How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

how-to-pack-a-hiking-backpack

As a new hiker, one of the first things you need to know is how to pack a hiking backpack. You’ll soon find that getting packed up and ready to go is probably one of the most important aspects of your upcoming journey as missing an important item can quickly place a pall over an entire trip.

​When I first learned how to pack a backpack for hiking, I originally packed a water bottle to refill at steams and other bare necessities like a sleeping bag, Nowadays, I like to bring a water bladder because I find that these types of water holders are a bit more convenient to take sips from as I’m hiking, but I have also made room in my pack for other items that I now realize are necessities for hiking, especially if it is more than just a day trip.

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​These days, as a rule, I always follow the ABC method of packing my backpack. What’s ABC? Here’s the breakdown:

ABC Method

  • Accessibility: The most important to access items should be at or near the top of your pack, so that you can reach them easier
  • Balance: Try to create a degree of balance inside your pack. When hiking, some items are inherently heavier than others, so try to keep these in the middle of your pack so that you have good counterbalancing of your pack.
  • Compression: You have small space in the average backpack, so you’ll need to compress larger items like sleeping bags and your shelter.

Step #1: Decide What You Need to Pack

​What you need to pack will greatly depend on the terrain that you’ll be covering. Are you backpacking in a place where a lot of snow and ice is accumulating? If that’s the case, then you’ll want to make sure you’re packing materials that will keep you warm and tackle any slippery ice or snow. Here’s a great winter backpacking gear load out video that’ll walk you through some winter necessities.

If you’re not going to be doing a lot of cold weather hiking, then still put a lot of thought into what you’ll need for your excursion; you don’t want to be kicking yourself on a hike. As a rule, you’ll always need a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a source of hydration, some way to heat your food/start a fire, and some lighting. The length of your journey will also be a deciding factor in what you need to pack.

​I tend to create a quick checklist before I go out on a backpacking trip; this way I have a visual cue so that I’d have no excuse to forget a key item. Also see The 10 Essential Items for Hiking and Camping post.

Suggested Hiking Pack List​

Item that I have Found to be Necessities:

  • Sleeping Bag: For some comfort as you sleep. Remember, for down sleeping bags, it’s important to compress them late in the game. Down tends to thin out if you keep it folded up too long.
  • Compression Stuff Sack for Sleeping Bag: This will compress your thick sleeping bag to a more manageable size.
  • Shelter: For protection from the elements.
  • Sleeping Pad: This will protect you from gravel, stones, and twigs that might be under your sleeping bag/tent.
  • Camping Stove: For the heating up of your food.
  • Water Bottle: You’ll need this to stay hydrated on your trek. Check out our alternatives section for secondary options.
  • Lantern: For illumination.
  • First Aid Kit: You never know when you’ll accidentally cut yourself on the trail. Bring one of these in case you need to seal up and disinfect a cut.
  • Food and Snack Bag: This is important for keeping your snacks nice and dry.
  • ​Knife: It’s a good idea to pack this away in your bag if you’re going to be on a populated trail, if not, then you can wear it on your belt.
  • Fire Kit: For starting a fire.
  • Miscellaneous Bag: You’ll need this for all of your knickknacks.
  • Raincoat: Try to bring one that is easily folded.

Optional Items that May Prove to be Useful:

  • Lightweight Chair: Some hikers/campers like to bring a lightweight chair for relaxing by the fire at night.
  • Pots: If you aren’t planning on roasting your food directly over a fire, these are invaluable.
  • Crampons or a Ice Axe: If you plan on going over rough, rocky terrain, these are very useful.
  • Personal Locator Beacon: These are useful in case you get lost.
  • Hydration Bladder: For an easier hydration option than simply carrying a water bottle, some packs have a spot for a hydration bladder. Personally, I prefer this system to a water bottle because of its convenience. Many newer pack brands these days have a hook that keeps the water bladder from sagging; something that can be bad for the overall balance of your backpack.
  • Hydration Hose: This hose connects to the bladder so that you can sip water at your leisure. Once again this is an alternative to the water bottle experience. With a hose, you also won’t have to sift through your bag or crane your arm in order to get a drink.

​Step #2: Lay Out the Gear Before Packing

Speaking of visual cues, this is a great way to “eyeball” what you have ready for your next backpacking trip. In addition to this, some items like down-filled sleeping bags should only be compressed in the last 24 hours before a trip in order to maintain their texture, so before packing, you can lay these items out.

Step #3: Choose The Right Backpack For Your Needs

Just like anything else, having the right tools is one of the most important aspects of a hiking trip, and with hiking, the most important tool is your backpack. No two backpacks are the same, so finding the one that is best for you will require extensive due diligence.

There are several aspects that you should look into including:

Backpack capacity: Naturally, the capacity that you’ll need may differ based on the length of your hiking trip. In any situation, you’ll always need enough space to comfortably fit your sleeping bag, hydration source, cooking gear, shelter, and sleeping pad. Remember, even if your backpack can carry a lot of material, you’ll still have to carry it, so when you can, always pack lightly.

Empty Backpack Weight: Even before you start packing it, the weight of the backpack can be very important. Some backpacks are crafted from canvas and some are crafted from more high tech lightweight materials like 210d nylon with dyneema ripstop. Canvas tends to be a bit heavier empty, but also tends to stand up better to damage.

Backpack Fit: The length of the torso is probably the most important aspect to look out for when purchasing a new pack. Your actual height is far less of an important factor because you’ll be carrying the weight on your back, not near your legs.

Step #4: Heavy Items Should Be Closest To Your Back

This falls under the “B” part of the ABC packing plan that I mentioned before. When you have heavier items like your sleeping bag and cooking materials closer to your back, you’ll have an easier time balancing them when you are travelling up and downhill. In addition to this, place these items as low in your pack as possible.

Having heavier items close to your back and at a lower position gives you a lower centre of gravity, which will help you keep balanced in uneven situations. Don’t worry about heavier and harder items like pots and pans digging into your back; most hiking backpacks have a very padded section that rests against your back, so you shouldn’t feel these hard objects.

​The NOLS Field Staffing Director, Marco Johnson explains this weight concept in his Pack Packing video:

Step #5: Make Sure The Gear You Use Most Is Easily Accessible

​When you’re packing your backpack, there is a order of packing that you should always consider; pack the more important items towards the top so that they are more easily accessible. This means that as you pack, you’ll place things like your sleeping gear at the bottom first, since you’ll only really need this when you’re settling in for the night.

​This is also one of the heavier items, so it works towards granting you better balance as well. You can also pack items like your water bladder in this section, since this container typically only comes out when you’re near a body of water. After that, you can pack items that are also somewhat less needed, such as your shelter and your fire source.

​Finally, more needful items like gloves, water bottles (if you use them), hunting knives, trail snacks, and hand lines should be placed towards the top of your pack so that they can be easily reached when needed.

The outdoor gear review has a great video on the order of backpack packing:

Step #6: Use Zipper Storage Bags or Bear Canisters for Your Food

​As you might imagine, keeping your food secure is imperative on a hiking trip. Keeping your snacks and food in a bag that will leak will not only ruin the food, but potentially ruin the other pieces of gear that you have stored around it.

​With this in mind, always pack your food securely. Zipper storage bags, not just zip locks, will ensure that it will be close to impossible for liquid foods to spill into out of the bag and ruin your stuff. These bags are inexpensive and reusable for future trips and I couldn’t imagine going for an overnight adventure without a few.

​In addition to this, if you’re going to be camping in bear heavy places like Yosemite or Yellowstone, it’s absolutely imperative for your safety to utilize bear canisters. These items securely store your food and suppress any scents coming from inside so that you aren’t attracting any unnecessary danger.

​Step #7: Attach Tents, Tarps or Sleeping Pads Externally Using Straps or Carabiners

​This is a great strategy if you have a smaller backpack that struggles to contain a large tent or sleeping pad. Carabiner clips are strong enough to attach a plethora of items to your pack, so use these so that you can externally store some of the bigger items by dangling them from loops on your pack.

​Step #8: Test It & Move Items Around If It’s Not Balanced Properly

​Once again, we come back to the “B” part of ABC. Balance is absolutely imperative. This means that you’ll want to make sure that each of your items are balanced perfectly for easy carrying and that there are no empty spaces in your pack.

​When you are loading your pack, place the large items in as needed, but once those are safely secured, place smaller items in the resulting small spaces. This can include stuffing a lightweight bubble coat inside the nooks and crannies like this lady does in her bushwalking video or simply moving items like thermals into the recesses of the bag. If you are struggling and sweating during the packing job, you’re doing it right.

​Step #9: Cover Bag With a Lightweight Cover To Protect It From The Elements

​Rain and dust can do a number on your pack, so carry a lightweight cover to protect it during inclement weather. Bring a raincoat or slicker is a no-brainer during a hike, but you also don’t want your packed items to get damaged by a sudden deluge, so pack something to cover them up. These items are typically very cheap and easy to get and you’ll absolutely love how dry your items are as a result of using them.

​Did you enjoy this write up on how to pack a backpack for hiking ? Knowing how to pack a hiking backpack is something that you can learn through trial and error, but we designed this guide to help make it somewhat easier on you.

I’ve been hiking for years and I’ve learned a lot of these techniques as I’ve taken my trips, and I hope that you can use them to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made throughout my excursions. We’d love to hear what you think of our guide in the comments, so please feel free to post there. If you liked this article, please share it with your friends.​