So you’ve decided to take your first backpack trip but have no idea how to pack a backpack. How do you pack so you can easily access items and avoid dumping the whole thing out whenever you need something?
Keep reading to learn how to pack a backpack for maximum comfort and convenience!
What Size Should You Use?
Before gathering your supplies to pack a backpack, make sure you have an appropriately-sized backpack for your trip’s duration. Generally, the size guidelines for new backpackers look like this:
- 1–2 nights: 20–50 liters
- 2–3 nights: 50–60 liters
- 2–5 nights: 60–80 liters
- 5+ nights: 80+ liters
Once you have a bit more experience, you might be able to slim down your packing list and use a smaller backpack; however, if you like some extra creature comforts or if you’re packing a backpack for yourself and kids, you’ll likely stay around the same volume size even as you gain more experience.
When you pack a backpack, you usually want to shoot for a base weight (the weight of all your gear) that is 20% or less of your body weight.
How to Wear Your Backpack
After selecting the right-sized backpack, it’s time to do a general fit check to make sure the pack is tuned to your specific body.
Adjust your backpack at your hips, as you want most of your pack’s pressure to be carried there and not on your shoulders. Position the hip straps just above your hip bone.
From there, adjust the shoulder straps so there’s no gap between them and your back, but be careful not to overtighten. If you feel the pack digging into your shoulders once you’re on the trail, your shoulder straps should be loosened.
Finally, adjust the sternum strap and the load lifters to where the pack and load feel comfortable.
Once you pack a backpack, you will need to adjust the fit–especially in the shoulder straps, which you should loosen before hoisting the loaded pack–but it’s easiest to get the basic settings figured out with an empty pack. Don’t be afraid to adjust the fit during your trip, either. Fortunately, many fit settings can be tweaked while you wear the pack.
The most important part of packing a backpack for a backpacking trip is mechanics. You’ll want to pack so that weight and pressure are evenly balanced across your body; doing so will limit fatigue, soreness, and balance issues and will result in a more enjoyable trip. Two of the big players in backpack mechanics are compression and balance.
Compressing your supplies when you pack a backpack increases stability and prevents shifting within the backpack that could affect your balance and overall comfort.
To help with compression and organization, consider packing similar items together in different-colored “stuff sacks” or compression bags. Make sure the bags are light-colored so they’re easy to see when you peer into a dark backpack and can tell what you’re pulling out.
If you don’t have compression bags or don’t want to use them, tightly roll your clothing and other soft items, rather than fold them, to achieve at least some compression to save space as you pack a backpack.
In general, keep heavier items closer to your back and centered when packing your backpack. This will keep you better balanced than if the heavy items are toward the outside of the pack. The goal with weight distribution, as it relates to balance, is to keep the bulk of the weight–your body included–as near to your desired center of gravity as possible; you don’t want your pack pulling you backward or pushing you forward.
Inside the Backpack
To get started, gather your supplies and lay them out so you can see what you’ll be including when you pack a backpack. Group similar items together, then pack them into compression bags, as discussed above.
Once you’ve packed your stuff sacks or rolled your textiles, it’s time to start loading.
Start at the Bottom
Pack items you won’t need until camp—like your sleeping bag and mat, hygiene items, sleepwear, and extra clothes—at the bottom of your backpack. These softer, lighter items act as a shock absorber for the heavier items you’ll put in next.
In the Middle
Next, pack heavier things like your camp stove, fuel, and food (including extra snacks, but leave a few aside to pack in a more convenient spot) in the middle portion of your backpack. These are also items you likely will not need until later in the day so that you won’t be digging through your backpack for them on the trail and ruining your pack’s organization.
Keeping these heavier items in the middle portion of your backpack puts them closer to your center of gravity and improves your overall stability.
At the Top
At the top, pack anything you need easy access to, such as your map and compass, snacks for the day, a first aid kit, extra socks, and any layers you may need to don as you hike, like a rain jacket.
Outside the Backpack
Just because you’ve filled the main cavity when packing your backpack doesn’t mean you’re out of space. Backpacking packs offer numerous anchor and attachment points outside the bag where you can store other necessities. Take care not to attach too many items that will compromise the weight balance in any one area of your backpack (for example, avoid hanging anything heavy from a gear loop on the front of your backpack).
External storage pockets vary in size and location depending on your backpack, so it’s difficult to issue a general rule on how to pack a backpack’s pockets–it will mostly be based on personal preference. However, external pockets are a good place to keep some smaller items you need to access easily and frequently, like a knife or multitool, compass, map, snacks, lip balm, hand sanitizer, etc.
External pockets are also a great place to pack a backpack’s rain cover so you can access it quickly if a rainstorm pops up.
You’ll find a couple of straps at the bottom of most backpacking packs. These can be used to secure a camp shovel or ax to the bottom of the backpack, but you can also use this space to attach a tent or camp chair. It’s often possible to attach more than one piece of gear on the bottom of the backpack, as long as the straps are tightened adequately.
Try to keep any small pieces, like tent stakes, inside a pocket or in the interior of your backpack when you pack a backpack for backpacking. The risk of them falling out of the equipment strapped to the bottom of your pack is too great, and you don’t want to arrive at camp after a long day only to discover you can’t stake your tent.
Most backpacking packs have gear loops (sometimes called daisy chains) somewhere on the shoulder straps, hip belt, or on the body of the bag. Gear loops are a great place to attach a canteen or water bottle (if you’re not using a water bladder), camp chair, or trekking poles, to name a few things.
Many backpack hip belts can also be used for extra storage. You can purchase small pouches that attach to the belt and give you easily accessible storage or attach gear to the belt with a carabiner clip.
How to Pack a Backpack Like a Pro!
With a well-packed, good-fitting backpack, you’re ready to get out and enjoy nature with confidence. Practice packing your backpack and see what makes the most sense to you, but do so with an eye toward adhering to the mechanical considerations discussed above. It’s much easier to repack a loaded backpack at home before a trip than to try to repack it at camp!
Now that you know how to pack a backpack for backpacking, it’s time to put your new knowledge to use! Discover the freedom that comes with living out of your pack for a few days, and savor the feeling of accomplishment you’ll get when you not only survive your backpacking trip, but can’t wait to do the next one!
Learn more about backpacking basics–and beyond–by visiting the Backpacking page on our website!
- About the Author
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Ronda Lindsay is a professional writer and editor who has worked in government communications for nearly two decades.
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, she fostered her love of nature and the outdoors by exploring the Pacific Northwest’s many natural playgrounds before moving to the Washington, DC, area to see what the eastern side of the country had to offer. She’s also spent plenty of time camping, hiking, and floating around central Texas, where she now lives.
With a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in professional writing, Ronda loves to learn and write about the latest trends in outdoor adventuring and share that information with Beyond the Tent readers.