Tips On I’ve Learned to Pack My Hiking Backpack Efficiently

By Jake O’Brien

My first backpacking trip through Europe.
My first backpacking trip through Europe.

My Experience

Over the years, I have hiked and packed for a weekend with a medium sized backpack as well as for a week with a very large backpack. I quickly became aware of how crucial it was to pack my backpack efficiently.

While on my first couple of backpacking trips, I realized how inefficiently I packed my backpack due to my back and body screaming at me to take of my pack. I wasted hours trying to get my pack resituated to where I was comfortable enough to walk for long periods of time. 

Back then, I wish I had had some sort of guide to teach me how to properly pack my equipment and gear in my pack. There is nothing worse than being uncomfortable in the beautiful outdoors or dumping your entire bag out to find an item at the bottom. These guidelines below should give beginners, or even avid hikers, a good chance at quickly becoming efficient at packing a hiking backpack. 

Anatomy of a Hiking Backpack

Know the anatomy to pack your backpack efficiently.

Now, your pack may have more or less of these accessories, so we will focus on the main compartments that almost every backpack has. If you become familiar with the anatomy it will help you pack your backpack efficiently.

To find out more, here’s a more detailed guide of the anatomy of a hiking backpack.

Lay out items to get an idea of how to pack your backpack efficiently.

5 rules to pack backpack efficiently:

  • Use your hip belt and shoulder strap pockets for little things you will need on the hike. 
  • Items that you need during your hike should be packed at the top. 
  • Heavier items should be packed closer to your back and the lighter items on the other side.
  • Pack your bag evenly on both the right and left sides.
  • If you bring fuel, pack it away from your food.

Over time, it will become second nature of packing your bag evenly and knowing these rules right off the back. You will also come up with your own system that works best for you, and my goal is to help give you a good basis of how to pack your backpack efficiently. 

Pack Backpack Systematically

First…

Lay all of the items you plan to bring. If you are looking for a way to minimize the weight of your bag you can check out some of our tips here.Otherwise, divide those items out by things you will need during your hike and things you will only need once you reach your campsite. 

Hip Belt & Shoulder Pouch

Start with packing the hip belt and shoulder strap pouch. The hip belt pocket should be packed with small items that you will need throughout your hike. Some items I include in my own are my chapstick, knife, compass, sunscreen, and protein bars. This is the pocket that is easiest to accesses while hiking. Also, if I plan to hike into the night, I put my head lamp in this pocket too. Next, in the shoulder pouch pack should be other small items that you wouldn’t want to break or are more delicate such as your sunglasses and camera. This pouch is more protective than the hip belt pocket. 

Inside of the Bag

Bottom Portion

This will contain all of the items you won’t need until you reach your campsite. For the base, place your sleeping bag at the very bottom. To save room, I fold it myself instead of using the sack it comes with. The weight of the items placed on top of the sleeping bag will squish it down anyways. The next set of items should be your sleeping pad, shelter, and/or tarp. After that, I pack my cooking equipment such as my cook pot/stove. Keep in mind to have those items closer to your back since they are heavier. 

Middle Portion

On top of those heavier items, I put my puffy coat and extra clothes bag. Don’t pack more clothes than you need for the duration and weather for your trip. For a longer trip, I usually only bring 1 extra outfit and 2 pairs of extra socks and underwear. If the weather is nice and you bring your rain jacket, place it with these items as well. But if it is supposed to rain sometime during the day, you should pack it at the top of the pack. 

In-between clothing items and the very top layer, I pack my food that I have already prepackaged in my own plastic bags to save room. Don’t pack your food at the very top of your pack, so the sun doesn’t warm it up and possibly melt.

If you are backpacking with a partner, I suggest that you divvy up the food supply between the two of you. One pack can hold breakfast and dinner while the other can pack lunch and snacks. The one that carries breakfast and dinner can pack it lower in the bag since you won’t need that until you reach camp. 

Top Layer

I pack this part of my bag with the other small stuff that I may need throughout the hike. This is the perfect place for your first aid kit and toiletries. Almost every item that I pack on this layer is placed in plastic bags so it’s more organized. 

Here’s a great overview of the location of items weight-wise in your pack.

Outside of Backpack

Mesh Pockets

Put other items that you may need on your trail that are too big to put in your hip and shoulder pockets or may not need necessarily all the time. This is also a good place to put wet items such as your shelter or clothes. I usually keep my water filter, round sheet for tent, and toilet paper (if it’s not raining) in these pockets. I have also seen my friends put their map in a plastic bag in this pocket. 

Water Bottle Pockets

I keep a soft water bottle here and keep about 1 liter on hand. Again, this all depends on where I am hiking and how often I may find water sources. Take time to look at a map of your trail to see where those sources may be and plan ahead. I prefer a water bottle, but some may choose to use a water bladder. If so, make sure you don’t pack it near anything sharp that may potentially snag it. 

Final Steps to Pack Your Backpack Efficiently

Lastly, the loops on the outside of the bag is where I place my tent poles and trekking poles. 

When you’re finally done packing your bag tighten the compression straps, so the weight will become more condensed and confided to your back. I have also made the mistake of tying a lot of additional items to the outside of my bag. It threw me off balance, made too much noise, and kept getting caught on trees. My recommendation is to try to not have anything tied to your bag, but if you have to definitely minimize the number of items. 

I hope this post has given you a good basis of how to pack your hiking backpack efficiently. You may have more or less of some of the example items I have stated. But if you keep in mind those 5 rules as you pack, I am sure you will be able to pack efficiently and in no time! 

Comment below any of your personal recommendations to help out other visitors!  

Happy hiking! 

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