A well-packed bag provides a structure that not only makes it easier to carry but also gives you faster access to what you’re looking for. A good packing system is indispensable; especially if you regularly pack and unpack your stuff along the way.
After more than five years of backpacking and travel experiences, I have learned a lot. And it doesn’t matter if you’re hiking for an hour or on a weeklong trekking expedition into the mountains—the principles of how to pack your bag and equipment well are always the same.
The most important point before starting to pack your bag is to pick the items and gear you really need. I find this is actually the most challenging part because it’s not easy to predict what you will need tomorrow or even one week down the road. This guide will give you a good basic understanding of packing principles and weight distribution, as well as recommendations for gear and equipment that have worked pretty well for me in the past.
Pack your backpack right with these 6 packing tips
Weight distribution for different outdoor hiking scenarios
The principles of how to pack your backpack right are pretty much always the same. In terms of gear and equipment weight distribution; however, there are three main scenarios. You can find the three main scenarios:
- Scenario 1 – easy hike (no vertical, flat surface)
- Scenario 2 – medium hike (medium incline, going uphill)
- Scenario 3 – tough hike (high incline, uphill plus you are using your hands occasionally)
Visualized in the three backpack distribution graphics below. The colour codes are indicating:
- Red indicates heavy outdoor gear & equipment
- Yellow stands for medium weight outdoor gear & equipment
- Green describes lightweight outdoor gear & equipment
- Blue is light-medium weight and easy access gear & equipment
1. Fill the bottom compartment with voluminous gear
Voluminous & easy access equipment (blue), like your sleeping bag and down jackets, belong in the bottom compartment. It’s important to fill it up as much as possible to build a good base for the rest of the equipment in your bag.
2. Heavy equipment close to your back
Heavy equipment (red) such as cookers, gas and burner, tent pegs, laptop, etc. is best placed close to your back. (Each of the 3 scenarios shows how the distribution of heavy equipment can vary slightly within your bag.) Place heavy equipment (red) in a tower arrangement as close to your back and the structural elements of your bag as possible. This optimizes the centre of gravity of your backpack and gives you better manoeuvrability.
Make sure that your backpack is as close to your back as possible. Even if your gear is perfectly balanced within your bag, a loose backpack will throw off weight distribution and cause strain to the back.
3. Stabilize the load with light equipment
If the heavy stuff (red) is stowed close to your back, you’ll pack the rest of the intermediate weight gear (yellow), like regular clothes, first aid kit, trekking equipment, lunch and so on, around it. This stabilizes weight distribution and does not distract from the main gravity point in your backpack and carrying system.
4. Easy access gear & equipment
Every item you will need often belongs in the easy access compartment (blue). These items include your pocketknife or multi-tool, sunscreen, camera, map, sunglasses, snacks, etc. When trekking, it is recommended to leave the side pockets empty. Avoid placing heavy water containers on the sides, and rather use a Hydration Pack. It helps to centre your gravity point and will keep you hydrated without you having to reach for your bottle. Another reason for leaving the side pockets empty is that it will increase your freedom of movement especially when you need to tilt to the side.
5. Less is more!
Plan your trip well; think about the equipment you really need and what you can pick up on your way. Don’t bring everything you “might” need. The art of backpacking is to anticipate what you might need in advance. Ultimately you can go on a world trip with just a handful items. It’s also important that your backpack offers enough space for the equipment carried plus 10-25% additional space. Don’t overfill your backpack so that it’s bursting at the seams. Aim for having the right amount of gear in the right type of backpack.
Maximum backpack weight rule of thumb = 25% of body weight
If the backpack is too small, it’s difficult to pack; if it’s too big, the load can barely be distributed comfortably. You should avoid attaching things to the outside of your carrying bag since they can be stolen easily. Exception: An isomat and a sleeping bag during trekking.
6. Use luggage travel organizer containers to pack your backpack efficiency
In order to start out (and most importantly remain) organized during your trip, use packing bags. They will allow you to organize your equipment in groupings in designated bags. For example box 1 for food and cutlery, box 2 for tent and camping gear, box 3 for tools, etc. If you have ever been to a hostel, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When you see people going through their entire bags because they cant find a headlamp, you know there is a better way!
You will always know where something is, and your backpack has order. I would also recommend using a backpack rain cover, to protect your backpack contents and belongings from getting wet. They are very cheap, and you won’t regret having one if it starts pouring while you’re out in the wilderness.
These are my personal top 6 tips on how to pack your backpack quickly, easily and efficiently. I also put a little list together with items that I would recommend bringing on your next outdoor trekking or hiking adventure.
22 Pieces of must-have equipment for your next outdoor trip
After reading my 6 tips on how to pack your backpack, I think you might find this essential equipment list interesting as well. I’ve put together two lists below for gear that I would recommend bringing along with you on a short trip or a longer 2+ day outdoor tour. (I also linked some gear to my favourite recommended items that you can find on Amazon.)
For the one-day tour in the wild:
- Functional t-shirt to keep fresh (depending on the weather)
- Waterproof jacket and windproof jacket
- Sunscreen (at least SPF 30) and lip balm
- Sunglasses (no need to go Ray Ban, you shouldn’t be worried about breaking or losing)
- Hydration Pack or just a drinking pack
- First aid kit
- ID, cash, debit card (in waterproof dry pack)
- Headlamp (don’t be cheap here)
- Cell phone with emergency numbers written down on waterproof paper
- Nuts, dried fruit or cereal bars
- Waterproof Maps / Compass / GPS (not cheap, great backup map & for emergency)
- Hat / Cap
- Thin gloves (in colder weather)
Additionally for the multi-day outback tour:
- 1-2 pieces thermal underwear
- Functional socks (they’re not cheap, but merino socks are the best)
- Magnesium tablets (good for your muscles, bring only as much as you need)
- Sleeping bag (mild – warm)
- Toothbrush & toothpaste
- Travel microfiber towel
- Soap (Campsuds works for you and your dishes, it’s also environment-friendly)
- Hydration Pack
- Backpack rain cover
Aside from the right backpack packing technique and useful equipment, another key aspect of trekking and backpacking is your state of mind. Make sure you prepare accordingly and know what is ahead of you!
Also, check out our survival section for more useful outdoor and wilderness survival tips.
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Your outback gear and review team