How to Pack a Backpack

By: Amy Hunter
Make sure your backpack fits your torso correctly and hugs your hips in the right spot.
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

You've waltzed into camping stores as wide-eyed as a child -- running your fingers over fleece pullovers, Gore-Tex boots, shiny cookware and red camping stoves. You've listened intently­ to salespeople explain the "technology" of tents, sleeping bags and raingear. Your mouth has dropped as you've turned over price tags. You've returned home to scour the Internet for reviews on gear, hoping for cheaper but equal-quality alternatives. You've racked your brain for friends who might let you borrow stuff. And now, after you've bargained and borrowed, weighed in and ruled out, it's time to get all this awesome gear into your pack. But how?

First things first -- let's make sure you've got the right backpack. You need a pack that both fits your figure perfectly and suits your gear-stowing needs. For the best fit, go by the length of your torso, not your height. As you browse packs, keep in mind that each manufacturer is different -- so read the sizing instructions on each backpack.


After you narrow down the size, zero in on backpack features. A panel-loading backpack, which zips open at the top and down each side, will allow you easy access to your things. With a top-loading pack, you may have to unload half your pack to reach what you need. The internal-framed backpack is more popular than the external-framed pack. It holds the backpack close to your body, which makes it easier to balance, and you carry 80 percent of the pack's weight on your hips. The external-framed backpack is less expensive, and because the frame holds the pack away from your body, it's cooler on hot days.

­A quality backpack should have padded straps that go over the shoulders, across the chest and around the hips. Women's packs are made with narrower straps and shorter torso lengths. If you plan to carry water bottles, make sure the pack has external pockets correctly sized for this. If you plan on using a pack bladder or hydration system, confirm that it's compatible with your backpack. Some backpacks come with a hydration system.

Once you've narrowed down your c­hoices, try each one on with added weight. The backpacking store should have weighted bags to put in the backpack. These bags typically contain lead or­ other dense packing, so they won't exactly replicate the feel of a loaded pack, but they'll give you some idea. Walk around the store, look up, squat down, and, if possible, walk up and down a flight of stairs. The backpack shouldn't hit the back of your knees when you squat, hit your neck or head when you look up or shift around when you move.

Now that you've chosen the perfect backpack, let's start loading it with all your cool gear.


Packing a Backpack

Before you load up your pack, put all of your gear in a pile. Then plan out where each item should be stowed. And definitely wear your headlamp while you do it.
Chip Simons/Getty Images

There's no one way to pack a backpack -- everyone will pack their backpacks differently. But some general guidelines will make it easier for you to access the things you need when you need them. They'll also make your pack easier to carry over a long day.

When you're packing a backpack for a trip where you'll cover moderate terrain and remain on the trail, it's best to pack the lighter items in the bottom of the pack and heavier items toward the top. This keeps your center of gravity relatively high, which many people find makes the weight easier to manage. The heavier items should be packed closest to your back.


If you plan to hike rough terrain or off-trail, try arranging some of your heavier items in the bottom of your backpack. This lowers your center of gravity, which will improve your balance. Because women naturally have a lower center of gravity, they often prefer to pack their backpacks this way for all trips.

Many backpacks have a separate compartment for sleeping bags. If your pack doesn't, pack the sleeping bag in the bottom of the pack. This will keep it out of the way during the day, and you're unlikely to need it until you stop for the night. Once you have a home for your sleeping bag, slip your tent under the bag. Use straps to connect your tent poles to the outside of the backpack.

Pack your changes of clothes toward the bottom of your backpack, because, like your sleeping bag, you won't need them until you stop for the night. If you're hiking in changeable weather, stash rain gear, gloves or hats in the top of your backpack or in an outside pocket, where you can reach them quickly and easily.

Food and cooking fuel are two concerns for many hikers. They're both heavy, so you don't want to take too much of either, but you certainly want to have enough. Plan your meals before your trip to make sure you pack enough food. Practice using your stove before your backpacking trip as well, so that you know approximately how much fuel to pack.



How to Load a Backpack With Food

A girl makes lunch on a hike to Helen Lake in Alberta, Canada.
Andrew Querner/Getty Images

The last thing you want to happen inside your backpack is for your fuel to spill all over your food. So, it's important to store food separate from fuel. Pack your fuel containers upright and preferably in outside pockets. Your food goes inside your pack. For added protection, not just from an accidental fuel spill, but from moisture, leaking toiletries and other unexpected problems, pack your food in plastic zip-top bags. Some people sort their food into plastic bags by type, such as breakfast foods or snacks. Others prepare one bag for each day's meals. However you choose to compartmentalize your food, having it sorted in separate bags makes it easier to grab and provides it with some extra protection. But keep in mind, plastic bags aren't enough to completely protect your food from hungry animals. They're not that airtight.

If you have room in your backpack for your cookware, pack it inside. If not, you can attach it to the outside of your backpack with straps. But it's important to pack as much as you can inside your backpack. Although straps and clips make it easy to attach a wide variety of gear to your backpack, any gear that hangs from your backpack is likely to become snagged in the brush. And, no matter how carefully you tie it on, it can be lost.


If you're in bear country, your food will need extra protection at night, and you'll probably need to carry a bear canister with you while you hike. So you'll need to factor that weight and the canister's size into your packing strategy. If you hike in an area with black bears, a soft sided bear proof container may be enough. You'll need to hang the container in the air, suspending it between two trees, about 20 feet (6 meters) in the air.

If you're hiking in an area where grizzly bears are common, your food will require more aggressive measures. Because the grizzly is less concerned about confronting humans than the black bear is, and because it's larger, you'll need a hard-sided food container. You also should consider preparing your meals and eating before setting up camp. Eat your meal, clean up and then hike on at least 200 yards (183 meters) before setting up camp. Once you're in camp, don't eat anything and store your food in the hard bear-proof vault at least 100 yards (91 meters) from camp.



How to Pack a Sleeping Bag and Clothes

Believe it or not, where you place your sleeping bag inside your pack affects its ability to keep you warm at night.
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Your sleeping bag will take up a relatively large portion of your pack, so it deserves special attention. Some backpacks come with a separate compartment for sleeping bag storage. Those packs are an excellent choice because the separate compartment holds the weight of your gear off of your sleeping bag. When this is the case, you'll get better performance from your sleeping bag, particularly in cold weather. Sleeping bags, like other insulating gear, keep you warm by trapping air inside the fill. When the fill becomes compressed, the sleeping bag can't insulate as well. With that in mind, you may wonder about the wisdom of using a compression bag for your sleeping bag.

A compression bag is used to reduce the bulk of your sleeping bag, freeing up room in your backpack. Because you roll up your sleeping bag before putting it into the bag and compress it evenly on all sides, a compression bag will not cause the same problems that packing heavy items on top of a sleeping bag will. However, it's important to compress the bag evenly and not tighten the straps too aggressively to prevent damage to your bag.


Besides your sleep bag, you'll also carry a sleeping pad. There are several ways to pack your sleeping pad. Some people fold it and pack it on the side closest to their backs. Packed against the back, the sleeping pad provides some protection against sharp cookware or other items that may poke you as you hike. If the sleeping pad doesn't fit easily into your backpack, it can be attached firmly to the outside, along the back or between the front of the backpack and your body. If you attach it on the sides, it's more likely to become tangled or snagged when you pass trees and bushes.

As far as clothes are concerned -- how much you pack will depend on how long you'll be out backpacking. Let's say you're packing for a five-day trip. Generally speaking, you'll want -- at least -- a complete change of clothes and something to sleep in. You'll need at least one, and maybe two, extra sets of underwear. Microfiber blend clothing dries quickly, which allows you to rinse it out and have it dry by the next morning. Three pair of socks -- one to wash, one to wear and one pair that's dry -- should be enough.

Of course this is a simplistic list, and you'll need to consider the weather conditions. In the summer, in mild conditions, one complete change of clothes may be sufficient. Add a cotton or fleece hooded sweatshirt for early mornings, and you're ready to go. Realistically, however, plan on carrying rain gear, long and short sleeve layers, a hat and gloves, and even long underwear. Plan on getting colder, hotter and wetter than you imagined. Although a good deal of variety isn't necessary, clothes that offer flexibility are.


Pack Your Backpack Budgeting Weight and Space

Make sure to pack your first aid kit where it'll be easy to reach in an emergency.
Peter Hannert/Getty Images

Budgeting backpack weight and making the best use of space are the biggest challenges for a rookie backpacker. Some backpackers become fixated with packing the lightest possible pack and ultimately turn toward ultralight backpacking. But many of us just aren't willing to give up so many comforts, even on the trail.

The best a backpacker can do is carefully consider what to take, choose the options that weigh the least and pack thoughtfully. When you lay out what you plan to put in your backpack, set aside the necessities first -- your sleeping bag and tent, fuel, stove, sleeping pad and the hiking essentials. Then add your food to that pile. Within the space and weight you have remaining, pack your clothes. When you pack your pack, put the small items you'll need throughout the day -- sunscreen, insect repellent, your map -- in the outside pockets. Always return those items to the same spot while you're on the trail, and soon reaching for them there will be second nature. If you still have room in your pack after you've packed all the necessities, and your backpack isn't already too heavy, add any personal items you'd like to bring -- perhaps a book or journal.


­When planning your meals for your trip, eat any fresh fruits, bagels or other heavy foods in the first day or two and save your dehydrated meals and noodles for later on in the trip. This will help to lighten your load as you become more fatigued over the course of your trip. Also, learn to accurately read trail maps so that you can determine exactly how far apart water stops are. That way, you won't carry more water than is necessary.

Once your backpack is packed, you can use compression straps to tighten it up. This won't lighten your load, but it will keep it closer to your back, making it easier to carry. Before you head out for your trip, practice carrying the loaded backpack around your house or even through your neighborhood. If you have time, a few of these trial runs with your fully loaded backpack provide an excellent chance for you to decide if you can handle the weight and if the weight has been packed most comfortably. After carrying a backpack that weighs up to one-third of your weight for a few hours, you may be surprised at what you're willing to leave at home.



How to Pack a Backpack for Wet Weather

Make good use of stuff sacks and plastic bags to prepare your pack for rainy weather.
Tom Stock/Getty Images

On the trail, comfort is relative. It's unlikely that you'll be as clean as you want or get as much sleep as you want. You should, however, aim to stay as dry as possible. Dry clothes and shoes help prevent blisters and keep you warm, and dry gear is lighter than wet gear.

So, how can you keep your backpack and all of its contents dry?


Even a waterproof backpack will not keep your equipment dry in a torrential downpour. There are a variety of waterproof covers you can choose from that will keep your backpack dry, but many people prefer to cover their backpacks with a garbage bag during the rain. In addition to covering your backpack, make sure that everything in the backpack is packed in a zip-top plastic bag or stuff sack as an additional layer of protection.

What if it's raining when you set up camp for the night? Or, what if you're camping in a wet area? Few materials, even those labeled waterproof, will remain so if left sitting in a puddle of water overnight. Provide your backpack with as much protection as possible -- cover it and hang it up, or at least elevate it somehow a few inches from the wet ground. Minimize the number of times you open your backpack in rainy weather. That way you don't allow moisture into the pack and then trap it there. When the weather dries out, empty your pack and let some sunshine in to prevent mold and mildew from growing inside.

If wet weather sets in for the day while you are backpacking, you have the choice to either hike through it or hunker down in camp for a zero day, or day of rest. If the weather is mild and the walking easy, hiking in the rain will keep you warm and pass the time. If the trail is rough, you're hiking off-trail, you must ford streams or rivers or the weather is cold, it makes sense to stay in camp for the day and wait for the weather to improve.

For more information on camping, backpacking and other outdoor sports, head to the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related How Stuff Works Articles

More Great Links

  • Berger, Karen. "Trailside Guide: Hiking and Backpacking, New Edition." 1995.
  • Curtis, Rick. "The Backpacker's Field Manual, a Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills." 1998.
  • Johnston, Matt. "Packing a Pack." The Backpacker. (November 4, 2008)
  • Jordan, Ryan. "Necessity vs. Importance: Considering Ultralight Essentials." Backpacking Light. July 15, 2008. (November 3, 2008)
  • Kestenbaum, Ryel. "The Ultralight Backpacker: The Complete Guide to Simplicity and Comfort on the Trail." 2001.
  • McGivney, Annette. "Leave No Trace: A Guide to New Wilderness Etiquette." 2003.
  • Olsen, Eric. "Backpacking Pack Weight." The Hiking Website. 2007. (November 2, 2008)