How to Pack a Backpack the Right Way

If you have plans for going on a backpacking trip, having a good backpack is, of course, one of the most important things you should be considering. But as necessary as having a good bag is, it is also just as important to know how to pack one properly.

Simply stuffing your pack with your gear without any proper organization may be the easiest option, but this way will ultimately not be for your benefit. A poorly packed bag becomes a burden to you while you’re on the trail for several reasons.

A significant downside to a thoughtlessly stuffed backpack is that uneven weight distribution can put pressure on your back and shoulders and could end up hurting them. Also, not having easy access to necessities such as your rain gear or emergency kit can be very troublesome.

In this guide, we will help you avoid these problems by providing you a proper system to pack a backpack effectively and efficiently.

We also offer a list of some of the most common items hikers usually bring so you don’t needlessly overpack and contribute excess weight to your pack. We hope that you will find this article relevant and helpful for any backpacking trips you might have in the future.

Preparation/Organization

Before you can even begin planning on what to bring with you to your backpacking trip, you should first have your own backpacking pack. The most important thing to consider for a backpacking bag is its capacity or pack volume. The most significant factor in determining what capacity your backpack should have is the number of days you plan to spend backpacking.

For an overnight stay, your regular daypack should have a capacity of around 20 to 35 liters. This volume allows for basic overnight needs such as a sleeping bag, clothes, water, and snacks. For a multi-day hike(two to four), the recommended capacity for your bag would be between 35 to 60 liters; this allows for other heavier equipment such as cooking gear, lots of extra water, and other daily necessities.

Next is choosing what items you should bring. Before you start packing, make sure to only get what you need if you want to keep your pack as light as possible. Some of the essential items hikers usually bring are:

  • Shelter (tent, rainfly)
  • Weather protection (sunscreen, foldable umbrella, rain jacket, sweater)
  • Clothes
  • Sleeping items (sleeping bag, sleeping pad)
  • Food
  • Water
  • Cooking equipment
  • Toiletries
  • Navigation equipment (map, GPS)
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight

Easily keep track of your equipment by creating a checklist for them. You can also refer to your list after you are done with your hike to make sure every item is taken into account and that you don’t forget to bring back anything.

Packing System

Your backpacking pack can be divided into four main parts: bottom, middle, top, and external storage. A sound packing system considers all of these to bring about the maximum potential of your backpack’s capacity.

man carrying backpack standing on mountain during daytime

Bottom

Generally, you will want to pack the softest, lightest, and most compressible stuff at the lowest portion of your pack. Packing these sorts of equipment at the bottom helps save your lower back by acting as a cushion for when you finally start hiking with your bag against your back. Softer items will be pressing against your lower back which saves you from pain and makes you feel more comfortable than if you packed more solid stuff at the bottom instead. Such soft and compressible items include your sleeping gear – such as your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pillow – and clothes.

Your sleeping gear is also non-essential; you won’t need to access it until much later on, which makes it OK to keep them at the bottom of your pack.

Middle

Next up is packing the middle portion of your backpack. You can continue putting more items into it because now you have a soft and padded base. Usually, the mid-portion of your pack is where you place the heavier gear you are bringing with you, which generally consist of:

  • Cooking equipment (stove, fuel, cooking pot)

You can place the flat part of your cooking pot against your back so you don’t feel uncomfortable from weird bumps in your pack while you walk; it is easier to comfortably pad a flat surface than an uneven one. Also, a wood-burning backpacking stove is an excellent alternative to regular ones to keep your stove as lightweight as possible.

  • Food and eating utensils 

To help save space, you can place your food in your bear canister or other food storage.

  • Food storage (bear canister, stuff sack)
  • Water container/s

If you plan on camping out for a couple of days, having plenty of water reservoirs is very important, especially if you’re not guaranteed a clean source of water.

The middle part of your pack is the most suitable place for your heavier equipment because the closer to the center of your back your heavy gear is, the lighter they will feel. Packing your bag this way helps you maintain your center of gravity, providing more stability than if these items are placed at the top or bottom of the pack, and you also relieve pressure from not just your back but from your shoulders too.

Make sure you distribute the weight of your middle gear well to avoid an uneven load that can cause more strain on one shoulder and one side of your back and causes loss of balance, which can lead to injury. Also, to keep your middle gear from jostling around, you can fill in gaps with extra clothes or similar padding materials.

Top

The uppermost part of your pack is the most accessible and most suitable for storing items that you regularly use throughout the day. Such items include:

  • Shelter (tent, rainfly, foldable tent poles)

When the weather quickly takes a turn for the worse, you will be able to have access right away to your shelter, which saves a lot of time. Also, you can place your foldable poles in an upright position towards the sides inside your backpack; you can simply pull them out when you are going to set up your tent.

  • Weather gear (sunscreen, rain jacket, fleece jacket)
    • Whether it’s a hot, sunny day, or a cold, rainy day, it is a good idea to have easy access to these items.
  • Snacks
  • Toiletries
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Electronics (phone, camera, power bank, charger/s)

It is better to keep these smaller items separate by putting them in a waterproof bag or stuff sack. That way, you won’t have to fumble around for them when you need them, and they’ll also be safe when it rains.

  • Small notebook, pen

The above items are also usually relatively lightweight, which makes it easier on your shoulders to bear the load of your backpack. For better organization, you can group items and place them in separate bags.

External storage

External pockets

These pockets outside of your pack are easily accessible and are excellent for storing other gear that won’t fit inside your backpack. If you have a lot of equipment stored in the bottom and middle parts of your pack, for example, and lack space for the top portion, you can place the upper gear in your backpack’s outside pockets. Other stuff you would usually keep here are:

  • Small water bottle

This is separate from your primary water containers, which are generally larger and heavier. It is best to always have a small bottle of water for when you feel thirsty while you’re hiking.

  • Bear spray (if you are in bear country)
  • Navigation equipment (map, GPS)

Not all backpacks have plenty of side pockets, so it might be an essential consideration when buying your own backpacking backpack. Either way, it is better to keep the more needed items in these easily accessible pockets to make the best use of them.

Straps and Loops

The loops or straps outside of your pack might not seem to have any intuitive use at first glance, but they do have a purpose. For instance, gear like tent poles and trekking poles that won’t fit inside your pack can still be carried with you by securing them to these external straps. There are smaller loops attached to the straps that you can use to hang small and light items, such as extra rope, via clips or carabiners.

Also, you can secure bulky items like camp chairs, camp shoes (helpful in crossing a stream or river), and even an ax outside of the pack via these straps.

Final Checks

Hoisting your backpacking pack

After you pack your backpack, you should be able to carry it on your back properly. There are proper steps to do this, so you don’t hurt yourself or damage your pack.

First off, make sure that your backpack is in an upright position. Then, check that your packs’ compression straps are tightened. Next, lift your bag by grabbing its haul loop and set it on your thigh. Don’t lift it by the shoulder straps, as doing this could damage the straps instead.

Keep your pack steady by maintaining your grip on the haul loop, then slip one arm into one of the shoulder straps. Carefully lift your bag onto your back by using your core muscles while keeping a slightly bent position. Then slip your other arm into the other shoulder strap.

Lastly, stand up straight and adjust the length of your backpack straps, connect the hip belt, and adjust your sternum strap until you find the most comfortable fit.

Some reminders

  • Refer to your checklist to make sure you didn’t forget to include anything.
  • To protect the inside of your bag from rain, you can line the inside with a large trash bag. You can also use a rain cover to protect your entire backpack from wet weather.
  • Keep in mind to bring plenty of water and enough food for your hiking trip, especially if it is for a couple of days.
  • Make sure to inform someone of where you’re going in case something unexpected happens or if something goes wrong.

FAQs

What is the best way to pack a backpack?

The best way to pack a backpack is to properly distribute the weight of your gear while at the same time considering which part of your pack you should place them in order of accessibility. Pieces of equipment you don’t need to access until later should be placed at the bottom, while you should put more necessary items near the top. Also, heavy gear should be placed in the mid-portion and should be close to your back. You can place lighter items either at the top or bottom.

For better organization, you can group similar items and place them in compression bags or stuff sacks and label or color-code them before placing them in your pack.

How do I distribute my backpacking weight?

The ideal weight distribution of your backpacking gear would be to have your heaviest items positioned as close to the center of your back as possible. Compressible items that are generally light- to midweight should be at the bottom since these items also act as a cushion for your back and help you avoid back pain if you placed heavier and more solid items there otherwise.

Light- to midweight items should also be placed at the top of your pack so it doesn’t tilt backward, which can cause you to strain your back and shoulders. It is also best that the items at the top are ones you regularly use throughout the day and therefore need to have easy access to.

What size backpack do I need for three days?

For a 3-day hike, the recommended pack volume for your backpack would be around 35 to 50 liters. This capacity should fit all the necessary equipment you will need for three or even four days.

What size backpack do I need for an overnight hiking trip?

For an overnight camping trip, your backpack would only need to have a pack volume of around 20 to 35 liters. You won’t need as many items as a multi-day hiking trip would require, so a smaller backpack should suffice. This capacity range also allows you enough space for some extra items. You can still choose to bring a pack with a larger capacity if you plan on adding gear that will help provide a more comfortable and enjoyable camping experience.

What do I need for an overnight backpacking trip?

In general, essential gear you will want to pack a backpack with on an overnight backpacking trip are:

  • Tent
  • Clothes
  • Sleeping bag, Sleeping pad
  • Food
  • Water
  • Toiletries
  • Navigation equipment (map, GPS)
  • Emergency kit
  • Flashlight

What should you not bring backpacking?

Avoid bringing unnecessary items with you such as jewelry and other valuables, hair or beauty products, heavy clothes such as jeans, bulky blankets and towels, multiple pillows, and multiple pairs of shoes. You will only make things more difficult for yourself if you bring unneeded items that only add more weight to your pack.

How much should your backpacking pack weigh?

As much as possible, you will want your pack to weigh no more than 20 percent of your body weight to avoid straining your back and shoulders. So, for example, if you weigh 150 pounds, the load of your pack should not go over 30 pounds.

How do you pack an external frame backpack?

Packing a backpack with an external frame is different from packing an internal frame pack. Unlike an internal one, heavier items are placed at the upper portion of your bag instead, the midweight items in the middle, and the most lightweight items at the bottom.

Having the heavy equipment at the top helps set the weight of your pack over your hips and helps keep you in an upright position.

Conclusion

Before packing your backpack, make sure to first determine what items are essential to bring to avoid overpacking.

Create a checklist for these items so you can keep track of them from the beginning to the end of your hiking trip.

Finally, make sure to maximize the use of each of your backpack’s components. When each backpack part is used effectively and efficiently, the ease and comfort of carrying your pack all add up and contribute to an overall excellent backpacking experience.