Pack Your Backpack the Right Way in 5 Easy Steps

Follow these 5 simple steps to pack your backpack properly and save energy while you’re on the trail.

By Kraig Becker

Pack Your Backpack the Right Way in 5 Easy Steps
Photograph by Kraig Becker

Learning how to properly pack a backpack is a true art form that every outdoor enthusiast should master. Whether you’re heading into the backcountry for a weekend camping excursion or hiking the Appalachian Trail end-to-end, knowing how to keep all of your gear well organized and easy to access, is a handy skill to have at your disposal. And while it may seem like loading up a pack is a straight-forward, simple affair, there are a few tips and tricks that will make the process much easier, while saving some wear and tear on your body while out on the trail.

1. Organize Your Gear

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Before you begin packing, lay all of your gear for the trip out then begin choosing the absolute essentials you’ll need for your hike.

Before you even start packing your backpack, the very first thing you’ll want to do is organize the gear that you’ll be taking with you on the trip.

Start by laying it all out on the floor to get a sense of everything you plan to bring along. This gives you the opportunity to take a quick inventory of your equipment and identify the things that might be missing from the collection, not to mention the items that aren’t necessary for that particular outing. It is also a good way to assess whether or not your backpack has the capacity to haul everything you want to take with you.

2. Build Your Base

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Items that you don’t need to access on the trail, like your sleeping bag, should go into the bottom of your pack.

Once you’ve collected all of the gear that you’ll be using on your trip, the next step is to start putting all of it inside your pack.

Naturally that means starting at the bottom, where you’ll place the items that you’ll least likely need to access throughout the day or when you first arrive at camp that night. Those items generally include the following:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Extra camp shoes
  • Any layers of clothing that you aren’t likely to need on the trail that day. 

To get started:

A. First place your sleeping bag at the very bottom of the pack. This helps give the bag some shape and provides a soft cushion where the pack rests against your lower back.

B. If you’re bringing an extra pair of shoes, place them on top of the sleeping bag.

C. Then stuff your additional layers of clothing on or around the shoes to help hold everything securely in place.

Quick tip: Getting a hydration reservoir into a backpack that is fully loaded with gear is extremely challenging. If you’re using a reservoir to stay hydrated while on the trail, be sure to fill it with water and put it into your backpack first.

3. Fill The Core

The middle section of your backpack is where you want to store heavier items that you won’t necessarily need while hiking.

This creates a good center of gravity, helping you to maintain your sense of balance on the trail, even while scrambling over rocks or up and down rough terrain. If bulky items are too close to the bottom they can cause the backpack to hang lower than it should, potentially causing discomfort. If those items are placed near the top, they can alter the center of gravity, creating instability. They would also just be in the way when trying to access items that need to be more readily available.

The gear that you’ll want to stash in the core section of your pack includes your:

  • Tent
  • Camp stove
  • Cooking pots
  • Any food that you won’t need throughout the day.
  • It is also a good place to store extra clothing, fuel canisters, and a bear canister (for storing food) if one is required where you’ll be camping.

4. Top It All Off

Photograph by Kraig Becker
Heavy items, like stoves, should go in the middle (core) section of you pack while items like headlamps and first aid kits that you might need on the trail should go on top.

Finally, you’ll top off your backpack with the items that you’re most likely need to access during the day, as well as the things you’ll want close at hand should an emergency arise.

For example, if it starts to rain, you’ll want to be able to grab your rain gear as quickly as possible, so having a waterproof jacket in an easily accessible place is a good idea. The top of the pack is also a good place to stash your lunch, too, as you’re likely to stop somewhere along the way for a quick meal.

Other items that should be packed close to the top include:

  • An insulated jacket
  • First aid kit
  • Any toilet supplies 

The top of your pack is also the perfect location for your headlamp, extra snacks, and a water filter, as those are important items you may need to grab while en route from one campsite to the next.

Quick tip: Some backpackers prefer to pack their extra pieces of clothing last, using the layers to fill in extra space around their other gear. This can be a good way to ensure that everything is held firmly in place, while still making the most of the space that is available.

5. External Storage

Photograph by Kraig Becker
External pockets are perfect for items needed on the trail, like water bottles. Lashing points and straps are perfect for attaching items like tent or trekking poles.

With the inside of your pack quickly filling up, you’ll find extra storage space outside of the bag to be a handy place to store smaller items. For instance, most packs have gear straps at the bottom that are perfect for attaching a sleeping pad. Lashing points are good for holding trekking poles and ice axes, or attaching a GPS device or compass via a lanyard for easy access.

External pockets are designed for holding tent poles, a water bottle, or a pair of shoes. A lightweight solar panel can even be connected to the pack for charging small electronics while you’re on the go.

Most backpacks have hip belts equipped with small zippered pockets, too. These are handy for keeping energy bars, a camera, or a smartphone within easy reach.

6. Hit the Trail

Once you’ve securely loaded all of the gear in your pack and made sure your footwear is in order, you’ll be ready to hit the trail. By following these guidelines, the weight load should be well distributed, and all of your equipment should be organized, too. This will make hiking with a full pack much more enjoyable and keep things simple when arriving at your campsite at the end of the day.


About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National GeographicPopular MechanicsGear InstituteDigital TrendsOutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann. 

Subscribe for future Step Outside News!