How to Pack a Backpack

There’s no one way to pack a backpack, instead, practice loading until you find a method that works best for you. A well loaded backpack will feel balanced and won’t shift around when hiking, providing stability on trail. 

how to pack a backpack

To get started, lay out all of your gear and separate based on when you’ll use items. For example, items not used until you are at camp are usually kept in the bottom and middle of the main compartment of a pack and more frequently used items that may be needed while hiking are kept at the top of a pack and in external pockets.

When loading a pack, stack items in rows (like a row of bricks or a stack of cordwood) instead of standing items upright. Fill gaps with smaller items such as clothing to make the load solid and stable. Tighten all compression straps to bring the load in and prevent shifting.

In general, it’s a good idea to have as much inside the pack and pockets as possible, and fewer items attached or hanging on the outside. This will help prevent snagging or scraping gear on branches or rocks.

Hydration sleeve or pocket: if using a water reservoir, put this in your pack first since it will be difficult to do so after the pack is loaded.

Pack liner: if using a pack liner such as a trash compactor bag, place this in the main compartment before loading your pack.

Bottom of the pack: lightweight items used at camp, such as sleeping bag, pillow, and extra clothing. Filling the bottom of a pack with lighter bulky items keeps the pack from pulling down and provides a bit of shock absorption.

Center of the pack, closest to your back: your heaviest items, such as water, cook kits, and food, will need to go in as close to the center of the pack as possible and as close to your spine as you can get them. Loading a pack with the weight center and close to you will help with stability and keep from sagging down or feeling tippy.

Outer and top sections of main compartment: use for medium and lightweight items such as sleeping pads, tent body, footprint or rainfly, and extra layers.

Top lid: use for items that you may need during your hike. This space is a great place to hold snacks and essentials such as navigation tools and a rain jacket.

External pockets: items that you may need while hiking, including a bathroom kit, water filter, or first aid kit.

Side pockets: for holding water bottles or awkward items such as tent poles, using the compression straps to secure them in place.

Hip belt pockets: good for smaller, frequently used items, such as lip balm, snacks, or a map.

External attachment straps: can be used for bulky items that don’t fit in the pack, such as a tent or sleeping pad.

Using liquid fuel? Make sure it’s sealed tightly and place at the bottom of the pack (stored below food), or use an external water bottle pocket.

Getting a Fully Loaded Pack on Your Back

Getting a fully loaded backpack from the ground to your back can sometimes be a challenge. Practice at home so it’s easier when you’re on trail.

  1. Begin by loosening the hip belt strap, shoulder straps, and load-lifter straps.
  2. Grab the hoist strap (the webbing loop at the top of the pack) with one hand and the harness with the other hand.
  3. Stand in a wide position with both knees slightly bent, slide the pack up one leg to your knee. 
  4. Use your knee or thigh as a shelf to hold the pack in position. 
  5. While still holding the hoist strap, slip your free arm into the shoulder strap. 
  6. Using gravity to stabilize the pack while bending slightly forward, place your remaining arm through the shoulder straps.
  7. While still bent over, buckle and cinch the hip belt.
  8. Stand up straight and cinch down the shoulders straps, then the load lifter straps (above the shoulder straps), and finally, buckle the sternum strap across your chest.
  9. To take off a heavy pack, loosen all of the straps, then do the above steps in reverse.


I Heart Backpacking: How to Get Started

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