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.

Use a checklist to ensure you've got everything you need. (REI offers good ones for backpacking and ultralight backpacking.) This lessens the chance something gets left behind.

Still shopping for a backpack? Check out the REI Expert Advice How to Choose a Backpack article.

The Basics of Pack Loading

The Bottom of the Pack

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.

The Pack's Core

Parts of a pack

Your heaviest items should be placed 1) on top of your sleeping bag and 2) close to your spine. Usually these items will be:

  • Your food stash, either in a couple of stuff sacks or in a bear canister.
  • Your water supply, either in a hydration reservoir or bottles.
  • Your cook kit and stove might also go here, though both could be wedged into the periphery of the load if small and light enough.

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:

  • If you prefer efficiency, insert it at home. You'll have a loaded pack ready to go as soon as you reach the trailhead.
  • If you want the coldest water possible, carry the reservoir in a cooler and load it and your other middle- and upper-pack contents at the trailhead.

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.

The Periphery

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.

Other Tips

  • Fill up empty spaces. For example, put utensils, a cup or a small item of clothing inside your cooking pots. Fill up your bear canister.
  • Split the weight of large communal items (e.g., tent) with others in your group. You carry the main body, for example, and your friend can carry the poles and rainfly.
  • Tighten all compression straps to limit load-shifting.

The Desired Result

Ideally, a well-loaded pack will:

  • Feel balanced when resting on your hips.
  • Feel cohesive, a whole unit, with nothing shifting or swaying inside.
  • Feel stable and predictable as you walk, at one with your upper body.

Beyond the Basics

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.

  • Tent poles: If your pack offers elasticized side pockets, place the poles down one side of the pack, behind one or more compression straps, with one end of the poles in the pocket.
  • Sleeping pad: You may need an extra set of straps to attach it to a lash point on the top of the pack or near your waistline on the outside of the pack. Another option: Put it beneath your top pocket (lid) and the top opening of the pack, then tighten the lid to the pack. The pad may be vulnerable to slipping out either side, so secure the pad to the pack with an extra strap or 2. Note: It's fine to carry tent poles and a sleeping pad inside a pack if you have the space.
  • Trekking poles: Same deal; just put the grips in the pocket and the tip pointing upward.
  • Ice axe: External tool loops make it possible to carry an inverted axe on your back until it's needed.
  • Crampons: Carry them inside your pack in a protective case. Or, lash them to the outside of the pack as long as you use protective point covers.
  • Other tools: Some packs offer a series of external stitched loops called a daisy chain. Use it to clip or tie small items on your pack.

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
Total liters     9.3
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
Total liters     30.0
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
Total liters     36.8
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.

Bear Canisters

Bear Canisters

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:

  • Be efficient: Always fill a canister to its maximum capacity.
  • Any room not occupied by food should be used for sunscreen, bug spray and other scented items.
  • Put your canister in the pack's main compartment, closest to your back. If short on space, lash the canister under your top lid.

For more information, read the REI Expert Advice article on bear-resistant canisters.

Other Packing Tips

  • Carry a packcover. Though some backpacks are made with waterproof fabric, they have seams and zippers that are vulnerable to seepage during a downpour. A packcover is worth its weight when rain becomes persistent.
  • Bring a few repair items. Wrap strips of duct tape around your water bottles or trekking poles; in case a strap pops or some other disaster occurs, a quick fix could keep you going. Take along a few safety pins in case a zipper fails.
  • Consider a camera case. The need for one depends on your camera and your desire for quick access when shooting.