How to Pack Your Backpack

If you're new to backpacking and planning your first trip with the idea that you'll just stuff your things into your pack with little thought put into it, this post is for you.


When it comes to packing your pack and organizing it, I may have to shy away from my common saying of "there's no wrong way to backpack, only better ways."  The truth is, there actually is a right and wrong way to pack your backpack.  You could argue that as long as your belongings get from point A to point B then you've done what you came for, but I'd still hold my line that if you're packing your pack the wrong way, you're doing yourself more harm than good.


As with all posts in this section, we're going to keep it simple and straight forward.  After you have a basic understanding of where things should be located, you can adjust from there based on your individual needs.  


If backpacking is irritating, frustrating, or painful... you’re doing it wrong.
— Pooparazzi (Emory)


Where to begin

When you're packing, you need to think in reverse.  We're talking about backpacking, NOT day hiking, so you don't need everything at your fingertips at all times.  In general, the only big ticket items you'll be pulling out of your pack throughout the day are food items and clothing layers.  Everything else can stay in your pack until you get to camp.  


Now that we know you only need access to food and clothing throughout the day, we can go ahead and think in reverse when packing.  By this I mean, think about the process of setting up camp.  You won't be pulling out your sleeping bag and air pad without a shelter set up, so the bag and pad can go at the bottom of your pack as one of the last things to pull out.  This has two benefits; the first is that it prevents your gear from being strewn about when setting up camp, and the second is that if the weather is bad, it protects your gear longer while you get camp ready.  


This is what I mean by packing in reverse order.  Stow the things you don't need until you get to camp toward the bottom of your pack and work up from there.  It's not an exact science, so don't overthink it.  You'll get better at it the more you pack and unpack you stuff.  


How to avoid pain

Packing in reverse order won't keep your neck, shoulders, and back from hating you so it's equally important, if not more important, to ensure weight is distributed properly.  A general rule of thumb is to locate the heaviest items in your pack right around where your shoulder blades are and close to your body.  Again, not an exact science, but if you want to see what it's like to wear a top heavy or bottom heavy pack, go ahead and pack like that a couple of times and you'll find that it's not very fun.  Is it the end of the world?  No, but why put more strain on your body than necessary?  


Don't over think this too much.  Just know that if heavy items are stowed at the bottom of your pack, it'll sag on you.  If, however, you stow heavy items at the very top of your pack, it'll feel very unstable and even pull back on you a little.  


Think of it this way; when you pick up a heavy object, where do you naturally want to hold it?  Above your head or below your knees?  No, you likely want to bear hug it on your chest so that it's closest to your center of gravity (not too high, not too low).  The same goes when carrying something on your back.  


Distributing weight properly also includes doing so laterally (left and right).  If you're going to carry something heavy like water on your left, make sure you counterbalance that with moving another heavy object to the right inside the pack to account for an odd load.  You want as equal pressure bearing down on both sides of the pack so that your body is working evenly.  


If you can't tell if you're distributing weight evenly in your pack, you'll know when you wake up the next morning.  A sign of a poorly balanced pack is having one side of your body aching while the other is fine.  Sore muscles are a pretty solid sign that you might need to adjust something.  

Packing your pack is a process and anytime you add something new to your kit, it might change.  Before long you'll be doing it without even thinking about what is what.


The order of packing

Alright, here you go.  Now that we've established why we need to pack properly, here's how I personally pack my things when I have an empty pack sitting in front of me.


**Reminder: we're packing in reverse**


  1. Sleeping bag
  2. Sleeping pad
  3. Cookset
  4. Accessory bag with extra clothing I won't be needing during the day and nighttime items
  5. Food bag
  6. Warming layers (long sleeve, insulation, and rain shell stuffed in and around the food bag)
  7. Day snacks.
  8. Water located in equal amounts on my left and right outside stretch pockets (if you use a bladder on the inside of your pack, you don't have to worry about where to put it because most packs have a way to hang you bladder right between your shoulder blades and close to your body).
  9. **TENT**  Some people toss their shelter above the cook set and accessories bag but below food (between items 4 and 5 of this list).  However, I've found that I actually prefer to locate my tent in the back stretch pocket of my backpacks in the name of efficiency.  It's the first thing I set up when I get to camp and the last thing I pack up.  This allows me to keep everything INSIDE my backpack while I'm setting up my camp which is especially useful if it's raining.  In the morning, it also allows me to pack up my entire camp while I'm hiding from bad weather inside my tent until the last possible moment.  This is personal preference.  It also means that one of the heavier items in my pack is the furthest away from my body, but my tents generally don't weigh very much and I've never felt a negative side affect of doing it this way.  For me, it works and I like it.  


Final thoughts

So that's it!  Easy peasy.  Not brain science, but certainly important to understand before you head out into the backcountry.  Don't expect to get it right the first time and never have the change anything.  On the contrary, you should always be trying new things.  You'll never know what you like and don't like until you try it out.  


Don't get down on yourself if you get it wrong.  Even though I said there's a right and wrong way to pack a bag, it's still a process.  Even after a lifetime of backpacking, I bet you'll still be trying new things out and getting it wrong from time to time.  


The key is that you're figuring it out.  This post is not meant to give you a 100% sure fire way of doing things, but rather it's meant to jumpstart the process so you can avoid those initial mistakes.  


By Land,