10 Tips for Packing a Backpack

Follow these rules for keeping your pack from becoming a royal pain on the trail.



Nothing ruins the vibe of a peaceful hike like the sound of clanking pots and pans. Your hiking buddies will appreciate that you've packed well.

Photo by: iStock/pixelfit


Nothing ruins the vibe of a peaceful hike like the sound of clanking pots and pans. Your hiking buddies will appreciate that you've packed well.

By: Paul Cox

There have been moments on the trail when I could sympathize with a fairy-tale princess.

The story of The Princess and the Pea goes like this: A young lady proves she's royalty by complaining that she can't sleep due to the nuisance caused by a tiny pea hidden beneath her bed's many mattresses. That scenario sounds a bit silly, but I know we've all lived a version of it.

The pea, in my case, was a hastily-packed water bottle that later jabbed me in the back, mile after mile. On another hike, a cooking pan stuffed carelessly in my backpack clanged relentlessly against another pot.

Don't let small annoyances ruin the peaceful vibe of a backpacking trip. Here are 10 tips on properly prepping your pack.

1: Think about weight and balance when you're packing. Heavy items, such as camp stoves or campsite food, should be carried close to your back and toward the middle of the pack. Storing these items close to your body will help you maintain your center of gravity, but be careful not to stow hard, edgy items in a spot where they could dig into your back if your pack doesn't have much padding there. Lighter items, such as your rain jacket, can be stashed toward the top of your pack or in your pack's lid. Items you won't need until you reach camp, such as your sleeping bags or even stove fuel, can be carried at the bottom of the pack. Putting soft items at the bottom also provides some cushion if you fall.

2: Use soft items to fill in spaces between hard stuff to reduce knocking and shifting while hiking. Nobody wants to hike to the sound of clanking pots. Stuff extra clothes, the tent body, a backpacking chair or a puffy jacket around camp cookware or bulky items to keep them from banging together or moving around.

3: Pack stuff you'll need on the trail within easy reach. Storing essentials, such as sunscreen, medical supplies and your headlamp, in a handy spot will encourage you to use them when they're needed. The pockets on your pack are good places for these items and trail food, too. I've made the mistake of stashing items such as lip balm in hard-to-reach places and later paid the price for not digging them out. Sunburned lips can quiet the campfire convos.

4: Consider the weather. If it's freezing outside, store water bottles close to your body. And batteries can lose power when exposed to extreme cold, so use the same strategy for carrying your battery-powered items.

5: Use waterproof cases and sacks to hold items that shouldn't get wet. You WILL fall during that shallow river crossing, so your pack WILL get wet. Just plan for that to happen, so go ahead and bombproof your pack by properly safeguarding things that shouldn't get submerged. I like to use cases with snap closures for electronics; don't rely on sealable plastic baggies to do the job.

6: Use compression sacks to pack bulky items like sleeping bags. Have you ever used a vacuum sealer to prep bagged food for the freezer? It's amazing how much space you can create by sucking the air out of those little plastic bags. A compression sack works the same way; just drop your sleeping bag into a compression sack and pull the straps snugly to push out the extra air. Use the space you created to pack your teddy bear.

7: Store your liquid fuel carefully. Pack your liquid fuel away from and below your food, and spend an extra second making sure the lids on the fuel bottles are sealed and leak-proof before you hit the trail. Fuel-mignon is a terrible flavor of beef jerky.

8: Organize your gear before you leave. "But I could have sworn I packed my tent poles," I've said to myself on more than one occasion as I madly scrambled to set up camp. Schedules don't go as planned out in the woods, so it's best to know where your emergency items are in your pack when you need them. For those reasons, make a list of items you plan to carry before you begin packing and check the list twice. Here's an idea for a handy organizing product that also works as a tarp.

9: Exterior loops on your pack are handy, but know that items like bandanas and trekking poles can catch on trees or bushes and get torn. That can be super frustrating. Worse, items could get ripped off and drop onto the trail unnoticed if not attached securely. So, be sure to double-check that you've strapped these items down tightly before hitting the trail.

10: Dry everything as best you can before you stuff it in your pack. The fallout of stowing damp clothing in an enclosed pack is a serious lack of trail buddies on day two or three of your backpacking trip. Odors can develop on damp clothes quickly. The same goes for a damp tent. Before packing your clothes and tent, particularly your tent's rain fly, air them out in the sun. And tie items that soak up sweat, like your hiking hat or bandana, on the outside of your pack if you're on the move.

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