It’s nearly impossible to pack a backpack for a multi-day trip correctly the first time. Inevitably, each packing session turns into a re-shift of how you start. Oh, you don’t have room for your running shoes? What about if you put your propane on the outside, next to your poles? How many protein bars is too many? Do I really need fresh coffee in the morning, or can my French Press become the sacrificial lamb to the backpacking gods?
While it all depends on your pack’s capacity, remember that these things are designed to hold everything you need, and hold it just how you need it. You just have to know what goes where. It’s a matter of weight distribution, item organization, and a little bit of luck. But just to keep you from relying on luck too much, here’s a guide to getting the art of packing right.
Sleeping Bag First!
What comes out last, goes in first, because your sleeping bag is the last thing you’ll need at the end of the day. Plus, having a large, light item at the bottom of your pack perfectly sets you up to be able to pack your heaviest gear at the center of your shoulder blades. So, first thing’s first: put your sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack.
Put the Weight Where It Needs To Be
There are a few tricks that keep the aches and pains of hoisting 40-pounds of life necessities up mountains at a minimum—namely properly distributing the weight you’re carrying. Lightweight items go in first—on top of your sleeping bag. This includes clothes, and other odds and ends. Your heaviest items (bear canisters full of food, pots stuffed with food and clothes) and the bulk of the weight of your pack (including water bladders) should be centered between your shoulder blades and close to your back. Then, fill in the rest of your pack with middle-weight gear (first-aid, stove, water filter, etc.) further away from your back and in the middle of the pack—filling in the excess space.
Use Your Brain
The brain—aka the zippered pocket at the top of your pack—is your best friend. Keep everything that you need quick access to during the day here. Sunscreen, snacks, GPS, a headlamp, or an extra layer of clothing belong in your brain. Keeping these necessities where you can have quick access to them will undoubtedly save you from time spent on the side of the trail dissecting your pack, just for a tube of lip balm.
Keep It Together
Invest in some small zippered bags (not plastic bags, because that’s wasteful!) that can help keep smaller items wrangled together. Put your silverware in one bag, toiletries in another, and snacks in another. That way, you won’t be digging through your pack at sunset trying to find a fork when your hunger level is at a strong 10. This is also a great way to cut down on bottles and containers that you won’t need out there. Just squeeze foot powder, sunscreen, toothpaste, into baggies (we can recommend plastic bags for these messier items).
Say No to Backpack Ornaments
Sometimes, not everything fits inside your pack. Tents can be awkwardly shaped and hiking poles can impale your pack—leaving you with gear to attach to your person externally. Luckily, most packs are equipped to handle these scenarios without leaving you looking like a backcountry Christmas tree—with gear dangling all around you (and getting in your way). Attach your tent or sleeping pad to the bottom of your pack horizontally, and use side straps to lock your poles down vertically. Whatever you do, attach external gear in the direction that maintains the integrity of your packs’ shape—because nothing is worse than walking down a trail hitting every tree, shrub, and person that you pass by. Remember, it’s all about staying balanced.