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How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

Updated on February 18, 2013

Hiking is a wonderful pastime, which can be marred by an ill-fitting, bulky, lumpy, or enormously heavy backpack. Many beginners bring too much stuff, and find that they still forgot the important things!

Before you begin packing, spread everything that you will need across the floor or the couch to inventory your gear. Double check that you have all the essential items, and that you don’t have any unnecessary that will weigh you down. REI has some wonderful lists that can help you make decisions about what to bring and what not to bring.

Pack that opens on the side and the top.
Pack that opens on the side and the top. | Source

Types of Packs

Every pack is different, and the design of the pack will dictate how to load it. Most packs have a large mouth at the very top—these are called top-loading packs. A few open from the side, called panel loading packs. In my opinion, the most convenient designs are top-loading packs with a zipper along the side. This allows you to access something in the middle of your pack without completely unloading what might be on top of it.

Most packs have three main compartments: the very bottom, or sleeping bag compartment, the middle, or the body of the bag, and the top lid. Most packs will have various other smaller compartments as well.

A very convenient small compartment along the waist, perfect for chap stick and cell phone.
A very convenient small compartment along the waist, perfect for chap stick and cell phone. | Source
A sleeping bag in the very bottom compartment of the pack.
A sleeping bag in the very bottom compartment of the pack. | Source
Be creative-- this pack has a convenient little strap along the should, perfect for placing a pocket knife within easy reach.
Be creative-- this pack has a convenient little strap along the should, perfect for placing a pocket knife within easy reach. | Source

Loading the Pack

Keep two things in mind when you load the pack.

  1. Load the heaviest items in the middle, close to your spine.
  2. Keep the items you will use the most readily accessible.

If your pack has a built in hydration system, you’ll want to fill the bladder first. It is much easier to fit the full bladder into the compartment when the pack is mostly empty. Next, load the heaviest items, such as food and your portable stove, closest to the frame of the pack, near your back. Many hikers still pack the heaviest items at the top of the pack, but with new pack designs which fit close to the back, it’s now recommended to keep the weight centered.

Generally, your sleeping bag will go in the very bottom compartment. You may also be able to fit other bulky gear in this compartment if your sleeping bag has a compression sack. Other gear that you won’t need until you set up camp, such as extra clothing and your tent, can go in around the heavier things in the center of the pack.

Keep small frequently used items like headlamps, sunscreen and chap stick in the top lid or other small outer compartment where they are easily accessible. On virtually every single pack there will be two side pockets for water bottles. These pockets are also great for toilet paper and a small shovel for bathroom breaks.

Almost every pack will have straps on the outside of the sleeping bag compartment and may have some on top of the top lid as well. These straps come in handy for securing tent poles, trekking poles, and your sleeping pad to the outside of the pack.

Compression Straps

Once everything is properly loaded, it is important to properly adjust all of the compression straps on the outside of the pack. The straps are meant to compress the contents of the pack in certain strategic areas, making the pack smaller and therefore easier to maneuver and balance. An unbalanced pack will throw off your balance, and cause extra strain on your body.

A pack with all the compression straps buckled and tightened. The sleeping mat is also strapped the outside of the sleeping bag compartment in order to save space within the bag.
A pack with all the compression straps buckled and tightened. The sleeping mat is also strapped the outside of the sleeping bag compartment in order to save space within the bag. | Source

Find out more about preparing for a hiking trip.

Works Cited:

Comments

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    • profile image

      Candy 

      3 years ago

      Heckuva good job. I sure appiacrete it.

    • Chrissi Reeves profile image

      Chrissi Reeves 

      4 years ago from Gainesville

      Great hub!

    • sgiguere profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Giguere 

      5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Thanks so much annerivendell!!

    • annerivendell profile image

      annerivendell 

      5 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Whew! Now my bag is packed, it's time to plan my route...;-) Great Hub, voted up. Am sharing with my daughter who routinely back packs.

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