How to Pack a Backpack
For Hiking or Backpacking

Hiking backpacks come in a variety of styles and colors

Hikers and backpackers must learn how to pack a backpack correctly, because a successful adventure on the trail may depend on whether you have followed the principles of proper weight distribution.

There is a certain order that you should follow when you "stuff your stuff" into the pack, both for weight distribution and also for ease of reaching the items you'll need most often.

You might think that the heaviest items should go to the bottom of your pack, but that's usually not the best idea.

To properly center the weight of the backpack over your hips, the heavier items should be close to your back and above the bottom one-third of the pack.

(With external frame backpacks, the heaviest items should be in the top one-third of the pack -- more on that later.)

Internal or External Pack?

There is a significant difference in how you should fill up your pack, depending on whether your backpack is classified as "internal frame" or "external frame."

Internal Frame

When packing an internal frame backpack, you'll notice that your pack probably has a separate compartment at the bottom that is designed specifically for your sleeping bag. Use it for that purpose and, if there is room, add your small pillow or other lightweight items, taking care not to crush the sleeping bag too tightly (that's bad for the filling).

Don't use that bottom compartment for cooking supplies or other heavy items, because putting the weight that low will just put unnecessary stress on your body.

External Frame

When you pack your external frame backpack, you'll need to get the heavy items up higher in the pack than in an internal backpack to get the weight positioned over your hips. So put the bulk of the weight in the upper one-third and as close to your back as possible.

Because most external frame packs don't hold as much inside the actual pack, you'll probably attach your sleeping bag to the frame below the pack (often at the very bottom).

If you put your sleeping bag inside the external frame pack and then put heavy items on top of it, it will get crushed and possibly damaged by the heavier items. So, keep the bag attached on the outside of the pack -- preferably inside a waterproof stuff sack that you have lined with a plastic garbage bag for additional protection from rain.

Balancing Your Backpack's Weight

If you will be hiking uphill or on rocky or uneven trails, you're best off to keep the heavy weight slightly lower in the pack than when you are hiking on level ground. It's all about keeping your balance and preventing a fall by keeping the weight near your center of gravity and close to your back.

Most women, due to a lower center of gravity, usually need to put the heavy items slightly lower in the pack than men, and women's backpacks are designed differently for that purpose.

DAN: Hiking with a lopsided pack is a good way to get blisters or lose your balance and fall on the trail, so balancing the weight between left and right is extremely important. As you pack your backpack and follow the instructions above about where to place the heavier items, you should then try to keep the weight balanced as you pack in the remaining supplies.

If you get the weight distribution correct, your backpack will feel more like it's a part of your body than just a mass of dead weight that you're struggling to carry around, and you'll be more sure-footed on the trail.

What to Pack Next

Here are a few more tips and guidelines for packing your backpack. Stoves and other cookware can be attached to the outside of the pack if necessary, allowing you plenty of space inside the pack for items that shouldn't get wet, like your sleeping bag, clothing and food. However, sometimes you can stack pots, bowls, cups and cooking utensils inside each other (or stuff clothing items inside them) to get them all inside your pack.

A Very Important Tip

Pack your clothes inside resealable plastic bags (the 1 or 2-gallon size bags are great) and squeeze the air out of them when sealing them up. You'll end up using much less space and you'll also protect your clothes from getting wet!

DAN: Snacks and other items that you'll need to access quickly should obviously be at the top. I carried my hat, my raingear, and my flashlight in the top compartment of my internal frame backpack. (If you pack your rain gear deep inside your pack, you're going to get soaked.)

DAVE: The top compartment in my Kelty internal frame pack always contains my small first aid kit (including moleskin and blister packs), my headlamp, my backpack rain cover, and my "cat hole" trowel (sealed in plastic bag) and toilet paper, along with some jerky or snack bars.

I usually put my rain suit into the small zippable compartment right in the middle of the pack's outside surface, where it can easily be pulled out when rain comes up suddenly.

You may want to take some compression sacks that allow you to shrink bulky items to a manageable size. Also consider getting a  very light-weight sleeping bag (SlumberJack brand is my favorite).

Aside from these tips about weight distribution and where to put items that you need to have readily available, no one can tell you how to pack your backpack better than you can yourself.

But that will take some practice and some trial and error.

You should pack the rest of your supplies wherever they will fit best, always keeping in mind the left-right weight balance.

Pack your Backpack for a Short Hike

You might be wondering how to pack a backpack for hiking just a few hours...

A short day trip usually doesn't require as much equipment, so you might be able to get by with a smaller "day pack." However, don't skimp on water, food, or other essential survival supplies (see Backpacking and Hiking Hydration Tips for more details about water needs).

If you're going on a day hike out into the woods away from civilization, take along at least a small tarp that you can use for shelter if you get stranded and a jacket to keep you warm, in additional to the essentials of food, water and first aid.

And, of course, if you want to know how to pack for an overnight hike, you must add more to your supply list, including a good lightweight backpacking tent and perhaps some cooking supplies.

NOTE: This article is about HOW to pack, but you also need to know WHAT to pack to stay safe even on a short hike. The 10 Essentials List explains ten essential items that will prepare you to survive, even if emergency conditions threaten to take you down. Be prepared!

Stick With YOUR Packing Plan

How you pack YOUR backpack with the correct supplies depends on the type of pack, the length of your trip, and your own personal preferences. Once you have found your favorite method of packing, stick with it and use this helpful tip: "A place for everything and everything in its place."

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