How to Pack a Backpacking Pack for a Multi-day Hiking Trip

Learn how to fit your tent, sleeping bag, pad & camping gear in your backpacking pack with these tips for how to pack a backpack.


This post is sponsored by REI

Sometimes a backpack can be a literal pain in the neck. That’s why it’s essential to learn how to pack a backpack and evenly distribute the weight, so you can hike longer and pain-free.

Balancing the load and getting organized isn’t hard but it does take a little time and practice to learn a system that works best for you. However, there are some best practices and general rules that you should always try and stick to every time you load up your pack. So, if you’re new to backpacking or just want to brush up on your skills we’ve got you covered.

Learn how to pack a backpack for a multi-day hiking trip with the tips in this blog post.

How to Pack a Backpacking Pack 101

Even with a lot of gear, it’s possible to feel like you are carrying a light load when you have a well-packed bag. Not only do you want to be strategic in where you place specific items for organization, doing so can truly increase your comfort on the trail.

Check out this great video from REI on how to pack a backpack.

What My Backpacking Pack Used to Look Like

I’ve come a long way in learning how to pack a backpack since my first major backpacking experience on the John Muir Trail.

I mean just look at that pack…it’s huge! 

How not to pack a backpack for a multi-day trip

Lay out all of your backpacking gear

Since then, I’ve learned how to shed some weight from my pack, invested in some lighter gear, and developed an efficient system for packing.

The first step is to lay out all of your gear. See if you can cut anything out. Then organize your stuff into piles:

  • Shelter/Sleeping
  • Clothes
  • Food
  • Cooking gear
  • Small stuff that I need to access during the day.

Getting organized before you put everything in your backpack will 1) allow you to go through your backpacking checklist and make sure you haven’t forgot anything and 2) prevent you from walking around and grabbing random extra items that you don’t really need.

All of my clothes for a multiday backpacking trip
All of my gear for a 3 night backpacking trip

Laying out my stuff for a 4-day backpacking trip

Pack your Backpacking Pack in 3 Parts

A good rule to follow when you pack your backpack for camping and hiking is to pack in three parts: bottom, middle and top.

Always pack the bottom first, balance the load by keeping heavy things in the center, and stash your essentials for the trail on top. This way the things you need are always within reach and don’t require taking off your pack and digging through the whole thing. Below I share my system for how to pack a backpacking pack. The list of items may be a little different than yours, but it should serve as a handy guide when you’re organizing for your next trip.

Here’s a breakdown of how to pack a backpack for camping and hiking:

 Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

What goes in the bottom of your backpacking pack?

This section is reserved for things you won’t need until you get to camp. Anything big, bulky and relatively “squishable” that can be compressed into the bottom of your pack goes here. Think of it as the non-essentials while you’re out on the trail.

First, I usually pack my sleeping bag in a compression sack and put that at the very bottom. Then I use loose clothing that I won’t need during the day to fill in the gaps.

Some people like to put their clothes in a separate sack, but I like to keep my clothes loose. By keeping my clothing loose, I can use individual items of clothing that I don’t need during the day to fill in the gaps.

PRO-TIP: If you are backpacking in the rain, before you put anything in your pack, line your bag with a trash bag and put all your items inside the liner to stay dry. It’s also a good idea to use a lightweight waterproof compression sack to keep your sleeping bag dry.

What goes in the middle of your backpacking pack?

The middle section of your pack is designated for heavyweight items. By placing cumbersome things in the center and as close to your back as possible, you relieve your back of unnecessary stress. Plus, it keeps things from shifting out of place and forcing you to carry an awkward, uneven load.

  • Stove & fuel
  • Food: generally the heaviest thing in your pack
  • Bear canister (centered in your backpack) – stuffing clothes and other small items around your bear canister it can help stabalize an awkward-shaped canister and keep it centered
  • Toiletries
  • Camp Mug
  • Camp shoes – sometimes I’ll strap these to the outside of my pack if there isn’t room inside.

PRO-TIP: If a bear canister isn’t required, I usually like to carry my food in a stuff sack so it’s contained in one place. The Ursack (although heavier than a lightweight stuff sack) is a good option as it also protects your food against rodents.

Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

See my favorite simple lightweight backpacking food ideas

What goes in the top of your backpacking pack?

The top of your backpack includes the uppermost portion inside the pack and “the brain”, the part that’s on top when you close your pack. It’s typically a zippered compartment that can be removed and used as a daypack when you hike. However, when you pack your backpacking pack for hiking and camping, the brain and the top of your backpacking pack are a prime spot to stash the following,

PRO-TIP: If you have any electronics, like a battery pack and charging cords for your camera, phone or GPS, store these in a small lightweight dry sack. That way, it keeps everything organized and you won’t have to worry about it getting wet in a storm.

Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

What goes in the brain/lid of your backpacking pack?

Hip belt pockets are also a great place to keep sundries that you want on-hand. Chapstick, sunglasses, a microfiber towel (I like to use these for wiping on quick bathroom breaks), and other small items can be stored in these zippered pouches.

For other miscellaneous items, decide whether you need to access during the day. If not, put them closer to the middle and use them to fill in gaps. If you do need them, keep them closer to the top.

Get more tips for how to pack a backpacking pack on the REI Blog

The Best Way to Use Compression Straps

You’ll find compression straps on the exterior of your backpacking pack to help you stabilize the pack and adjust the weight as you need. Make sure these are loose when you are packing your backpack.

Once you’ve filled up the backpack, buckle and tighten the compression straps. These keep things from shifting as you hike and helps you feel steady while you’re trekking over uneven terrain. Make sure you also tighten the side compression straps to create an even more snug fit and eliminate any empty space in hard-to-pack places.

Finally, use the compression strap on your pack’s main exterior buckle (connects the brain to the main compartment) to keep those contents compressed and in place as you move. It can also be annoying when it’s loose and bumps you in the back of the head!

Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

Strapping Gear to the Outside of Your Pack

If you’ve ever wondered, “what are those loops on the sides of my backpack?”, it’s a common question that goes unanswered until the day you realize their purpose, and don’t worry they definitely have one. These loops are used to secure long, stiff or bulky items to your pack, such as trekking poles, tent poles, collapsible seating, or even gear like ropes, shovels, etc.

Daisy chains are the small loops that are located on the straps and the front section of your backpack. Hook carabiners, clips or additional pieces of gear to the outside of your pack for easy access — just make sure it’s small and compact. It’s not a good idea to have anything heavier/larger than a baseball cap dangling off of or swinging back and forth on your pack. You can get caught, upset your balance, hit other things or people and in general, it’s just sort of annoying.

Bottom line: Keep things tightly secured and manageable.

You can use Gear Ties to help secure anything to your pack that might be on the outside if you don’t have many loops to use. BFT’s former Community Manager, Kim, used Gear Ties on her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike to help secure items to the outside of her pack so they weren’t swinging back & forth.

If you find yourself strapping a ton of stuff to the outside of your pack, you should do a gear audit and see if there is anything you can leave at home, or it might be time to get a bigger pack. Relying on strapping excess gear to the outside of your pack can become problematic if you end up in an unexpected rain storm.

Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

A Note on Hydration Reservoirs

I pretty much always use a hydration reservoir when I’m day hiking. But when I’m backpacking I find hydration reservoirs make it much more difficult to pack your backpack efficiently. They take up a lot of room and also if you run out of water, you’ll probably have to unpack half your bag just to refill your reservoir.  If I’m solo backpacking (which I rarely do), a hydration reservoir is a good choice because I don’t have anyone to hand me my water.

However, if I’m hiking with friends, I like to bring 3 one-liter Platypus SoftBottles instead. They weight nothing and pack down very small if you don’t need all three liters. You can also distribute your water weight onto either side of your backpack. If you really need to be able to reach your water yourself, you can get the Platypus SoftBottle with a caribeaner and clip it somewhere you can reach.

Learn how to pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort and organization with these pros tips for fitting all of your gear and balancing the load.

You can see the Platypus SoftBottles in this photo. They pack down really small when empty.

Use your local REI as a resource

Need more help? You can always head into your local REI to talk to one of their experts. REI also has classes where you can learn the skills you need to backpack independently.

If you’re new to backpacking and serious about investing in your skillset, you might also consider going on a guided trip. Last year I went on my first REI Adventures trip – a 4-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park – and before we started hiking, our two guides gave us a demo on how they pack their backpacks. It gave me a lot of insight on how I could streamline my gear and how it all fits into my backpack.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for how to pack a backpacking pack? Got questions? Leave a comment below.

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

7 comments on “How to Pack a Backpacking Pack for a Multi-day Hiking Trip

  1. This may be a stupid question but you mention the tent poles going in your side pocket, but don’t mention where the actual tent goes. Does it go in the bottom with your sleeping bag?

    1. Hi there! Yes, putting your tent with your sleeping bag on the bottom is a great idea. I often put it on the sides of my bag and put it in last and that seems to work as well; when I fold it up I more of roll it so it’s easy to fit to the side of my other belongings in the main compartment of my bag.

  2. Great tips! I’m always trying to consolidate and bring more versatile items to prevent overpacking. I was also taught to line the inside of your pack with a trash bag to prevent your stuff from getting wet. Thanks for all the helpful information!

  3. Hi Kristen,
    That photo of all of your stuff laid out for a 4-day hike…at first glance all I saw was Dayglo Orange toes! 🙂
    Seriously, thanks for this article. The concepts can also be applied to long-distance motorcycle touring. I used a similar method to pack my small motorcycle for a one-year, round-the-world ride. The same basic concepts apply, as far as packing in layers, with the stuff you need quicker access to on top, and the camp stuff on the bottom. I found while planning my trip that studying how backpackers pack can help anyone who wants to travel light but comfortably.

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