You and your filled-to-the-brim backpack are standing tall at the beginning of the trail, ready for the strenuous, long, and beautiful hike ahead.
At first, your thirst for adventure keeps you afloat. Then, real thirst strikes. You reach to grab your water bottle only to realize it’s at the bottom of your pack. So you step off to the side of the trail and unzip your backpack.
Next thing you know, your gear is all over the place as you dig through your pack to find your water bottle. Finally, your thirst is quenched. But now, you have no idea how you’re going to fit all your belongings back in your backpack.
If you’re headed out on a multinight backpacking trip and your current mentality is to just “throw everything in the pack and hope it fits,” well, we’re here to give you a friendly and much-needed reality check. It’s wildly important to know how to properly pack a backpack. And, trust us, this is for your own good!
Knowing how to properly and efficiently pack a backpack for overnight trips will save you time and frustration. It’s important to know what to bring and how to pack it. With these steps and tips, you’ll quite literally have your own back on your next outdoor adventure.
How to Pack a Backpack
1. Acquire a suitable backpack. Before you consider anything else, the most important thing is to get a backpack that fits you. You want one that fits, has the right capacity for your gear, and has other features tailored to how you will use the pack.
Check out our video outlining the key features on the Jack Wolfskin Highland Trail XT 60L Pack. It highlights features you should look for in a pack regardless of what brand you purchase. You’ll also want to note if the pack is marketed as gender-specific and whether it’s specifically made for backpacking or for other activities.
2. Gather all other necessary gear. The “necessary gear” in question will, of course, depend on your specific backpacking trip. But, regardless of your trip, everyone can agree that you will want to optimize space and keep your pack as light as possible — stick to the essentials, and you’ll thank yourself later!
Once you gather your gear, lay it all out and make sure you have everything on your checklist before loading it in the pack. It may serve you well to separate items in pouches or bags to make your gear more accessible.
3. Pack the bottom of the pack. First off, we should note that how you pack your gear is not a one-size-fits-all method. Your packing technique will differ depending on the design of your bag and what you’re packing.
Generally, you’ll pack your sleeping bag at or near the bottom of your pack. This will give you a nice cushion for the rest of your gear, and you won’t need your sleeping bag until you arrive at your camping spot. And you don’t want the heaviest items pressing against your lower back.
In addition to your sleeping bag, you can pack a few more items, like your additional clothes, that you won’t need until you arrive at the camping spot.
4. Pack the middle of the pack. While packing the middle of your pack, it’s important to distribute the weight in a way that suits your body. This will keep you in balance throughout your backpacking excursion.
Overall, you will place your heavier items in the middle of the pack on the side closer to your back. You can then tuck your lighter items in the middle of the pack, toward the outside of the pack, away from your back.
This weight distribution will help reduce the pull on your shoulders, which can get sore while backpacking. If you bring a bear canister, that may have to go toward the bottom/middle region of your pack because of its size. Be sure to fill it with food and other supplies before putting it in the pack to optimize space.
5. Pack the top of the pack. You’ll want to put frequently used items at the top of your pack. Some packs will have a dedicated compartment at the top of the pack where you can store these items. For ease of access, putting them in individual bags is a great idea.
Some frequently used items to include are a map, snacks, phone, camera, headlamp, toilet paper, menstrual items, sunscreen, and a small notebook and pen for field notes.
Photo credit: Nikwax
6. Fill the accessory pockets. Accessory pockets are designed to be easily accessible. Above all, you’ll need your water within easy reach. On most packs, there’s typically a pocket or pouch that is specifically designed for a water bottle or hydration reservoir. Other gear you can pack in these pockets includes any items that are important to keep within easy reach.
First, try to fit these items at the top of the pack alongside your essentials bag. All the other items that don’t fit should go in the accessory pockets. Some of these items include a rain jacket or additional layers, the rain cover for your pack, a water filter, and gaiters.
7. Add additional gear to the tool loops and lash-on points. If you have any items that are too bulky to fit inside your pack, like a sleeping pad, cooking pot, or backpacking chairs, you can securely attach those to the tool loops. You can also use these loops to store your trekking poles when not in use.
8. Once packed, properly lift the backpack onto your back. Now that everything’s full and packed, it’s time to test out how the pack feels on your back, its new home for the next few days! Be sure you’re well-balanced before lifting the pack, using your core body strength so as not to strain any muscles.
9. Buckle up the pack and make necessary adjustments. First, tighten the waist belt. You typically want this strap to rest on the middle of your hip bones. As you adjust the pack, you’ll want the majority of the weight to be distributed on your hips, not your shoulders.
Next, adjust your shoulder straps, sternum strap, and load-bearing straps to find a comfortable fit with the weight distributed evenly from your hips to your shoulders.
Of course, there will be some personal preference involved when making adjustments, and the main thing to focus on is the weight distribution. If you feel that the pack is top- or bottom-heavy, or if too much weight is on the outside of the pack, pulling you backward, you may need to adjust your packing.
10. Head for the trails! Though you have already made the initial adjustments before beginning your journey, you may need to make small adjustments throughout your hike. Items may move throughout the day, and your body will get sore.
With that, take time to make sure your pack still feels well-balanced. And, if you used these steps to pack your bag effectively, that should be no problem at all.
Photo credit: Osprey
How to Pack a Backpack FAQ
What are the important features to consider when purchasing an overnight backpack?
The most important features to consider when purchasing an overnight backpack include:
- Weight of the pack
- Volume (usually measured in liters)
What are the best backpacking backpacks?
As we’ve mentioned, the best backpacking backpack is whichever one fits you best and has the necessary features for your overnight adventure.
If you’re looking for a place to start, Gregory, sold by REI, makes excellent packs recommended to us by a Yosemite guide. Gregory offers packs designed specifically for men and women. Ideally, if you’re in the market for a pack, you should head to your nearest outdoor retailer to get fitted.
What are the essentials for an overnight backpacking trip?
At GearJunkie, we’ve created a checklist for backpacking essentials and a breakdown of how to choose the right gear. While a lot depends on the climate, intensity, and other individual factors of your trip, many of the essentials stay the same.
If you’re a backpacking beginner, don’t let the process intimidate you — we’ve also laid out a beginner’s guide to backpacking.
Some of the main essentials include:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Backpacking tent
- Kitchen gear
- Bear canister (if needed)
- First-aid kit
- Map, compass, or GPS
How do you pack a backpack for a day hike?
If you’re going for a day hike, there’s no need to lug a huge backpack. Instead, you can use a daypack. These smaller packs are typically around 18-25 L.
How you pack your daypack, of course, depends on many factors that are unique to your trip. Generally, make sure you have plenty of layers packed for potential changes in the weather. Keep the clothing near the top of your pack for easy access.
You will also want to have your water easily accessible and your essentials bag within reach, usually in a side pocket. Because of the size difference in a daypack from a large pack, where you put your items does differ slightly.
Overall, aim to keep the backpack balanced and the weight distribution even so that you aren’t being pulled to one side or the other. For instance, don’t put all your heavy gear on one side of the pack. Similar to packing a large pack, you may want to separate your gear into smaller bags for ease of storage. This will make everything much less hectic in your main backpack compartment!
Final Tips & Tricks
- Use a checklist (and check it twice) so that you don’t forget anything.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks!
- Layer your clothing.
- Tell someone you trust where you’re headed in case anything goes wrong.
- If possible, try on a backpack at an outdoor store before purchasing to be certain it’s a good fit.
- Color code your gear into different bags to make items easier to find.
- Pack a small essentials bag that will be easily accessible at all times at the top of the pack.
- Make small adjustments throughout the day to maintain the optimal fit for your pack.
- Repack properly after each night of your trip.