Packing for a holiday is usually a case of squeezing everything into a bag until it closes. If you’re really lucky, it might even still be under the weight allowance for your airplane or fit in the overhead locker. But what if your idea of a holiday involves walking for hours at a time and pitching a tent under the stars?
The good news is that the rough ideas are the same; you still need to fit everything in your bag and it still needs to be a reasonable weight — after all, you’re going to be carrying it on your back. But there’s a little more to it than that. There’s an order to pack your bag and experienced backpackers have a method that looks seamless. This guide will not only help you learn how to pack an overnight backpack more efficiently, but save you hassle in camp, too.
Before you can load anything into your hiking backpack, you need to be sure it’s suitable and fits you correctly. Most weekend hikers can get away with a pack that’s around 40 to 50 liters, while those on longer treks and thru-hikes may want a 50 to 70-liter backpack. Remember that whatever’s in your bag will have to go on your back, so if you don’t think you can carry a 70-liter bag, aim for something smaller.
Decide whether you prefer a backpack with external pockets or a one-pocket design — this is a personal preference. Some hikers like the addition of side pockets for keeping items accessible and for sectioning off different gear. However, your backpack’s liters are shared among all the pockets, so a one-compartment design is likely to have a larger main section.
There are items you simply can’t go trekking without. These include your sleeping system — a camping tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, as well as food and usually a stove. Then you need spare clothing, a waterproof jacket and pants, and space for a water bottle and purification system. It’s worthwhile writing yourself a backpacking checklist for the first few hikes and adjusting it to suit you.
Then there are luxury items. These might be your current book, some luxury food, or perhaps a lightweight camping chair. Sure, it’s great to have these items, but you can pack them around or after the essentials. This might mean you pack your bag, then unload certain items to fit in some more luxuries, all while keeping the balance comfortable.
You’re going to be carrying your pack for up to ten hours every day, potentially for up to two weeks. If it isn’t comfortable, you’ll soon know about it. If your bag is too heavy, you’ll quickly feel the strain through your shoulders and your hips, which can be agonizing. Also, if your bag is overloaded on one side, or the weight is too far back, your bag will pull you awkwardly and strain your back.
Try to pack heavier items closer to your back and lower down in your bag to keep your center of gravity in the right place and reduce undue strain. This can be hard if you use a backpack with a low-profile back system. If there isn’t a lot of padding against your back, you might find you can feel every lump or sharp edge in your bag. This might not seem like an issue at first, but before long it will start to grind on you.
It’s important to think about your mental comfort when packing, too. Sure, that mug hanging off the back of your bag might not be irritating at first, but after hours of it bouncing up and down and making a noise, it will be all you can focus on. Anything that bounces, makes a sound, hits your legs, or rubs in any way, can be exacerbated by hours on the trail and you’re best sorting these issues as soon as possible.
If the clouds break and it starts to rain, you don’t want to have to unpack your whole bag just to reach your waterproof jacket and pants. Packing according to when you will need certain items stops you from having all of your equipment strewn around you when you reach camp, too.
The last thing you will need when you reach camp is your sleeping bag, so this should go in first followed by your inflatable sleeping pad — foam pads usually have to be attached to the outside of your pack. Along with this, spare clothing and any other camp items — wash gear or a stove for example — can be in the bottom of your bag. On top of this, you will want your tent. This means you can get your tent up before offloading your sleeping bag, so you can keep the essential gear dry. All of this gear so far should fill your bag roughly up to your shoulder blades. Anything above your shoulder blades affects your center of gravity negatively and you should try to keep this space for lightweight items.
As your tent is going to be the first item out of your pack when you reach camp, you should only pack the items you will need on the trail above it. These include lunch, snacks, first aid equipment, a headlamp, water, a spare jacket or fleece, and waterproofs. It’s worth keeping your waterproofs right at the top of your bag in case of an unexpected shower. Items like headlamps, water bottles, and snacks are often best stowed in external pockets or the top pocket of your bag.
Compressing your gear isn’t going to make it any lighter, but it is going to save you loads of space. Smaller packs sit closer to your back and don’t pull you around in the same way. Also, the mental strain of lifting a 70-liter bag, even if it’s the same weight as your 50-liter bag, will make it feel 20 pounds heavier each time. Everyone is jealous of the well-packed 50-liter backpack, and with compression sacks, you can be the envy of the trail.
Compression sacks don’t come cheap though and most people find that the best middle ground is to use small dry bags. So long as your dry bags are watertight and airtight, you can load them up, squeeze the air out, and you’ll have your own DIY compression sacks. This has the extra effect of waterproofing all your gear. Let’s face it, anyone who has used a backpack cover knows how frustrating they can be.
Don’t just use a single dry bag for all your gear though. If you ask any of the experienced trekkers you meet along the way how they pack their gear, you’ll find most of them pack compartmentally. This means packing gear into multiple smaller dry bags and then fitting them into your pack like a game of Tetris. You get bonus points here if you use sacks of different colors. That way, when you reach camp you can easily tell which dry bag your tent is in, so you don’t parade your spare underwear around accidentally.
We can’t stress how important this is. It’s really easy to pack your trekking bag while you’re sitting at home, excited to hit the trail and deciding whether to pack two or three extra chocolate bars for each day. But once you’re four days deep and soaked to the bone, your patience for packing will begin to wear thin. In these situations, dig deep inside you and make sure you pack your bag as you did on day one — unless you got things drastically wrong of course.
That way, you’ll always have your items exactly where you expect them to be. There’s nothing worse than getting into camp late to find that in your morning rush, you buried your headlamp at the bottom of your pack. Take your time to pack, and repack if your bag sits wrong. A well-packed bag will barely notice on the trail, while a badly-packed bag will exhaust you physically and emotionally.
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