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How-to || Pack a backpack: Load distribution, organization, waterproofing, & canisters

When packing my backpack, I have two primary goals:

  • Minimize its effect on my center of gravity, and
  • Keep oft-needed items easily accessible so that I can hike uninterrupted.

I’ll start by discussing these goals in-depth. Then, I will address special considerations like bear canisters and backpack styles.

Center of gravity

When not wearing a backpack, a human’s center of gravity is just below their sternum, plus/minus depending on gender and body type.

To offset a loaded backpack, which pulls backwards the center of gravity, the user must lean forward. A heavy pack typically requires an aggressive lean; with a lightweight pack, the lean is more subtle, all things being equal.

There are three ways to minimize the effect on the center of gravity:

First, place the heaviest and most dense items (e.g. food bag, fuel bottle) against the back panel. Lightweight and low-density items (e.g. puffy jacket, sleeping pad) should be used to fill the “front” of the pack, or maybe the external shove-it/shovel pocket.

Second, keep the heaviest items in the center of your back. If they are kept too low — say, at the very bottom of the pack, near the hips — you cannot lean forward enough to restore your center of gravity. If they are kept too high, you become top-heavy, which is a liability on more technical terrain. Personally, I put my sleeping bag at the bottom, then stack heavier items from there.

Third, keep the weight centered on, or counterbalanced over, the spine. For example, rather than carry an 80-oz Platypus SoftBottle in a side pocket, store it inside the main compartment, or divide the weight evenly between water bottles on each side.

Organization and efficiency

In the bottom of the main compartment, store items that are not needed until camp or until later in the trip, like:

  • Sleeping bag and pad, shelter, and stove; and,
  • Food for tomorrow and days after.

In the top of the main compartment, keep items you may need during the day that do not fit (or that you do not want) in exterior pockets. For example:

  • Rain gear, fleece top, puffy jacket;
  • Topographic maps and guidebook sections for later in the day or later in the trip;
  • Today’s food, which I usually insulate with clothing to prevent it from melting; and,
  • First aid, foot care, and repair kits, plus satellite messenger.

Finally, in exterior pockets I keep items that I want easy access to, like:

  • Primary water bottle
  • Topographic map(s) for today, and my compass;
  • Bear spray;
  • Sunscreen, lip balm, headnet, and insect repellent;
  • “Bio break” kit; and,
  • Camera.

Beware that items in exterior pockets will fall out, especially if you are bushwhacking. Hence, I prefer zippered hipbelt pockets; I always carry two water bottles, even if I really only need one; and I only keep outside the maps that I am using now, not later in the day or later in the trip.

You might want to stop reading and simply watch this video:

Special considerations and finer details

Fresh pack

Every night, all of the items in my pack get pulled out, except for what’s in my hipbelt pockets. This allows me to re-pack each morning, which gets better results and which is probably faster than trying to work with a backpack that is already half-packed.

Also, I can sleep on my empty backpack, for additional insulation and cushion.

Waterproofing

Few backpacks are waterproof. They may be made of waterproof fabric, but the seams are not sealed; zippers may allow water through, too.

To waterproof my belongings, I use 20-gallon Brute Super Tuff Trash Compactor Bags. They are cheap, tough, effective, and easy to replace. In semi-arid environments, I use just one. In wet locations, two are useful: in one I keep the items I will never need access to during the day; the other bag is occasionally opened.

To waterproof my gear, I line my pack with a 20-gallon trash compactor bag. A wet shelter or raingear can be stored outside the pack liner but still inside the main compartment.

To waterproof my gear, I line my pack with a 20-gallon trash compactor bag. A wet shelter or raingear can be stored outside the pack liner but still inside the main compartment.

Wet stuff

If my shelter or raingear is wet, I keep it inside my main compartment but outside the pack liner. My dry gear will stay dry, but everything is still securely inside the main compartment

Stuff sacks

Be wary of over-organizing your items. More specifically, everything does not need its own stuff sack. This hinders accessibility; and it’s more difficult to pack fixed shapes than amorphous ones.

I carry five stuff sacks: for my sleeping bag, air pad, stove, stakes, and two bags for small essentials (e.g. toiletries, first aid, headlamp).

Bags for my shelter (e.g. tarp and bivy, tarp and hammock, tent fly and inner tent) are unnecessary. But bags do help keep these items more contained and protected, and they prevent guyline entanglement.

Backpack style

The optimal way to pack a backpack varies with the pack’s loading style and features. For example, if your backpack lacks exterior pockets, then everything must go inside the main compartment. If your backpack has a roll-top closure, you’ll want to make full use of exterior pockets because opening and closing the main compartment is an annoying process. And if your backpack has a shoulder strap for a 20-ounce water bottle, that frees up a side pocket for something else.

Oversized baggage

If possible I avoid strapping things to the outside, where items are at risk of being snagged, damaged, and dropped. But there is little choice with oversized items like skis, packrafts, ice axes and full-length closed cell foam pads.

With a full-length closed cell foam pad in Alaska's Arctic

With a full-length closed cell foam pad in Alaska’s Arctic

Environment

Depending on the temperatures, precip, and wind — or the threat of it — it’s worth reshuffling items. For example, if I think it may be raining when I pull into camp, I may keep my shelter higher in my bag (instead of near the bottom) or even in an outside pocket, so that I can quickly get to it when I arrive in camp. If temperatures are brisk, I may keep my glove liners and Buff within reach, rather than buried inside. And if I’m experiencing on-again-off-again rain showers, I may strap my rain gear to the outside.

Bear canister

Hard-sided bear canisters are difficult to pack. Ideally, it can fit horizontally inside, without compromising the functionality of exterior pockets. If not, keep it vertical. Either way, you’ll need soft items that can be stored around the canister, in order to fill the gaps left by its awkward cylindrical shape.

As you eat through your food, start filling the void inside the canister with smell-able gear, like your stove and coffee mug.

16 Responses to How-to || Pack a backpack: Load distribution, organization, waterproofing, & canisters

  1. Robin September 20, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Regarding center of gravity and weight distrubution: I remember my father, who to this day uses external frame backs, teaching me not to put the heaviest items in the bottom of the pack. I think the idea there was that in addition to the heavy things being against the back panel if possible, the weight should be centered behind your shoulder blades rather than closer to your lower back or hips.

    Does this make any sense to you? I wonder if it might have been more inportant with external frame packs. I tend to place my bear cannister towards the top of my pack mainly due to this advice, but I noticed you put your food lower in the bag.

    • Brian September 20, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

      The higher the pack’s center of gravity, the less you have to lean forward to counter the pack’s weight. If it’s too high, stability becomes an issue.

    • Andrew Skurka September 20, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

      The higher the weight, the more top-heavy it is.

      The lower the weight, the less able you are to offset its pull on your center of gravity. It’s especially problematic if the weight is below your hips, because you can’t restore your center of gravity no matter how far forward you lean.

      The sleeping bag is ideal for the bottom of the pack. If your pack rides on your butt, which many frameless packs do, it’s relatively soft. And it provides a base on which to stack heavier items, which by that point are high enough above your hips.

  2. Jerry DeCapua September 20, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Robin, your dad was a smart and evolved backpacker. In my internal frame pack: Sleeping bag on the very bottom followed by clothes, shelter, and bear can (sideways). Little stuff goes in the lid pouch. Shelter poles packed separately inside the pack. Stove and other bits wherever.

    Can’t tell you how many people I see tying a tent to the bottom of the pack. None of them smile.

  3. Joe September 21, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    I’m doing most of this, but I still have a compression stuff sack for clothing. How are you packing your other clothing? Loose and wrapped around the bear canister?

    • Andrew Skurka September 21, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      Yes, loosely packed, filling gaps.

  4. Bob S. September 21, 2016 at 5:20 pm #

    Using trash compactor bags as waterproof linings, what a brilliant idea! I never thought of that one but I did find the illusive 1002nd use for a vacuum sealer.

    Do you have a trash compactor too? Whenever I go on a trip I usually ship some of my clothes and gear ahead so I don’t have to drag it around airports. I was wondering if it’s possible to use a trash compactor to compress two suitcases full of stuff into a single carry-on bag?

    • Shawn K. September 28, 2016 at 9:14 pm #

      Bob S. – Depending on the contents, it may be possible to compress a great deal of clothing for travel, but you have to plan ahead – how will you re-compress it all quickly if it’s inspected at the airport, or after you’ve used it at your destination? I’m not sure a trash compactor bag would work well in that role, but I do know that compression stuff sacks are perfect for normal travel use. I was able to carry all of my street clothes, as well as backcountry clothing & gear for a week in Maui in a single 32L pack by using a few Sea to Summit eVent compression dry sacks. I’m sure other compression bags work work just as well.

  5. Billy Olsen September 23, 2016 at 8:05 am #

    Andrew,

    You are a teacher. I suspect you think that you’re blogging about backpacking. But for me these videos and blog posts are making it possible to go back into the wilds at age 60. We’re talking about heath and a purpose in life and enjoying the moment. Your blog is about all that for me. Thank you for helping me change my life.

    • Andrew Skurka September 23, 2016 at 7:34 pm #

      Thank you. I’ll try to keep it up.

      • Shawn K. September 28, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

        Billy’s right. Good job, again.

        After seeing how far BPL has fallen, it’s encouraging to see you doing so much fine work.

  6. Rene September 28, 2016 at 10:16 am #

    Hi Andrew. I just ordered the Super Tuff trash compactor bags from your amazon link. They come with a ‘clean fresh scent’ odour control protect, do you have any concerns about the smell attracting mini bears? Thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka September 28, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

      Thanks for using the link.

      You can reduce the odor by letting a few “air out” for days or weeks prior to use. I’m not certain whether mini bears have a good sense of smell or not. Either way, they won’t chew on something that doesn’t have calories. Real bears are another issue. Their sense of smell is remarkable, and I’m certain they know the difference between Twix bars and “clean fresh scent.”

  7. Aidan Harding September 30, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    Thanks for an interesting read. One question: why trash bags for waterproofing instead of roll-top dry bags?

    Maybe because they get holes from wear + tear and trash bags are cheap?

    • Andrew Skurka September 30, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

      Trash compactor bags are very waterproof, at least from rain. Waterproofness, as measured in a hydrostatic head test, is probably just as a good as an ultralight dry sack that has seen moderate use. Those UL fabrics quickly lose waterproofness due to abrasion, and they are subjected to extensive abrasion while packing the pack and while hiking (things bounce slightly inside).

      Also, trash compactor bags are WAY less expensive.

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