Many of us invest a lot of time and energy into figuring out what gear to buy and bring along on our hiking and backpacking adventures. While gear planning is a worthwhile pursuit, ought we also apply that same intentionality to how we end up packing all that gear into our backpacks?
According to Gossamer Gear’s Sustainability and Outreach Manager, Sarah del Puerto, the answer is a resounding … YES! Sarah suggests that a well-packed backpack can make a world of difference when thru-hiking or backpacking, increasing comfort, efficiency and enjoyment.
While there are many variables, and everybody likes to wear their pack differently, this article will cover some helpful suggestions around how to pack your pack — in order to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering. So, let’s get into it.
WHY IT MATTERS?
A well packed pack is all about proper weight distribution and efficiency. You want to keep your center of gravity stable, your load balanced, and your frequently used items accessible.
“You shouldn’t be working against yourself,” says Sarah, suggesting that if your pack weight is unevenly dispersed, you’ll end up using more effort to counterbalance your bag, which can cause unnecessary strain and inefficiency in your stride.
If you’ve ever hiked with a lot of weight perched at the top of your pack (guilty!), then you’ll know the awkward, clumsy feeling of being pulled backward, or being pushed forward from behind. Poor packing protocols mean you end up spending more time worrying about your balance and your backpack adjustments rather than reveling in what you came out there to do — soaking up adventure and enjoying the hike.
HOW TO PACK YOUR PACK
There is a structure, or a formula, if you will, around how to properly pack a pack. However, in order to know which items to pack in what order, Sarah suggests that you first need to think about what categories each piece of gear fits into.
This means first organizing your gear into three piles — lightweight, medium weight and heavy — and then identifying which items you’ll use most and which are best to have handy in case of emergency (think GPS device, first aid kit and bear spray).
Once you’ve got a handle on that, it’s time to get packing.
“In the bottom of the main compartment of your backpack, you want to put your medium-light weight items that you don’t need to grab throughout the day while you’re hiking, like your sleep kit and your sleeping clothes,” says Sarah, adding that for some people, their tarp or shelter will live there too.
“Then you want to pack your heaviest things on top of that, so that they sit at the small of your back,” says Sarah, who explains that this is where your core and center of gravity are. Items that fall into the ‘heaviest’ category often include things like: a bear canister or food bag, snacks and hygiene products, a cooking kit, and maybe your first aid kit.
“You want the bulk of the weight concentrated here, as opposed to at the top or at the bottom [of your bag] because that can throw off your center of gravity,” says Sarah, adding that improper weight distribution will cause your backpack to sway, resulting in unnecessary effort to counterbalance your pack, as we mentioned earlier.
Next, go ahead and fill the open spaces around these ‘heavy’ items with malleable items such as extra clothing or a sleeping pad, to best utilize pack space and keep loose items from shifting side to side. Also, a ‘taut’ pack can double as something akin to a frame, helping with weight distribution, once you begin playing with the adjustment points on the pack’s harness.
“On top of that heavy weight, you have your light, frequently used items like a jacket, rain pants, or something that you might need to grab quickly,” says Sarah, adding that if you carry a water bladder, you’ll want to stow that inside the bag, against your back, using the hook that most packs provide.
While every pack is designed differently, if you have external storage, you’ll want to take advantage of those stash spots, like mesh pockets, side pouches and hip belt pockets to store the items you’ll need during the day, while hiking. This includes things like snacks, your water filter, a map and compass, your phone and/ or a GPS device, says Sarah, who adds that Gossamer Gear’s Mariposa pack has three different side pockets, one of which fits most ultralight shelters, so you don’t have to store it with your sleep kit — especially useful when it’s damp or wet.
HOW TO TEST YOUR PACKED PACK
Once your bag is packed, Sarah suggests a foolproof way to test your packing prowess.
“Set your pack down on a flat surface, either on the ground or on a table, and see if it immediately tips forward or tips backward,” says Sarah. “You want it to be balanced.”
In other words, you want your pack to stand on its own. If it falls over in any direction, you know your weight distribution could be better. Unpacking and repacking your bag is good real world practice, and gives you a chance to consider if there are any unnecessary items lurking in your bag, so don’t be afraid to try, fail, and then try, try again!
Sarah suggests that a good way to dial in your kit before embarking on a long excursion is to go out for a one or two-day mission and ask yourself some intentional questions about your items. This is often referred to as a ‘shakedown hike.’
“Take a compass for example, you can ask yourself: Did I need it? Did I use it? Do I know how to use it? Should I learn how to use this compass? Because if not, it's just dead weight in your bag.”
This sort of experience will help you figure out what you really need and what isn’t serving you. “Maybe you’ll go out on trail and discover that rain pants are a good idea or that you do need an extra jacket on those really cold, windy nights. It’s really just trial and error,” Sarah adds.
When it comes to spending several weeks or months out hiking, your backpack really does become your second skin. It goes where you go and affects your overall experience in so many nuanced and perhaps unexpected ways. As such, a bit of extra planning and forethought about how to pack your pack really can go a long way.
Of course, the most practical wisdom comes from getting out and taking on an adventure, knowing that you’ll learn, grow and change things along the way. So grab your favorite backpack, load up your gear (keeping these tips in mind), and get yourself out into wild spaces.
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.
For 3 season backpacking I really like my Osprey EXOS 58 pack – to which I’ve added two side pockets and a front “wet rib” pocket/bottle carrier. This permits me to easily get at things I may need in a hurry like my potty kit, 1st aid kit, water purification Steripen or chlorine dioxide tablets or stuff I don’t want inside the pack like stove and fuel, etc.
I don’t like water bottles in the mesh side pockets, only a bike bottle of electrolyte drink in the front “wet rib” and water in a 2 liter Camelbak bladder with hose in my pack.
From my experience I really dislike nothing “dangling” from my pack. That, to me, shows a newbie approach to back packing and “just isn’t proper”. ;o) Yeah, you may see wet socks I just washed hanging from my pack but that is IT.
Should I pack my tent in its stuff sack and place it in my psck. or put just the tent body in the back storage pouch on my pack?
Tent is a big agnes flycreel ul2
Thanks for the great article Ali. I especially like the balanced pack front and back idea rather than solely focused on stacking gear vertically. Paying attention to both axis makes perfect sense yet I never thought about my front or back leaning pack.
is taking more energy. There is so much industry focus on pack weight, usually using specific targets with no mention of the huge difference one’s individual body weight and physical condition makes is great to highlight universal techniques like balancing your pack on all 3 axis( Including side to side). I think a balanced pack could make more of a difference in your hiking comfort than shaving a few pounds of gear or food you hope you don’t regret leaving behind on the trail. Thanks, John
Great article, well written!