How to Pack a Backpack: Tips & Tricks for Stress-Free Camping

Russell McCarty
Written by Russell McCarty

Everybody who goes out on hiking adventures has a pack, but I’m sure not everybody packs it right. Many backpackers may not be aware that packing their backpacks is an art since they usually just throw their gear into their packs as long as they will fit in.

Being organized is key to ensuring that you don’t forget to carry any essential gear to your trip. Therefore, I am going to show you how to pack a backpack.

Before you start packing, you need to make sure that you have the right backpack. The first question you need to ask yourself is what capacity of backpack you need to work with. This will be determined by the number of days you are planning to be out and the number of gears you would like to bring along.

Different Capacity Backpacks

Below are some of the basic guidelines that can help you come up with an ideal capacity of a backpack.

Length of Trip Capacity of the Pack in Litres
Single day or overnight (1-2 nights) 20-50
Weekend (2-3 nights) 50-60
Multi-day (2-5 nights) 60-80
Extended (5+ nights) 80+

It is important to remember that the size of the backpack is different from its capacity. To ensure that you will be comfortable carrying your pack on your back, you should correctly size it if it is too small or large.

See also: Best Solar Backpack: For Charging Your Devices On-the-Go

It will be very painful and difficult to move due to the uneven pressure put on your body parts as a result of uneven weight distribution. Most manufacturers use the torso length to categorize the various backpacks into different sizes.

Hikers with backpacks

When packing, determining what goes where and what goes in first can sometimes be hard leaving you with no choice but to pack with no organization. Good news is that you can efficiently pack your backpack to give yourself more stability and comfort. You will realize that a well-packed backpack can actually carry more gears than if you just throw everything in hoping that they fit.

Getting Started

To get started, you need to break down your backpack into zones; the bottom zone, the core zone, the top zone and the peripheral storage which includes the accessory pockets and the tool loops and lash-on points.

Items to pack in the bottom zone

I know you probably wondered why I said that backpacking is an art. When packing, you have to have weight distribution in mind, and that is why you have to divide your backpack into zones.

Packed sleeping bag

The bottom zone should be packed with gears that are soft and squishy to create a shock-absorption system for your back while you will be carrying the heavy backpack. These items should be those that you won’t need before you make a camp which may include sleeping bags, sleeping pads and camp shoes.

Items you need to pack in the core zone

You should pack all the heavy gears that will not be required before you make a camp in this core zone. This will ensure that the weight of the backpack is distributed in that a stable center of gravity is created which ensures that all the weight is directed downwards instead of backwards.

These items may include tent body, food stash, cooking kits, beer canisters and water reservoirs plus any other bulky items you may want to carry for the trip. Soft items should be placed between heavy gears so that they are held in position.

Top zone items

Items to be packed in this zone should be those that can be easily accessed like jackets, first-aid kits, water filters, insect repellants, headlamps and toilet supplies.

Packing a backpack

Items to pack in the accessory pockets

Most packs come with extra peripheral storage that includes lid pockets, side pockets, front pockets and hip belt pockets. You can use them to carry smaller essentials like maps, compasses, car keys and many other essentials that you may feel are necessary for the trip.

Tool loops and lash-on points

These loops are important since there are gears that cannot fit inside the pack like the tent poles, trekking poles, crampons and the climbing ropes.

Backpacking checklist

It’s a good practice to have a backpacking checklist so that you won’t forget to carry important gears for your hiking trip. Here is a list of must-haves to carry in your pack for basic comfort, safety and survival.

  • Navigation: maps, compass and GPS.
  • Sun protection: includes sunscreens, lip balms and sunglasses.
  • Illumination: Headlamps or flashlights with some extra batteries.
  • Fire: Lighters and fire starters.
  • Hydration: Water bottles, reservoirs and water filters.
  • Emergency shelter: Include tents, reflective blankets and tarps.
  • Insulation clothing: Include jackets to protect you from cold nights, hats, pants and gloves.
  • Food: Ensure that you carry an extra day’s food supply.

Picking the best backpacking gear

With today’s equipment’s weight being lightweight, you can load your backpack with all the necessary supplies without feeling like you are carrying a whole city’s supplies on your back. If it’s your first time going on a hiking trip, it’s a good idea to rent a tent rather than buy it. This will allow you to cut costs while also experimenting before you finally buy it.

Backpack collection

When choosing footwear for the trip, go for lightweight boots together with some wool hiking socks so that your feet will stay pampered during the trip even if you will be on a rough terrain. To make choosing easier, see our expert reviews of the top lightweight backpacking boots to help you.

In terms of the cooking gears, go for a lightweight canister stove. If you are going to have a long trip, you can go for fuel canisters.

To ensure that you will sleep like a baby while on your trip, choose a sleeping pad with large dimensions that can accommodate you without leaving your limbs dangling off the sides.

You can also bring along other luxurious items to your trip since it won’t be a monastery out there. These may include camera gears for pictures to remind you of your adventures or some deck of cards to help you pass the time.

Sleeping pad packed on a backpack

Let’s now look at the anatomy of a backpack before we look at how you can properly hoist it on your back when it is loaded. It is important that you know your way around your pack together with all its features so that you can use it efficiently and comfortably under any weight.

Load lifter straps

These straps help to make the pack stay firm on your back by preventing it from leaning away from your back. They connect the top of the pack to the shoulder straps.

Sternum strap

It clips over the chest and connects the shoulder straps in the front. This trap is very important since it enhances stability. The height of this strap can be adjusted for more comfort.

Sternum Strap

Compression straps

These straps allow you to tighten your pack along the sides so that you can achieve balance even if the pack is not fully loaded.

Hip belt stabilizer

They are tightened around the waist to achieve balance and comfort.


They help to maintain the shape of the pack and also protect the wearer from the objects that will jab him or her through the fabric.

Hoisting your loaded backpack

Now that you have packed everything you need in your pack, hoisting it on your back can sometimes be difficult, and if not done in the proper way, you can damage the straps of your pack before you even step out of the door.

Fitting a backpack

Here are steps you can follow to hoist your loaded backpack onto your back smoothly.

  • Loosen the straps so that it will be easy to slip into your backpack.
  • Standing next to your backpack while you have tilted it to an upright position, grab the haul loops while your knees are bent and legs spread apart.
  • Lift the pack and let it rest on your thighs.
  • Slip one of your arms and shoulders through one of the straps and then lean forward and swing the pack on your back. You can then slip your other arm on the other shoulder strap.
  • You are now ready to go.

Things to keep in mind while packing

Do away with the stuff sacks

Items like the sleeping bags usually come with their sacks. When packing them in a backpack, every inch of space will be very important hence you will need to pack such items without their stuff sacks to save weight and space. Check out our piece on the best backpacking sleeping pads to help you with choices.

Packing a sleeping bag

Place the heaviest items in the middle

Just as I had said above, all your heavy gears should be placed in the middle of your pack. This will give you balance by preventing your pack from swaying side to side as you move.

Think about balance

When packing, ensure that you don’t put heavier items on one side of the pack making it heavier than the other side. This will make it difficult to walk with the loaded pack on your back comfortably. You can balance your pack by putting heavier gears on both sides of the pack.

Pack tight and tidy

The last thing you would want to deal with when hiking is things jangling inside your pack. You will, therefore, need to be diligently organized to arrange all the gears in a tight and tidy arrangement.

Tight packed backpack

Whenever I want to embark on any adventure and need to pack all the items in my backpack, I first ensure that I create a good base for the rest of my items by packing my sleeping bag at the bottom. I then fill the available space while making sure that all the gears are tight so that they won’t move around when I’m walking.

Keep all the essential gears where they can be easily accessed

Items like food, water, and cameras should be readily available while you are on the trail without you having to unpack in order to reach them.

Less is more

Sometimes deciding on what to bring along and what to leave behind for your trip can be difficult, especially if it is your first time.

To avoid carrying more than you should, spread out all the items you think you should bring along for the trip on the floor so that you can pick the things you need and pack.

Backpack spreadout

The takeaway

Now that you know how you can efficiently pack your backpack, you are now ready to go. If you are planning to buy your own backpack, here are some qualities that you should look out for in your backpack so that you don’t walk into a camping store as wide-eyed as a kid.

  • Water resistant material: Since you never know what weather you are going to face out there, the material used to make your pack should be at least semi-water proof so that everything does not get wet in a drizzle in case it rains.
  • Multiple compartments: If your pack has multiple compartments then you can pack in a more organized way by having different items in different compartments. It will also be easier to access your stuff whenever you need them.
  • Lockable zippers: If each compartment in your pack has two zippers, it will be easier to lock them together.
  • Internal frame: Though most backpacks have inbuilt support rods and frames, there are still some few that have external frames. Packs with internal frames are the best since they are hidden from view hence making the pack slimmer and easier to carry around. For a comparison between internal and external frame backpack, see our earlier article for more.
  • Padded hip belt: Since most of the weight will be concentrated on your waist and hip area. Therefore, a backpack with a padded hip belt will ensure that you are comfortable while carrying even the heaviest backpack by distributing the weight evenly on your back.


To summarize, if you pack your backpack efficiently, you will be amazed by the number of items you will be able to fit in your pack perfectly. Do you have any other tip on how to pack an outdoor backpack? Please let us know in the comment section.


Russell McCarty

Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.