How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking

How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking

Even lightweight backpackers need to carry quite a bit of gear with them on a trip.  Are there rules on how to pack a backpack for hiking?  Does it really matter where all your stuff goes inside your pack?  Yes!  The placement of your gear inside your backpack will have a lot to do with how comfortable it is to carry.  Beginning backpackers tend to just throw gear wherever, but organizing and packing properly will allow you to:

  • be more comfortable on the trail
  • make sure you don’t forget anything
  • get rid of unnecessary items
  • stabilize your balance 
  • conveniently access the gear you need


Pack Capacity

If you’re wondering what size pack you should buy,  you will need to take into consideration how long you usually go out for, how heavy your gear is, and what type of weather you typically hike in.  Backpack capacity is usually measured in Liters.  These recommendations are geared toward a lightweight backpacker.  A day pack is usually about 20-30 L, a weekend pack about 30-40 L, a multiday trip about 40-50 L, and extended trips 50+ L.

Guidelines For Pack Capacity Based on Length of Trip

Trip LengthRecommended Pack Capacity
Day Trip20-30 L
Weekend Trip (1-3 days)30-40 L
Multiday Trip (2-7 days)40-50 L
Extended (more than 7 days)50+ L

Weight Distributions

The goal is to get the majority of your pack weight on your hips, not your shoulders.  You should be able to stand up relatively straight and not be bent forward too far.   Its easy to tell if a person’s pack is loaded correctly just by looking at their posture while carrying it.  Weight should be distributed evenly and in the correct areas so you are not pulled off balance.

Your maximum total pack weight should be no more than 1/3 of your body weight.  So, for example, a 120 lb person should not carry more than a 40 lb pack.

There are 4 basic rules for packing a backpack.

Pack weight distribution

  1. Pack heavier gear closer to your spine and not too high – if you place heavy items away from spine it will pull you backwards and then you will have to lean forward to compensate
  2. Pack lighter gear further from your spine and on top
  3. Frequently used items on top
  4. Less used items on bottom


Step by Step Packing

Step 1:

Gather your gear – Organize your gear and lay it all out on the floor.  I like to group my gear by systems (sleep system, cooking system, water system, etc) but you can do it however it makes sense to you.  Laying your gear out like this helps you weed out any unnecessary items and helps ensure you don’t forget anything.  If you need help deciding what to bring check out my packing checklist.

Step 2:

Line backpack with trash compactor bag – I wouldn’t use a regular garbage bag for this because they’re not thick enough.  The compactor bags are much thicker and can withstand more wear and tear.  I don’t like rain covers so I use this in lieu of a rain cover and it keeps my gear nice and dry.  Just be sure to roll the top down well and if you have any down gear, you might want to consider waterproof stuff sacks.

Step 3:

Start by putting your sleeping bag in first – Again, I do not use a stuff sack because it saves weight and I feel it is a more efficient use of space.  If you have all your gear separated in stuff sacks there will be wasted space between each bag.  When you don’t use stuff sacks, smaller items can easily fill in the gaps and you are not left with unused space in your bag.

Step 4:

Put your heaviest items on top of your sleeping bag close to your spine and centered – Heavy items would be things such as a bear canister, a water reservoir, fuel, a food bag, or your stove.  Around the heavy gear wrap and stuff lighter gear like clothes, your shelter, your sleeping pad.

Step 5:

Top off your pack with lightweight stuff that you need access to quickly like a jacket/rain jacket, first aid kit, gloves, beanie, and toiletries.

Step 6:

Stow items that might puncture your pack in the side pockets.  This might include tent poles and stakes and trekking poles.  In the top lid and front compartments, I usually put things like sunscreen, snacks, my lunch, my headlamp, and any other small items.


Helpful tips

  • Minimize stuff sacks – saves weight and items fill in empty space
  • Line pack with trash compactor bag (not garbage bag)
  • If using a bear canister be sure it is packed well and full – see my article on how to pack a bear canister
  • Fill in gaps and push down soft gear to compress – a tightly packed bag is easier to carry
  • Compress straps as tightly as possible once you’ve got all your gear in


Attaching Gear to the Outside

You shouldn’t need to do much of this if you have packed well and have the correct size bag for your gear.   The only items I regularly put on the outside of my pack are an ice ax, trekking/tent poles, and maybe sleeping pad.   Gear outside your pack can swing and make you lose your balance.  It can also snag or get caught on branches.  If you have to attach sleeping pad to outside of bag, try putting it vertically on the pack rather than horizontally to help streamline your load.


If you have any questions or helpful tips  on how to pack a backpack for hiking please leave a comment below!

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4 thoughts on “How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking”

  • What a helpful post Katie…
    I’m planning to go on a trip that will involve a lot of hiking…

    This helps me prepare for the adventure I’m about to have but I want to ask you a question…

    Which backpack would you recommend for a 10 day long trip?

    We will be stopping in some towns to re-supply, but I would need to take everything I need all the time.

    Thank you and I hope you have a fantastic day.

    • Hi Kevin,

      I use a Gossamer Gear Mariposa and I love it!  Many hikers also like the Osprey Exos and the ULA Circuit.  Keep in mind these are lightweight packs so if you have a lot of heavy gear or need to carry winter gear, they probably will not work for you.  Is your pack weight usually under 35-40 lbs?   

  • What a great post! Love your site.

    Packing has been a downfall of mine and this really helps lay it out it with visual + written language.

    I love to just get up & go. Hiking is such an exhilarating activity. So you know, it was also great to have a video to help me along.

    I didn’t see or missed it. What pack do you recommend or like?

    What is your favorite hike!

    • I love to just get up and go too…once you get the hang of the right way to pack, it becomes habit and you don’t even have to think about it.  I currently have a Gossamer Gear Mariposa and I love it.  It is the most comfortable pack I’ve owned and it is really user friendly.  I know a lot of hikers like the Osprey Exos and the ULA Circuit too.

      Not sure I could pick a favorite hike because they’re all unique and special in a different ways.  The most epic hike I’ve been on is Mt. Whitney though.  Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon was another favorite.  I also really love hiking in Desolation Wilderness and the Lake Tahoe area.     

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