You want nothing more than to get to the summit of that mountain you have been dreaming about for a couple of years now. This is the year you are getting to the top, no more excuses. You get all of your gear packed into your backpack and start on up the trail.
With each lung-crushing step, you make it to within sight of the top. As you traverse your way across the last rocky section, you finally get that epic 360-degree view from the top. And to say it takes your breath away is an understatement.
As you stand on the top, you wish it weren’t so hard to get here because the view is second to none, but your pack was heavy and at times it felt like you were going to fall off the mountain.
When you get back to town, you grab a celebratory beer at the local brewery. And you start chatting up a local hiker sitting at the table next to you. You tell your story about summiting the peak and nearly falling down the mountain.
It looks you in the eye before glancing down at your backpack, and immediately he says, “I know what your problem is…your storing your tent wrong, it’s throwing off your balance, no wonder you felt like you were having a tough time up there.”
Before you know it, you have a seasoned hiker and backpacker showing you how something as simple as packing your tent properly can have such an impact on your experience.
Packing your tent in a backpack
Knowing how to pack your tent (and how to pack a hiking pack, in general) is an underrated skill. It optimizes your pack for weight distribution and convenience when retrieving an item.
Particularly when you are first starting out, your tent and other hiking essentials tend to be heavier and more bulky. This makes packing your backpack properly that much more important.
Your tent can be tricky, as many entry-level backpacking tents do not pack as easily as lightweight options.
Does the tent go on the inside of your backpack? Should you strap it to the outside? What about your tent poles and stakes?
Deciding where to pack your tent
You have two main options when deciding where to pack a tent: inside or outside.
Since I transitioned to a more lightweight approach to backpacking, I prefer putting my tent on the outside of the pack.
Particularly if the backpack has a large front mesh pocket, the outside of the tent has two main advantages.
Easier to access at the end of each (plus easier to store in the morning)
Opens up more space on the interior of the pack
This comes especially convenient when you are using a bear canister since it is an awkward shape and can be tricky to pack around.
That said, there is nothing wrong with packing your tent on the inside of your backpack.
Packing your tent inside your backpack
When you are packing your tent on the inside of your backpack, it is important to keep in mind the optimal location for a couple of key pieces of gear.
The most notable is your sleeping bag. Unlike your tent, your sleeping bag cannot really be stored on the outside of your backpack. The consequences of getting your sleeping bag wet are far greater than if the outside of your tent gets wet.
I always recommend sleeping bags be packed into your backpack first, at the bottom. Since you only need it at the end of the day, this allows you to have easy access to items that you may need throughout the day.
Your tent should be packed toward the middle of your backpack.
The other thing to keep in mind when packing your tent inside your pack is to dry it out. You do not want a wet tent sitting in your pack all day. You will get your other gear wet and you will be setting up a wet tent each night.
If you get rained on during the night, take some time in the morning to let your tent dry out, if possible. If it is not sunny in the morning, do not pack your tent on the inside.
Using a stuff sack
Some people love using stuff sacks to keep their items more organized. But I am not a fan of using stuff sacks. They lower the flexibility of items like sleeping bags and tents that can be stuffed into your backpack and fill every nook and cranny of available space.
If you do use a stuff sack, I recommend positioning it vertically in your pack. The shape of the stuff sack more closely contours to the shape of the pack when positioned vertically. When sideways, it creates more dead space inside.
A lot of tents come with a tent bag that can serve as a stuff sack. But, I recommend purchasing a waterproof stuff sack to make sure your tent stays dry throughout the day.
Rolling your tent
When storing your tent on the inside, rolling it up beforehand protects some of the vulnerable parts of the tent. For example, the mesh parts of your tent are more prone to getting snagged and creating a hole than the more durable materials of the tent.
And the last thing you want is a hole in the mesh when setting up camp in a buggy area.
When I unstake my tent in the morning, I shake it out to get off the dirt and debris that got on the tent during the night. Then, I loosely roll it, making sure the mesh parts of the tent are on the inner rolls. Then I loosely stuff the rolled tent into my backpack, placing it above my sleeping bag and other items I keep at the bottom of my backpack (extra clothing items).
Packing your tent on the outside of your backpack
This is my preferred method of carrying my tent for two main reasons:
Extra space on the interior of the backpack
Allows the tent to try if it rained or has condensation on it
I usually backpack with a smaller, lightweight, or ultralight backpack, so effectively utilizing space is crucial. Having my tent on the outside of the pack opens up valuable space on the interior.
With a lightweight tent, you can usually utilize the large mesh pocket on the front of the pack for your tent and rainfly.
Last year I got repeatedly got rained out when backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and my tent was wet pretty much every day. I was using the Gossamer Gear G4-20 pack, which has a great mesh pocket. I would store it in there during the day which allowed it to air dry throughout the day. Plus, if it rained during the day, I would toss on a poncho that would protect the entire pack from rain.
If you are using a more traditional backpack, a lot of them have external buckle straps or compression straps that can be utilized to secure your tent. I recommend using the straps at the top or bottom of the backpack for securing your tent. Having it strapped to the middle or side of the backpack can throw off your balance a lot easier, especially if you have a larger, heavier tent.
What about your tent poles, rain fly, and tent stakes?
Storing the other parts of a tent (poles, rain fly, and stakes) can be confusing, especially the poles and stakes since they are oddly shaped.
If your tent includes a tent pole bag, I recommend using it. It will prevent your poles from piercing or snagging on your gear.
I like to store my tent poles on the outside of my pack, in one of the side pockets. This keeps them out of the main body of the backpack and makes it convenient when I store my entire tent setup on the exterior of the backpack.
I can have the interior mostly packed the night before, and then easily stow my tent on the outside right before hitting the trail in the morning.
If you store your tent poles on the inside of your pack, do so along the outer edge. This allows you to maximize the storage space. (It is kind of awkward to pack around a tall pole sticking up in the middle of your tent)
Some backpacking tents (particularly ultralight ones) have the rain fly attached to the inner tent, so it is all one piece. In this case, you obviously will just have your rain fly stored wherever you decide to pack your tent.
If the rain fly is separate from the tent, I recommend keeping it with your tent, wherever you decide to store it. It makes it easier at the end of the day, it isn’t fun to have to dig around through every part of your backpack just to set up your tent.
The one exception to this is if your train fly is wet and your tent is dry. Having both your tent and rain fly wet is worth having them stored separately.
I like to keep all of my tent stakes in a separate bag. (they should come in one when you buy them) Since they have a sharper tip, they will very easily pierce and damage gear if you just toss them into your pack willy-nilly.
I keep mine in a side pocket. (with my tent poles) I have had a tent stake rip through the bag I stored them in once, and ever since, I don’t risk keeping them on the inside of the backpack. (even if they are kept in their own separate bag) Nothing ruins a beautiful, warm day of backpacking like rolling into camp only to discover your tent stakes punctured your sleeping pad. (Have fun sleeping on the hard, rocky ground tonight)
If you have plenty of space on the inside of your backpack, storing your tent there is a great option. It protects it from the outside elements and from getting snagged on a tree branch or rock. Never store a wet tent on the inside of your pack, though.
If you want to maximize the interior space of your pack, storing it on the outside is the way to go. (this is my preferred method) If your tent is wet from rain or condensation, store it on the outside of your backpack to protect other items from getting wet and to allow your tent to air dry during the day.
Ultralight backpacks do not have as much interior storage volume, so storing the tent on the outside of the pack is the preferred method. Usually in an exterior mesh pocket.
I do not like using stuff sacks because they do not allow you to maximize the interior volume of the pack. But, if you prioritize staying as organized as possible, stuff sacks are a good option.
Some backpacks have straps on the bottom and/or the top of the backpack that allow you to securely attach your tent to your backpack.
Packing your gear properly is not a “sexy” part of backpacking. The epic views are what everyone is after.
But laying a proper foundation in backpacking, like in everything else, sets you up for sustained success.
Most hikers can lug a super heavy pack up a mountain at least once to soak in the incredible sight of snow-capped peaks for as long as the eye can see. But are they going to want to do it again? I mean that backpack was super heavy, and it felt like it was throwing my balance off most of the way up.
Knowing how to pack a tent in a backpack is one skill that will ensure that, for years to come, you continue to achieve those views that nobody else gets. And you don’t even feel that it is very difficult to get to.