How to Pack a Backpacking Bag

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Knowing how to pack a backpacking bag can increase your comfort on the trail, and that can make or break your experience while backpacking. Part of that comfort comes from making sure you get a pack that’s the correct size for your torso and your frame, but the other part comes from making sure the weight is evenly distributed throughout the pack.

To explain how to pack a backpacking bag, I’m going to break it down into different sections of the backpacking bag: the bottom of the pack, the core of the pack, the top of the pack, accessory pockets, and tool loops.

Bottom of the pack

You’ll put your midweight items here. Typically your tent shell or sleeping bag will go at the bottom. Any other bulky items that you won’t need until you get to camp can go here as well.

Packing these soft items at the bottom of your backpacking bag also offers a makeshift shock absorption system for your back.

  • Tent shell
  • Sleeping bag 
  • Sleeping pad
  • Camp shoes
  • Baselayers (or what you’re wearing to bed)

Core of the pack

The heaviest and more dense items should be in the middle and closest to your back. If you have a bear canister, you’ll want that positioned right in the middle of the bag so it doesn’t throw off your center of gravity. Bear canisters are big and stiff, taking up a lot of space in your backpacking bag. To make the most of that space, pack smaller non-food items in there while on the trail.

  • Bear canister
  • Food
  • Cook kit
  • Stove
  • Camp chair
  • Water reservoir

Top of the pack

Any lightweight items you have go on the top of the main pocket.

  • Extra clothes
  • Rain jacket
  • First aid kit
  • Water filter/purifier
  • Toilet supplies
  • Bulky items that you’ll need while on the trail

Accessory pockets

These are great for essentials that you’ll need often while on the trail.

Each pack will be different in what they offer as accessory pockets. Some basic ones are front pockets, a lid pocket, side pockets, and hip belt pockets. You can use any of these to organize those smaller items.

  • Phone
  • Snacks
  • Map
  • Compass
  • Headlamp 
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Water bottle
  • Car keys
  • Chapstick

Tool loops

These are found on the outside of the backpacking bag and I save these for oversized or awkwardly shaped items.

You’ll want to minimize what you have on the outside of your pack as those items can snag branches and scrape against rocks. If you decide to keep your sleeping pad on the outside of your backpacking bag, be aware as you move along the trail to avoid damaging it.

  • Trekking poles
  • A large sleeping pad
  • Tent poles
  • Crampons
  • Climbing rope 
  • Solar panels

General info

When you pack a backpacking bag, remember that you’re laying down rows and not building columns. Having it packed as “rows” will help prevent the weight from shifting while you’re on the trail. Once you’ve packed the main items, as mentioned above, you can fill in the nooks and crannies until you have a solid and stable load. Examples of what you can use to fill those spots are a tent body or footprint, rainfly, extra clothes, and a puffy coat.

TIP: If you’re using a reservoir for your water, it’s hard to fit a full reservoir into a full pack. Fill the reservoir and have it be the first thing you put in your pack.

How to hoist your backpacking bag:

A common mistake when putting on your pack is to lift it by the shoulder straps. This can wear out and damage the shoulder straps, as well as make it unstable while trying to put your pack on.

Follow these instructions when putting on your backpacking bag:

  1. Before lifting your pack, loosen all of the straps to make it easy to fit around your frame.
  2. Grab the haul loop (the loop on top of your bag) while facing the back panel.
  3. Lift the bag and use your thigh, a friend, or a rock to rest the bag on.
  4. Slip your arm into one of the shoulder straps.
  5. Swing the pack onto the other shoulder, making sure the hip belts are around your hips.
  6. Fasten your pack and make adjustments.
how to pack a backpacking bag: backpacking bag with labels pointing to hip belts, shoulder straps, sternum strap, load bearing straps. To teach how to hoist a backpacking bag correctly.

When fastening your straps, think of it like building a house: start with the foundation and work your way up. Fasten your hip belts first, making sure it’s a tight fit and that it’s taking the majority of your pack’s weight. Your hip bones should be in the center of the hip belts. Then tighten the shoulder straps, followed by the sternum strap. The last adjustment will be the load-bearing straps; use these to change how the pack fits on your back throughout the hike if needed.

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