How to Pack a Backpack for a Hiking Trip

Don't let a badly-loaded backpack put a damper on your next adventure in the backcountry. Learn how to pack it the right way—with efficiency, convenience and comfort in mind.
By Daniel Nelson ,

Deputy Editor Casey Lyons demonstrates how to pack a backpack.

Wild Acorns Media

Backpacks have come a long way since the 70’s, when hikers swore by (and at) bulky external frames and nifty side pockets were few and far between. Nowadays, there’s any number of high-tech packs that help you lug more gear longer, and farther, than ever before. But it's still critical that you know how to pack a backpack right.

If you're headed out for a beach vacation or a family reunion, there's nothing wrong with throwing your belongings in a bag and calling it good. But hitting the trail is different: You'll be carrying your pack for hours, days, or even weeks at a time, so balance and comfort are tantamount. Carefully loading up your backpack can even keep you safer: On tricky scrambles or exposed trails, a well-loaded backpack will help you keep your balance and prevent nasty falls.

Here, we'll cover some of the most important tips for getting your backpack ready for the trail.

What are the different pockets on my backpack for?

While backpacks may differ slightly by company or design, most modern packs share a few common traits that improve your gear organization. From helping to more efficiently distribute weight to keeping essential items accessible, specialty pockets can be a big help in making the most out of your backpack.

The Backpack's Brain

The aptly named “brain”—the uppermost zippered pocket that straddles the top of most packs—is your grab n’ go center once you’re on the trail. It’s perfect for storing compact, often-used items like snacks, navigation tools, and headlamps. Use it correctly and you'll not only shave time off of your pit stops, you'll also avoid yard-saleling every time you need to grab the trail mix.

The Front Pouch

What’s worse than stuffing a wet rain jacket in with the rest of your previously dry gear? Trying to find it in a downpour. Solve both vexing trail problems with by utilizing your backpack’s front pouch.

Also known as the “kangaroo pouch” this stretchy front pouch gives you instant access to whatever you put in it. Some packs may replace it with a zippered pocket instead; either way, consider it your designated jacket pocket. Avoid using the front pouch for heavy items, as these may impact your center of gravity.

The Hip Belt Pocket

The hip belt pocket is another great little nook for high-use items like trail snacks and lip balm. Bonus: You won't need to take your pack off to access it. 

Water Bottle Pockets

Probably the most obvious compartments on your backpack are the water bottle pockets towards the base of each side. Store your H2O here for a quick drink.

Learn your pack's anatomy backwards and forwards.

Peter Sucheski

Why does my backpack have so many straps?

Your backpack's straps help compress gear inwards, maintaining a tight center of gravity and improving your ability to hike without issue. Make sure that they're all buckled and tightened before heading out on the trail.

Many backpacks also have semi-secret zippers that make navigating your packed backpack a heck of a lot easier; these include side zippers and bottom zippers for accessing buried gear. 

Some packs contain a sleeping bag compartment in the bottom, complete with a trap door to protect your bag from dirty clothes, food, and wet gear. Unzip that flap if you're short on space.

How to Avoid Overpacking

Chronic overpackers beware: Your backpack, and all the things inside it, become an extension of you once you're on the trail. Remember that less is more, even if you're not an ultralighter.

Struggling to cut weight? Try this handy exercise.

  1. Lay out everything you want to take on your hike, from the sleeping bag, clothes, food and shelter you absolutely need to the reading materials and extra sweater you probably don't.
  2. Move the essential items into a different pile . "Essential" means essential: don't cheat by moving luxury items into that pile.
  3. Now, eliminate (at least) half of the gear left in the "luxury" pile. We all know you don't really need that stuff, anyways.

Do you really need to bring three paperbacks? (Answer: no.)

If there's still plenty of room in your pack after packing, consider treating yourself to a few extra luxuries. But if your pack is still overloaded after paring down your gear, keep ditching luxuries until everything fits. Don't worry: you'll get there eventually. 

How do I pack my backpack?

Arranging your gear in your pack is more of an art than a science. With that said, following a few guiding principles will get you 90% of the way there.

Remember the two C's: comfort and convenience. Your gear must be packed comfortably so that it won't interfere with your center of gravity. It should be packed conveniently so you can get to the gear you need without emptying everything out. Nobody likes a trailside junk show.

How do I pack my backpack comfortably?

Maintain your center of gravity—and thus your comfort – by packing your heaviest, densest gear as close to your back as you can. Food, water and cooking gear should end up near or between your shoulder blades, where they won't swing around and knock you off your stride. Keep them in place with less dense items like clothing. 

How do I pack my backpack for convenience?

Avoid the dreaded junk show by layering your gear with frequency of use in mind. You won't need your sleeping bag until you make camp; pack it on the bottom where it will stay out of the way. However, you might want to wear your puffy jacket during a chilly afternoon break. Keep high-use items like that at or near the top of your bag.

Video: How to Pack a Backpack

Should I pack with compression sacks?

Smart packing isn't always enough to keep your gear where it's supposed to be: sometimes you need a little extra organizational help. In situations like that, compression sacks are a great add-on:

  • They remove excess air from your load. More space means more stuff.
  • They help you organize your gear by type.
  • Many are waterproof, so you won't have to worry about wet clothing at the end of the day. 

That said, compression sacks have drawbacks. By forcing your gear into oblong shapes, you inevitably create some dead space inside your pack. Consider using a loose puffy or some clothing to pad out that empty space and keep your load from shifting around.

One hard rule: Never store your sleeping bag in compression sacks off the trail. Long-term compression breaks down your bag’s natural loft, which can impact the bag's ability to insulate you from the cold.

How do I prepare my backpack for rain?

Don't end up wet, cold and shivery just because a rainstorm caught you off guard and saturated your layers. Pack your backpack with inclement weather in mind. You have several options here:

Backpack Rain Cover

Purchase a rain cover for your backpack as a first line of defense against rogue raindrops. This inexpensive layer will stop water from dampening the outside of your pack, thus shielding all your gear within. Stash it in your front pouch for easy access. 

Compression Sacks

Compression sacks—especially those rated as water resistant – will protect your sensitive gear from the inside if the rain really starts pounding. 

Trash Bags

Heavy plastic bags are a cheap and simple option to avoid water woes. Load your clothes and other water-unfriendly gear into a trash compactor bag before packing, then push out as much air as you can and tie the bag off with a loose knot.  (If your backpack has a separate sleeping bag compartment, you can use a smaller trash bag to line the inside of that instead.

Learn More

Want to master this and other essential backpacking skills? Sign up for our Backpacking 101 online course with AIM Adventure U and learn how to prepare for and enjoy your next trip on the trail.

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