How To Pack A Backpack

How To Pack A Backpack

Don’t be this guy. Carrying a backpack so large that it extends over your head and outside the width of your back makes for a long, arduous day on the trail. Instead, choose what you need wisely, then pack the bag efficiently for a lighter, more comfortable load. Here’s how.

A typical checklist for backpacking:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Pad
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Layers
  • Flashlight
  • Stove and fuel (we recommend a cat food can and denatured alcohol)
  • Metal mug w/lid
  • Lighter
  • Knife
  • First Aid Kit
  • Spare Socks
  • Sunscreen
  • Food
  • Map
  • Compass
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Trash Bag
  • Trowel
  • Baby Wipes
  • Toothbrush and paste

Doesn’t sound like an awful lot, does it? Each individual trip may necessitate some additions to that basic list, but we’re talking one or two items, not the kitchen sink. Paring your needs to the absolute minimum is the most effective way to keep weight down. Because you’re taking so few items, you’ll want each to be reliable, multi-use and light. Don’t carry a two D-cell MagLite, carry a 1xCR2 headlamp that doubles as your keychain light.

The standard recommendation is no more than 1/3 your bodyweight on your back. I’m 190lbs and 1/3 my bodyweight is an absurd 62lbs. Typically, I target 25 or 30lbs for an all-up weight. Doing so makes hiking not just easier, but actually fun.

You can spend an insane amount of money to get weight down. For instance, for next week’s trip I’ll be testing a new sleeping (tent, bag, pad) system that adds up to only 5lbs total while sleeping more luxuriously than I’m used to. Total price for that is $US1,200 though, which is outside my budget just like it’s likely outside yours. A more achievable goal should be to acquire quality, multi-use gear that can be easily carried. Build up a system over time and it won’t be a huge financial burden. Trying to buy all this stuff at once is going to be expensive any way you cut it, even if you’re buying cheap crap. And, an item of gear with which you have experience, which you know works and which you know how to use is going to be a lot better companion on the trail than a fancy new gadget that’s an unknown. I shudder at the thought of heading out for a trip with all-new gear; that’s just a lot that could go wrong.

Photo: Claudio Vaccaro

How big should your pack be? Unless you have a specific activity like mountaineering that requires you to lug huge amounts of equipment, you shouldn’t need a pack any larger than 55 litres. If you’re a small person, target 40 litres.

Endeavour to fit all you need for any trip of any duration into that size pack. Trust me, it’s possible. Do a test pack to see how everything fits (remembering stuff like food and a bear canister, if necessary) and then start asking yourself if you really need all that stuff and if its the right stuff for the job.

I just checked my phone and it’s not 1945 any more, so you want an internal frame pack. Kelty, Osprey and Boreas make quality, light, comfortable packs at relatively affordable prices. The $US150 Boreas Buttermilks 55L is as light, comfortable and rugged a pack as anyone could ever want.

The frame helps transfer the weight you’re carrying to the hip strap, which should be able to cinch tightly as it sits on top of your hips, taking most of the weight. Packs come in different sizes, it’s crucial to pick on that fits your waist.

Packing: This illustration from Osprey explains things nicely. Stuff light, bulky items like your sleeping system into the bottom of the pack. On top of that and as close to your back as possible, carry heavy items like your bear canister/food or laptop (this guide being equally applicable to Australians planning their gap year in Europe). If you’re carrying a hydration bladder, some packs will give you a dedicated sleeve for it located here while others will locate their water bottle pockets outside the pack, at this same height. On top, pack your layers and similar medium-weight items.

Stuff you’re going to need on the trail — map, compass, flashlight, first aid kit, sunscreen, rain jacket — should go either just inside the pack’s lid or preferably in an external pocket where it’s easy to reach. You want to know where this stuff is at all times.

If you’re backpacking through bear country, take efforts to prevent any odours from invading your clothing or sleep system. Even stuff like toothpaste or sunscreen can transfer smells which could interest a bear. And you do not want a bear to be interested in you. Anything that can leak should be in a plastic baggie.

With your bear canister, you’ll want to make sure it’s full. Pack the heavy stuff on the bottom and the light and fragile stuff in its top. If you have remaining space, fill it with other small items like sunscreen, bugspray or whatever to prevent its contents from moving or shaking as you hike. That will keep your foodstuff intact.

Fitting your pack: First loosen all the various straps and adjusters and whatnot. Then, pick it up and put it on, tightening the shoulder straps until the pack fits flush against your back. Next, slide the sternum strap (which connects the shoulder straps across your chest) so it rides comfortably, above your nipples if you’re a guy or clear of your boobs if you have those. Then, latch the hip strap onto the top of your hips (at the same height as your belly button) and pull it tight. You should feel the weight of the pack transfer to your hips. Now you can continue to tweak everything until you feel comfortable.

Your legs are the biggest muscle group on your body, capable of carrying the most weight and performing the most work. That’s why you carry the weight of your pack on your hips.

Some packs have the ability to adjust the height of the shoulder straps. If they do, follow the included instructions and do this first, before fitting the pack otherwise.

You’ll know your pack is adjusted properly if you’re able to stand up straight and easily observe the world around you as you hike. If you’re at all hunched over or uncomfortable, you need to revisit your adjustments.

Tips and Tricks:

– Use empty space; put your coffee packets and utensils inside your mug for instance.

– Pull your poles out of your tent bag and strap them upright, to the side of your pack. This will make fitting the tent’s bulky soft parts inside your bag way easier.

– Duct tape and safety pins are magic for trailside repairs.

– Have your dog carry its own food, water and other supplies.

– If you’re new to backpacking or have a challenging trip planned, then practice with the pack for a few weeks before you embark. Use water bottles to add a small amount of weight each day, progressively making the pack heavier and your muscles stronger.

– Force hydrate yourself before hitting the trail. Carry extra water in your car and chug it when you park until you force yourself to pee. That will get you off to a good start, but you should monitor your hydration by observing your urine; it should be crystal clear, copious and you should be making water once an hour, all day long. Hydration is the key to optimal performance.

– You don’t need to buy everything above for your first trip. Borrow it from friends, rent it from REI, find a local gear exchange or use The OX.

What are your tips for new or neophyte backpackers?

Top Photo: Carlos Torres