I remember hiking along, my backpack packed for the first time with all of my gear for an overnight trip. “Again?” my hiking partner patiently asked, as I wriggled free of my pack straps again. When I first started backpacking, I did not understand what on earth all of those straps could possibly do. How complicated could this “simple life” thing be? Well friends, I found that throwing everything in your bag without planning and placement is sure to land you in an uncomfortable, risky situation, even though it sounds simple.
Part of backpacking is absolutely about simplification, and with that comes special attention and care for the few things with you. Caring for your body and gear starts here, with packing and adjusting. Ready to pack up? Let’s get started!
Layout all of your gear on the floor, where you can easily arrange it and see it all. Go through this list of the 10 essentials, making sure that your necessities are present, in-date and ready for action. Now, divide all of your gear into sections.
One section should be your sleep system, including your bag or quilt. This section is light but bulky and should consist of gear pieces that you most likely will not want until you make camp.
Gather all of your heavier, lesser used items into another section. Typically, this section will include your food, extra water, cooking set, and stove and bear canister.
Everything else light and flexible that you are unlikely to need until you reach camp, like clothes and your tent, will fill out gaps in the remainder of the bag’s inside.
Most backpacks have multiple outer pockets, where gear that should be easily accessed goes. Gather your illumination, snacks, sun protection, extra layers, camera, keys, trowel and anything else you want in easy reach. Your water bottles and filtration system should go here as well.
With your gear laid out in these four sections, you can begin packing up. Take a look at your backpack’s bottom. Many bags taper towards the bottom, and some have a special compartment for your sleeping bag and system. Whether you choose to use the sectioning or not, this is where your sleep system will go. Try to center everything in the bottom, stuffing gear tightly enough to avoid empty spaces where your gear will shift while walking. Think about how the bag will sit on your back, and try to evenly distribute weight. This soft, light foundation will support your lumbar and help the rest of your gear’s weight sit at a comfortable and stable level on your back.
Next, as the bag most likely is becoming a little wider, it’s time to pack in the heavy and awkwardly shaped items. With these, you want the heaviest items closest to your back. Packing them as close to your body as possible will help maintain your center of gravity, and keep the bag from pulling you backward. Slide the heaviest pieces first, and fill in the spaces around them evenly with others. During this stage, you might want to grab some of the light, flexible items from your third section of gear to fill in empty spaces and cushion the heavier gear. Once everything is packed inside tightly, top off with any leftover light items.
Close up the main compartment, and cinch the bag’s compression straps down. Now, take a look at your backpack’s outer pockets. Likely, your bag has water bottle pockets on each side, zipper pockets on your hipbelt, and a combination of other pockets on the outside of the bag. If your backpack has a brain, or a large added top pocket that fastens shut over the main compartment, this is a great place to begin.
Pack your easily-accessible necessities in these outer pockets, dividing them out by size, weight, and likelihood of needing each thing. Personally, I keep snacks, maps and my phone camera in the hipbelt pockets. These are the quickest access points, whereas using pockets on the top or front of your pack will require either help from a hiking friend or taking your bag off to reach. Fill in the rest with the gear you need to get to quickly, but will be less annoyed having to pause a moment to reach.
Congratulations! Your bag is packed- now, it’s time to learn the basics of putting it on and adjusting it correctly.
Your bag compartments should all be shut, with everything snugly strapped down and in place. The bag should feel dense and there should be no dramatic shifting around of gear inside. Now, loosen all of the adjusting straps: hipbelt, shoulder straps, chest strap and load lifters (these sit just above the top of the bag shoulders). Feel on your side and find the top of your hips. This is where you want most of the bag weight to rest, so be ready to locate that spot again once you put on the pack.
Place your feet hip-width apart, planted firmly, with slightly bent knees. Grabbing the top loop on your backpack, pull it up to rest momentarily at the crease where your leg meets your hip. Now, lift the bag up and back onto your shoulders. The first straps to get in place are on your hipbelt. Hike up the bag so that the center of the hipbelt rests the pack weight at the top of your hips. Tighten the belt straps snugly but without digging into your skin or having to suck in air. The bag can, uncomfortably, stay on you with only the hipbelt fastened, but when properly adjusted, around seventy percent of the bag weight will rest here.
Next, move up to the shoulder straps. You should be able to pull these to where the fit feels comfortable. While adjusting the hipbelt is primarily about weight distribution, consider mobility and comfort when finding the best fit on your shoulders. Be sure to keep the two shoulder straps even while you adjust.
Lastly, reach back and take hold of your load lifters. Pull these slowly, bringing the top of the backpack closer to your back. This should feel like the bag is sitting in alignment with your back, not pulling you backward and allowing your center of gravity to feel natural.
Walk around a little with your backpack on, making smaller adjustments to fit it just right for you. You might be surprised by how comfortably the bag sits when everything is packed correctly and adjusted for each trip.
With everything packed, compressed and adjusted, your backpack is ready for the trail! Keep in mind that personal preferences and a little experimentation are helpful, especially as you discover your backpacking routines and tendencies. Don’t be too concerned about readjusting here and there as needed, and take the time you need to enjoy the hike.
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Austin lives in the Pacific Northwest where he enjoys hiking and backpacking in the Olympic and Cascade mountains.
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