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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.