center of gravity.

External Frame

When you pack your external frame backpack, you’ll need to get the heavy items up higher in the pack than in an internal backpack, to get the weight positioned over your hips. So put the bulk of the weight in the upper one-third and as close to your back as possible.

Because most external frame packs don’t hold as much inside the actual pack, you’ll probably attach your sleeping bag to the frame below the pack (often at the very bottom).

If you put your sleeping bag inside the external frame pack and then put heavy items on top of it, it will get crushed and possibly damaged by the heavier items. So, keep the bag attached on the outside of the pack – preferably inside a waterproof stuff sack that you have lined with a plastic garbage bag for additional protection from rain.

Balancing Your Backpack’s Weight

If you will be hiking uphill or on rocky or uneven trails, you’re best off to keep the heavy weight slightly lower in the pack than when you are hiking on level ground. It’s all about keeping your balance and preventing a fall by keeping the weight near your center of gravity and close to your back.

Most women, due to a lower center of gravity, usually need to put the heavy items slightly lower in the pack than men, and women’s backpacks are designed differently for that purpose.

Hiking with a lopsided pack is a good way to get blisters or lose your balance and fall on the trail, so balancing the weight between left and right is extremely important. As you pack your backpack and follow the instructions above about where to place the heavier items, you should then try to keep the weight balanced as you pack in the remaining supplies.

If you get the weight distribution correct, your backpack will feel more like it’s a part of your body than just a mass of dead weight that you’re struggling to carry around, and you’ll be more sure-footed on the trail.

More Packing Tips

What else do you need to know about backpacking packing? Here are a few quick tips:

  • No empty spaces! If you’ve got an empty pot, for instance, put the bowl inside it, and if there’s still enough room add a pair of socks as well. 
  • Use your stuff sacks: there’s a reason these things exist; they’ll bring potentially big, puffy items down to size. 
  • Roll your clothes: well-rolled clothes don’t wrinkle, and they take a minimum of space as well. 
  • Tape up liquids: a plastic baggie over your bottle of shampoo, and a round of tape around that, can make the difference between a backpack spoiled by a leak and a neat, contained spill. 
  • Pack your clothes inside resealable plastic bags: squeeze the air out of them when sealing them up and you’ll end up using much less space, while also protect your clothes from getting wet. The 1 or 2-gallon size bags are great!

Aside from these tips about weight distribution and where to put items that you need to have readily available, no one can tell you how to pack your backpack better than you can yourself. But that will take some practice and some trial and error. You should pack the rest of your supplies wherever they will fit best, always keeping in mind the left-right weight balance.

This article is about HOW to pack, but you also need to know WHAT to pack to stay safe even on a short hike. Get to know the 10 items you must take with you that prepare you to survive, even if emergency conditions threaten to take you down. Be prepared!

How you pack YOUR backpack with the correct supplies depends on the type of pack, the length of your trip, and your own personal preferences. Once you have found your favorite method of packing, just stick with it and use this helpful tip: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”