How to Pack For Backpacking: Tips for Handling the Gear Explosion

Before our Arizona Trail thru hike, my husband got a new pack. Downsizing from a heavy, traditional-style pack to a minimalist, lightweight ULA Circuit was a great idea and cut his pack weight by 4 pounds! But there turned out to be one major drawback.

For the first few days of our seven week hike, the thing he needed was always at the bottom of his pack. Our campsites looked like an REI garage sale after a tornado, and we bickered about how long it took to pack up every morning. It was like he’d completely forgotten how to pack for backpacking.

Is my point here just to complain about my hiking partner? No! He is an engineer and a habitual optimizer. When we hiked the Colorado Trail he had his packing routine down to a science. But switching to a new pack, especially a more minimalist one with fewer compartments, required him to learn how to pack for backpacking all over again.

Watching this process reminded me that there are some important tricks to packing a backpack, tricks that are now second nature but had to be learned over many years and miles. As he applied these tricks and regained control over his gear situation, I was inspired to write them down to help other backpackers.

If you’re just getting into backpacking, or have experience but still struggle to stay organized on the trail, these tips should help streamline your packing routine so you can spend less time wrestling with gear and more time enjoying beautiful wild places.

Related: Tips for Lightening Your Pack

ULA Circuit backpack with lots of extra things strapped to outside
Read on to learn how you can pack better than this! In my defense though, it was a good way to thaw the burritos.

Ditch the Stuff Sacks

The first key to packing your backpack efficiently is to remove soft gear, like sleeping bags and clothing, from stuff sacks and just stuff it directly in your pack.

I know, you’re thinking “but stuff sacks make things more compact!” And they do, but only individually. Together inside your pack, they often don’t fit together efficiently, so the extra space between them is wasted.

Instead of using stuff sacks, try smushing your soft gear into every nook and cranny you can find. Your sleeping bag goes in the bottom, and then your puffy jacket and other warm layers can slip in around the sides and fill the spaces between more rigid items.

Of course, some small items are too hard to keep track of when packed this way. I do use a small stuff sack for underwear, socks, and gloves so I don’t lose them.

Even if you stuff without stuff sacks, there’s still an art to it. If you want to really make the most of all the space, you need to…

Stuff Precisely

The brute force approach of piling everything in and imitating a trash compactor often doesn’t work very well. Instead, finesse your packing by stuffing each item precisely where you want it to go before adding the next one.

When packing your sleeping bag, stuff it a little bit at a time, all the way down to the bottom and down the sides of the pack instead of shoving the whole thing in at once from the top. When packing clothes, stuff each item individually wherever you feel a bit of extra space.

It’s easy to pay attention to the middle of the pack and forget the sides, but I find a lot of extra space along the sides and front of my pack. If I can slip my hand between whatever’s already packed and the side of the pack, I can often make an extra item disappear down there without adding to the vertical height.

If you have a lightweight pack without much structure, this strategy results in a pack that’s stable and svelte instead of lumpy and lopsided.

With a bit of practice, we learned to go from this mess to fully packed in just a few minutes.

Distribute Weight Carefully

Not all pack weight is equivalent in terms of the effort needed to carry it. Have you ever wondered why you can drink a liter of water and not notice the increased weight in your body, but carrying an extra liter in your backpack is noticeably heavier?

It’s (partly) because weight carried closer to our center of gravity is easier to manage, while weight that’s far from our center will feel awkward and have an exaggerated effect on our walking mechanics.

Your center of gravity is roughly inside your abdomen, and the goal is to carry heavy things as close to it as possible. In practice this means low (toward the bottom of your pack) and forward (closer to your back).

The heaviest things in your pack are probably water and food. Carry water close to your back in a hydration bladder, or in bottles in the side pockets of your pack (or maybe even in pockets on the front of your shoulder straps). A food bag is best packed low in your pack and close to your back, perhaps on top of your sleeping bag with clothing stuffed around the edges.

One of the worst places for heavy items is the very top of your pack, where too much weight can cause a tippy feeling and make it harder to balance. Another is the far back of your pack, furthest from your body. Weight here pulls more heavily on the front of your shoulders and taxes your core muscles.

Lighter items like extra clothing won’t have as much impact on weight distribution, so put them where they fit best and are most convenient. They could go closer to the top of your pack or be stuffed into pockets on the back.

It’s also good to balance weight left-to-right so that your gait is symmetric and you can balance easily.

The rear of my pack is a great place for this light foam pad, but carrying heavy things back here will feel less comfortable.

Layer by Time of Day

In trail life there are few things more frustrating than arriving at a water source and realizing you packed your water filter at the very bottom of your pack. You’ll be cursing under your breath as you pull out everything – sleeping bag, long underwear, toiletries – just to reach that one little item you forgot to leave accessible.

This can’t always be a perfect system, but try to layer your pack based on when you’ll need each item. Sleeping bags and tents, which you’ll only need at camp, should go in first. A food bag, once you’ve taken out the day’s lunch and snacks, is a good next layer, along with your stove if you don’t cook your lunch.

Items you’ll probably need during the day – water filter, jacket, toilet paper, etc – are usually lighter and smaller and go perfectly around the sides and on the top of your pack.

Small items you’ll need often, like chapstick and snacks, go well in exterior pockets like hipbelt and side pockets.

Finally, items that might be needed based on the weather – rain gear, gloves, sun hat – can be kept together in an exterior pocket that’s somewhat accessible but not linked to any particular part of your daily routine.

Try to put items you’ll only need at camp at the very bottom of your pack.

Group By Use

When packing for backpacking, resist the urge to always pack like with like. Instead, pack things together that you will use together.

For example, I pack my Carmex lip balm not with my toiletries, but with my power bank and charging cable. Why? Because my normal trail routine is to use both during the night, after I get into my sleeping bag.

Another example is rain gear. I have waterproof mittens, but I don’t pack them with my gloves. Instead, I pack them with my rain jacket, rain pants, and pack cover, because those are all the things I’ll be reaching for when the first drops start falling. And I pack them easily accessible, not at the bottom of my pack where I would have to dig for them (learned that lesson the hard way!).

Organize With Colors

Since buying myself a set of these colorful mesh bags, I’ve discovered that bright colors help me deal with the anxiety of “where’s my stuff and what am I forgetting?”

I know my toiletries are in the pink bag, water filter in the green, and evening odd and ends in the orange. This allows me to do a quick visual check every time I’m packing or unpacking. As long as I see pink, green, and orange I know those categories are all taken care of.

They’re even pretty easy to see in low light, like when setting up camp by headlamp. And who doesn’t appreciate some fun colors after a few days on the trail?

Bright colored mesh bags help me quickly see where all my stuff is.

Deal With Repacking

No matter how hard you try, sooner or later (probably sooner) you’ll pack something important at the very bottom of your pack. Oh, the horror! Sometimes unpacking and repacking can seem insurmountable, especially if you’re overdue for a snack…

It always seems harder than it is. In about 10 seconds I can have my stuff unpacked and strewn all over the ground. Less than a minute later it’s back in and ready to go. Sometimes it helps to just embrace the gear explosion.

How I Pack My Backpack

Hopefully these tips are helpful, but they still don’t dictate a single right way to pack for backpacking. This is because different people have different routines and preferences.

For example, some people cook lunch while others only use a stove at camp. Some people use rain pants for warmth while others rarely need to. You might use your Kindle to read by a stream in the afternoon while I only use mine in my sleeping bag at camp.

But, we all like concrete examples! So to wrap up this article, here’s how I generally pack my backpack. I’m using a 68 liter ULA Circuit, a lightweight backpack with a single large interior compartment and multiple outside pockets and pouches.

Bottom: sleeping quilt in loose plastic trash bag for extra waterproofing, stuffed directly into pack with no stuff sack

Middle: food bag and stove as close to my back as possible, tarp or other shelter, sleeping pad, toiletries, first aid kit, warm layers I probably won’t need until camp stuffed into all the nooks and crannies

Top: water filter, rain gear and layers I might need during the day

Outside hip pockets: sunscreen, chapstick, hand sanitizer, phone

Outside back mesh pocket: weather-related small items like gloves, sun hat, sun sleeves, midlayer, pack cover, etc. Also a half-filled collapsible water bottle that I use for bathroom breaks.

Outside back shock cord: ground cloth, foam sleeping pad, wet clothes that need to dry, jacket I want handy in fast-changing weather

Water goes in hydration bladder sleeve inside pack, and occasionally extra in bottle in a side pocket

Of course there are many other ways to do it! My own system varies based on weather, daily mileage, and other factors that change from hike to hike. Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn what works best for you.

Pretty soon you’ll have your own system down to a science. Then you’ll be free to fully enjoy the simplicity of carrying everything you need on your back in a beautiful wild place. And also being able to find your spare underwear.

More Backpacking Resources

If you’re fine-tuning your packing routine, you might also find these helpful:

For even more, visit the full list of Exploring Wild’s backpacking resources.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more or say hi.

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Pictures of backpacking gear and campsite
Pictures of backpacking gear and campsite

2 thoughts on “How to Pack For Backpacking: Tips for Handling the Gear Explosion”

  1. Alissa. I read where you use a pack cover. Other backpackers with gear lists and ‘how too’s’ don’t. Not sure if they feel it’s redundant since they have a pack liner or the rain gets between your back and the pack anyway and eventually. Curious what your reasons are since you streamline and organize your trips pretty efficiently. Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi John, I agree it’s not always an essential. I’ve tried using a kitchen trash bag as a liner, and also as an ultralight pack cover, and it can work. But after dealing with torn bags and wet stuff on a couple trips I started carrying a real pack cover from ULA (weighs 2.6 ounces). My current feeling is that for any trip where frequent and/or heavy rain is expected (Colorado Trail for example), and especially for long trips where gear gets a lot of wear and tear, the convenience of a pack cover is more than worth the weight. Another big factor for me: my ULA Circuit pack has a lot of external pockets where I keep small things (gloves, hat, maps, etc) and with a pack cover I don’t need to worry about keeping that stuff dry in other ways.

      Reply

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