Backpacking 101: Packing A Backpack

We all did it when we were kids: Mom told you to clean your room and you took the “easy” way out by throwing everything into the closet, slamming the door, and hoping she wouldn’t notice. Of course, Mom inevitably discovered the truth and you had to spend the entire afternoon re-cleaning your room as punishment. Or was this just me?!

Packing a Backpack

Packing a backpack for your trip is very similar. It may seem like a good idea to throw everything into your backpack, mash it down, and call it a success once you are able to close the lid. Trust me: that’s how I like to clean my room too. However, there really is a proper way to pack your backpack that makes for a more enjoyable hike.

packing a backpack

And if you opt for the “smash everything inside and hope for the best” mentality, you’ll likely waste time and energy re-packing that pack on the trail.

The overall goal is for your pack to feel balanced. You want the bulk of the weight to feel centered; it shouldn’t sway around or lean in one direction like a drunk college student on a Friday night. To do this, you have to be precise about where you localize your heavy items. This can be tricky if you are just grabbing gear items all willy-nilly from your gear closet. Instead, lay out everything on the floor in an organized fashion. In doing so, you can internalize everything you are dealing with and strategize accordingly.

After getting a feel for your gear, it’s time to start packing. The bottom of your backpack is for stuff you won’t need until evening. Backpacks often come with a separate compartment that is divided from the rest of the backpack via a zippered flap. This is called the sleeping bag compartment. True to form, this section is meant to hold your sleeping bag, and having it in a separate area makes it easier to remove at night without pulling everything out with it.

packing a backpack

Additionally, many backpackers stash their pajamas, pillow, and sleeping pad in the bottom of their backpack. This logic is two-fold. Storing nighttime-only items in the bottom means you won’t have to wade through them during the day. These items also weigh very little, and you want to keep the lightest items in the bottom of your backpack.

The core of your backpack is where the majority of the weight should sit. A general tip is to keep the heaviest items in the center of your pack near your spine. If the heavier item sits too low, your pack feels droopy. If it sits too high, the pack will feel tippy. Placing the weight in the middle allows for a stabilized center of gravity.

Typically, the heaviest pieces of gear will be your food, water, stove and cooking supplies. Place these items on top of your sleeping bag for an even and balanced pack.

packing a backpack

A quick word to the wise: if you carry liquid gas for your stove, triple check that the lid is screwed on tightly. Pack the bottle upright and below your food in case of a spill.

The rest of your gear is largely considered medium-weight gear and should fill in near the top of your backpack. That said, there are a few odds-and-ends items that you will want easy access to while hiking. Life is a lot easier when your map, snacks, camera, and sunscreen are available without rummaging through the body of your backpack. Many backpackers prefer to use the lid for those since it is easy to access; ask your partner to pull out the map and you don’t even need to remove your backpack. This is also a great location for your pack cover since it is easily accessible should it begin to pour.

packing a backpack

In addition to properly arranging the weight in your pack, you should also consider how you prefer to organize your belongings. For some people, this can be as simple as putting your items inside the backpack and calling it a day. However, the majority of backpackers opt for a tidier system using colorful stuff sacks. These can be purchased in various sizes. Many hikers opt to use a small one for toiletries, a medium sized bag for insulation, or another sack for snacks. The method of organization doesn’t matter but it should be easy enough for you to locate items within your pack.

The above is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Backpacking 101. Of course, this is only a few words….but I couldn’t include all of them here because my publisher might not like that! If you’re interested in learning more about backpacking and how to get started, you can pre-order Backpacking 101 here {affiliate link}. Books should ship in a month!



  • Reply Catherine Farrell at

    I just pre-ordered your book. I am hoping to have it before you and your husband visit our school so we can teach our students about backpacking. We are so excited to have you both! Thank you so much again. See you at the in May.

    • Reply Heather at

      Thanks Catherine! I’ve been told they’ll ship on May 5 so you should have it in plenty of time. If you don’t, give me a holler– maybe I’ll have my samples by then and I can try to bring one, too. Looking forward to meeting your kiddos!

  • Reply Claude at

    It’s just you! Having been a mover and packer, I’ve always understood item placement, spine, CG, and balance. I had a crash course in the wonder of stuff sacks for EcoChallenge ’96, BC. It makes all the difference, especially if riding a monster horse for the 1st 23Miles.

    Is that you looking down on the Fjords of NZ above? So awesome:)!

    • Reply Heather at

      Yup, that’s from our trip in December 🙂

  • Reply Cathryn at

    This is a day too late….yesterday we did our first backpacking trip and ended up taking an ancient stroller filled with an airbed and inflator, a duvet and three pillows. We had an amazing time but we could potentially ‘downsize’ a little.

    • Reply Heather at

      I don’t know…I’m kinda impressed at what you managed to carry!!

    • Reply Evan at

      Like…a baby stroller? That’s pretty impressive!

  • Reply same day agra tour at

    Amazing post and article… Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reply same day agra tour by car at

    If the day along teh ridge had poor weather it would reduce the enjoyment considerably. It is the best trip of backpacking. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reply Mike and Brenda at

    Oh, this makes us want to travel again. We haven’t gone camping since the kids were born (the oldest is 3). Maybe this summer. Will definitely check back here for more packing tips. 😀

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog at

    So excited for your book!

  • Reply cindy reich at

    I really like the tan baseball style cap you’re wearing in a few of the photos above. Can you share the brand? I just discovered your blog and I am so glad I did. Great stuff! Thank you!

    • Reply Heather at

      Hey Cindy! That’s the Squadron Cap by Outdoor Research. Unfortunately they quit making it a few years ago which is a bummer because I get SO MANY comments on it! It’s definitely one of my favorites too 🙂

      • Reply cindy reich at

        Darn! It’s such a cute hat. Well, thanks for getting back with me! I am really enjoying your blog and am creating a huge wish list based on your recommendations. 😉

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