How to pack your backpack before you hit the trail

Your trip is planned.  You’ve got all your gear. Now, it’s staring up at you and you’re at a loss of how to get what looks like half of REI into one backpack.

Don’t worry. We’ve all been there before and once you get it down the first time, you’ll be set for all future trips.

The Packing Strategy

The Big 3

There’s a bit of an art when it comes to packing up your backpack. Let’s start with the big three – Tent, Pad, Sleeping Bag.

I’ve always put the sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack so my back has something soft resting up against it. I do the same with my sleeping pad. I put both of these vertically, which takes up about the width of my bag. This also creates a solid foundation for the rest of my gear. But before we do the rest, what to with your tent.

For most people, I’d suggest using the straps on the bottom of your pack. For photographers, like myself, I put my tripod there, and put my tent on top of my backpack but under the flap. My Gregory Baltoro 65 has a strap that can lock in my tent and then when I put down the top flap, it secures it throughout the hike.

After the big three, it gets a little more customizable based on your preferences and what you want to access quickly.

The Rest

I put my JetBoil stove on top of my sleeping pad as it fits perfectly. Plus, I won’t need my stove until I completely unpack so it being near the bottom makes sense.

Then it’s time for the clothes. Pro tip, wrap these in a couple of trash bags. This is for two reasons; the first, you now have trash bags for your trash and second, in case it rains, your clothes will stay dry. If there looks to be inclement weather, I’d keep your rain jacket or poncho readily available. Anything else that you won’t need for that day’s adventure can be stuffed down into your pack.

Once your clothes are in, the food comes next. What you bring depends on the length of your trip. Just one night? You can keep it simple and bring perishable food if you’d like. I’ll leave your food decisions up to you but I’d still suggest nothing heavy. But packing in premade burritos or something tasty like that will definitely have your stomach thanking you as you fall asleep.

If you’re going for three or more days, I’d suggest bringing freeze-dried meals such as Mountain House or Backpackers Pantry. In my opinion, Backpackers Pantry has better tasting food – though it’s a tad more expensive. But that’s a price I’m okay paying for quality in the backcountry. I usually only plan freeze-dried meals for breakfast and dinner and eat snacks throughout the day. I tend to overpack when it comes to food as I eat a lot but also just in case things go wrong, it’s never bad to have a little more food than necessary.

The extra space in your backpack can be filled with your water filtration system, fuel, first aid bag (pro tip: make your own and don’t buy a pre-made one…it’s much more expensive), headlamp, hammock (if you want one)

Your Pockets and Straps

Use your side pockets wisely. These are the easiest to access which are prime spots for your snacks or anything else you think you’d need readily available.

I also put my backpacking chair in one of my side water bottle pockets. I find this fits perfectly and I usually don’t need my bladder plus two Nalgenes on a hike.

Additionally, your straps are a huge asset. Hang things from them if you can’t fit them in your pack. When I did the Enchantments, I hung my helmet on the outside as it surely wouldn’t have fit inside the backpack.

Furthermore, nearly all backpacks will have hip pockets. Toss anything you think you’ll use often during the hike in here. (Think cell phone, chapstick, tissues, or gum.) This will keep you from having to stop and take off your pack throughout the trip – costing you valuable time and effort.

Wrapping Up

In the end, it comes down to how you want your pack to feel and be organized.  There is no golden rule to doing this. These are simply suggestions and you’ll undoubtedly want to add your own flair as we’re all unique individuals with different preferences.

Best of luck on the trails.