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How-To: Pack a Backpack

Hit the trail with this packing primer, and you'll go further with less pain


A few years back, I helped lead a group of high school students on a week-long hiking trip. It was their first backpacking trip, so I made sure to spend some quality time going over important tips with them before heading out, one of which was how to properly pack a backpack. When we finally hit the trail, though, all of the pre-trip planning seemed to have been for naught. We weren’t even an hour from the trailhead when the kids started complaining about all the weight strapped to their backs.

I called a break and began checking each student’s pack to see if I could find ways to lighten their loads. Some had only cheap hand-me-down packs, but, overall, pack design wasn’t a huge issue. Neither was the fact that a few too many had completely ignored my advice to leave nonessentials at home. It was how they packed their gear that was causing bruised shoulders and lower back pain. Here’s how you can get it right the first time around:

Internal frame backpacks (and even canoe packs) are designed to hug the body, so the weight should be kept toward the middle of the pack, close to your center of gravity (with external frame packs, keep weight low).

Bottom—Midweight
Your sleeping bag and the majority of your clothes should go first.

Middle—Heavy
Next, your cook set, food, stove and fuel bottle should be placed in the middle, as close to the frame as possible. Just make sure no hard-edged frying pans or plastic peanut butter containers are jabbing you in the spine.

Top—Light
The lighter items, along with gear you’ll need in a hurry (e.g. rain jacket, camp shoes, extra socks, camera), should be layered on top or stuffed into the empty corners, gaps and spaces that are left around the edges of your other gear. The tent goes in last (you may want poles placed vertically along the side of the pack), due to the fact that it’s usually the first thing you unpack when arriving at camp and the last thing you put away.

Pockets—On-Trail Needs
Most backpacks have small side pockets that are great for odds and ends you want close-at-hand: Map, compass, bug repellent, water bottle, sunglasses, toilet paper, first-aid kit and munchies. Don’t strap your favorite camp mug, or anything else for that matter, to the outside of the pack. It will inevitably free itself and become lost forever.

Organize!
The more separate waterproof stuff sacks, re-sealable containers or even garbage bags, the better. They will keep everything waterproof and organized. Your sleeping bag and clothes, the two bulkiest items, should also be stored in compression bags (a stuff sack with straps on the side that cinch down to reduce the size). Outdoor Research “AirPurge” compression sacks  have a trademark air permeable/waterproof fabric band that purges excess air from the sack during compression.

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