How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

By Richard Corrigan; Updated August 11, 2017

What to take on the trail and how to fit it all in

How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

There comes a moment just before a hike when every hiker looks at his pile of gear and then looks at his backpack and wonders how in the world all that stuff will fit inside. Before you get on the phone with your local magician, take a moment to assess your gear and consider how to pack your bag in such a way that everything is accessible, and, just as importantly, nothing essential gets left behind.

Do: Choose the right pack

Packing for a hiking trip starts with choosing the right backpack. Consider the length of your trip, the amount of equipment you need to bring and your body type. Above all, your backpack should fit you correctly and be comfortable, so try a bunch of them on at the store before you buy one. Go with a pack that feels right.

The length of your hike is important too. A huge expedition-style pack is overkill if you're going on a day hike. Likewise, a daypack won't have the space you need for a backpacking trip.

Don't: Take more than you need

The temptation to overpack is a strong one, but it's one you must resist. Packing gets easier the more you go hiking and learn what you need and what you don't. Extra clothing and food are two areas where you can probably significantly reduce the amount you're carrying, especially on a day hike. A lot of nonessential hiking gear is marketed toward novice hikers who don't know what they need and what they don't, so before you buy anything, ask yourself, "When will I use this?" If the answer is "probably never," leave it on the shelf.

Do: Map out your pack

Hiking packs are most comfortable and easiest to carry if they are packed a certain way. Weight distribution and balance make a big difference, and it's also important to consider how easy it is to access the things you need. For example, your sleeping bag doesn't need to be packed so you can get to it quickly, but water does. Here's the basic layout of how the average hiking backpack should be packed:

  • Bottom area: Bulkier gear and items you won't need until camp (tents, sleeping bags)
  • Core area: Denser, heavier items (extra clothing, food, cookware)
  • Top area: Bulky but essential items you'll need on the trail (rain jacket, snacks, headlamp)
  • Accessory pockets: Essentials you’ll need urgently or often (water, trail map, cellphone)
  • Outside loops: Oversized or oddly-shaped items (trekking poles, tent poles)

Don't: Forget where everything goes

By all means, do adjust the way you pack if you figure out a more efficient way to go about it, but try to arrive at a consistent system and stick with it. That will make it much easier to find and access items in your pack as needed, so you won't have to waste time looking for them on the trail. Resist the urge to just stick something in the nearest available pocket when you're done with it.

Do: Keep it dry

All the packing expertise in the world will be wasted if your gear gets soaked during the slightest rain. Keeping your stuff dry on the trail isn't easy, but it's important. If your backpack came with an effective waterproof rain cover, this job is already done for you. If not, there are a few tricks keep water away from your gear.

The most effective method is to line the inside of your pack with a large, heavy-duty plastic trash compactor bag and arrange everything inside it. Trash compactor bags are more durable than regular plastic bags, and they're as close to completely waterproof as it's possible to get. Use smaller zip-top bags for sensitive items that you keep in your pack's outer pockets, like your trail map and phone.

About the Author

Richard Corrigan