How to Pack a Backpack

How to Pack a Backpack

Unless you enjoy the thought of early onset old man disease (identified by its most common symptom: Doc, I wasn’t even doing anything, I just stood up from my chair and my back was KILLING me), it’s best to learn how to pack a backpack correctly. For those of you who may already tread in the land of aches and pains, this is an even more invaluable guide. Lucky for you (and the rest of us), backpacking is an activity that can be enjoyed in all stages of life. Carry your gear correctly and you’ll be adventuring for years to come.

Besides longevity, packing a backpack correctly will significantly add to your enjoyment of your trip. Tired legs and a bit of cardio? Good. Painful shoulders and a spasming back? Bad. So – let’s take a deep dive in how best to load up your adventure luggage.

Types of Packs

Before we get into the specifics of fitting, it’s helpful to have a general overview of the different types of packs on the market.

Frameless Packs. Once only the domain of daypacks, frameless packs are becoming more and more prevalent in the backpacking scene. Frameless packs lack any sort of rigid structure that creates the shape many people recognize as a “backpacking” backpack. Most of the truly ultralight packs on the market are now frameless and are built with nothing more than lightweight technical fabrics. Pros: they are super light. Cons: they aren’t as comfortable when carrying a very heavy load.

Internal Frame Packs. These are the types of packs most folks imagine when they think of backpacking. This classic design uses a rigid system of plastic tubing sewn into the pack to create it’s “backpack shape.” Found in every outdoor retailer, this style of pack still dominates the market.

External Frame Packs. Like their name, these packs have an external frame that attaches to the body of the backpack. While not nearly as popular as internal frame packs, external packs still have their place. They can carry very heavy loads and their exposed frames can be used to attach additional gear, making them a popular choice in the hunting world.

Regardless of which pack you own, the basic packing principles will remain the same. So – let’s get that backpack packed correctly!

Step 1: Weight distribution and Packing

Take a look at your upright pack and mentally divide it into three equal sections: Bottom, Middle, and Top.

The bottom section should hold something that is relatively light, and takes up a lot of room. This will open up the pack and give you the maximum volume for packing other items. For most people, the best thing to pack in the bottom is the sleeping bag. After inserting your sleeping bag, pack any light, soft items (like a puffy jacket or extra socks) around the edges to open up the pack as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to really cram things in there!

The middle of the pack holds a majority of the weight. A key part of packing the middle is to put the heaviest things as close to your back as possible. You want the center of gravity of the pack to hug your body closely. Placing too much weight on the outer side of the pack will make you feel like a weight is pulling you backwards while you walk. In this section of the pack, I’m focused on two things: food and camp gear (your heaviest items). Put your food in one larger container or bag and then pack all the camp gear around it. Loose items like stoves, water treatment, and fuel can then be packed in around the food bag. If you want to keep your tent on the inside, sliding it right along the inside spine of the pack (closest to your back) is a good choice.

The top of the pack should transition back to lighter items. Here, I’ll store any clothes that weren’t packed near the bottom around my sleeping bag. I find that clothes are best stored in a waterproof stuff sack. At the very top, I’ll put items that I want to be able to access quickly, like a first aid kit and rain jacket.

We’re still missing one critical part of the pack – the outside. Personally, I like to slide my tent into one of the water bottle pouches on the side of the pack. This will probably only work with a slim tent design. Other options include hooking it under the brain of the pack or strapping it to the bottom of the pack.

Step 2: Fit

I purposely put “fit” all the way down in step 3. Trying to fit a backpack that isn’t loaded with actual backpacking gear is pretty useless. Using a sandbag or a heavy bunch of objects can give you enough confidence to at least get your backpack size right when shopping in a store. But when it comes to adjustments and getting a good fit, you’ll need to fully load your pack with real gear.

Start by identifying all your straps:

Hip belt (the big strap that goes around your hips).

Shoulder straps (the “main” straps that go over your shoulder. The strap portion for adjustment is located closer to your hips).

Load adjusters (the small straps on the top of your shoulder straps. Most, but not all, backpacks have these).

Chest strap (connects across your chest).

Now, loosen all of them completely! It’s time to get your pack fitted to your body. Having a partner lift your pack as your get things dialed in can be helpful.

  1. Start by tightening your hip belt. It should wrap on top of your hip bones. Adjust this belt so it’s very tight.

  2. Next, put your shoulder straps on and tighten those down. The tops of the straps should be completely flush with your shoulders. There should not be any gap between your shoulder and the strap.

  3. Slightly tighten your load adjusters. These are the straps on top of your shoulder straps. This will pull the top of your backpack closer to your body so you feel less weight pulling you backward.

  4. Finally, clip your chest strap together. Tighten only until there is a bit of tension. You do not need to crank this tight!

Tips n Tricks

  • Ditch the brain. Many internal packs have a top section called a “brain.” At first, a brain appears very useful for headlamps, rain jackets, and the like. But the reality is that the brain is really just a tempting place to add more stuff. Take it from someone who ditched their brain long ago – you don’t need more space in that pack.

  • Wrap sleeping bag in trash bag if you’re worried about water. The bottom of the pack is often susceptible to water. If it’s gonna rain hard or you’re doing a few river crossings, a trash bag isn’t a bad idea.

  • The best way to store water is in a bladder in your pack. It will slide right behind your back, putting the most weight right where it should be in your pack.

  • To test the fit of your pack: Undo your chest strap. Then get ready to loosen the shoulder straps. Pull the plastic connector on the shoulder straps to rapidly loosen the system. If your backpack fits correctly, the pack should stay around your hips and the top of the pack should fall away from your body.

Once out on trail, don’t be afraid to keep making small adjustments. It will take a while to break everything in, but once you’ve got a well-adjusted pack, you’ll be happy you spent time dialing it in.

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