The difference between a well-packed backpack and poorly packed one can be huge, particularly if you’re heading on a longer backpacking trip or carrying an especially heavy load.
While many hikers are apt to gauge the success of their pre-trip packing purely by their ability to squeeze every item in there and get the buckles on the thing closed, there’s far more subtlety and skill involved in the packing of a backpack than meets the eye and, in terms of safety and comfort, spending a little time to learn how to do it right can reap huge rewards.
To that end, below we’ve compiled a list of the five simple steps to help you do your packing like a pro.
5 Stages to Effectively Packing a Backpack
1. Choose your pack
Choosing the right size and type of backpack is crucial to packing it effectively.
With a pack that’s too small or narrow, there’s a chance that we’ll be forced to squeeze items into the pack in a way not conducive to optimizing balance or strap them to the pack’s exterior.
With packs that are too large for all our kit, gear items will shift around inside the pack while we’re on the move, which is not only a massive pain in the posterior in its own right but can make it more difficult to locate items when need be, throw us off balance, and/or result in hard gear items poking us in the back until we stop and do some rearranging.
While the gear requirements (and, hence, the size of your load) will vary from person to person and from one season to another, for a general, ball-park guide to the backpack capacities required for different durations of trip, refer to the following list:
- 20—30 Liters: Day hikes or single overnight trips
- 30—60 Liters: 2-4 nights
- 60+ Liters: Multi-day trips
2. Lay out your load
Before you start loading your pack, we highly recommend setting aside some floor space and laying out every item of kit you plan on taking with you the day or night before you set off.
This approach will serve three purposes: firstly, it’s easier to check that you have everything you need for your trip; secondly, it will help you identify any items you maybe don’t need; thirdly, it will make categorizing your gear for “zonal packing” much easier.
3. Top, Middle, and Bottom
Viewing your backpack as being comprised of three zones—a top, middle, and bottom—can greatly facilitate the packing process.
Using a zonal system will not only help ensure your load is better balanced, but also help you save time hunting for things in your pack and allow you to separate wet gear from dry gear, sharps from softs, and breakables from non-breakables.
Let’s take a look at how it’s done with a zone-by-zone guide:
As the most inaccessible part of your pack, the bottom zone is ideal for all the gear you won’t need until reaching your camping location at the end of the day, such as tarps, tents, and spare clothing for wearing around camp.
Given that the base of your pack is often a “hotspot” for chafing due to the friction between your skin and the pack’s fabric, it’s also wise to stuff in any soft, bulky items like sleeping bags, tent slippers, or sleeping pads to make the surface of the pack as flat as possible.
This zone of your pack is reserved for all the items that
a) aren’t sleeping or camping gear that you’re only going to use at the end of a day’s hiking,
b) aren’t ones you will need to access frequently and, as such, be better stored in the pack’s uppermost portions or in the hood,
c) are slightly heavier than those that will be in the top section of your pack so as to spread the weight and consolidate your center of gravity.
Some examples are bulkier items like down jackets, crampons, overnight food supplies, cooking kit, stove, and gas canisters or fuel bottles.
The top of your pack should be reserved for the gear items that you’re most likely to need to access quickly or frequently while out on the trail.
While this may depend to a certain extent on your own MO in the outdoors and other factors such as the weather conditions, in most cases this will mean gear items like your rain jacket, gloves, hat, water bottle, sunscreen, map and compass, or maybe even a via ferrata kit if you have only a short approach on foot before hitting the cables.
The best way to decide what should be stowed in this section, however, is simply to anticipate which items you’ll need to have close at hand so you don’t have to go upsetting all the rest of your kit to locate them.
4. Compartmentalization and Organization
Within the zones of your backpack, you can further organize your gear by purchasing a selection of colored stuff sacks to stow individual items.
Not only will this help you to locate gear more easily when need be—if, that is, you can remember which gear is in which sack!—but also protect your gear from any sources of wear and tear inside the pack and (if you buy the waterproof variety) keep it dry.
5. All About Balance: Loops, Straps, Gaps, and other Bits and Bobs
In addition to the zonal packing strategy mentioned above, the way in which you use your pack’s loops, straps, pockets, and fill in the gaps in its storage can play an important part in the pack’s overall balance and comfort.
- Gear loops: While these can come in very handy for securing bulky items on the exterior of your pack, it’s worth bearing in mind that items stowed in loops can easily snare in overhanging branches or on rocks and also throw you off balance—not ideal if you happen to be negotiating a particularly airy section of trail!
- If you have to stow any gear on the outside of your pack, we’d recommend first stashing it in a stuff sack (if possible) to reduce the risk of snagging, cinching it down as tightly as possible, and trying to balance things out by stowing items on both sides of the pack.
- Compression straps: The compression straps on backpacks are often overlooked or simply disregarded by many a hiker, but are a very handy means of consolidating and stabilizing your pack’s load so as to improve balance and stop gear shifting around inside particularly if you happen to be using a pack with a higher capacity than is required for the gear you are carrying.
- Gaps: When you’re loading your pack, try to fill any unused space between your gear by compressing each individual item as much as possible. Again, this will help to stabilize your load and prevent the gear from shifting around while you’re on the move.
- Bits and Bobs: For all that stuff that you want to have close to hand but don’t want to have poking you in the thighs through your pants’ pockets—maps, compasses, snacks, GPS devices, sunglasses, etc.—the ideal place for storage is the accessory pockets or webbing pockets on the top of your pack, the hipbelt, and/or on either side of the central well. Again, trying to spread the weight between the pockets will help to keep your load more balanced.
Sometimes the simplest little changes in habit can make the biggest of differences.
By following the above tips and packing your backpack with a view to improving its—and, thus, your—overall balance and organization, we’re sure your time on the trails will be a lot more comfortable and convenient and your time spent searching for AWOL gear items diminished by far!