How To Pack A Backpack for hiking comfort

Heading on a backpacking trip for the first time can be overwhelming and intimidating with all the considerations you need to make. Knowing how to pack a backpack becomes crucial so that your body isn’t in pain after a long day hike. Lower the stress on your hips and shoulders by following the packing techniques outlined in this article. 

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raul mercado with backpack in front of tent

Packing Layout And Tips

Before stuffing all the gear into your pack and calling it a day you’ll want to make sure you know what items to bring, what the different parts of your backpack are for, and how to pack all your gear into your bag. 

Categorizing Your Gear

Once you hit the trails your pack is an extension of yourself and you’ll be forced to carry that weight for the entire length of the trip. That’s why it’s important to categorize your backpacking items into two piles before they go into your pack.

Essential Items – These items include your food, shelter, first-aid kit, navigation tools, and clothing. All of these items are essential to your survival during a backpacking trip and will make their way into your pack before you leave.  

Luxury Items – These are items like books, extra clothing, tablets, and games. They aren’t going to help you survive in the outdoors but they will keep you entertained. 

Your luxury items will be the first to go when your bag is getting full and you need to let some gear stay home. This method will also allow you to use your camping checklist to make sure you have everything you need.

backpack in the outdoors

Knowing The Parts Of A Backpack

Besides the main compartment where most of your gear will live during your trip, understanding all the pockets, straps, and zippers will help you to access your gear and separate it into the right places. 

Main Compartment – Every backpack has one and it’s where you’ll be stuffing most of your gear into as you fight to fill every extra space. The main compartment can come with extra pockets on the inside for smaller items you don’t want to lose track of like headphones or your wallet. 

Brain Pocket – At the very top of your pack is a separate pocket that will flip over and cover your main compartment. This is called the brain pocket and is the best place to store the items that you’ll be reaching for most often during your hike. Navigation tools, rain jackets, snacks, or headlamps will be a perfect place to store in the brain.

Front Pouch – Attached to the front of your bag is usually a small pocket where you can put an item or two inside of. Some front pouches will be open and others will have a zipper you can close. Either way, store your wet gear here like a rain jacket or wet socks so they stay separate from your other items. 

Hip Belt Pocket – When you put your backpack on there are going to be two waist straps that will wrap around you and buckle in front of your stomach. These waist straps usually have a hip belt pocket that is small and zippered where you can place small snacks, lip balm, or your phone. You don’t even have to take your bag off to get to these pockets so they are the most accessible parts of your pack.

Water Bottle Pockets – On both sides of your backpack are going to be pockets that can hold a water bottle while you’re hiking. You will have two pockets to carry two water containers and you’ll be able to access these at any time with the bag on or off. Just be careful if your bag is turned upside down because anything inside the pockets will likely come out.

Compression Straps – All along the sides, front, top, and back of your backpack are going to be compression straps where you can adjust the weight distribution of your pack. These straps are also perfect for sticking large objects in between the straps and your bag like trekking poles, tent poles, sleeping pads, or cooking pots. 

man with backpack on

Separating Your Pack Into Three Levels

Depending on the pack and gear you’re bringing, every backpacker’s strategy will be slightly different. Where each individual item goes in your backpack is much less important than keeping the gear in three distinct levels.

You’ll have certain items that are big, sturdy, and bulky but you’ll also have items that are more malleable. Stick items like a raincoat or tarp in between the bulky items to help stabilize them so they don’t constantly shift while you’re hiking.

Separating your items into the right levels will help with your center of gravity and stability while you’re out on the trails. It will also help you reduce the strain on your lower back and shoulders and evenly distribute the weight across your entire pack.

Bottom Level – Keep this bottom third of your bag for all the gear you’ll be using once you get to your campsite like a tent. Make sure you’re keeping all your heavy and dense items in the middle of your pack. Since these items will be at the bottom they won’t be easy to access while you’re heading down the trails which makes it a perfect spot for campsite items like the ones below.

  • Sleeping bag
  • Pillows
  • Sleep wear
  • Extra shoes
  • Extra clothing

MIddle Level – Reserved for the heaviest and densest gear you’ll be bringing, the middle level helps to put most of the weight in the middle of the back instead of being bottom or top-heavy. If you can, keep the heaviest items on the side closest to your back and stick any lighter items in the middle level towards the edge of the backpack.

  • Food
  • Stove
  • Bear canister
  • Water reservoir

Top Level – Any gear that you’ll want to have easy access to should be reserved for this top space so you can stop and pick out what you need without yard-saleing it. Use this in combination with your brain pocket and everything you need should be within an arm’s reach.

  • Rain gear
  • First-aid
  • Bathroom essentials
  • Water filter

If you pack something deep in your pack but need to get to it mid-hike then most top-load backpacks will have a large zipper on the side you can use to find the item you need. This will keep you from having to pull all your gear out and repack everything.

compression sacks and other camping gear

Using Compression Sacks

A great way to reduce the space your gear is taking up is to use compression sacks. They’ll help you condense all your softer items and they also come in waterproof materials.

If you’re planning on backpacking through some rain you can use the compression sacks to make sure that the content of your pack doesn’t get soaked. You could also line the inner part of your pack with a trash bag.

That way there’s an additional layer of support you’ll get if it starts to rain.

If you have loose material like a tarp or clothing, stuff this between your compressions sacks. This will help stabilize the compression sacks so they don’t constantly shift while you’re walking and throw you off balance.

Common Packing Problems

Beginning backpackers generally make the same mistakes over and over again. Overpacking, uneven distribution of weight, and not using a checklist.

But they’re easy to correct if you just do a little planning ahead of time.

girl sitting on backpack in outdoors

Overpacking

Heading into the middle of nowhere for the first time can freak anyone out but you don’t want to keep your backpack overloaded.

Even when my partner and I are just camping we still have a problem of overpacking. We want to make sure we have everything we could possibly need for the best time in the outdoors.

The problem when backpacking is you’re going to carry all that gear for the entire length of the trip and it’s quickly going to become more of a burden than a luxury. 

Follow the section in this article about Categorizing Your Gear before you head to the outdoors and you shouldn’t have to worry about overpacking. 

As long as you’re clear on the items that are essential and the items that are luxury you should always have what you need without carrying too much gear.

Uneven Backpack Weight Distribution

This will ultimately happen to everyone who enjoys backpacking on a consistent basis. And as most of us know, having to redistribute the weight in your bag while you’re on the trail can be a hassle you’d be happier to avoid.

You might not even notice the weight isn’t distributed evenly until you’re already on the trail and notice your pack knocking you off your center of gravity every time you shift positions. 

Before you leave the home try to take a short walk around the neighborhood while wearing your pack. 

The more you backpack in the outdoors the easier it will be to know how you should be packing your bag but if this is the first time you’ll benefit from giving it a test walk.

Follow the Separating Your Pack Into Three Levels section in this article will be a great guide to knowing where the weight should be concentrated and how to even it out.

man and woman looking at map

No Checklist, No Items

Can’t stress a camping or backpacking checklist enough. 

When you’re headed to a place where there aren’t the comforts of home and you won’t have everything within arm’s reach, a checklist is king.

Create a checklist before you even start packing to get your mind thinking of what you will need while you’re in the outdoors.

As you place the items into your backpack, start checking off the items on your checklist so that nothing is missed. 

man clipping backpack

How To Hoist Your Pack Safely

An easy way to avoid any back pains while hoisting your pack is to use bodyweight and momentum to do most of the work for you.

  1. Loosen any of the straps around the shoulder area so you have more room to stick your arms through.
  2. Start with your pack upright on the ground facing the back panel.
  3. Slightly tilt the top of the pack away from you and grab onto the haul loop with your left hand and the left shoulder strap with the right hand.
  4. Bend your knees and in one upward motion, lift the pack onto your thigh and hold stable.  
  5. While holding onto the haul loop with your left hand, put your right arm through the right shoulder strap.
  6. Bend slightly at the waist and use the momentum of your movement to swing the pack across your back while still holding onto the haul loop.
  7. Keep your waist bent slightly while balancing the pack on your back and put your left arm through the other shoulder strap.

Once you have on your pack you can start adjusting all of your compression straps. The trick is to keep the weight as close to the body as possible. 

This will put less strain on the shoulders and lower back so the weight can be distributed evenly. Any help you can get to reduce the stress on your muscles is going to pay huge dividends in the long run.

Try doing this at home a couple of times while your backpack is filled and before you head out to the trail. Giving yourself a couple of reps could prevent any injuries you’d sustain otherwise.

Summary

Categorize your gear into essential and luxury items to make sure you aren’t overloading yourself on your trip. Use the three-level method to evenly distribute the weight and allow easy access to the items you be using frequently. Use a checklist to make sure that nothing is getting left behind that you might need. Once these basics of packing become automatic, your trips are going to take a lot less work when you head outdoors. 

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