Knowing how to correctly pack a backpack is essential to making a longer hike or multi-day backpacking trip successful.
Preparation & Planning
Use a checklist (see our Backpacking Checklist, 10 Essentials, and 10 Baby Essentials) to gather the items you need to bring. Before adding any items to your backpack, organize the items by laying them out on your living room floor. This will help you better determine in which order to pack items, and it will help you manage the checklist throughout the packing process.
Be sure that you have the proper pack size to fit the gear you plan to bring.
Dividing items and weight between hikers, especially children, requires taking multiple factors into account:
- Body weight
- Previous backpacking experience
Although little research exist on what may be a healthy maximum weight for a child to carry, the American Physical Therapy Association suggest 15-20% of the child’s bodyweight. The American Chiropractic Association advises 5-10%.
For a younger child weighing 40lbs and just starting to carry his own backpack, 4-8lbs may be an appropriate weight to carry. The child’s pack may hold items such as: water bottle, rain jacket, and snacks.
An older child weighing 60lbs, who is used to backpacking and comfortable with carrying his own pack, may be able to carry up to 12lbs, or more. The older child should be able to carry items such as: sleeping bag, sleeping pad, extra clothes, and water bottle.
Ideal pack weight for adults is 25% of bodyweight or less. That’s a pack weight of 40lbs for an adult weighing 160 lbs. An experienced backpacker in good physical shape may be able to comfortably carry even more weight. A first-time backpacker in less-than-good physical shape may need to reduce pack weight to 20% of bodyweight to avoid injury or exhaustion.
My backpack usually weigh 30-35lbs, including food, when I start a multi-day backpacking trip. My kids carry approximately 10lbs each.
If your backpack weigh more than 45lb, you are either carrying a lot of water (wet food or canned food? see out guide Backpacking Food 101), or you may be carrying too much gear, including many unnecessary items that you likely won’t use.
Center of Gravity
Your natural center of gravity is located just above your hips. The key to a comfortable backpack is a well-balanced load.
When you add heavy weight on your back you will naturally lean forward, adjusting your center of gravity to maintain balance.
If your bag is loaded correctly, you should be slightly bent forward. If your bag is loaded incorrectly, you will need to lean way forward to maintain balance, or you may feel like you are tipping backwards. Distorting the natural curves in middle and lower back may cause muscle strain and irritation to the spine joints and the rib cage.
If your center of gravity is too high, your pack may sway or shift during hiking, and you may struggle keeping your balance. If you center of gravity is too low, or towards the lower back of your pack, you will need to compensate by leaning your shoulders forward.
A well-loaded pack should rest on your hips, using the backpack hip-belt, and allow you to maintain your natural center of gravity, requiring only a slight forward bend at the hips while keeping your back straight.
Once you understand the importance of a balanced center of gravity, loading a backpack is pretty simple:
- Start by adding your lightest most compressible items at the bottom of your backpack, such as your sleeping bag and clothing items. Items at the bottom of your pack should be those you won’t need until end of day, such as sleepwear or long underwear, because accessing them may be difficult unless you empty your entire pack. Some backpacks feature a zippered opening at the bottom, known as the “sleeping bag compartment.”
- Next add your heaviest items on top of your sleeping bag, as close to your spine as possible. These items may include: food, water bladder, stove, cook set, etc. Heavier items should be centered in your pack, and positioned slightly above your waistline. This will ensure your center of gravity remains in its natural location.
- Then add lighter items surrounding your heavy items to prevent the heavy items from shifting inside your pack as you walk. These items may include: tent, rainfly, clothing items, etc.
- Finally add medium-heavy items at the top of your pack. These should be items that you frequently use, because they will be easily accessible. Items are: 10 Essentials, snacks, rain jacket, hat, etc. You may be able to put several of these items in your backpacks top-pocket.
Tips & Tricks
- Strap tent poles, trekking poles, and rolled up sleeping pad to the outside of your backpack. None of these items add much weight, but they are all difficult to fit inside your pack.
- Organize your gear in stuff-sacks. This will prevent smaller items from getting lost inside your pack.
- Carry a rain cover for your backpack. Even if your backpack is constructed of waterproof materials, zippers and seams may still let water in.
- Place must-keep-dry-at-all-cost items, such as sleeping bag and electronics, in waterproof stuff-sacks or plastic bags.