HOW TO PACK A BACKPACKING PACK FOR A MULTIDAY HIKING TRIP
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!
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:
- 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.
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:
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
- 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.
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,
- Rain Gear: If there is any chance of rain, you want your rain gear accessible at the top of your backpack. If its 100% sunshine and you know it’s not going to rain, you can stuff this around your bear canister.
- First aid (if it fits, or near the top of the middle section)
- 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 in the top of my pack so it’s easy to access
- Water filter
- Bathroom Kit (Shovel, Toilet Paper, Hand sanitizer, and a bag to pack out used toilet paper)
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.
What goes in the brain/lid of your backpacking pack?
- Travel sized bug spray
- Travel sized sunscreen
- Map or GPS
- Camera (See my favorite photography gear for outdoor adventurers.)
- Quick snack
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!
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 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.
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.
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.