For hikers, a backpack is everything. It carries your gear; it doubles as a pillow, and it is a reflection of all the places you’ve been and dirt you’ve sat in. Just as your “rucksack” represents everything you love about the outdoors, it can also be your biggest burden.
Choosing the wrong backpack, packing it the wrong way, and even loading it wrong can all make your hike harder than need be and altogether less enjoyable.
Packing a hiking backpack is both art and science. We’re going to share precisely how it’s done, including tips on how to pack a backpack for hiking, backpacking, camping, and trips little or large.
- Choose the right capacity for your trip/purpose
- Distribute weight correctly to avoid injuries and improve balance
- Learn how to maximize storage space both inside your pack and on the outside of the pack
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- INFOGRAPHIC: Pack Like a Pro
- Backpack Capacity
- ABCs Of Backpacking
- Aim for Easy Access
- All About Balance
- Compress for Success
- How To Hoist A Loaded Rucksack
- Ready to Go? Buckle Up and Hit the Trail!
If you are in a rush we have put together a quick “how to pack a hiking backpack” diagram infographic for you that summarises the key take-away points. Otherwise, we recommend you read the full article below for a more comprehensive overview.
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The ability to pack your backpack correctly largely depends on whether you’ve selected a model with the right capacity.
Your goal is to find a way to ensure you have enough space to bring the essential equipment and enjoy the comfort of larger backpacks while also avoiding being weighed down with unnecessary weight.
Remember, capacity isn’t measured only by the size of the main compartment. It also includes all the small areas and accessory pockets that also contribute to the pack’s total volume.
If you’re an avid hiker or enjoy hiking and camping, it may even be worthwhile to own multiple backpacks: a lightweight rucksack for shorter, day hikes and larger, comfort-oriented backpack for longer trips.
Traditional Guideline for Pack Size Based on Trip Length
|Length of Trip||Pack Volume (Liters)|
|Single Day/Overnight (1-2 nights)||20 – 50|
|Weekend (2-3 nights)||50 – 60|
|Multi-day (2-5 nights)||60 – 80|
|Extended (5+ nights)||80+|
A daypack may range from 20 to 35 liters depending on the make and model. The size you choose depends on the conditions under which you’re hiking and personal preference. Twenty-liter bags are suitable for carrying extra items as well as a packed lunch.
You’ll need something larger to carry extra water and the full list of safety equipment required for more strenuous walks.
Streamlined Guidelines for Pack Size Based on Trip Length
|Length of Trip||Pack Volume (Liters)|
|Single Day/Overnight (1-2 nights)||20 – 30|
|Weekend (2-3 nights)||30 – 50|
|Multi-day (2-5 nights)||45 – 55|
|Extended (5+ nights)||55+|
Additionally, you’ll need a larger backpack (35-liter) if you’re walking in the winter. Cold-climate clothing tends to be bulkier, and a larger backpack helps you carry bulky items like snowshoes.
Your daypack simply won’t be suitable for weekend trips because while it might hold your clothes, your camping gear won’t by any stretch fit inside a daypack. Weekend trips require 40 to 50-liter backpacks. If you’re taking a long weekend, a 50 to 70-liter backpack will do unless you’re a survivalist or a light packer.
Week-long trips will require an 80 to 100-liter backpack to carry all your gear and your food.
ABCs Of Backpacking
Making the most of your backpack is commonly associated with its size and style. In reality, packing is the key to balancing weight/comfort and bringing all the equipment you need for a safe (and fun) hike.
The ABCs of backpacking aren’t complicated. In fact, you’ll find that most of them appear to be common sense. They are:
Aim for Easy Access
Access refers to packing your backpack in a way that allows you to locate gear when needed with a minimum of fuss.
There’s a tried-and-true method of packing a backpack for access, and this method requires you to look at packing, not as a way of stuffing all your gear into your backpack but looking at it in layers. Let’s break it down by section:
- External storage
Grab all the squishy things you won’t need until you’ve stopped for the day and use them to create a soft foundation.
Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, pajamas, and any extra shoes should all make their way down to the bottom of your bag.
Not only does it prevent you from digging through your bag to find what you need mid-hike, but it prevents you from falling on something hard if you take a tumble.
With a soft foundation, you can then begin to fill the middle of the cavity with the heavy gear you won’t need access until later in the day.
Food, food storage, and cooking supplies can go on top of your sleeping items.
You don’t need your stove until the evening – why not use it as the foundation and stuff the fluffy items around it? Placing the heavy items too high throws off your center of gravity, which is uncomfortable at best and dangerous during more technical or challenging climbs.
It’s also a good idea to add padding for the heavy or hard items. Extra clothing or your tent footprint are both good options.
There are things you’ll want easy access to throughout the day. You’ll want to be able to grab a warm sweater or jacket easily in case the temperature drops. The same goes for your rain jacket. Easy access to your backpack first aid kit is also a must.
And of course, you won’t want to have to dig for your water filter or your toileting supplies.
Use a trash bag on the INSIDE of your pack to keep things clean, dry, and save on the cost of an oversize dry bag.
Now, you’ll notice that these tips cover only the main cavity of your bag – not the many other pockets scattered across your bag. This is because these pockets vary so greatly between models and much of it comes down to personal preference.
However, what we can say is this: put anything you’ll need more than twice a day in these pockets.
Snacks, knife, compass, GPS, map, lip balm, and other small items you’ll take out every hour should all be stowed in these pockets.
The outside of your pack offers plenty of additional storage points. Additional gear is typically carried on the rucksack using the gear and tool loops or daisy chains featured on the exterior or even the shoulder straps, sternum straps, and hip belt.
Gear like climbing ropes, camp stools, trekking poles, and tent poles are all carried this way. Carrying them on the outside saves internal space and also allows you to keep them close at hand.
Other items you might want to stow externally include a bear canister, rain cover, water bottle, first aid kit, and any other camp items that won’t fit in the central well or side pockets.
How to Attach a Tent to a Backpack
Most packs have a duo of gear loops at the base. While intended for carrying ice axes, these loops can normally be extended to accommodate a tent and cinched down securely. If your rucksack doesn’t have these loops, you can easily create your own loops by girth-hitching a sling or two to the webbing straps on the back of your backpack.
How to Pack a Tent in a Backpack
Some campers like to keep their tent inside their backpack because this stabilizes the load, reduces the chance of it snaring on branches, and reduces the risk of damaging the tent.
To do so, we recommend packing the tent poles vertically to reduce the risk of poking a hole in your gear. It’s also wise to store your pegs in a side pocket and use a thick storage pouch to prevent the points doing any damage.
If your rucksack has a water reservoir but you prefer using water bottles, you also might be able to fold your tent and squeeze it in the reservoir for added protection.
All About Balance
Packing a backpack correctly is an art because getting all your gear in your bag may seem like a triumph, but it’s worthless if you can’t take more than two steps with it.
Packing for balance as well as access is a way to maximize the efficiency with which you carry the bag. However, it’s also worth noting that the best technique in the world will always be weighed down by old, heavy, or bulky equipment.
In other words, camping in your grandfather’s old Boy Scout tent sounds cool, but it’s probably too heavy and bulky to make the experience worthwhile.
Balance comes down to two major factors:
- Weight Distribution
- Internal vs. External Frame
Backpack Weight Distribution
The average recommendation for the overall carry weight is no greater than 1/3 of your bodyweight. However, 1/3 of your bodyweight is not an invitation; you might find 1/6th of your bodyweight is better suited to a good time on the trail.
If you’ve followed the Access instructions, your softest kit will be at the bottom (in the sleeping bag compartment), with bulkier items in the middle of the pack and smaller items on top. This is a good start for weight distribution, but there are a few more rules to follow.
Put the heaviest items next to the back panel and keep them centered. Keeping them there will prevent you from tipping over backward and improve your balance.
Lighter gear (but not light gear like lightweight sleeping bags) should be kept on the outside and ideally toward the top.
Kit that you’re unlikely to use until the end of the day (camp shoes, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, cooking kit) should also be stowed at the very bottom of the pack. This way, you can keep all the items you may need to access frequently near the top, where they’ll be more easily located.
How To Pack a Backpack: Internal Vs. External Frame
Buying a new kit-carrier requires choosing between an internal vs external frame backpack. Frames provide structure to your pack and prevent the contents from shifting and make it easier to carry.
Without a frame, you’re effectively carrying a sack.
Internal frames are now the standard for most manufacturers. All this means is that the frame, which supports the contents, is placed inside of the fabric.
However, carrying an internal frame rucksack requires a different sort of packing in which you place heavy items in the space between your shoulder blades to help the bag sit on your hips and stabilize your body.
External frames are found in older models. The difference in carrying an external frame means placing heavy gear on top and in the center. An external frame uses the weight to keep you upright and encourage the weight to sit over your hips.
Compress for Success
By now, you know what gear you need and roughly where in your bag it should go depending on the gear itself and the kind of frame you have.
Now it’s time to make sure your load is stabilized and consolidated.
This is done by first using stuff sacks to keep specific gear items together and create manageable bricks with which to build up from the bottom of your rucksack. Ideally, each stuff sack should be a different color to ease identification. If you do color-code your kit, be sure to use light and bright colors that you can see easily inside.
Once you’ve got your “bricks” (your stuff sacks) in there, you can consolidate further by stuffing a few loose items into the gaps between each one.
Once everything is in, use the compression straps to make sure everything is as close to your back as possible. This will consolidate and centralize your load and also prevent it from shifting as you walk.
How To Hoist A Loaded Rucksack
Once you’ve managed to balance the ABCs of packing a backpack, you’ve only got one more task: wearing it!
Moving the rucksack from the ground to your back safely requires following a process. Laziness or disregard for the steps involved wears out your (expensive) hiking equipment faster and causes injury to your back, shoulders, hips, or arms.
Tossing your bag around carelessly means neither you nor your rucksack will be on the trail very long.
How Not To Hoist A Backpack
It’s tempting to grab the handle (the haul loop) closest to you and then wrestle 1/3rd of your body weight onto your back.
Do not do it. Not only will it wear out the handles and your shoulder straps, but you’ll struggle to remain in control of your load, especially if you haven’t followed the packing ABCs.
Have you adjusted your straps perfectly and don’t want to mess up the calibration? Forget about it. Don’t try to wiggle into a perfectly adjusted set of straps. Wait to adjust until your fully loaded rucksack is on your back – you won’t know your final adjustments until the pack is firmly on your back anyways.
How To Hoist A Backpack
Begin with your rucksack on the ground. You’ll use your whole body to pick up the back directly from the floor rather than wrestling it up using your arms and back.
Prepare to pick it up by loosening the main straps on the pack so that it’s easy to slip into the shoulder harness.
With the pack upright, stand with your back to the back panel of the bag. Take a wider-than-neutral stance with bent knees for extra support.
With a firm grip of the haul loop (at the top of the bag), slide the bag from the floor to thigh height and rest for a moment, maintaining your grip on the loop.
From your thigh, slip the arm not holding the loop through the shoulder strap until your shoulder is balancing the shoulder strap.
With one shoulder in the shoulder strap, hinge slightly at the waist and use the momentum from your body to swing the pack across your back to put your other arm through the shoulder loop.
Once the pack is comfortable on your back, adjust your straps.
Ready to Go? Buckle Up and Hit the Trail!
Now you know how to do your packing like a pro, you’re well on your way to making your future camping, hiking, and backpacking trips safer, more comfortable, and more convenient by far.
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