Pack That Pack Up: How to Pack for Backpacking

With so many items to bring and just one pack, it can be daunting to start packing for your backpacking excursion. Here's some advice on how to tackle the task.

Photo by Conor Hult

It can be a daunting task to pack all of the food, clothing, and equipment necessary for your backpacking trip into one. single. bag. If you currently sit before a growing pile of gear in despair, fear not – you are not the first to find yourself in the predicament of, how in the heck do I pack this thing up?

Looking back on photos of my very first hiking trip I wonder, who taught that girl how to properly arrange items in her backpack? The answer is, nobody did. I just threw everything in. It wasn’t until I was given some essential tips that I finally felt comfortable with fifty pounds or more strapped to my back in steep terrain.

Distributing weight properly in a hiking backpack is a challenge. An incorrectly packed backpack throws off your center of balance, potentially causing injury and definitely creating discomfort. I’ve gathered my best advice – gleaned from field manuals, outdoor mentors, and personal trial and error – and I present you with some simple ideas for making your backpacking trip a safer and much more comfortable experience.

First things first: if you’re not sure what items should be in your backpack, head over to our Backpacking Checklist to make sure you have everything you need.

A woman with a red backpacking pack walks away from the camera down a narrow trail lined with trees
Photo by Alex Dolan

Simple ABC’s

These tips are valuable and easy to remember. Each will help you get closer to a well packed pack.

A: Accessible

Pack items you need easy access to on the trail – like your maps, rain gear, snacks, headlamp, and first aid kit – within reach. I put the lighter items I need in the brain of my pack and the heavier ones (like my lunch and a lightweight fleece) on the top inside my pack’s main compartment.

B: Balanced

A balanced pack distributes weight evenly from side to side. This will make it much safer and easier to hike on steeper terrain as it allows you to maintain your center or gravity. Spread out heavy items evenly left to right, and rearrange if things feel unbalanced.

C: Compressed

Use up all of the space within your pack, stuffing everything in tightly. Use a sleeping bag compression sack, fill up empty spaces with items like socks and spare clothes, make sure there are no gaps or air pockets, and tighten the outside compression straps down when you’re done.

D: Dry

Have a waterproof liner inside your pack, such as a trash compactor bag. Pack covers are useful, but should only be put on when it is about to rain or actively raining.

E: Everything Inside

Keep the majority of your items packed inside your pack to avoid snags from branches and to keep weight close to the spine. Any items outside of your pack risk getting wet or getting lost.

F: Food Above Fuel

Fuel should be packed lower than fuel in case of a spill.

Carrying the Weight

The majority of the weight you carry should be felt on your hips, NOT on your shoulders. In order for this to happen, your backpack needs to be the proper size, sitting correctly on your body and synched tightly at the hip belt. A well-fitting pack will have a frame that is the correct length for your torso and a hip strap that has the capacity to be adjusted both tighter and looser. If you need help sizing yourself for a new backpack, reach out to any of us here at Curated!

Most internal frame backpacks have adjustments so that you can position the shoulder straps exactly where you want them on the frame. I like my shoulder straps to have a small (less than an inch) gap at the very top instead of sitting directly on my shoulders. I have found that this helps ensure that I don’t feel the weight of my bag in my shoulders, which is what we are trying to avoid.

My legs and butt are going to be doing most of the work, and in order for that to happen I’ll need to have my hip belt buckled tightly and positioned correctly on my body. The center of the hip belt’s padding should sit directly over your iliac crests, the bones that feels the most prominent on your hips. The hip belt itself should be the first strap you tighten after you put on your pack. Once it’s tight, I will attach my chest strap, which should fall in a comfortable spot a few inches below the collarbone. I keep my chest strap on the looser side so that it doesn’t restrict my breathing. Its purpose is to keep the shoulder straps from slipping off your shoulders, so no need to yard down on this one. After I have the hip and chest straps tightened, then I will tighten my shoulder straps. I like these fairly snug but not excessively tight. If the top of my pack feels like it’s being pulled backward away from my body, I will tighten down the load lifter straps at my shoulders that pull everything into my body’s midline.

The weight of your pack should be as close to midline as possible. As you are packing up, you will want to pay attention to where each individual item is placed based on weight. The heaviest items should be as close to your back as possible. The ideal location for these heavy items (which is most likely going to be your food and fuel) will either be your mid to lower back or your mid to upper back. As a gendered generalization, men tend to have a higher center of gravity and will want to pack heavy items higher in their pack than women. I prefer my heaviest weight packed between where my back curves in (just below my waistline) and the middle of my shoulder blades. Do what is comfortable for you.

A person wearing a backpacking pack looks out at hills and mountains
Photo by Tess Kohler

Welcome To My Living Room Floor

Let me take you through the process of what it looks like for me to pack up my hiking pack. I start by laying out everything I’m planning to bring on the floor in front of me. I find that looking at everything at once helps me prioritize what to bring and guarantees that I don’t leave anything important behind.

When I pack up the night before a trip, I’ll leave out only what I plan on using or wearing in the morning, such as my hiking clothes and toiletries. Step one is to line my pack with a trash bag to keep things dry. I use trash compactor bags because they are very large and very sturdy. The first item into my pack is going to be my sleeping bag in its compression sack. This takes up enough room in the bottom of the pack to elevate my other heavier items, which I want to have closer to my mid back region. My food, which I like to store in a dry bag, sits nicely on top of my sleeping bag, and I’m able to stuff lots of other medium to lightweight items around it. I want my food bag pressed against the frame of my pack, standing up on end. Examples of medium weight items to put in the remaining space from mid-back to around my shoulder blades include my stove, fuel canisters, toiletries, and my book. In order to achieve food above fuel, I stick my fuel canisters as low as possible, close down to my sleeping bag.

This is where accessibility becomes an important consideration. For example, when I am packing up in the morning at camp, I make sure to leave my lunch for the day outside of my food bag. Another example is that even though my first aid kit falls into the “medium-weight item” category, I’m not going to stuff it down next to my toothpaste – an item I definitely don’t need during the day – because I may need first aid access while hiking. The lesson here is: it is not ideal to have to unpack and repack your bag mid day because you need something at the bottom. Do what you can to plan ahead and ensure this doesn’t happen.

Bulky items, such as pots and pans, will take up lots of room if you let them. Stick them into the “medium weight” space first, and then pack other items inside and around them to use up all potential space. Since your backpack’s interior is waterproof, due to the trash bag, your clothing can serve the purpose of filling in small gaps. It may be tempting to put all of your clothing into one dry bag, or a few stuff sacks, but splitting it up allows you to stuff socks or a puffy coat into tough corners which helps with compression and keeping everything inside.

A bulky, medium-weight item of note is your tent. If you are sharing a tent with a trip mate, I recommend splitting it up so you each carry approximately half the weight. The best way I have found to do this between two people is to give one person the tent body and ground sheet and the other person the poles, stakes, and rain fly. Stuffing the tent into your bag to take up space can be a good idea, but you should be careful about what you are stuffing it into. Tent fabrics are delicate and can tear more easily than you might think. If I’m packing tent poles, I like to slip them near the frame of my pack on one side or the other.

As I continue to pack items in my bag by weight, I am filling in every space with appropriate items I won’t need on the trail, as well as paying attention to whether or not I am putting heavy items on one side over the other. Mid way through packing, I will lift my pack straight up into the air to get a feel for whether or not it is balanced side to side. If it doesn’t feel like each side (left and right) feel equally weighted, I will re-evaluate and repack. I also use this moment to shake the contents of my bag downward. I do this by slamming the bottom of my pack on the ground a few times, which propels things down as I work to ensure that my things are compressing together. This is good practice and gives me more room to work with up top.

The majority of my items will be inside my pack by the time it is about 7/8 full. In the remaining space I will stick my lunch, first aid kit, trowel and toilet paper, rain gear, and lightweight fleece jacket. My small accessible items (maps, chapstick, headlamp, rain cover, bandana, etc.) go into the brain of my pack. If you have hip belt pockets, these can be great for storing smaller items, too, and are a particularly great place for a camera.

Two women and a man sit on a rock with their backpacks on the ground behind them
Photo by Sean Bjornsson

The few items I allow to be on the exterior are my water bottles, one on either side in their pockets to ensure things are balanced; my camp shoes, clipped on with a carabiner, as they tend to get dirty and weigh practically nothing (yeah Crocs!); and finally, my small inflatable sleeping pad which fits nicely into a front stretchy pouch on my pack. If you have a foam pad, they tend to fit well either wedged between the brain and the main compartment of your pack and buckled down, or lashed with the straps under or toward the bottom of your pack.

The reason I’m okay with having my sleeping pad outside of my lined, waterproof inner pack is that I’m less concerned about it getting wet than most other items. Sleeping pads don’t hold water, they are quick to dry, and can often be bulky and hard to fit in a pack’s interior. However, I would never lash my sleeping bag to the exterior of my pack. This is an item that I want to ensure stays as dry as possible so that it keeps me as warm as possible.

Once my items are all secured inside and to the exterior, I will tighten down all the straps as tight as I can, compressing everything inside. A good way to check and see if you did a good job packing heavy items close to your back is to sit your pack upright and see if it tips over. If it wants to tip and fall forward, leaving your frame and straps up in the air, you may need to re-evaluate. If it tips like this on its own, it’s probably going to pull you backwards while you are hiking.

Tips For The Trail

A heavy pack can be unwieldy to handle. When you go to pick up your backpack, either to load it into the car the first morning or to put it back on after a snack break, do so with care. After loosening all the straps, I recommend grabbing the loop at the top of your frame (not the shoulder straps) and sliding it up onto a bent knee. Once it is balanced on one knee or thigh, go ahead and slide the shoulder straps on one then the other, shimmying the bag onto your back. Keep your legs bent and feel free to bend over at the waist a bit if it helps you stay balanced. Tighten the straps in the correct order: hip belt, chest strap, shoulder straps, upper stays. Follow this careful process in reverse to take your pack off, which will help you avoid injury to yourself or damage to the items inside.

Every morning at camp before you hit the trail you will inevitably have to pack up your backpack all over again. If the initial process seemed arduous, it is suffice to say that it will most certainly get easier over time. After ten years of backpacking, I have a system that is streamlined and efficient. It took time, effort, and practice to get there. Keep doing your research and trying your best. See you out on the trail!

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Written By
I’ve been backpacking, kayaking, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and fly fishing since I got hooked on the outdoors as a kid in Northern Michigan. Being outside is my happy place, and it’s probably yours, too.

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