How to Pack a Backpack

Shawn Forry
Photo 1

Cover image:Getting from point A to point B. How to fill it all in? All images: Shawn Forry

How to pack a backpack? It seems so straightforward. Make the stuff fit in the thing, right? In full disclosure, when I go out for a day hike it can look a bit like that. Grab the nearest rucksack and haphazardly toss in the ’10 Essentials’ and out the door you go. In most instances you’ll fully enjoy your day none the wiser.

When it comes to planning and packing for a multi-day overnighter, militant-like precision and preparation are essential. Weights are heavier, forgetting items has higher consequences, and you want to be comfortable. I’ve spent over a decade instructing wilderness courses for Outward Bound and observed a few common trends and shortcomings with first time backpackers.

Here’s what I’ve learned (and what I tell my students) so they can spend more time effortlessly ambling down the trail and less time packing up in camp.

A well-packed pack makes for smooth traveling.

Pre-Trip: Take Stock

Before even taking the first step on trail, the foundation of a well thought out backpack starts during the planning phase.

Before we can decide ‘how’ to put the things in the pack, we need to determine ‘what’ are the essentials. Take note of the current trail conditions, weather and wilderness regulations to determine the size of the pack. Know if a bear-proof can is required for proper food storage, if snow conditions require an ice ax, or if rain is in the forecast (pack your tarp!).

This is also a great opportunity to reassess and scrutinize each item. Less is more when it comes to efficient pack packing. Do you really need the cast iron skillet and expansion packs for Settlers of Catan for this trip?

ABC’s (…and sometime D) of Efficient Pack Packing

Packing: Thoughtful Placement

By packing your contents thoughtfully, you create efficiency and minimize frustration and complacency. How likely are you to stop and put on your rain jacket when you know its buried at the bottom of your pack? Laziness in this category can quickly escalate into hypothermia. The basic principle is such that the content of our pack should be prioritized as items that we:

  1. Access on the go (map, water/treatment, camera, wind/rain jacket) = External pockets.
  2. Access at a break on trail (snacks, toiletries, warm layer) = Top of Pack
  3. Access upon arrival at camp (shelter, cooking, sleeping, camp clothes) = Bottom of Pack

Visual of items to have access on the go (left), at a break (center) and in camp (right)

Balance

Basic physics tells us that if we can optimize our pack’s center of gravity to our bodies, our perception of weight should be minimized. By keeping the weight as centered to the spine as possible, the transfer of weight to our hips will be maximized. This leads to better balance and less shoulder fatigue. 

How this plays out in practice is being conscious of the placement of heavy, dense items like water and food.

Be mindful of left to right, top to bottom and fore/aft balance. If you place a water bottle on the side of the pack this should be balanced with something on the right.

If desert hiking and hauling loads of water, bury some dromedaries in the middle of the pack, while keeping a sufficient supply accessible.

Try to put the heaviest and bulkiest stuff inside the pack; if you strap it onto the outside, it will leverage the pack away from our spines. Not good.

Compact

Here’s what you don’t want inside your pack: empty, unfilled space. Think of bricks and mortar – they eliminate the open pockets and voids.

By focusing on trying to make the pack as dense and compressed as possible, you produce a physically smaller load that stays put; good for balance.

Loose articles of clothing (mortar) work wonders to fill in the gaps between rigid items like pots, food rations and shelters (bricks). Utilizing external compression straps is the final step in compressing the backpack as much as possible.

A visual of how the ‘bricks’ are situated inside the pack (left). Note the top purple stuffsack is lunch/snack food items and the bottom purple sack is breakfast/dinner food rations, highlighting how to balance accessibility with center of gravity.

Available ‘mortar’ to fill in the voids of the back. Note the below soft goods will be inside a pack liner to ensure dryness. Priority for the above rain gear is accessibility.

Dry

Beyond the discomfort of sleeping in a soggy sleeping bag, ensuring the content of our packs stay 100% dry is a key safety consideration. The challenge is keeping a clear separation from non-negotiable (sleeping bag, warm layers) from items that will inevitably get wet (rain gear, shelter).

The use of dedicated stuff sacks and pack liners can help to create “quarantine” zones within your pack. External mesh pockets can also help facilitate temporary on-the-go drying of gear like tarps and rainflies.

Sleek

To escalate pack status to ‘pro-grade’, minimize the appearance of a wandering vagabond. Having items haphazardly hanging off our pack is an easy way to lost them, damage them, and just look sloppy.

Apply the wind-tunnel test to your pack to highlight areas of concern. If anything is flapping around like helmets, straps, or that clanging metal Sierra cup, rethink your packing strategy. If your pack is too small to fit everything inside, it might be time to admit you need a larger pack—or an intervention of over-packing might be warranted.

Putting is altogether. A well-packed backpack utilized the principles of ABC packing. 

Having completed the Triple Crown of hiking (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) by age 25, Shawn Forry has continued to refine the limitations of ultralight travel, having logged more than 25,000mi of wilderness experience. A supporter of OBOZ since 2010, he also holds the unsupported speed record of the Colorado Trail, covering the 465mi in just over 10 days. In collaboration with Justin Lichter, Forry has pioneered routes across the world including the spine of the Himalaya and Southern Alps of New Zealand. Together in 2014/15 they became the first individuals to traverse the 2650mi Pacific Crest Trail during winter, a trip the New York Times dubbed "the most daring expedition since Lewis and Clark." Forry is the Program Director for Outward Bound California. Shawn wears the Oboz Crest, Traverse Low, and Switchbacks. Read more at shawnforry.com.

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