How to pack a backpack
We’ve all been there at some point, haven’t we? That moment when we’re out in the hills or mountains and need to get our hands on something quick which, for one reason or another, has gone and done a Houdini on us and inexplicably vanished. Our stuff’s ability to lose itself never ceases to amaze us…
Despite the promises we make ourselves - all those ‘never again’s and ‘next time I’ll do it differently’s - the lesson’s a hard one to learn. A few weeks go by and we promptly return to the cavalier ‘chuck it in’ approach to backpack packing and then find ourselves once again suffering one of the many consequences of our poor preparations: flapping through every item of gear we’ve brought in pursuit of our AWOL rain jacket (just as the rain sets in, usually), under attack from some unidentifiable but incredibly sharp object assaulting our spine every step of the way, and/or struggling with a load so unbalanced that our hiking partners begin to suspect our water bottle’s filled with something a touch more potent than mere H20.
So, what’s the solution? There is more to packing your backpack, unfortunately, than that satisfying ‘click’ when you finally managed to clip shut the last of your straps. Success, alas, is not merely defined by getting it all in any which way we can, but something of an art - one, thankfully, that is more of the paint-by-numbers variety than the abstract impressionist.Below, we’re going to take you through the main points of the art of packing your backpack to help you avoid all of the above mishaps and subsequent frustrations and enjoy a comfortable, safe, stress-free outing in the outdoors, whatever you’re getting up to.
First things first: do a gear-check
Prioritization: how to use the 'zone' system
A backpack can essentially be broken down into three zones: the bottom zone, the central zone and the top zone. Compartmentalizing like this can help you pack effectively, efficiently, and ensure that you don’t waste time hunting for things where they’re unlikely to be found. It offers, moreover, a number of other benefits such as a better load distribution, less chance of mixing wet gear with dry gear, and less potential for discovering uncomfortable, poky somethings assaulting your back, butt and waistline while out getting your stomp on.
Stash your 'biggies' in the bottom
The bottom zone of your backpack is where you should be storing all the gear that you will only be using when you set up camp in the evening or are least likely to use while out on the trail or on the move. Gear items like tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tarps, camp shoes and spare socks are all unlikely to be of any use to you during the day, so stowing them where it will take you longest to reach them poses no problem. While they’re there, moreover, their soft bulk will provide a nice bit of cushioning where the lower end of your pack meets that occasionally sensitive and chafe-prone area at the top of your hips and backside…bonus!
The central well: the core of your kit
A process of elimination is maybe the best way to go about deciding what belongs in the central well or storage compartment of your backpack. If it isn’t sleeping gear and it isn’t something you’re likely to need while walking or climbing, the chances are its ideal home is this central well. Like the bottom zone of your pack, the central well is where you should stash bulkier items you most probably won’t need during the day but it’s also where you want to keep the heavy stuff - water hydration bladders, gas canisters or fuel bottles, emergency crampons, bulkier food supplies, cooking kit, stove - so as to create a solid, condensed and centralized centre of gravity.
Up top for fast unloading
The items that you’re most likely to need while out on the trail or on a climb should be stored in the top zone of your backpack. Depending on the weather conditions and the nature of your excursion, this could be anything from a rain jacket to an insulating midlayer to a pair of gloves or even a via ferrata kit if you happen to be hitting the chains/cables a short way into your journey. The key here is to anticipate what you will or might need and then ensure you won’t have to go digging through all your other bits and bobs to get to it when need be.In addition to the three above zones, your backpack will most likely have one or more accessory pockets and either webbing, tool loops or tie-on points on the exterior. Accessory pockets, as the name suggests, are ideal for the little things you don’t want to have in your trouser pockets but still want to have close at hand: water bottles, maps, GPS devices, compasses, toilet paper, quick snacks, sunglasses and so on. Tool loops and lash-on points are great for storing items you can’t squeeze inside the pack itself (foam mattresses, for example), but it’s worth keeping in mind that these items may affect your balance or be more likely to snag on branches or rock if you’re moving in a particularly narrow space.
Compartmentalizing within your compartments
Smaller items of gear have a habit of losing themselves amidst out meatier gear-stuff. Also, they can easily get damp if packed in beside tents, jackets or sleeping bags that have been out in the rain or are carrying condensation. An easy way to counter this problem is to get your hands on a few smaller stuff-sacks or drybags (between 1 and 5-litre capacity) and consolidate potentially ‘stray’ items into one place.
Balancing the beast: how to keep your load level
The best advice we can offer for balancing the load in your backpack is to imagine you are building a snowman (yeah, seriously…!). The most effective and solid snowmen, of course, don’t have chunks missing at random points across their bodies, nor is the snow more densely packed on one side than the other. The same goes with your gear…
When loading your pack, make sure that you fill in all the little gaps, nooks and crannies between items of gear by compressing them as much as possible until you have a tight fit. Also, try to create an equal balance in terms of weight between the left and right side of you pack so that you’re less likely to have gravity tug you in one direction or the other while on the move. Finally, once you’ve got everything in there as snugly as possible, stabilize the load and reduce the risk of it moving around during your trip by tightening all of the compression straps.
Another good idea for keeping your pack as comfortable and balanced as possible is to load the heavier items centrally and against your back. By doing this, you ensure that a heavy load won’t always feel like it’s tugging you backwards - a mild discomfort if you’re walking, potentially disastrous if you’re climbing.
Loading your pack for different activities
When backpacking, comfort is key - if you’re going to be schlepping 40/50/60lbs of gear over the trail for hours, days or weeks on end then you want to ensure that hefty load isn’t causing you more trouble than is absolutely necessary. The best way to go about this is to follow the above zone system but also to pay attention to what is packed closer to your body and what is going to be on the exterior, outside portion of the pack. You really don’t want, for example, gas canisters, tent poles or other hard and/or sharpish bits of kit digging into your waist, back or shoulders for hours on end, or having to stop to move them somewhere friendlier to said body parts mid-trip. Packing the above items against the outer wall of you pack will ensure the ‘poke factor’ of your load is as low as can be. Alternatively, wrap any potential pokers in soft fleeces or jackets to help blunt the sharp edges.
The demands of mountaineering are very different to those of long-distance backpacking and day-trekking and balancing your load well is absolutely essential. Making use of gear loops on the belt or exterior of your pack might seem like a good idea, but these can easily snag on rocks or get caught in the rope while you’re climbing and cause all sorts of problems. Your best bet in terms of ensuring you have a well-balanced load and negating the possibility of finding your rope has wrapped itself around your gear like an over-amorous octopus is to choose a streamlined, narrower backpack without too many ‘frilly’ straps that might be a nuisance when things start getting serious and to keep all your gear inside the pack or, if you’re on higher level climbs, attached to your harness.
While it may seem that shorter day-hikes don’t require the same fussiness in terms of packing, a lighter load doesn’t necessarily mean a more comfortable one. While the standard zoning system applies (with the exception of the bulky camping gear), on day-hikes your gear can easily bounce around inside your sack and become a massive pain in the backside. Or just the back…The best way to avoid such hassles is to first choose your smallest backpack and, secondly, to do away with compression or stuff sacks and let items such as down jackets or waterproofs pad out the unoccupied space. Once everything’s in there, be sure to tighten any external compression straps on your pack to reduce mid-walk wandering of the items inside.
This handy little video from Rei.com covers some other gear you may be tempted to leave out for a day-hike but which might just be something essential you’ve overlooked until now and can also serve the purpose of padding out your empty pack.
The art of backpack packing is one hugely underestimated by novices and life-long outdoor adventurers alike. Given that the way you pack your gear can have so much influence over your comfort, safety and convenience levels when out in the hills, mountains or on a climb, however, it’s one well worth learning and putting into practice. We hope the above article will inspire you to mend any mispacking ways you might have harboured until now and help you do just that!The following video from REI.com offers a very handy, ‘in-a-nutshell’ account of the ‘zone’ packing system as well as some further tips on how to get the best out of your backpack’s storage capacity:
Kieran Cunningham is a Scotsman based in the Italian Alps. He’s a climber, mountaineer, trekker and all-round lover of all things high and rocky. He’s climbed extensively in the Himalaya, Rockies and Alps but is just as happy roaming the Scottish Highlands, exploring canyons in Utah or messing about at the local crag.