How to Pack a Backpack: Easy Steps to Pack for Success

by Ian Standard
Last Updated: October 25, 2021
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

Walking down the trail, you’re bound to see someone with their gear sprawled out everywhere at some point or another. Chances are good, they accidentally packed their food too far down and it’s lunchtime, or maybe the weather is looking ominous and their rain gear went in before everything else. 

No matter the reason, you want to avoid putting yourself in this situation. Learning how to pack a backpack properly not only makes you a stone-cold efficient hiker who never stops unless they want to, but it will also quickly save your sanity and back. Your backpack is your home, and we all know how a messy home can drive anyone mad. 

Nobody blames you for being unsure about what to put where. There are a lot of parts on a hiking backpack, and there are even more pieces that you’re trying to cram inside it. Packing your backpack is an art form that even Marie Kondo would get frustrated doing if she broke into working with backpacking gear. Let’s take out all of the difficulties and get straight to the basics, so you can quickly become an expert. 

All the Compartments

Picking up a backpacking bag for the first time can be overwhelming. There are straps dangling every which way and what seems like hundreds of pockets. Each little part of the bag has its own name, and figuring out how to pack a backpack starts at learning exactly what hikers refer to each one of these as.

The Brain

Our own brains are exactly where we go when we need something, and we need it fast. This is the exact same when we are talking about the brain of your backpack.

The backpack’s brain refers to the top “lid” that closes down over the opening to the main compartment of the backpack. Often, it has one to two different zippered pockets up on top. This is the prime spot for keeping your most often-needed pieces of gear. For example, my brain always has any emergency medication, a couple of small snacks, my water filter, a first aid kit, sunscreen, and any navigation tools (compass or maps). 

If you ever hear anyone refer to their “subconscious” when talking about their backpack, they are referring to the part just underneath the brain when you open it up. It’s not a spot many people use, but some, like me, enjoy the name enough to say it sometimes. 

Front Pouch

The front pouch is either on the exterior of the backpack or is put on in the form of a zippered pocket on the front. You’ll find backpacks with many different versions of a front pouch. Lightweight and minimalistic packs have mesh pockets that resemble a water bottle holder and don’t often hold much gear. 

This kangaroo pouch is a great place for shoving anything that’s gotten wet, like a rain jacket or rain cover, during the last period of rain and you don’t want it in with all of your dry gear. It keeps the water outside and separates, all while keeping it secure. 

The front pouch often has accessory pockets or tool loops that can help you strap trekking poles or ice axes to the bag. A haul loop here will help you to handle most packs on your next trip with ease.

Hip Belt Pouch

The hip belt pouch is the quickdraw of the backpacker’s pack. These are any items that you need in a flash and can have them ready within seconds. For me, this is where I keep my headlamp, a knife or multitool, any lip balm, and a snack or two. 

When I’m walking and the dark starts to settle in, or I feel the wind chapping my lips, or when a quick bit of hunger strikes, I don’t want to stop. The hip belt pouches make it so I don’t need to. For me, these are an absolute must on a pack. 

Water Bottle Pockets

The water bottle pockets are exactly what you think, side pockets to hold your water. They’re typically a mesh, or some stretchy material, on the side of your pack. A lot of these pockets have been done well, and some have been designed poorly. Some packs have pockets that let the water bottle fall out each and every time you bend over. I prefer pockets that have strong elastic on them. 

If you have side pockets that are more durable, you can fit hiking poles, tent poles, or camp shoes in the side pocket and strap them to the bag for easy access.

Main Compartment

Here’s where the big packing happens. The heaviest items, and even lighter items (socks, shirts, pants), all come together off your packing list and into this space. The main compartment has the space for everything else. This is where you have your food, clothes, sleeping bag, and all the other bits and bobs you need on a big or small trip. 

The main compartment is where most of your organizing will take place. You need to arrange it well and make sure that most of the things you don’t need until night falls end up inside of it. 

One great tip is to line your backpacking pack with a trash bag and save money on all the expensive ways to keep your clothes organized and store food without it getting wet.

How to Pack for Success

Now we are aware of the several different compartments and pockets that we can keep our things in. This doesn’t exactly tell us how to pack when the bulk of our gear ends up in a single compartment. Learning how to pack for success means packing the main compartment efficiently. 

The most simple tool to help you pack your bag to perfection is by utilizing the ABCs.

A - Accessibility

One topic that we’ve already touched on is the need for accessibility. When you’re out hiking, you don’t want to dig around to the bottom of your backpack just to find your headlamp when night has already fallen. You want it to be easy to get to and ready for you when you need it. 

Other items that are good to have on-hand and easily accessible would be your food, rain gear, a water bottle, water filter, lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, your phone or a camera, bear deterrent (if in bear country), and anything else that you personally use a lot. 

These things belong in your brain, front pouch, hip belt pouches, or at the very top of your main compartment. In these spots, you won’t need to stop for more than thirty seconds to get what you need and be back hiking to your destination. 

B - Balance

A backpack that has all of your food strapped to the outside, on the top, or on one side, will quickly tumble any backpacker, no matter how experienced. Your food is often the heaviest piece of gear that you carry on the trail, but other items add up quickly to bring a lot of weight to your pack. While your shoulder straps can do wonders to bring your bag in towards your body, it all starts with how you pack your heavy gear.

In order to balance your pack correctly, you want to familiarize yourself with the three main zones of your bag. 

Bottom Zone

The bottom zone of your bag is where everything you don’t need until bedtime will live. This includes your sleeping bag, clothes bag, and anything else you may bring along (such as a book). Some backpacks have a sleeping bag compartment for exactly this reason. You can fit more than just sleeping bags in this pocket. A lot of bulky items, or just your sleeping pad, can easily fit when you have the right stuff sack.

You don’t want to put all of your weight into the bottom zone, but it doesn’t need to be the lightest either. If you put one-quarter of your total weight in the bottom zone, or even slightly less, you’ll be good to go. A sleeping bag doesn't really need to be in a place with easy access. This zone is to help with proper weight distribution and not much else.

Core Zone

The core zone is where the bulk of your gear is going to live. It's where you learn how to pack a backpack and come out with all of your new skills. This zone will consist of about one-half of your total pack weight, if not slightly more. The heavyweight items, such as your food, bear canister, or cooking gear, should be in the core zone and up against where your back will be. Even medium-weight items can fit into this spot if you have them all in a stuff sack and compressed down.

If there's one thing you take from learning how to pack a backpack, remember this. Having your weight in the middle of the pack and against your back, between your shoulder blades, allows you to keep a good level of balance in every direction with the right weight distribution. It keeps the center of gravity in the center, so you aren’t constantly fighting against it while hiking. We have enough gravity to fight against while hiking, so you don’t need to add more!

Top Zone

The top third of your backpack is another lightweight zone. A heavy top zone will swing you from side to side and quickly topple you over. While you might want to fit more gear in this space than you can, you don't want to overload your backpack capacity. Many packs have a space in the top that actually expands the backpack capacity, but it isn't always necessary.

The top zone is a good place to keep lighter gear like extra layers and rain gear so you are ready for any changes in the weather when it comes. 

C - Compression

The final piece of our packing comes down to compression. A lot of people question if they need to use compression bags, but overall it is a great idea. Larger backpacks can make it tempting to just cram all your other gear into this space with much work even on longer trips. Having a cooking pot and liquid fuel floating around is a total personal preference, but I always organize these things.

First off, compression bags help you to reduce the amount of fluff and space you have in your pack so you can drastically cut down on size. Simply using compression bags can bring your pack size from a 90L to a 65L pack. Carrying around extra empty space is useless. A stuff sack with compression straps is your key to getting your backpacking backpack to the perfect arrangement.

Second, there are great options for compression bags that are rated to be water-resistant. This serves you well when a torrential downpour comes out of nowhere or a river crossing goes wrong. We all know how a hiking trip can turn sideways once your clothes are all wet. This is why I consider this to be one of the top packing tips.

Lastly, compression bags are a great tool for organizing all of your things into separate categories. With this trick, you can easily pull out what you need for cooking rather than rifling around through all of your gear just to get water boiling in the morning for coffee. Cutting down on the time it takes to get coffee in the morning is reason enough for most of us.

Ian Standard
I'm a part time wilderness guide, part time student, and full time nature lover. I find any ways possible to get outside and feel together with the world around me, and sometimes that means skiing, biking, hiking, or just sitting.
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