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What’s the Best Way to Strap Gear to My Pack?

Strapping too much gear to the outside of your pack is a rookie mistake—but that doesn't mean you should never do it.

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I tied my tent and mattress perpendicular at the bottom of my pack to save space. On my practice hike, it seemed like I was bouncing. If I keep these items on the outside of my pack, where and how is the best place to attach them?—Roger

First of all: If you’re regularly strapping gear to the outside of your pack, it probably means you need a bigger backpack or less gear. Carrying a bunch of gear on the outside of your pack is a very common mistake among novice backpackers. Keeping it inside the packbag is better for your balance, you’re less likely to get hung up on branches or briars, and your gear stays safer and drier. That said, we understand that sometimes, you need to bring a little extra.

Proper weight distribution and balance take a bit of practice, but the better you get at it, the more comfortable you’ll be on the move. For starters, you’ve got your tent in the wrong place: It’s one of the heaviest items in your pack, and it belongs a little higher up and closer to your spine. If your packbag is too small to hold your tent, you’d be better off strapping it across the top of the pack rather than the bottom, so that its weight can settle down onto your hips rather than hang below them and throw you off balance. Same goes for all heavy items like your food bag and clothes bag: Pack them at around shoulder to mid-back level and as close to your spine as possible.

Some other packing tips:

  • Load your sleeping bag first, cross-wise into the bottom of the pack. You won’t need it until the end of the day and it provides a nice, stable base for your pack.
  • If you use a hydration system, load that in next. Most packs have pockets meant for holding a bladder, but if yours doesn’t you can just lay the pack flat (shoulder straps facing down) and slide the full bladder into the pack along the frame. While keeping the pack flat on the ground, continue packing gear in around the bladder to hold it in place, until you can stand the pack up without the bladder slumping to the bottom.
  • If you have a compact air mattress, pack it inside your pack as well. Few things suck more than a punctured mattress, and packing it inside is way safer. Closed cell foam pads can be strapped across the outside bottom of your pack: they’re indestructible and virtually weightless, so they won’t throw you off balance.
  • Stuff your puffy jacket and raingear down the sides of the pack, taking up the space left by the bulkier items.
  • Keep sharp, pointy and delicate items deep inside the packbag and padded with softer items. This not only protects those things from damage, it also prevents abrasion against the fabric of the pack.
  • Use the top lid and other external pockets to stash items that you’ll use during the day: snacks, maps, sunscreen, headlamp, and water filter.

More: Learn to Pack Better