How to pack a hiking pack

Table of Contents

Knowing how to pack your bag for your next hiking trip is a skill that few pay attention to, but if done properly can make your hike so much better.

At first, it doesn’t seem like it should matter how you pack your bag; it’s the same weight regardless, right? True, but think about the difference between carrying around a 20-pound bag in your hands versus on your back.

The same principle applies to your hiking backpack. You can make it easier or harder for yourself, depending on how you pack.

To make it as efficient as possible, you just need to know the different sections of a backpack and which pieces of gear go in them.

How to pack a backpack for your next hike

When packing your day pack for your hike, there are a couple of key points to keep in mind:

  1. Put any low-density items that you won’t need often at the bottom

  2. Keep your denser, heavier items toward the middle-top of the pack (preferably at the top and close to your back)

  3. Put your quick-access or commonly used items at the very top of your pack or in an exterior pocket

tips for packing for day hikes or backpacking trips

It may seem arbitrary and irrelevant how you pack your items, but there are a couple of reasons why it is important.

  • Proper weight distribution

  • Ability to access items efficiently

Weight distribution. You want to avoid having too much weight at the bottom or top of the pack. This throws off your balance (top-heavy or bottom-heavy) and will lead to you feeling pulled backward, especially when ascending a climb.

Efficient access. It doesn’t make sense to put something at the bottom of your pack that you plan to need multiple times throughout your hike. Having to take your pack off and pull out all your gear, only to have to repack it all just to get a snack, makes no sense. If you anticipate wanting/needing something, keep it in a place that is quick and easy to get to.

Different sections of a pack

different sections of a backpack

Lower

The lower third of the pack is where anything that is light, low-density, and likely won’t be needed goes.

For a day hiking trip, these would be items like:

  • Emergency shelter

  • Rain jacket (if it is unlikely to rain)

  • Insulating layer (if it is unlikely you will use it)

  • Extra clothing items

If you are planning an overnight trip, items like:

  • Sleeping bag

  • Sleeping pad

Anything else that compresses down and is relatively light should go toward the bottom of the pack.

what to pack in bottom of pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain jacket

Middle

The middle section is where you will want to pack your heaviest gear.

This sets you up best to have an evenly distributed pack and not get thrown off balance easily.

On a day hike, this would be:

  • Food

  • Camera gear

  • Extra water (this is generally where a hydration bladder will sit)

For an overnight, the middle section is where you should keep:

  • Tent

  • Any cook fuel or cookware

  • Bear canister (if applicable)

Any other heavy gear should be kept toward the middle. You ideally want the heaviest item sitting in the middle of the pack along your back. This keeps the pack balanced and your center of gravity in an optimal place.

packing middle of pack, food, camera gear, extra water, liquid fuel for cooking

Upper

The upper section of your pack is where you want to keep items that you would want to be able to grab quickly.

On a day hike, this includes:

  • Rain gear (if you are expecting rain)

  • First-aid kit (if not kept in an external pocket)

  • Snacks

  • Insulating layer (if you anticipate needing it)

For an overnight backpacking trip:

  • Hygiene items

  • Maps

  • Lighting (headlamp)

Basically, anything that you anticipate needing that you wouldn’t want to have to dig around your pack for should go near the top.

what to pack in top of pack, rain gear, bathroom kit, first aid, lightweight items

Exterior

External storage includes:

  • Hip belt pockets

  • Side pockets

  • Mesh, stretchy front pouch

  • Shoulder pockets

  • Any zippered pocket on the outside of your pack

  • Any loops/lash points/attachment points on the outside of the pack

 

I love external storage and tend to maximize the external pockets on my packs because of the easy access.

Items that would go in these areas would be:

  • Water bottles

  • Snacks

  • Sun protection (sunscreen)

  • Phone

  • Map

  • Sunglasses

  • Water filter

Anything else that is small and light can be stored on the outside of your pack.

If you are backpacking, I love using the mesh front pouch as a way to dry my wet gear/clothes. You can put it halfway into the pocket and let the sun and wind dry it out after a rain shower.

packing the exterior pockets, water bottle pockets, hip pockets, mesh pockets

Order of packing

The easiest way to pack a backpack for a hike is from lower to upper. Pretty obvious, huh?

But there are a couple of tricks to maximizing space and getting a well-packed backpack.

  • Minimize empty (dead) space

  • Utilize compression straps on the pack

Minimize empty space. If you do not pack your gear into the pack tightly, you end up with a lot of dead space for items to move around. This has the potential to throw you off balance and leave you with an unorganized pack.

Use light, compressible items (I.e., an extra jacket or another clothing item) to fill in the empty spaces. This is most notable when backpacking with a bear canister. The round shape leaves space around it that is perfect for stuffing an extra layer or sleeping bag in. This prevents the bear canister from constantly shifting around.

Utilize compression straps. A lot of packs have some form of compression straps (some more than others), and these will help ensure that the backpack is tight and compact. They will reduce the interior volume of the pack closer to the amount of space you are actually using.

This is one of the reasons I love roll-top closures. They let you easily roll the top of the pack down to the level of your gear. This goes a long way toward reducing the empty space inside, plus it makes the pack a lot more versatile.

keys to pack gear for hiking trip

Packing differences for a day hike and backpacking

Day hike

Packing for a day hike is much easier because you don’t have to worry about larger items like:

  • Tents

  • Tent poles

  • Sleeping bag

  • Sleeping pad

Generally, you won’t have any really heavy or bulky items. Some exceptions are if you bring camera equipment, rock climbing equipment, or something like that.

You still want to follow the packing guidelines for each section of the pack, but you definitely have more wiggle room. Plus, your hike will not be quite as miserable if you don’t have the pack dialed in.

pictures of dirt road from hike

Backpacking

Backpacking requires more attention to how you’re packing your items.

You have more items with you and a backpacking pack is larger, so there is more space for items to get moved and lost in. Especially if it is a multi-night trip, I recommend taking 5 minutes in the morning to ensure your pack is organized well. This allows you to make sure you have everything and that you don’t have an unbalanced pack.

Should I use a stuff sack for items

should you use a stuff sack when hiking

Stuff sacks are pretty popular and have some pros and cons

Pros

  • Improved organization

  • Creates a modular approach to packing

  • Usually compressible

Cons

  • Create dead spaces

  • Not as easy to access items

I am not a fan of using them for any items, whether hiking or backpacking.

They are generally oblong-shaped, which creates dead spaces throughout your pack. I prefer to have the items loose and able to be stuffed between/around heavy items. For example, I usually wrap my sleeping bag around my bear canister when backpacking in bear country.

If you like the appeal of being more organized by using stuff sacks, I would just caution against using too many. I have seen people on the trail who have 3, 4, 5+ stuff sacks, and they have to pull them out to get to one, only to have to reverse the process to put them back. Be strategic and smart about what you put into a stuff sack and how many you are using.

picture from hiking trip

Checklist of items to bring on a hike

When packing for a day hike, there are some items that you should bring every time:

  • Water and electrolytes

  • Nutrition

  • Some form of navigation (paper map, downloaded map on phone, photo of the map, etc.)

  • First aid kit

I bring these on every hike and recommend this as the baseline for what you should take. Depending on other factors, you may want to add some other essentials:

  • Sun protection (sunscreen, sun hoodie, sun umbrella, etc.)

  • Rain gear (rain jacket, poncho, pack cover, etc.)

  • Insulating layer (light jacket, puffy jacket, etc.)

  • Lighting (headlamp, flashlight, etc.)

  • Extra clothing (socks, shirt, shorts, etc.)

  • GPS device (particularly in rugged or remote areas)

Also, things like hand sanitizer, bear spray, hiking poles, toilet paper, and emergency shelters can be good ideas in certain situations.

FAQ

  1. Put any low-density items that you won’t need often at the bottom

  2. Keep your denser, heavier items toward the middle-top of the pack (preferably at the top and close to your back)

  3. Put your quick-access or commonly used items at the very top of your pack or in an exterior pocket

  • Proper weight distribution

  • Ability to access items efficiently

You will minimize injury risk with a pack that is packed properly. Also, you will not have to be digging around to find something when you need it.

This is a personal choice. I do not like using them because they can be awkwardly shaped and create a lot of dead space in your pack.

On a backpacking trip, you should keep your sleeping bag toward the bottom of your pack since you only need it at the end of your day. 

Conclusion

Packing for a hike or backpacking trip is an exciting time. You’re about to head out for a day or days in nature and get a mental and emotional relief from day-to-day life.

Everyone always stresses about what items to bring (and this is important), but few think much about how they are going to pack their bag.

Knowing the best way to pack a backpack for a hike is an important skill. It is the difference between a fully loaded pack being a nuisance and it feeling like an extension of your body.

If you follow the proper way to pack, you will have a better experience, you won’t feel as physically exhausted during your hike, and you will crave getting outdoors for your next adventure!

picture of lake from hike

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