Loading a backpack is pretty simple. If possible, first load your backpack at home. You can spread out your gear on a clean floor, visually confirm you've got everything and feel less rushed as you load up.
Still shopping for a backpack? Check out the REI Expert Advice How to Choose a Backpack article.
Virtually all backpacks have large openings at the top and are known as (ta-da!) top-loading packs. A seldom-seen alternative is a panel-loading pack which uses a zippered sidewall flap.
Most backpackers shove their sleeping bag into the bottom of the pack. On some packs, there is a zippered opening at the bottom of the packbag, known as the sleeping bag compartment, for this purpose.
The bottom of the pack is also a good place for other items you won't need until you make camp at night: long underwear being used as sleepwear, for example; a pillowcase; maybe a sleeping pad, if it's the kind that rolls up into a tiny shape.
Any other needed-only-at-night items can go down low except a headlamp or flashlight. Always have your light source in a readily accessible space.
In bear country? Try to keep your sleeping bag separated from anything that can transmit a fragrance. Bears can't distinguish between food and nonfood aromas, so toothpaste or sunscreen can attract their interest as well as tea bags or jerky.
Your heaviest items should be placed 1) on top of your sleeping bag and 2) close to your spine. Usually these items will be:
Carrying a hydration reservoir? Most newer packs include a reservoir sleeve. This is a slot that holds a reservoir close to your back and parallel to your spine. It's easier to insert the reservoir while the pack is still mostly empty, so that leaves you 2 choices:
Heavier items should be centered in your pack—not too high, not too low. The goal is to create a predictable, comfortable center of gravity. Heavy items too low cause a pack to feel saggy. Too high and the load might feel tippy.
In the past, traditional pack-loading advice (previously published here) recommended that for trail-walking, heavy items should be carried a little higher in a pack. Today, with most packs designed to ride close to the body, it's best to simply keep heavy items close to the spine and centered in the pack.
Wrap softer, lower-weight items around the weightier items to prevent heavier pieces from shifting. What items are these? Your tent body, rainfly, an insulation layer, a rain jacket. These items can help stabilize the core and fill empty spaces.
Stash frequently used items within easy reach. This includes your map, compass, GPS, sunscreen, sunglasses, headlamp, bug spray, first-aid kit, snacks, rain gear, packcover, toilet paper and sanitation trowel. Place them in the pack's top pocket or other external pocket, if one exists. Some packs even offer tiny pockets on the hipbelt.
If carrying liquid fuel, make sure your fuel bottle cap is on tightly. Pack the bottle upright and place it below your food in case of a spill.
Ideally, a well-loaded pack will:
You now know the fundamentals of loading a backpack. But for inquisitive readers, here are some additional points of interest.
Q: Where should I pack long, rigid items such as tent poles, not-in-use trekking poles or a rolled-up sleeping pad?
A: Packs typically provide external straps, loops and sleeve-like side pockets where such items can be lashed or stashed.
Note: Minimize the amount of gear you attach to your pack's exterior. External items can potentially get snagged on brush in areas of dense vegetation. Too much external gear could also jeopardize your stability.
Q: How do I know if my gear can fit into a new pack?
A: These charts that show how much space some common backpacking items occupy inside a pack.
|Ultralight-trending Gear||Packed Size (in.)||Lbs./Oz.||Liters Occupied|
|Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2||6.5 x 19||2/2||4.4|
|Bag: Mountain Hardwear Phantom +32°F regular||7 x 10||1/7||3.7|
|Pad: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir regular||4 x 9||0/14||1.2|
|Lightweight Gear||Packed Size (in.)||Lbs./Oz.||Liters Occupied|
|Tent: REI Half Dome 2||6 x 21||5/0||11.7|
|Bag: REI Lumen +25°F regular||9 x 20||2/11||13.1|
|Pad: Therm-a-Rest ProLite regular||4.1 x 11||1/0||5.2|
|Gear More for Comfort and Convenience||Packed Size (in.)||Lbs./Oz.||Liters Occupied|
|Tent: Marmot Limelight 3||8 x 22||5/15||13.5|
|Bag: REI Radiant +10°F regular||11 x 17||2/15||15.1|
|Pad: REI Trekker 1.75 regular||4.75 x 21.25||2/8||8.2|
|Other Backpacking Gear||Packed Size (in.)||Lbs./Oz.||Liters Occupied|
|Rain jacket: Marmot PreCip (men's)||6.5 x 4.5||0/13||1.5|
|Fleece top: REI Windbrake Thermal (women's)||7 x 6||1/0.2||3.1|
|Water bottle: 32-fl.-oz. REI Nalgene (empty)||7.87 x 3.62||0/6.2||1.2|
|Stove: Jetboil Flash Cooking System (without fuel)||7.5x4.5x4.1||0/15.25||1.3|
|Cookset: GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist||6.4 x 5.9||1/4.7||2.5|
|First-aid kit: Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Day Tripper||7.5 x 5 x 2.5||0/14.4||1.3|
|Food canister: Bear-Vault BV500||12.7 x 8.7||2/9||11.8|
The most popular backpacks for multiday trips hold between 60 and 80 liters. If you're aiming to maximize comfort or have older, bulkier gear, choose a pack in the 70s or higher. If you're going lighter, you can aim for a smaller pack.
Q: Should I organize all items in stuff sacks, or shove them in loosely and independently?
A: A couple of REI colleagues, Steve Nagode and Scott Smith of REI's Quality Assurance Lab, tell me they both avoid packing "soft and squishy" items (clothing, tent body, sleeping bag) inside stuff sacks. Instead, they just stuff them loosely into the pack and thus fill up every iota of air space inside a pack.
"With stuff sacks, you wind up with a bunch of soft 'rocks' to put inside your pack," Nagode says. "I'd rather fill up all the space inside my pack and keep it as small as possible." Others, of course, may prefer the low-chaos/easy-organization of the soft-rocks approach. Experiment with your own gear and decide which method most appeals to you.
Many national parks and wilderness areas now require the use of bear-resistant canisters to minimize bear-human encounters. The requirement also acknowledges the fact that it's very difficult to successfully hang food (and scented toiletries) via "bear bagging." Most of us don't get it right, and Sierra bears in particular are skilled at swiping marginally positioned bags.
Bear-resistant canisters offer greater food security and convenience, but at the cost of being relatively heavy.
Canister packing tips:
For more information, read the REI Expert Advice article on bear-resistant canisters.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 12/21/2012
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