Find our content helpful? You can support the BFT team by making your gear, apparel, and travel purchases through the affiliate links in this blog post. We get a small commission with no added cost to you. You can also say thanks by leaving a tip in our virtual tip jar. THANK YOU!
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.
Sponsored by REI Co-op
REI Co-op is our favorite outdoor gear retailer and a long-time supporter of our work here at Bearfoot Theory. We appreciate their 1-year return policy, their Member-only coupons, and the fact that REI Members receive 10% back on their purchases every year. We only recommend products we truly love and think you will love too.
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 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.
1. Lay out All of Your Backpacking Gear
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:
- Cooking gear
- Small stuff that you need easy access to during the day
Getting organized before you put everything in your backpack will:
- Allow you to go through your backpacking checklist and make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, and
- 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.
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Pillow (if you use one)
- Base layers & any extra clothing you won’t need during the day
- Any other items for camp
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
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.
- 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
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)
Our Favorite Top of Pack Items
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:
- Travel-sized bug spray
- Travel-sized sunscreen
- Camera (Read how to great photos while hiking)
- Rain cover
- Bear spray (if needed)
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.
Backpacking Gear Guides
Here’s a visual breakdown of how to pack a backpack for camping and hiking:
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.
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 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.
Got any questions about how to pack a backpacking pack? Or any additional tips to share? Leave a comment below.