How to Pack Your Backpack

You’ve planned, shopped and prepared. Now it’s time to load up and head out. What’s the smartest way to get all that gear into your backpack?

It depends on what you’re carrying (internal-frame pack or external?) and where you’re going (on-trail or off-trail?).

Quick Read

  1. Whether you’re travelling on- or off-trail, keep your heaviest items close to your back, centred between your shoulder blades. This holds true for internal- and external-frame packs.
  2. Pack heavy items near the top of your pack for on-trail travel, to centre the weight over your hips.
  3. Pack heavy items near the bottom of your pack for uneven terrain or cross-country travel. This keeps your centre of gravity low for better balance.
  4. Keep often-used items such as sunscreen, snacks, map and compass where you can get to them easily.

Internal-Frame Packs

  • Whether you’re travelling on- or off-trail, keep your heaviest items close to your back, centred between your shoulder blades.
  • For on-trail travel, keep heavy items higher inside your pack. This helps focus more on the weight over your hips, the area of your body best equipped to carry a heavy load.
  • For off-trail exploration, reverse the strategy. Arrange heavier items lower in the main compartment, starting again from the spot between your shoulder blades. This lowers your centre of gravity and increases your stability on uneven terrain.
  • Stuff your sleeping bag into its lower compartment first. Squeeze in any additional lightweight items you won’t need until bedtime (pillowcase, sleeping shirt, but nothing aromatic). This will serve as the base of the main compartment, which you’ll fill next.
  • Tighten all compression straps to limit any load-shifting.

External-Frame Packs

  • As with an internal, keep your heaviest items close to your back, near your shoulder blades.
  • Externals are recommended for on-trail travel only. Load heavier items high inside your pack and close to your body. Doing so centers the pack’s weight over your hips and helps you walk in a more upright position.
  • Pack your sleeping bag in its stuff sack. Finish loading your main packbag, then strap the bag to the lash points on the bottom of the packbag. If rain seems likely, consider stuffing your sleeping bag inside a second stuff sack or wrapping it in plastic.

Tips for Either Pack Style

  • Women and people of short stature often find they prefer to pack the weight low whether they’re travelling on- or off-trail, regardless of which pack style they’re carrying. You are the ultimate judge of what feels comfortable to you. Experiment with different load arrangements to determine what feels best.
  • Make sure some items are easily accessible, packed in places where they can be reached with a minimum of digging:
    Map Compass
    Sunglasses Insect repellent
    Snack food Flashlight/headlamp
    First-aid supplies Water bottles
    Rainwear Packcover
  • Don’t waste empty space. Cram every nook with something. Put a small item of clothing inside your pots, for example. Smaller items, such as food, pack more efficiently in individual units rather than when stored loosely inside a stuff sack.
  • If you are part of a group, split up the weight of large items (a tent, for instance) with other group members. Don’t make 1 person become an involuntary packhorse.
  • Cluster related small items (such as utensils and kitchen items) in colour-coded stuff sacks to help you spot them easily.
  • Minimize the number of items you strap to the outside of your pack. Gear carried externally may adversely affect your balance. Secure any equipment you carry outside so it doesn’t swing or rattle.
  • Tips: How about long tent poles, for example? Stow them horizontally with your sleeping pad across the top of an external pack; with an internal, carry them vertically, secured behind the compression straps on one side of the pack with the ends tucked into a “wand pocket” at the pack’s bottom. A daisy chain and ice axe loops are designed for specific mountaineering gear; feel free to improvise with them, but don’t get so creative that you jeopardize your comfort or stability.

  • Make sure the cap on your fuel bottle is screwed on tightly. Position it below your food inside your pack in case of a spill.
  • Carry a back cover. Backpacks, though made with waterproof fabric, have vulnerable seams and zippers. After a few hours of exposure to persistent rain, the items inside your pack could become wet—and thus much heavier.
  • Quick repair tips: Wrap strips of duct tape around your water bottles; in case a strap pops or some other disaster occurs, a quick fix could keep you going. Take along a few safety pins in case a zipper fails.

Do you aspire to be a truly organized adventurer? Then before you reach the trailhead you should:

  • Evaluate what equipment is needed for this specific trip.
  • Review a checklist before you leave home to make sure you have everything you need.
  • Double-check your older gear to make sure it’s in good working order.
  • Pre-load your pack the night before your hike begins. Or, a few days before your departure date, rehearse packing for this trip. If you’re missing something, it’s better to discover this fact early.

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