There’s nothing really more
fundamental to backpacking than sensibly loading your backpack (such as
lightweight Pro-Paks). That
might seem overly obvious, given the name of the whole pursuit, but
actually many backpackers sort of wing it when it comes to packing—not
necessarily in terms of what they’re
packing, but how they’re packing
it. It's all too common to simply stuff gear in willy-nilly, then tough
out the awkward load during the trip.
A poorly packed pack (how’s that for alliteration?)
costs you in aches and pains, accumulating fatigue, maybe even a few
tumbles on the trail. Here are a few tips on loading a backpack sensibly
so you’re saving your body and improving your on-the-go organization and
The Basics of How to Pack a Backpack
The two foremost considerations when loading a
backpack are (1) distributing weight such that you're comfortable and
well balanced, and (2) keeping frequently needed items in easily
As far as weight distribution goes, here’s the
- Place light, bulky items you don’t need until
campsite setup, such as your sleeping bag and sleeping clothes, at
the bottom of the pack. (Many backpacks have a separate compartment
at their bottom specifically for sleeping bags.)
- Layer heavier items—stoves, cookware, a bear
canister filled with Mountain
House packets (of course!) and other food, a water
reservoir, etc.—in the heart of your pack. Generally speaking you
want these between your shoulder blades and tucked close to your
back to give you a stable, core center of gravity. In really rough
or steep terrain, or when you’re mainly going cross-country rather
than trail hiking, you might want to ease this heavy core down a
little lower against your back to lower your center of gravity for
- Fill around that heavy core with whatever fits,
such as your tent and clothes (or stuffsacks full of clothes).
- Stuff extra layers—a puffy, vest, sweater, rain
poncho, winter hat, etc.—at the top of your pack so they're ready to
hand in case temperatures drop or the skies open up.
You should put most items you’ll want easy access to
in the top zippered compartment of your backpack: a water
filter/purifier, headlamp, sunscreen, a first-aid kit (which also works
at or near the top of your pack’s main compartment), trail snacks, GPS,
weather radio, insect repellent, and the like.
Some people like to store their map(s) in the top
compartment; others prefer to slip it into an external pocket. If you’re
carrying water bottles instead of or in addition to a reservoir, cinch
them in the side pouches. A hip-belt pocket is an ideal place for your
compass, and for more of those all-important snacks.
External Straps & Lashings
Backpacking packs come outfitted with all sorts of
loops, lashings, and straps with which to attach items to the exterior.
The outside of your pack is generally a good place to secure a sleeping
roll or sleeping pad, your trekking poles and/or ice axe when they’re
not in use, and perhaps your tent if you’re not storing it inside.
Keep in mind you don’t want horizontally lashed items
extending too far to the sides, as they’ll liable to snag or bash
against branches and tree trunks. And if you’re doing a lot of
bushwhacking, you’ll probably want to minimize externally strapped gear
for the same reason.
Balancing Left & Right
Besides keeping heavy items in the core of your pack
and against your back, another fundamental of backpack loading is making
sure the right and left sides are roughly balanced: You don’t want to be
leaning to one side on your whole hike, after all.
Miscellaneous Backpack Loading Tips
- Stuffsacks are your friend: not just to keep
related items together and providing some semblance of
waterproofing, but for easy and efficient gap-filling within the
- Keep your liquid fuel canisters stored below
your food, on the off-chance they leak.
- Keep your pack cover near or at the top of your
backpack so you can get to it quickly if it begins raining or
Some Final Considerations
You’re unlikely to load your backpack perfectly the
first time. You’ll learn through experience what weight distribution
works best for you, which items you find yourself needing quick and
ready access to, and which of the myriad pockets and pouches of a
typical backpacking pack are best suited to store which miscellaneous
supplies. Pay attention to how your body’s feeling, and if something’s
jamming your back, or if the pack feels ungainly, or if you find
yourself becoming fatigued or sore early, stop and adjust.
Once you’ve ironed down your backpack loading system,
stick to it: Consistency will help smooth out your operations, and allow
you to keep better track of your supplies.