How to Pack a Backpack – Are You Doing it Right?

Brian Conghalie
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How to Pack a Backpack – Are You Doing it Right?

Looking for the Best Guide on How to Pack a Backpack?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • What size of backpack should you take
    • How to pack a backpack
    • How to balance a backpack
    • How to hoist a backpack

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 backpack 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 hard but the life of your favorite hobby that much shorter. It’s the difference between taking in a glorious view and enjoying that view with a twinge in your neck and a sore spot on your lower back.

Packing a hiking backpack is both art and science. We’re going to share precisely how to do it with you here by showing you the importance of:


  • Do choose the right capacity of backpack for your trip/purpose
  • Do adhere to the ABCs of packing for backpacking to save you time and your back
  • Do learn to hoist your pack correctly to avoid back injuries (and wear and tear to your pack)


  • Don’t over pack and carry too much gear
  • Don’t forget to balance your back correctly

INFOGRAPHIC: How to Pack a Backpack for Backpacking

If you are in a rush we have put together a quick infographic for you that summarises the key take-away points. Otherwise we recommend you read the full article below for a more comprehensive overview on how to pack a backpack for camping correctly.

How to Pack a Backpack Infographic

Want to use this infographic on your blog or website? Just copy and paste the code below!

Backpack Capacity

The ability to pack your backpack correctly largely depends on whether you’ve selected a pack 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.

Pro Tip

  • Weigh your items for some truly strategic packing!
  • Consider ultralight hiking to bring your weight down – focus on the big four first (bag, tent, sleeping bag & pad)

Remember, capacity isn’t measured only by the size of the main compartment. It also includes all the small areas and pockets to measure the total volume of the load.

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 Guidelines 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+

The above table is for beginner hikers, hikers with lots of equipment or parents with kids

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+

The above table is for more experienced backpackers who have learned to economize.

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.

Further Reading: Backpacking Backpack Reviews

We’ve done some of the heavy lifting for you to determine which is the , check out our buyers guide, or look into the following highly recommended bags:

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 the size and style of the pack. 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 isn’t complicated. In fact, you’ll find that most of them appear to be common sense. They are:

  • Access
  • Balance
  • Compression

ACCESS: Packing a Backpack

Access refers to the placement of your kit so that you can easily reach it.

There’s a tried-and-true method of packing for access, and this method requires you to look at packing, not as a way of stuffing all your gear into your bag but looking at it in layers. Let’s break it down by section:

  • Bottom of the bag
  • Middle of the bag
  • Top of the bag
  • Gear hooks

Bottom of the Bag

Grab all the squishy things you won’t need until you’ve stopped for the day and use them to create a soft foundation for your pack.

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.

Middle of the Bag

With a soft foundation, you can then begin to fill the middle of the cavity with the heavy gear you won’t need access to all 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 pack the fluffy items around it? Placing the heavy items too low throws off your center of gravity, which is uncomfortable at best and dangerous during more technical or challenging climbs.

If you want to add padding for the heavy items, use soft items like extra clothing or your tent footprint to stop things from shifting.

Top of the Bag

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.

Pro Tip: Use a trash liner on the INSIDE of your pack for waterproofing action

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, and anything else you’ll take out every hour should all be hidden away in these pockets.

Gear Hooks

Experienced hikers will carry around extra gear that won’t fit in their rucksack. The added gear is typically carried on the backpack using the hooks and loops featured on the pack.

Gear like climbing ropes, camp stools, trekking poles, and tent poles are all carried this way. Carrying them outside your pack allows you to achieve better balance and prevents you from inadvertently bending or snapping items while also keeping them close at hand.

BALANCE: Packing a Backpack

How to pack a backpack for hiking 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, bulky, and difficult to pack to make the experience worthwhile.

Balance comes down to two major factors:

  • Backpack 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 with bulkier items in the middle 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.

Lighter gear (but not light gear like lightweight sleeping bags) should be kept on the outside panel of the pack and ideally toward the top.

The lightest kit should make its way to the very bottom of the bag.


How to Pack an Internal vs. External Frame

Buying a new backpack 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 of the backpack, which supports the contents, is placed inside of the bag.

However, carrying an internal frame backpack 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 of the pack and in the center. An external frame uses the weight to keep you upright and encourage the weight to sit over your hips.

COMPRESSION: Packing a Backpack

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 for the hard part: packing the bag or compression.

Compression refers to the way you pack your bag. It allows you to get everything in while also packing the bag correctly.

Some say your packing system should look less haphazard and more like you’re using your gear to build a brick wall inside your bag.

In other words, you’ll use hard, heavy objects to form bricks and clothing and other loose materials as your ‘mortar.’

Once everything is in, use the straps to tie it down and prevent it from shifting as you walk.

How to Hoist a Loaded Backpack

Once you’ve managed to balance the ABCs of packing a backpack, you’ve only got one more task: wearing the backpack. 

Moving the backpack 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 backpack 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 harnesses, but you’ll struggle to remain in control of your backpack, 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 backpack. Wait to adjust until your fully loaded pack is on your pack – you won’t know your final adjustments until the pack is firmly on your back anyways.

How to Hoist a Backpack

Begin with your backpack 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.

Further Backpacking Reading

If you’ve enjoyed this article then please consider checking out the following:

Brian Conghalie

Brian has been an avid hiker and backpacker since he was a small kid, often being taken out into the wilderness on trips with his father. His dad knew everything about nature and the wilderness (or at least that's how it seemed to a ten year old Brian).

After high school, he went to university to read for both a BS and MS in Geology (primarily so he could spend his time outside rather than in a classroom). He's now hiked, camped, skied, backpacked or mapped on five continents (still need to bag Antartica) & 30 of the US states.

2 thoughts on “How to Pack a Backpack – Are You Doing it Right?”

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