How to Properly Pack a Backpack

One of the most daunting tasks any hiker has to face is not day long hikes uphill or fording a waist deep river, it is properly and efficiently packing a hiking backpack. It is imperative, for your sanity, to pack hiking gear and equipment in the most practical manner. A properly packed backpack can stow away many items but also offer easy access to your most necessary pieces of equipment. There is no one specific method to packing hiking backpacks, but following some of the considerations outlined in this article will allow your hiking pack to be comfortable and convenient on your next hike.

Packing Considerations

Hiking gear can be bulky, awkward, light or heavy, and finding the best spot in your pack for your gear can be challenging. Once you have gathered all of the items for your next backpacking or hiking trip, it is best to lay everything out and reassess. If an item can be left at home, leave it there. Unnecessary items will become cumbersome and annoying on the trail.

While all of the items to be packed are laid out, organize your gear. It is best to organize your gear by use. For example, keep all cooking gear and utensils together, while your hydration systems are grouped together as well. Clothing, sleeping bags, and other bulky items should also be grouped together. Having your gear organized can make packing your hiking pack easy and logical.

Weight Distribution

In order to ensure your comfort and stability, it is important to distribute your pack’s weight evenly across all straps and load features. The most common hiking backpacks have an internal frame. These packs use rigid internal frames to help distribute the weight of your pack. When packing an internal frame backpack, place the heaviest items closests to your back in the middle of the pack. Heavy items placed on the top or bottom of the pack may cause you to lose your footing or fall.

While less common, external frame backpacks require other considerations. Pack your heaviest and most substantial items towards the top of the pack and close to the body. This will help keep you in a more upright hiking position.

Regardless of the type of backpack being packed, do not overload the pack; a pack that is too heavy for your hiking ability and physical fitness can cause issues. A pack that is too heavy can lead to physical concerns on the trail.

Hiking Daypacks

Due to the small size of daypacks, these are simple to pack and easy to wear. Follow the same general weight distribution considerations above. When packing a daypack, it may be necessary to eliminate large items due to the pack’s space restrictions. If the daypack has a hydration sleeve, fill the reservoir and pack it in the sleeve before packing the remainder of the daypack. Try on the pack once it is fully loaded to be sure it is comfortable and that all items are situated in such a way that limits movement and shifting of items.

Backpack Storage Areas

Bottom of the Pack

Larger backpacks, can be divided into sections. Some backpacks have physical barriers dividing them into sections or you can simply divide them into the bottom, middle or core, and top of the backpack.

The bottom of a hiking backpack will often has it’s own zipper access; the bottom of the pack should be for items that are not needed until you set up camp for the day. This portion of the bag is hard to manage, and should only be utilized once you are done hiking for the day. The best items to store in the bottom of your backpack are:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Extra clothing
  • Sleeping pad or blankets
  • Shoes

When packing, begin with the bottom section and pack your items horizontally. Once you have created a layer of gear, begin adding additional gear on top of that. Items that can be squished and squeezed should be packed on the bottom, as rigid items will rest into and on them.

Bulk of the Pack

The middle section of your backpack is used for other items that are not needed while hiking. Similar to the bottom of the back, these items should not be needed until you finish your hike. This section of your backpack should contain heavy and bulky items that could not be stored in the bottom section. Items to be stored in the core of the backpack include:

  • Tent, footprint and rainfly
  • Sleeping bag
  • Cooking gear - pots, pans and stove
  • Extra clothing
  • Hydration bladder
  • Full water bottles
  • Food storage container

When loading this section of a hiking backpack, try to even out the weight horizontally and position heavy items in the center of the hikers back.

Top of the Pack

The top of hiking backpacks are small in size, but vitally important. This section can fit a few bulky and awkward items, but due to its ease of access, place commonly needed items in the top of the backpack. Items that may be needed often throughout the day, but cannot fit anywhere else should be placed in this top section. Items that are often placed in this section include:

  • Rain pants and jackets
  • Cold weather outer layers
  • Water purification systems
  • Bug spray
  • Toiletries

Many modern hiking backpacks have a separate section that covers the top of the hiking backpack, but even without that feature, these items can simply be stored on the very top of the main compartment. Do not place any extremely heavy items in this section of the pack as it may cause your pack to be unevenly topheavy.

Outside Pockets and Sleeves

Every backpack has a variety of outside pockets, sleeves, and straps for your additional hiking gear. Items that are small and easily packable should be stored in these sections. A majority of hiking backpacks have waist and hip belt pockets, and your most used items should be stowed away here. Items to be packed in your help belt include:

  • Compass
  • Multitool
  • Knife
  • Map
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip balm
  • Identification
  • Snacks

The side and rear pockets are not as easily accessible, but hikers can drop their pack to access them or ask a hiking partner for help. Items that should be stored in side and rear pockets include:

  • Water bottles
  • Wallets and cash
  • Additional snacks
  • Rain gear and pack covers

Lastly, most new hiking backpacks, on the outside of the bag, will offer gear loops and tool storage options. These features vary from pack to pack, but creative hikers always find a way to pack all of their necessary items. Items that can be packed on the outside of the pack include:

  • Trekking poles
  • Axes
  • Tent poles
  • Sleeping pads
  • Sleeping bags

Most long and awkwardly shaped items can be secured to the outside of the pack. It is important to ensure that all items attached to the outside of the pack are not sticking up too high or out too far as that can cause them to catch on low hanging trees and other obstacles. Always tighten down any straps and do not lay the weight of the backpack on these items as it can damage any item packed on the outside of the backpack.

How to Lift Your Backpack

Once your backpack is fully packed and ready to be put on, you always want to be sure that you lift it properly. Lifting a fully loaded hiking backpack by the shoulder straps can damage them and decrease your packs longevity. Hiking backpacks are outfitted with a haul loop. This loop is typically located on the center on the backside of the backpack. Use this feature to lift and maneuver a fully loaded backpack.

How to Fit Your Backpack

Once you are ready to put on the backpack follow these basic steps to properly fit your backpack:

  1. Loosen all straps slightly to make it easier to get on.

  2. Stand your backpack in an upright position.

  3. Lift the pack by the haul loop and place one arm through the shoulder straps.

  4. Next place the arm which is holding the haul loop through the other shoulder strap.

  5. Adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack fits snugly against the hikers back and then attached and tighten the hip belt. The hip belt should sit on the upper portion of the hips and withstand a majority of the backpacks weight.

  6. Finally, connect the sternum strap to keep the should straps in position.

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