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How to Pack a Backpack

Posted by Sharon Harrington on

Gathering all of the gear that you need (and none that you don’t need) is a harrowing task. It will take months of in-field testing, ordering and returning items, to find out what works perfectly for you. But, a new fear may strike when you finally throw that last piece of gear onto the pile: how in the world will all of this fit inside your pack?!

The first step in making sure you’ll be able to carry everything you need on your next expedition is to be sure you have the right pack. There are several pack sizes, ranging from hydration packs, that don’t carry much more than water, snacks, a phone and car keys, 80-liter bags that will tower over anyone’s head, and everything in between. You won’t know how big of a pack you need to buy until you know what gear you’ll be taking with you. Once you’ve gathered everything for a trip, choose a backpack that will fit everything when cinched down about halfway. This will allow some flexibility in your gear choices in the future.

After you’ve picked a pack you’ll quickly develop a system of packing. In general, you want the big, bulky gear that you only use at camp at the bottom of your bag. These items include your sleeping system and your shelter.

In order to balance yourself, your heavy items should go in the middle of your pack. They shouldn’t be pushed to the outer layers of your pack or left too high up, or they may cause your center of gravity to shift. These items include a camp stove, water and food (in a sac or a bear canister).

The top layer of your pack should be items you might need to access that are lightweight, including any extra layers you might want during a break, rain gear and water treatment systems.

Within your hip belts it’s best to pack the items you will need to reach while on-the-move, like a camera, snacks, glasses, gloves or a headlamp. These items can’t be too big and you may have to pick and choose which to keep out as hip belts are notoriously small.

Most packs have built-in loops for trekking poles, side accessory pockets for tent poles and stakes or water bottles and several ways to attach items (like camp shoes or a compass) with carabineers.

It might look like a lot, but when packed correctly, you can hoist an enormous amount of gear onto your back. Just like any other backpacking skill, testing different arrangements is the only way to know what works for you. After a few day hikes or overnight trips you’ll be able to pack and unpack your backpack with your eyes closed!