Introduction: How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.