Introduction: How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking

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Is someone you know trying to drag you outdoors? Or are you just wondering what you could do to make carrying your gear more comfortable. Either way, a poorly packed backpack can turn even the most pleasant treks into grueling misery. These instructions will improve the comfort and convenience of your pack. These instructions focus on how gear should be packed rather than what gear you should bring.

Step 1: Pick a Backpack

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Your backpack will hold all the gear you will need on your trip. Gear can vary quite a bit depending on the season, trip duration, and the quality of gear.

Season and Gear

If you are going in the winter, pack sizes are bigger because you need bulky gear to stay warm. The picture above shows the difference between a summer and a winter sleeping bag. Depending on the quality of gear you have, you may need more space. Bulky gear is cheap while ultra-light compact options typically cost more.

Trip Duration

Long trips require more food and supplies and thus pack space. Short trips can usually make due with smaller sized packs.

So How do I choose?

As a general guide:

  • Over night trips: 40 Liters
  • 2-3 night trips: 60 liters
  • 3+ night trips: 75+ liters

It is also a good idea to choose a pack that is a little bit bigger than what you need. The extra space is likely to come in handy. If it is going to be cold, choose a larger sized back pack depending on your gear.

Step 2: Organize Your Gear

Lay out all your gear and try to organize by:

  • Weight: try to create light, mid, and heavy groups.
  • Relevance: cluster things that will be used together like sleeping bag and tent, food and cooking tools, etc.

Also create a separate pile designated for commonly used items like water bottle, sunblock, etc.

Relevance vs Weight

Sometimes these organization styles can clash, in which case prioritize weight over relevance. Well organized weight will feel great when you're hiking, which is the majority of the trip, while relevance organization is convenient only when searching for items.

Use Separate Bags

It is also a very good idea to to use separate bags to further organize relevant items for easy access. For example, if you want to settle down and eat at the end of the day, you can grab your food bag which contains food and cooking tools rather than having to dig through your whole bag to find some spoons. Commonly used items will go inside pockets where they can be easily accessed.

Step 3: Use Moment of Inertia

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Keep heavy items as close to the back as possible and put lighter items away from the back to limit the moment of inertia.

If your wondering what moment of inertia is, consider this example:

Imagine you have a shovel, like in the picture above. You can hold it one of the two ways above. It is much easier to hold the shovel when the heavy metal end is closer.

The reason it is so difficult to hold the shovel with the metal end furthest from you has to do with a force called moment of inertia. It has the formula (mass)*(distance)^2. By holding the shovel further out, we increase the distance from our center. Since distance is squared, a small increase in distance can result in a much larger moment of inertia. So having your heavy gear just a little closer to your back can make a pretty big difference.

Now it is obvious to see why I am struggling to stand with the pack in the picture above. The gear is way too far from my back.

Step 4: Use Center of Gravity

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To provide better stability, keep heavy items near your natural center of gravity (about your mid to lower back) and lighter items towards the top of your pack.

If the center of gravity of your pack is too high, you'll tend to tip one way or the other if you lose your balance. If the center of gravity is too low, your body's natural center of gravity will be shifted too far backwards causing unnecessary back strain.

You may have heard at some point someone say shorter people have lower centers of gravity. The typical center of gravity for the human body is usually in between your belly button and spine.

For example, consider a standing position and a slightly crouched position. You are more stable in the crouched position because you have lowered your center of gravity which is why many wrestlers are crouched to prevent themselves from being toppled over.

Step 5: Pack Items in Order of Use

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Think about the order in which you will use the items in your bag and place the items you will use first towards the top of your pack.

For example, say you have a jacket in your bag that you want to use because it has gotten chilly. You shouldn't have to pull out your sleeping bag, tent, and all your other things to get to it. Your jacket should go in last since it is likely to be used first. Otherwise you'll be holding up your friend like in the picture above.

Good procedure is to put the sleeping bag and tent at the bottom of your pack as you will use them at the end of the day. Having the sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack adds cushion to you pack to further protect your gear.

Step 6: Tighten Everything Down

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Now that you have everything in your pack, tighten all necessary straps so that your pack is compressed and acts like a solid mass.

If your pack is not all compressed shifting can occur which will throw off your balance as you hike. Imagine carrying a tank full of water that is sloshing everywhere vs. carrying the same tank but the water is frozen. The frozen is much easier to carry because you do not have to adjust your balance because it is not moving and shifting around.

Step 7: Pick Up Your Pack and Go!

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Now you're ready to enjoy nature. Your pack should not be too heavy to pick up with one arm. If it is, consider reevaluating your trip or getting lighter gear.

Comments

cbowers18 (author)2017-03-16

There are two things wrong with putting your sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack. First, it implies that every night you have to take everything else out to get to the bag, and then totally repack every morning. Second, there are no clean dry pavements, handy benches, or wall hooks out in the woods to set your pack on; having the sleeping bag at the bottom exposes it to dirt and moisture every time you stop to rest (unless you never take your pack off). Moisture is the worst; you can sleep in a dirty bag, but not a wet one. And the pack bottom doesn't exist that never develops pinholes and wear spots.

My bag, along with my sleeping pad, is strapped to the top flap of my pack. Always available, never in the way, high and dry. My longest backpacking trip, living solely out of my pack, was 35 days.

Rytag (author)cbowers182017-05-06

then surround the sleeping bag in plastic!

jmarkkaufman (author)cbowers182017-03-21

I through hiked the Appalachian Trail, and as long as you are moving to a new site every day, bottom of the pack it goes. In a Trash compactor bag. My down bag NEVER got wet, and it was the rainiest season on the AT to date.

kschmidt2 (author)cbowers182017-03-17

35 days, how much food and water did you take?

cbowers18 (author)kschmidt22017-03-18

This was a trip on the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail. There are reliable water sources along the way (even if you have to walk half a mile down a side trail to reach them), identified in any of the numerous guide books to the Trail. I tried to keep a canteen ready on my belt, and a spare quart in my pack. I used freeze-dried food, which is compact, lightweight, and expensive (!); an occasional treat like canned sardines to break the monotony. I resupplied twice by picking up packages I mailed to myself at post offices in towns through which the Trail runs. This is standard practice for long-distance Trail hikers, and the post offices along the Trail cooperate.

If warm and fair weather could be guaranteed, I could probably have gone the whole trip without resupply, taking lots of freeze-dried food.

kschmidt2 (author)cbowers182017-03-21

I like your style. That's really damn cool man.

Stefan Libbe (author)cbowers182017-03-19

I disagree with putting the sleepingbag on top. During the day you will not need the sleeping bag and clothes that you are not wearing. Also the tent is a piece that usually is not needed at lunchtime. Still the tent will be needed earlier than the sleepingbag, so there's no need to keep it at hand.

In order to keep the sleepingbag dry always wrap it in plastic. Also remember that the moist from the tent flysheet can wet stuff inside the backpack. It will take you many bad nights to dry a wet sleepingbag.
At all times times the most heavy luggage is water, followed by food. That is what you should place against the back, preferably at or little below shoulder height.
Where you put the mattress depends on the type. If it's one of the lightweight bulky ones, I prefer to put it vertically. Never on top, because I don't like to be stuck in trees all the time.

cbowers18 (author)Stefan Libbe2017-03-19

Stefan, it appears that your Karrimat is what in the US is known as Ensolite; Ensolite pads have been in use here since the 1950s. (Thin sheets of Ensolite cut into a doughnut shape are used in winter atop outdoor latrine seats, to keep the user from sticking to the seat in -20 C. conditions.) But there are more advanced sleeping pads on the market; look up Thermarest. And my frame backpack is different from what we know as a rucksack; look up Kelty, or just the generic "frame backpack." The main use of the stuffsack for my 3-season sleeping bag, warm to -10 F., is to compress it into a cylinder 8" x 15"; the waterproofing is an added plus. (My winter bag is warm to -30 F., and has a larger stuffsack.

You might enjoy reading "Backpacking: One Step at a Time," by Colin Fletcher.

Stefan Libbe (author)cbowers182017-03-20

Ah, a frame pack. We seldom see these nowadays here. We tend to see them as very old school, even though I admit they have some positive points as well.
It is getting harder to still find these EVA mats as the old Karrimat is called here. I know Thermarest, but I dismissed them a long time ago for being heavy and vulnerable, even though being much less volume.
Last year I turned to a new style Sea-to-Summit mattress. Even though these are comfortable I still favor the old EVA-mats for being very durable and well insulating while not being the most comfortable. If needed I can put the mat under the groundsheet, or you can put the stove on it inside the tent.

cbowers18 (author)Stefan Libbe2017-03-19

Stefan, I'm not sure what kind of equipment you have. The top flap of my pack has two straps attached on top; my sleeping bag, pad, and tent are strapped to the flap, and whenever I open the pack they flip forward out of the way without any handling or fuss. My bag, pad, and tents all have their own waterproof stuff sacks; no need for sheets of plastic, which tear, blow in wind, and end up in the environment. If you read carefully what I said about food and water, you would not use the word "heavy." And I don't know what you mean by a "lightweight, bulky" mattress, but for long trips, bulk is even more important thatn weight; if you can't fit something into your pack, its weight doesn't matter. But I certainly don't carry either a (heavy) air mattress or a large squishy foam pad.

Stefan Libbe (author)cbowers182017-03-19

Hmm. A top flap where sleeping bag, mattress and tent are attached to, that must be a different style rucksack than we in Europe are used to.
If the sleeping bag has it's own waterproof stuff sack, then I don't get the mention of absence of 'dry pavements, handy benches, or wall hooks out in the woods to set your pack on; having the sleeping bag at the bottom exposes it to dirt and moisture every time'. Than what is the problem?
The lightweight bulky mattress is the type that here is called Karrimat or similar. Unless the rucksack is large or nearly empty you don't want to put it inside.

madhavdivya (author)cbowers182017-03-17

So true.

three_jeeps (author)2017-03-16

Some good tips about packing with respect to center of mass (gravity) and packing heavy things closer to your body and away from the outside of the pack. The sleeping bag at the bottom is a no-no primarily for ease of access. The best guard against this problem is to get a pack that has a bag compartment at the bottom so one doesn't have to disassemble the entire pack to get to the sleeping bag. I've learned from many years of backpacking, put your sleeping bag in a plastic bag to keep it dry and dirt free - a kitchen trash can bag or a 2-3mil garden trash bag works well and adds almost no weight.

Left unsaid, but extremely important - make sure you have a pack that fits well - some good pointers on the net about how to fit a pack.

kschmidt2 (author)three_jeeps2017-03-17

Another good way to avoid disassembling your entire pack is to get a bag that unzips all the way around to the bottom. I have a "Military" bag that does that and it's great because I can just lay it on the ground and it opens like a clam.

kschmidt2 (author)2017-03-17

I learned the hard way that heavy things are better off being closer to your body when I would take my computer to school for a flight sim (Slim line desktop).

CraigA1 (author)2017-03-17

Nice job. Thanks for the info.

NathantheGray (author)2017-03-17

awesome tips, man! Great pics. it really helps illustrate your points.

Sparvar (author)2017-03-16

Loved your presentation!

wildjoanne (author)2017-03-16

Love this as they are useful tips that I SHOULD think about before going on trips but then don't and then pay the price. Some of the pics made me really laugh too :) So there was an element of humour (heavy objects pics) well done!

shapespeare (author)2017-03-16

Good tips. I'd add to set your straps and belt so you are carrying as much weight as possible on your hips. Shoulder straps are better used to hold the load tight against your back than to bear the weight. Remember, lift with your legs not your back.

I second the comment below about a plastic bag for your sleeping bag. I get the biggest thickest contractor waste bag I can find. Put it in the bottom of my pack and then pack my sleeping bag into it. It fills the bottom of the pack entirely with no wasted space. If you put the bag in a compression sack first it is a hard lump which you have to pack around and there is always wasted space. The plastic bag makes a good emergency bivy or poncho if the trip gets really fun.

I don't mind unpacking all my stuff everyday. If there is something (other than emergency gear, and car keys) that I'm not using everyday I think real hard about whether I need it at all.

HSonger (author)2017-03-16

You should also take care that you have the straps/belt adjusted so that the pack stays snug against your body. That eliminates a lot of side-to-side and up and down movement which makes you use more energy while hiking.

tiredjazzman (author)HSonger2017-03-16

Yes, when I forget to tighten all straps, I get "sorry"

PaulM626 (author)2017-03-16

"Is someone you know trying to drag you outdoors?" Love it, lol!

DIY Hacks and How Tos (author)2017-03-14

Good tips for packing anything.

True!

However usually its a little more critical if your are going to be hiking many miles.

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