How to Pack a Backpack?

By reading the other pages on this site, you have been able to review the features and benefits of various equipment and supplies that you will need to take on your hike. Now, lets put it all together inside the backpack of your choice.

Here are the equipment and supplies that you will have in front of you:
  • Backpack
  • Tent or Shelter
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Stove & Fuel
  • Water Pump (or other purifier)
  • Water Bottle(s)
  • Map & Compass
  • Flashlight or Headlamp

Each Pack is Different

Each piece of equipment packs differently. Therefore, we will have to discuss this subject matter in generalities. Sitting in the middle of your living room floor with all of your supplies in front of you is the best way to figure out how to pack a backpack. The size and style of your personal backpacking ensemble will determine the details.

What NOT to Put in Your Pack

Take out your hiking boots/shoes, water bottle(s), sunglasses, knife and an initial set of clothing and put in a separate pile. These items will not need to go in your pack because they will be on your person.

Take some of your matches, place in a waterproof container with a striker and place in the pocket of what you will be wearing on the trail. While you will want to carry matches/lighter and firestarter in your backpack, it is very important to have something on your person in the event that you somehow get separated from your pack and need to start a fire for warmth or cooking. Now you know not only how to pack a backpack, but how to pack your pockets as well.

Keep it Dry

If you will be making river or large stream crossings or are anticipating potentially rainy weather, stop now and go get a large garbage bag to put your sleeping bag in. Nothing is worse than having to try to sleep in a wet, cold sleeping bag. If you have a down sleeping bag, it will retain NONE of its insulating qualities when wet and won't dry out for the remainder of your hike. If you are hiking in cold weather, this can result in a life-threatening condition called hypothermia. While a synthetic bag will retain some measure of insulation when wet, you won't be comfortable and cozy. Protect your sleeping bag. You'll be glad you did!

Organize and Prioritize

Look at the remaining pile and visually determine what you will need on the trail and what you won't need until you reach camp. In determining how to pack a backpack, you will want to have frequently needed items on top and less used items on the bottom.

How to pack a backpack is dependent on what kind of pack you carry. If you happen to carry a frameless pack, here's a trick. Take your sleeping pad, unroll it and curl it around the interior of your pack. This will give your frameless pack some stability. You will pack the remainder of your gear inside of the sleeping pad. If you do not have a frameless pack, roll your sleeping pad up tightly and secure.

For an external frame pack, you will lash it horizontally to either the top or bottom of your completely packed backpack. For an internal frame pack, either place it vertically inside your pack on the opposite side from your tent poles or lash it to the outside, still vertically.

Starting at the Bottom

Hopefully, barring an emergency, you won't need your tent or shelter until you reach camp. I usually remove the fancy carrying bag that this comes from the store-in and stuff my tent directly into the bottom of my pack. Depending on which pack I am carrying, I either stand the poles up on the inside along one side of the pack or lash them to the outside running vertically.

I consider the Coleman Sundome 2 person backpacking tent the best tent on the market, and the updated version comes complete with some great upgrades and features that make it super easy to set up, even for solo backpackers.

My sleeping bag comes next. Before I load my sleeping bag into my pack I put my sleeping wear, including extra socks, into the bag. With my sleeping bag protected in a plastic garbage bag, I can be assured of having dry, warm clothes to wear even if I hike through a downpour of rain. If you have a down bag, you can probably compress it into the size of a melon and put it in next. A synthetic bag will take up a little more room, but can go in now as well.

You will not need your stove and fuel until camp, so it can go inside your pack, close to the bottom and against the back of the pack. This is a good place for your matches/lighter and fire starter too.

Additional clothing, except for rain gear can go in now.

I put my flashlight or headlamp in now and I keep it near the outer part of the inside of my pack. If I end up hiking later than I thought, I can slip my hand down the inside edge and fish it out, but it isn�t in the way as I get my food out at lunch.

Near the Top

You will need your water pump or filter enroute. If you have a big enough outer pocket, that would be a good place for it. If not, keep it on top inside your pack. I recommend that you keep a bottle of iodine tablets in your pocket. If you get separated from your pack, you will have a way to purify water.

Your food will go at the top too. If you have bulky, heavy containers (surely not!!) these would go nearer the bottom and back of the pack. Lighter items and those that you will eat on the trail go on top. This is a good area to put your rain gear too. Should you encounter an unexpected downpour, it is handy to whip out and get on quickly. Instead of carrying a pack cover, I tuck in an extra large garbage bag and cover my pack with that.

On the Outside

Your map (placed in a zip close bag) and compass should go in an outside, zipped pocket. I keep my first aid kit in an outside pocket too. It doesn't necessarily have to go there. Put it in a spot where you can get to it if you need it's not at the bottom of your pack, but it doesn't have to be the first thing you find when you open your pack either.

I either attach my water bottle to my hip belt or the front of the shoulder belt, depending on which pack I am carrying. My spare(s) or empty(s) get stuffed in an outer pocket or in the very top of my pack so they are handy for refilling.

I carry one of those small sunscreen bottles attached to a carabiner. This gets clipped on the outside of my pack wherever it is convenient. The same goes for insect repellant.

Hit the Trail

There you have it. This is one example of how to pack a backpack. I am not suggesting that it is the only right way by any means. As you begin to use your gear, you will find what is handy and functional for you. If you find yourself having to dig for something, move it up in the pack. Experimentation will help you find your right way. This is simply one way to answer the question of how to pack a backpack.
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