How to Pack a Backpack

For years, we taught beginning backpack students to carry no more than 25% of their body weight in their backpack, but this generalization no longer holds true. For a small inexperienced backpacker, even 25% of their weight may be too much for them to carry. For a large, experienced, strong backpacker, 25% may be hardly enough weight for them to notice (an experienced backpacker will be more confident and comfortable carrying a heavier pack than a beginner).

For a group or family, the best solution is to distribute the weight among each person based on their strength and ability level. If you all feel loaded down and can’t pack anything else, and there’s still some unpacked clothes or gear lying around, it’s time to reconsider how much you’re trying to carry. It’s important to have the equipment you need when you reach your campsite, but you do not want to lose a camper due to exhaustion or injury along the trail because they are carrying too much weight.

packing backpacks How to Pack a Backpack

In general, men seem to prefer keeping the weight in their backpacks high and close to the body to help maintain a good sense of balance. Women’s center of balance is lower, near the hips, so they may prefer to pack their heavy gear lower in the pack.

There are also a few differences between the way you load an internal versus external frame pack. One similarity between internal and external packs is in the way sleeping bags are carriedˇŞ both types of packs are designed to carry them at the bottom. Most external frames carry the sleeping bag strapped onto the frame on the outside of the pack itself. This means you need a sturdy waterproof stuff sack to store the bag in to protect it from rain, sharp branches along the trail, etc. Internal frame backpacks also carry the sleeping bag at the very bottom of the back, but typically they have room inside for the sleeping bag, in a separate compartment located at the bottom.

The next “level,” as you move up the pack, is the area near your lower torso. Many people prefer to use; this level for heavier and denser equipment, such as cookpots, food, stoves, etc., and also for equipment that is not used frequently throughout the day. This is because this gear will be covered with other equipment, clothing, etc., and therefore is more difficult to reach. Keep things like water, snacks, first aid kit, warm jacket and raingearˇŞthe items you might need in a hurryˇŞpacked closer to the top of the pack.

Most people strap their lightweight sleeping pad at the very top of the pack, either by securing it under the flap that covers the top opening or via attachment points and straps on the top pocket. In many packs, the top flap or pocket also contains small storage compartments for maps, compasses, sunglasses, and other small, lightweight items that are nice to have handy. These pockets can also be reached by one of your hiking buddies. On brief water or snack breaks, when there’s not enough time to stop and take off backpacks, it’s not unusual for people to reach into each other’s packs and find water bottles, snack bars, etc. that are loaded in these top pockets.


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