How to pack a hiking backpack

When you have chosen the perfect backpack and the date of your trip is approaching, you better start packing! Packing a backpacker’s backpack is almost like magic; if you do it right, no one will believe how much stuff you managed to put in a single bag. The ability to pack a backpack in a thoughtful manner is crucial because it allows you to take everything you need, to evenly distribute weight in the bag so it is easier to carry for extended periods of time and to easily reach for things you need to fetch immediately.

These tips and tricks are useful for every traveler, no matter what kind of an adventure you are embarking on: hiking, trekking, ski trip or backpacking throughout different states or countries.

Tourist woman with the map and a backpack vector

Make a backpacking checklist

Packing a backpacker’s backpack starts before you have even pulled out your bag and things you want to take on your trip. You should start with thinking about what you will need and writing it down. To make it easier, you can find a variety of checklists online.

Modify these lists to suit your needs. Think about what kind and amount of clothes you will need, what gear and safety equipment you cannot do without and what food or snacks you need to bring with you and what you can buy during the trip.

Choose a backpack that suits your needs

Once you have decided on what kind of a trip you are going and for how many days, you will have a good idea of what kind of a pack you need.

Backpack capacity is measured in liters. The optimal capacity for day trips is between 25 and 40 liters. But the more days your trip lasts, the more space you will need. For trips that last up to three days, the general rule of thumb is to get a 30 to 50 liters pack. If you are going away for up to five days, you might want to check out the 50 to 80 liters range, but for longer trips you can go up to 95 liters.

Winter hikes and ski trips call for a bigger bag because you will need warmer clothes and some extra layers of clothing, as well as additional gear.

Distribute the load in zones

Think of your backpack as having three main zones: bottom zone, core zone and top zone.

Bottom zone is for the bigger items that you will not need to pull out of your bag until you have reached the camp, like sleeping bag and sleeping pad, warmer clothing for sleeping in or wearing in the evening when it gets cooler, as well as camp shoes. This will serve as a “cushion” layer for smaller and heavier items.

Core zone is for denser items like your camp food stash, water reservoir and cooking equipment if you are bringing any. Putting them on top of the bottom layer and wrapping them in extra clothing will stabilize these core items and prevent them from moving around.

Top zone is where you store items you might need to pull out of the bag while on the trail. This includes a waterproof or windproof jacket, water filter, first-aid kit and toilet supplies. Putting them in the top part of your backpack ensures quick and easy access.

Pockets are the best place to put smaller items that you can fetch without opening the main compartment of your pack. Put things like snacks, sunglasses, maps or GPS, compass, sunscreen, your pack’s rain cover, phone, documents and money in the pockets. Most hiking backpacks have mesh side pockets for water bottles.

Outdoors hiking backpacks usually also have loops and attachment points to secure other gear to the outside of the pack. You can use them for things like camping poles, trekking poles and ice axe. If you are going on a ski trip, you can attach skis or snowboard to your backpack.

Save room in your backpack

The most important rule of packing: take only what you need. Downsize as much as you can and only take things you will use. Be careful with shoes – it is better to take a pair of multi-purpose hiking boots and sandals than multiple pairs of footwear that are designed for specific purposes. Every pair takes room and adds weight to your pack.

If you are travelling with a partner or in a group, it is a good idea to coordinate with them to avoid duplication of the gear that you can share.

One way to maximize room even further is consolidating items. For example, if you are bringing a small cooking pot, fill it up with food items. Wrap your electronics and other easily damageable items in clothing and fill the gaps with smaller things like socks and underwear.

Pro hikers also use stuff sacks to keep everything organized in their backpacks. These lightweight sacks will keep items like food separate from other things in your pack while adding almost no weight.
Organization is key. Neatly fold and roll your clothes – that way, they will take up as little room as possible.

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