How to Pack Your Backpack
Image: Taking in the views of Denali while hiking out to the road after 30 days in the wilderness on a NOLS backpacking expedition. Photo by Michael Connor
This summer, I instructed a 30-day backpacking course for NOLS in Alaska. After a month straight of camping in the big, open wilderness of Alaska, you might think a few days off would be the logical thing to do - but no. The first weekend after getting home and (trying) settling back into office life, my partner and I took off for Yellowstone National Park for a weekend of both car and backcountry camping.
Backpacking Yellowstone, Alaska
The two experiences - Alaska and Yellowstone - couldn’t be have been more different.
In the Talkeetna Mountains, we walked on tundra that was an interconnected network of lichen, moss, and living dirt, and climbed up and down rickety piles of moraine glaciers left behind. We watched caribou scamper across snowfields faster than you’d think possible; we were rained on and baked in the sun, wandered in a whiteout and covered our eyes to sleep in 24-hour daylight. Our only trails were made by caribou and the only person we saw was the pilot who resupplied us with food, Ray Atkins. I didn’t shower, didn’t look at a phone, didn’t answer one email.
In Yellowstone during our first night in the campground, my partner and I enjoyed luxuries like fresh vegetables and cold drinks, flushing toilets, and falling asleep to the laughter from other campsites. As we hiked to our backcountry campsite, smooth trails took us along a rocky lakeshore and through sweet-smelling forest of lodgepole pine. We marveled at a half-mile stretch of geysers and steaming vents, cooked dinner beside the lake that was impossibly still, got hailed on and dried out again. The next day, we were eating pie at Dubois’ Cowboy Cafe by 4 in the afternoon.
What surprised me wasn’t how much I loved one place more than the other - it was how much I enjoyed both of the experiences, even though they were so different in scale.
How to Pack Your Backpack
As you might think, the preparation for both trips was pretty different. One of the biggest differences was the pack, and what I put inside it.
On a short trip, you can get away with a lot when it comes to your backpack - being a little off balance, or packing more than you need.
But on a long trip, these little things count. Each day you’re walking with a pack that’s a little too heavy, or a little off kilter, will add up to sorer muscles, more tired feet, and wearing you out both physically and mentally.
So, in order to take good care of yourself on the trail, here are a few things to remember when you pack your backpack for a multi-day trip.
ABCs of Packing Your Pack
Before you start, remember the ABCs:
Accessibility: Can you get the things you’ll need during the day, like your rain jacket?
Balance: Is the weight distributed evenly in your pack? Is it pulling you to one side or the other, or are all the heavy items at the very top of your pack?
Comfort+Compression: Is anything poking your back in a weird way? Does your pack fit properly? And have you filled in all the empty spaces in your pack so it isn’t towering over your head?
NOLS video, courtesy NOLS.
Keep these in mind as you pack and you’ll have a comfortable pack you can carry for miles.
Inside Your Pack
Now, time to get everything inside. Below, I’ll share my preferred road map to pack packing, but every backpacker has their own preferences. Test out a few different ways to pack and see what works best for you!
Road Map to Pack Packing
1. Bottom Layer: Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes
These go in first at the bottom of your pack for two reasons: 1) You won’t need them during the day, and 2) They set up a good base so all the heavy stuff doesn’t sit too low on your back.
Before you pack, loosen all the straps outside of your pack to make sure you have all the space available.
Start by compressing your sleeping bag into a stuff sack and rolling up your sleeping pad so they’re nice and small.
I use a large trash bag to waterproof the entire inside of my pack, so that will go in first. Then, in go the sleeping bag and pad. Remember to push them all the way to the bottom of the pack.
After that, pack the clothes you won’t need during the day (like long underwear, for example) in and around your sleeping bag and pad. This is where you get to be creative by finding all the nooks and crannies you can fit in a pair of socks or a shirt.
Think about packing in sand around bigger rocks—you want to fill in all the spaces in your pack.
Pack packing should be hard work, so if you’re sweating by the time you’re done packing, you’re doing it right!
2. Middle Layer: Tent, food, and cookware (the heavy stuff)Cookware, stove, and tent. Photo by Molly Herber
Keeping the heavy items in the middle of your pack and closer to your back puts the weight in a place that’s comfortable and keeps your pack in balance.
Most of these items you don’t have to worry about getting wet, like your cooking pot, so you can close the plastic bag liner by rolling it down burrito-style and pack in these items on top.
You can capitalize on space by packing things inside of your gear that can’t be squished—like packing tje stove and food inside of your cooking pot.
Just like with the sleeping bag, start with packing the inflexible stuff - like your pot - first, then fill in the spaces around them.
If you’re using liquid fuel for your stove, keep this outside of your plastic bag liner and pack it below your food—you don’t want any fuel leaking on your food or all over your clothes!
Depending on the size of your pack and how much you’re bringing, by the end of packing all these things it’s getting closer to full by now.
3. Top Layer: Things you need accessible
Hopefully, by now everything that’s still outside of your pack are the things you know for sure you’ll need during the day, like water, or things you want to keep accessible just in case, like a first aid kit. These items can go in the main pack section or in the brain, if your pack has one, for even quicker access.
Useful items to keep accessible:
First aid kit
Sunscreen + chapstick
Water + purification
Maps or navigation
**Bonus Advice for Pack Packing**
Start Organized, Stay Organized
For me, if the item isn’t in my range of vision, it’s not going in my pack. This has led to more than one occasion of thinking I’ve fully packed the pack, then spotting my sleeping bag back 12 feet away in the tent site where I left it.
Most people will find a pattern after packing their pack a few times. This pattern helps you remember all your stuff and speeds up the whole process. You’ll know your there when you can mentally picture where an item is in your pack at any given moment.
Keeping your own space bubble as you pack is also really helpful. You won’t get your stuff mixed up with your friend’s and will save yourself some panic when you think you forgot your jacket 10 miles back at the last campsite, only to realize your friend already packed it.
Waterproof the Important Things
Depending on where you’re going, on a multi-day trip you’ll probably see a broad range of weather. Even if rain seems unlikely, think about the consequences of a wet sleeping bag for five nights—not great.
Plastic bags are what I usually use to waterproof because they’re inexpensive and don’t add much weight. Dry bags (specially-designed waterproof stuff sacks) work well for smaller items, but large pack-sized ones are too heavy to be practical for backpacking. Plastic bags will last multiple trips if you’re careful when you pack—just air them out and save for next time—so save and reuse them to cut down on plastic waste.
A couple ways to waterproof include:
Big trash bag to line the entire pack: This is where you can pack clothes and your sleeping bag. I typically don’t bring a pack cover if I’m lining the inside of my pack, since everything inside will be waterproofed.
Smaller trash bag for inside the sleeping bag & sleeping pad stuff sack: If you’re concerned about a lot of rain, waterproofing your sleeping bag inside your stuff sack adds an extra layer of protection for the things you really care about keeping dry.
Smaller plastic bags or dry bags: For important small items, like electronics or emergency socks. A clean sandwich bags works great for this.
Sleeping bag stuff sack lined with plastic bag for extra waterproofing. Photo by Molly Herber
Keep it Inside
While hanging things off the outside of your pack seems like a nifty way to save space, this has downsides. If you have gear swinging around everywhere, you’ll probably lose it, break it, get it stuck on a tree, or whack someone in the face as you pass them on the trail.
So, aim for packing as many items as possible inside your pack—this has the benefits of helping you stay more balanced (no swinging items) and taking good care of your gear.
If you do pack things on the outside (water bottles are a great example, or a pair of camp shoes), make sure they’re secure with a carabiner or tied so they aren’t swinging around and won’t get lost easily.
Remember the ABCs and start getting in some miles on the trail.
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 a.m. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram @mgherber