Backpacks come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and configurations—after all, the needs of a weekend warrior heading out for a quick overnight are different from a thru-hiker hitting the trail for a few months. Despite the differences, there are some overriding principles for how to pack a backpack that remain constant and help achieve the two tell-tale qualities of a well-packed bag: comfort and convenience.
To achieve the coveted two C’s (comfort and convenience) it helps to envision your backpack in three sections: bottom, middle, and top. In general, the:
Big, bulky items that you’re not likely to need outside of camp are best positioned at the bottom of a backpack, making it the ideal spot to store a sleeping bag—this is why so many packs come with a dedicated sleeping bag compartment. Other items well-suited for the bottom of the bag include:
There is a divide among backpackers about the use of compression and stuff sacks when packing these items. Proponents argue that it helps save space (compressions sacks) and stay organized (stuff sacks), while opponents argue that the shapes of the sacks create dead space. Practice packing at home and do what works best for you!
The middle or main compartment of a backpack is reserved for your heaviest gear. By keeping weight centered in the middle of your back, you avoid pitfalls such as top-heavy packs, which tend to feel unbalanced, and bottom-heavy packs, which can pull you backward. Similarly, you want to position heavier items closer to your body and balance weight on both sides of the pack. A hydration bladder (if you’re using one) is a great place to start packing the middle of your backpack. Other items ideally located in the main compartment are:
If you’re using a liquid fuel stove, get in the habit of packing your fuel beneath your food—this will save you from going hungry in the event of an unexpected fuel leak. Also, you’re not required to carry the tent in the bag it came in—if you’re backpacking with another person, split the load and use the tent body or fly to hold awkwardly shaped gear in place and keep it from shifting in the pack.
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The top of the backpack is for light- to medium-weight items you need easy access to, such as extra layers for adjusting to changing weather. Other items to put at the top of your pack include:
Some backpacks come with a broad array of pockets for stashing small items and keeping them close at hand while other backpacks are more streamlined, paring down weight but requiring creative packing to accommodate smaller items.
Lid: The lid of a top-loading backpack, also sometimes called the brain, is a great spot for keeping small, frequently used items such as snacks, a headlamp, map and compass, and electronics like a phone or camera. It’s a good idea to pack electronics in a dry sack—especially when stashed in the lid—to protect them against the inevitable afternoon rain shower.
Hip Pockets: These are perfect for storing small snacks like gels and bars for eating on the move, along with other items you may need throughout the day such as chapstick, sunscreen, or bug spray.
Front Pockets: The front pouch is an awesome place to keep wet items from soaking the rest of the stuff inside your pack. This makes them great for recently used raincoats and pack covers.
Water Bottle Pockets: As their name implies, water bottle pockets are intended to carry water bottles. You can also use them for stowing tent poles (in conjunction with a compression strap), stashing snacks, or storing stuff like a bear-bagging line.
Don’t detract from your next trip to the backcountry because of a poorly packed backpack. Achieving the two C’s by understanding how and where to place your gear leads to smoother outings, less aggravation, and more enjoyable trips.
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