Learning how to pack a backpack for camping, hiking and trekking is an essential skill. If you’ve ever spent an hour rummaging through your pack in the dark, desperately trying to find a headtorch, you’ll know why. But it’s not just about the organisation. Done well, it can reduce the stress on your body, provide more comfort and a more stable pack meaning you can travel further, faster.
Here are our top tips on how to pack a backpack for wild camping, hiking to the ridgeline or trekking on your gap year.
Before you start packing, work out what you need for your trip and make a list. For shorter trips, you’ll need less gear – fewer clothes, less water and less food, while longer trips will require more careful planning. Do you have enough fuel? Will you need more layers? Do you have the right map for the area you’re exploring?
Once you know what you need to take, you can work out what size bag you’ll need. For camping, we normally take a pack that will fit everything perfectly, as it the gear inside will only get smaller and lighter as food and drink are consumed along the way. When travelling, you might want a bit of spare capacity in your pack for things you might buy along the way, like souvenirs.
We travel pretty light, so the 28 litre Assynt is our pack of choice for shorter trips.
Lay out all of your gear before you start packing. That will give you a good visual of exactly what you’re packing, and ensure you don’t miss anything out. Check off your list as you go, but don’t worry too much about the quantity of kit just yet. It’s always worth laying out your ‘ideal’ gear first and then editing your selection a couple of times to omit items that aren’t necessary, or add anything that slipped through the net the first time.
Now that everything is laid out, group smaller items (like food, cooking pots or utensils) together and pack them in a packing cube or stuff sack. Compartmentalising your gear will help you to stay organised on the trail, and ensure you know exactly where everything is. You might consider using different colour stuff sacks for easy identification, or you could label your packing cubes to stay organised.
Some items, like your headtorch or midge repellant might need to be accessed easily, so group these together and set them to one side.
This is the easy part – but there are a few things that you need to consider.
Effective weight distribution can mean the difference between an uncomfortable and unbalanced pack and an easy-to-manoeuvre, easy to access pack.
The bottom of the pack is best used for bulky items that you don’t need to access during the day. This is where your sleeping bag lives, as it’s the last thing you need to unpack when you’re at camp.
The middle of your pack is ideal for medium-weight items that don’t require much access, like spare clothes
Heavy items, like your tent, are best stowed near your shoulders close to the back. This ensures the weight is easier to carry – any lower down, and it will pull the pack down, adding extra weight onto your shoulders. You can stash more dense, medium weight items in front of the ‘heavy’ zone.
Lightweight items, and anything that needs to be within easy reach should go at the top of your pack. A spare layer, waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers live up here, while small items like your headtorch, midge repellent and snacks are best stored in the lid-pocket of your bag, so they can be accessed in an instant.
Any small gaps can be filled with lighter, more compressible items like a down jacket.
Try and pack your gear horizontally, in rows, rather than vertically in columns. This will help to keep the pack balanced from side to side, and make the load more stable.
Sometimes, there are odd shaped items that just won’t fit inside your bag. These can be lashed onto the outside of your pack using our strap extensions or lashing straps. However, this is always a last resort, as items stowed on the outside are liable to snag or swing about, making your pack less balanced and stable.
Now that everything is well-packed, it’s time for final adjustments.
First, pick up the pack and check it’s manageable. Experts reckon that a fully-loaded pack shouldn’t exceed 25-30% of your bodyweight, but that sounds heavy to us. Remember – the lighter the load, the further you can travel, and the easier it will be.
When you put the bag on your back, ensure the straps are correctly adjusted. Heavier loads are easier to carry with a padded waistbelt. If you’re using a waistbelt, put the bag on, fasten it so that it’s centred on your hips and then adjust your shoulder straps for comfort. In theory, the bulk of the weight should be carried on your hips, with the shoulder straps keeping the load in place and secure. A sternum strap can help to keep the shoulder straps in place. If the straps are digging into your shoulders, loosen them off and re-adjust your waistbelt.
That’s it! You’re one step closer to packing like a pro – but if you need more inspiration, check out our four classic packing hacks.