How to pack your backpack
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
Getting ready to travel or hike can take some time.
You got to make sure that you have the correct gear for the activities that you have planned. If you are planning to carry all your belongings for the planned trip on your shoulders, it’s wise to spend some attention to the way you pack your backpack.
Normally, a backpack should be balanced when it rests on your hips and feel stable when you walk. If the pack is slightly heavier on one side you will risk to have sore muscles as your body automatically tries to compensate your unbalanced posture.
Before your trip it is wise to try out how to pack your bag. At home you can spread all your gear on the floor so you can create a decent overview. This is a good time to grab your checklist and check if anything is missing. You are probably pretty convinced that you will never forget your sleeping bag on a camping trip. However, a friend of mine managed to do so last year…
Also check if you have the correct size of backpack for the length of your planned trip. I mostly use a 50L+10 sized backpack for trips between 4 days and 2 weeks, but this entirely depends on your personal needs.
We start with the items that you will only need when you set up camp at night. This is the place where you put the small towel, soap, tooth brush, sleeping bag, sleepwear, sleeping pad (only smaller blow-up sleeping pads).
If you have room left, you can fill it up with things you won't need immediately, like extra food, energy bars, extra underwear,…
Don’t put your headlamp in this compartment! Always keep that one easily accessible.
Directly in front of the back panel, you normally have a narrow compartment for your hydration bladder. In newer backpacks there is also a small velcro strip which you can attach to the top of the bladder, preventing it from sliding around when it gets empty. That’s already 2 to 3 kg of your packing weight and you want it to be balanced and close to your body.
In the top corners of the bag there should be an exit for the drinking tube. Some packs have a clip on the shoulder straps so that you can fixate the tube in order to have it in reach during your activities.
Make sure that you pack the filled hydration bladder before you pack the core of the bag. It’s not easy to squeeze it in there when filled.
Core of the bag
The middle compartment is the biggest packing space in the backpack. The way you place your stuff in this space will determine if you will feel stable or not. Remember: We want to avoid back pain and sore muscles!
The heavier items (such as food, water, cooking kit, small tent or tarp) should be centered in your backpack. Don’t place heavy items too low, cause it will make your pack feel saggy. Placing heavy items too high will create instability when you walk.
So, the heaviest item should be placed on top of the bottom compartment and close to your spine. Other lighter materials like spare clothes can be placed around it to keep the heavy items in their place.
The top of the bag
Most packs have a zipped top lid. Regularly used items should be kept at an easily reachable place. This includes your first-aid kit, headlamp, compass, ballpoint, toilet paper, bug spray, sunscreen, sunglasses and day snacks.
Most packs have hooks on top, where you can attach adjustable straps. If you have a foam sleeping pad, this is the place to store it. Make sure that it isn’t pushing against the back of your head while walking. If this is the case than go for option B and try to lash it down with a small piece of rope at the bottom of the front side (not under the pack, still on the front side).
Side pockets are ideal for multiple items. If you carry a larger tent, than you can place the tent poles inside the side pockets. Make sure that the edges can’t puncture the pockets and use the compression straps on the side of the pack to secure them.
Trekking poles can be placed here as well. Place the tip upwards in order to avoid punctures (some backpacks have separate elastic straps for trekking poles).
This is mostly a very small pocket. You can keep some items there that you want to use without taking your pack of your back. I'm thinking of a small camera, energy bars, candy, smartphone,…
Loops on the front
Some packs have loops on the front side. These can be used to secure any extra materials. This can be done by clipping them on one or multiple loops using a carabiner, or by weaving a piece of rope through the loops.
Most packs have also a special loop to store an ice axe. Be extra careful with these. Pay attention to the way you point them and make sure that they can’t puncture your backpack and, even more importantly, keep the pointy end away from your body.
Try to minimize the amount of gear that you strap on the exterior of your pack as it can jeopardize your stability. Also, if you walk through dense vegetation, you can easily get stuck.
Most rain covers are located on the very bottom of the pack in a special compartment. You will always have to take your pack of your back in order to secure the rain cover. Be careful when walking through the woods, they easily get punctured. Also, if the rain
stops, it's good to keep them on the pack a little longer until they are completely dry.
Pull all the compression straps very tight. The smaller the pack, the more balance you will have. It also prevents load-shifting.
Fill up all the empty spaces. If you bring a cooking pot, than fill it up with food, tea bags, small items or even clothing.
Use stuff sacks to compress and protect your clothes. It will save lots of space in the pack, avoid chaos when reaching for an item at the bottom and it will keep your spare clothes dry if you get soaking wet in a thunderstorm.
Try to share the weight that you carry with your hiking partners. Food and a tent are items that can easily be shared.
Never skip the following item on your list: Duct tape.
If you get a puncture in your rain cover or a strap pops loose, than you can still try to fix it on the go. Get creative!