Skip to main content

Pack your multiday backpack for comfort with our guide

How to pack your overnight backpack for pain-free camping

One green backpack on a brown wooden log in the woods.
Ali Kazal/Unsplash

One of the most frustrating things I see all the time on the trail is badly packed backpacks. You pass a group of otherwise capable-looking hikers, only to see that their packs are bent out of shape, their gear is hanging out everywhere, and they’re being pulled all over the place by their poor weight distribution. You want to stop and help them, but is your unsolicited advice welcome, or will you sound like a hiking snob? Perhaps it’s in the delivery, but surely they can’t be comfortable.

Packing a backpack is an art form. Once you have your packing down, it becomes therapeutic to piece your puzzle together in a way that fits perfectly and comfortably and means that the hiking backpack you bought with the expensive back system actually works like the label promised. This might sound like too much excitement just for packing, but trust me, once you learn how to pack a backpack properly, it becomes second nature and allows you to hit the trail so much more comfortably. So, how do you do it?

A man with a red backpack stands on a mountaintop looking over more mountains.
Lucas Clara/Unsplash

Essentials vs. luxuries

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 worth 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.

Backpacker in the summer
Roman Vertyachikh/Shutterstock

Pack with a purpose – but keep those essentials close at hand

You’re going to be hauling your hiking backpack for up to 10 hours every day, potentially for up to two weeks. If it’s not packed comfortably, or you’ve got the weight all wrong, you’re going to know about it, and it’s going to cause you issues. You should prioritize comfort when packing, but also remember that this is your camping backpack; you’re going to need different items at different times. This means you need to balance the need for certain items closer to the top of your pack against having to have the weight in the right places. I recommend you prioritize weight distribution, and I’ll explain why.

A bag with poor weight distribution, no matter how convenient, is going to cause you injury and aggravation on your hike. Whether it’s pulling away from your back because the weight is too far back or pulling to one side, it’s going to hurt. It might seem logical to put all of your heaviest items in first and then load up with lighter items, but there’s a better way. By keeping all the heaviest gear in your bag close to your back, you alter your center of gravity less. This allows you to move more naturally on the trail — especially important on more technical ground — and prevent injuries like rolled ankles.

The first items to pack into your overnight backpack should be the last things to come out at camp. Conveniently, this also tends to fit with the desired weight distribution — great, huh? This means starting with your sleeping bag, then the majority of your food, your stove system, and your tent. This area can also include your sleeping mat, but these tend to fit well as “filler” space elsewhere. Spare clothing is generally lighter and can go further from your body. At the top of your bag, or in external pockets, put the things you might need on the trail. This is your waterproofs, your trail snacks, a small first aid kit, a spare warm layer, and your water bottle — unless you have a specific pocket for this.

Also, heed my plea here — don’t hang things off the outside of your pack. Please. That mug might not annoy you at first, but once it’s been tapping your bag for 8 hours, you — or, more likely, your hiking buddy — will want to hurl it into the bushes. And don’t even get me started on water bottles. Do you really want a liter of water bouncing against your backpack all day? I’ll tell you. You don’t.

Osprey Ultralight Dry Sack

Use compression packs and dry sacks

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. 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 around your spare underwear accidentally.

Flat lay of hiking and camping gear spread out on a hardwood floor.
Muhammad Masood/Unsplash

Get yourself a routine and stick to it – if it works

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, both physically and emotionally.

A man wearing a blue backpack while hiking
Tristan Pineda/Unsplash

Best materials for light packing

In today’s day and age, there is no reason why you should be hauling around heavy metals, cheap plastics, heavy glass, or stainless steel. Many outdoor brands have boiled down light packing to a science, adjusting their product lines to reflect this value. If you currently pack items with heavy materials, consider other options. Here are some materials to keep an eye out for:

  • Silnylon or dyneema composite fabric (DCF). Tents or packs made of these materials are strong, durable, and lightweight, which makes them perfect for backpacking.
  • Down or synthetic stuffing. Opt for a down-filled or synthetic sleeping bag or jacket, depending on your budget. Down bags are usually lighter and more compressible, while synthetic bags perform better in wet conditions.
  • Aluminum or titanium. I beg of you, don’t bring your stainless steel or silver cookware/utensils.
  • Plastic and silicone. High-quality plastic and BPA-free silicone are great for water bottles, food storage containers, and collapsible kitchenware.

Remember to carefully research and compare different products to find the best balance between weight, performance, and cost. Prioritize items that are essential for your safety and comfort during the hike, and always test your gear before embarking on any extended trips.

Editors' Recommendations

Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
The simple cold-weather camping hack that will keep your devices charged
You don't even need to bring anything extra
Man using phone in the snow.

Camping in the winter is a great way to avoid the crowds. That said, one of the biggest differences between summer and winter camping is the temperature. Not only do you have to keep yourself warm, but there's also the added challenge of plummeting phone batteries.
Why do phones die in the cold?
Our trusty smartphones are essential to our safety when out camping, but when you camp in the winter, you might find that your phone doesn't last nearly as long. If you leave your phone lying around at night, don't be surprised to find it hanging on for dear life the next morning.

This is because batteries, such as the lithium-ion ones found in smartphones, rely on chemical reactions to produce electrical energy. Cold temperatures slow these reactions, reducing the battery's efficiency in moving ions between electrodes, thus lowering its power output and capacity. Cold weather also increases internal resistance, further limiting power delivery and causing a drop in voltage output and premature shutdowns. Additionally, cold weather forces the phone to work harder to maintain its operating temperature, increasing power consumption and affecting the display, a power-hungry component that requires more energy in the cold; this exacerbates battery drain. This means your phone may drain faster, shut down unexpectedly, or even suffer permanent damage in the long run if exposed to the cold for extended periods.

Read more
Cold-weather camping tips: How to stay warm in your tent through fall and winter
Get geared up and ready for fall and winter camping
Man drinking coffee in his tent in the cold

The serious outdoorsman knows that camping doesn't have to stop just because the nights are getting colder. A little frost on the ground or clear fall nights — where temperatures dip to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower — aren't going to be enough to stop you. And they don't have to be. Cold-weather camping can take some getting used to, but camping in what most people consider the "off-season" gives you access to nature at a time when most people are curled up on their sofa instead.

Camping in the cold requires planning — there's no escaping that. Your summer camping gear might not quite cut it during fall and winter, but there are often ways that you can prolong the seasonal span of your gear and not have to shell out for another expensive setup. Then there are those nights where the cold weather catches you out — the first frost of the season, that clear fall night you weren't anticipating. On those nights, when you're suddenly thrown in at the deep end of unseasonal camping, these tips can help you to stay warm in your tent.

Read more
Third Man Syndrome: The weird phenomenon extreme mountain climbers experience
Mountain climbers have long reported a presence that has helped them during challenging times
Mountain photo

"... during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three."

Ernest Shackleton's experience came at the end of two years of hardship. During an Antarctic expedition that almost ended in disaster when his ship Endurance became trapped in ice and sunk, Shackleton and his crew were forced to survive on ice in the Weddell Sea, crossing to a tiny island, and sailing some of the world's most treacherous seas in a boat just 22 feet long. It was the ultimate feat of endurance, the true tale of survival, and perhaps the first recorded incidence of Third Man Syndrome.

Read more