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

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

A woman backpacks through Sequoia National Park wearing a red backpacking pack

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

While you may think you can just shove everything in your pack and call it a day, intentionally packing your pack so the weight is balanced, and so the items you need most are easily accessible, can make a big difference.

All it takes is a little time and practice (and the tips in this post) to learn a system that works best for you.

There are some best practices and general rules that you should always try and stick to every time you load up your pack so it’s easier on your body.

So, if you’re new to backpacking or just want to brush up on your skills and backpack in more comfort, keep scrolling to learn how to pack a backpacking pack for a multi-day hiking trip.

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How to Pack a Backpacking Pack: Step-by-Step

Even with a lot of gear, it’s possible to feel like you are carrying a lighter load when you have a well-packed bag.

Not only do you want to be strategic in where you place specific items for organization, but doing so can truly increase your comfort on the trail.

I’ve come a long way in learning how to pack a backpack since my first major backpacking experience on the John Muir Trail – can you believe this is what my backpacking pack used to look like?!

A woman wearing a large backpacking pack on the John Muir Trail. There's a solar panel hanging off the pack
I mean, just look at that pack – it’s huge!

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 your most lightweight gear in 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.

Tip: An ill-fitting backpack is the quickest way to shoulder and back pain on the trail. REI offers free backpacking pack fittings in-store – I highly recommend getting properly fitted for a pack!

1. Lay out All of Your Backpacking Gear

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

Before starting with the 3 parts of packing a pack, the first step is to lay out all of your gear to see if you can cut anything out, then organize your stuff into piles:

  • Shelter/Sleeping
  • Clothes
  • Food
  • Cooking gear
  • Small stuff that you need easy access to 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 forgotten anything, and
  2. Prevent you from packing extra items that you don’t really need.

2. Pack Your “Bottom of Pack” Items

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 on the edges, like the base layers I sleep in.

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.

Tip: If there’s a chance of rain on your backpacking trip and you don’t have a waterproof pack cover, before you put anything in your pack, line your pack with a trash bag and put all your items inside the liner to stay dry.

Our Favorite Bottom of Pack Items

REI Co-op Magma 15 sleeping bag
REI Magma 15
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir
Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow
Sea To Summit Aero
icebreaker oasis midweight baselayer
icebreaker Oasis Base Layers
A woman from behind backpacking in Sequoia National Park. She's wearing a blue backpacking pack with a Kula Cloth hanging off the side
You want your lightest items (like your sleeping bag and pad) at the very bottom of your pack

3. Pack Your “Middle of Pack” Items

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.

We like to keep our tent toward the top of the middle so it’s easy to grab in case you need to wait out rain. The middle section can feel like a game of Tetris since these items aren’t squishy like the bottom of pack items.

  • Tent
  • Backpacking stove & fuel
  • Food – generally the heaviest thing in your pack aside from water
  • Bear Canister (centered in your backpack) – stuffing clothes and other small items around your bear canister can help stabilize an awkward-shaped canister and keep it centered.
  • Camp Mug
  • Camp Shoes – sometimes I’ll strap these to the outside of my pack if there isn’t room inside.

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.

Our Favorite Middle of Pack Items

JETBOIL MINO MO
Jetboil MiniMo
Bear Vault 500 bear canister
BearVault BV500
Half Dome SL2 Tent
REI Half Dome 2
Teva Universal Sandal
Teva Universal Trail Sandals
A woman smiles on the Trans-Catalina Trail wearing a backpacking pack
External pockets can be helpful for stashing camp shoes or sandals

4. Pack Your “Top of Pack” Items

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.

Here’s what I like to keep at the top of my pack:

  • Rain Jacket – If there is any chance of rain, you’ll want your rain gear accessible at the top of your backpack. If it’s 100% sunshine and you know it’s not going to rain, you can stuff this around your bear canister. Pack rain pants too if there’s a good chance of rain on your trip.
  • First Aid – This is important to keep easily accessible so you’re not digging through your pack if you need something.
  • Snacks for the trail – As long as I’m not in serious bear country, I usually take my food for the day out of my bear canister and store it at the top of my pack so it’s easy to access.
  • Water Filter – So it’s easily accessible when you need to fill up
  • Bathroom Kit (Shovel, Toilet Paper, Hand sanitizer, and a Ziploc bag to pack out used toilet paper)

Tip: If you have any electronics, like a battery pack, charging cords, 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.

Our Favorite Top of Pack Items

Outdoor Research Aspire Rain Jacket
Outdoor Research Aspire Rain Jacket
Adventure Medical Kit
Adventure Medical First Aid Kit
Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter
Platypus GravityWorks Filter
Tentlab The Deuce backcountry trowel
TheTentLab Trowel

5. Pack Your Brain/Lid and Hip Belt Items

These are the items I like to keep in the brain/lid of my backpacking pack for the easiest “grab-and-go” access:

Hip belt pockets are also a great place to keep things that you want on hand like chapstick, easy-access snacks, sunglasses, and other small items.

For other miscellaneous items, decide whether you need to access them 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.

Tip: I recommend backpacking with a personal locator beacon and GPS in case of emergency. I keep my Garmin inReach on the outside of my pack, attached to the front shoulder straps, for the easiest access.

A woman smiles directly at the camera while holding trekking poles and wearing a backpacking pack. She's on the Mineral King Loop Trail in Sequoia National Park.
Backpacking with my Garmin InReach (older model)

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

An illustrated graphic for how to pack a backpacking pack

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 help 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 (which 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 around as you hike.

A woman wearing a Hyperlite backpacking pack looks up at a red rock canyon while backpacking in Utah
Compression straps are helpful for making your load feel more secure

Strapping Gear to the Outside of Your Pack

If you’ve ever wondered, “what are those loops on the sides of my backpack?”, you’re not alone. These loops can be used to secure long, stiff, or bulky items to your pack, such as trekking poles, tent poles, or collapsible seating. You can even strap your sunhat to your pack for easy access, and some backpacking packs even have a handy slot for sunglasses.

You might see some strings of small loops sewn onto your backpacking pack, usually on the straps and the front section of your backpack – these are daisy chains. They make it easy to clip gear on using small, lightweight carabiners (this is how I carry my Garmin inReach for example).

I also like to keep my Kula Cloth snapped to the outside of my pack for both day hikes and backpacking trips.

Shop Kula Cloth at:

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.

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 rainstorm.

A man smiles standing to the side of the camera. He's wearing a backpacking pack and hiking San Jacinto Peak
We like to carry tent poles, a pee rag (for the ladies), and sometimes sandals on the outside of our pack

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 can sip as I go without having to take off my pack and I don’t have anyone to hand me my water.

However, if I’m hiking with friends, I like to bring 3 lightweight, foldable soft water bottles instead. They weigh nothing and pack down very small if you don’t need all three liters. That way, they’re easy to access and refill with filtered water on the trail as you go.

You should also be sure to distribute your water weight evenly onto both sides of your backpack.

A woman smiles at the camera while backpacking Sawtooth Pass in Sequoia National Park. She's wearing a red backpacking pack and a Wallaroo Sedona hat
You can see one of my soft water bottles in the side pocket of my backpack

Got any questions about how to pack a backpacking pack? Or any additional tips to share? Leave a comment below.

Bearfoot Theory | Learn how to properly pack a backpacking pack for maximum comfort, efficiency, and organization so you can enjoy your time on the trail without the pain. We cover what to put where and what all the pockets, compartments, clips, and daisy chains are for, and more. Start backpacking more comfortably with this guide.

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8 Comments

  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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  5. So glad that I do not have to worry about bears where I go hiking. Bad enough having to lookout for snakes and tree roots.