How to Pack Your Backpack

Now it's time to load up all that gear and head out.  What's the smartest way to get all that gear into your backpack?  Well, it depends on what you're carrying (internal-frame pack or external) and where you're going (on-trail or off-trail)

Types of Backpack

Internal-Frame Packs

External-Frame Packs

Tips for Either Pack Style

Packing and Weight Distribution

So now you're probably saying, "Yes.  That's nice.  But you really haven't told me where it all goes."  After you've decided on what you're to carry, you'll need to pack for the trail.  There are lots of different ways and philosophies on where things go in the pack and here are some suggestions:

1. Upper Main Compartment

It usually holds the bulky and heavy things (to keep weight over your skeleton).  The external frame shown is "front-loading," meaning that it has a zippered door/flap that allows Scouts to place gear when the pack is lying down.  The internal frame pack is "top-loading."  The top pocket (#6) is swung off and all gear is loaded from the top like putting groceries into a shopping bag. On most newer design packs, that compartment has a draw string at the top to close it before it is covered by the top flap / pocket.  Some external frames are also top-loading.  Top-loading main compartments are often quite a bit larger than front-loading main compartments.  Basically, everything that doesn't go somewhere else gets "dumped" into here.  Some items to store here:

2. Lower Main Compartment

It is often called the sleeping bag compartment, after its usual contents in internal frames.  Generally, this compartment is front-loading with a heavy zipper. Because my sleeping bag is put in a stuff sack and sometimes lashed on the outside (at #8 or #9), I can use this compartment on my external frame for clothing.  Many external frames (especially ones with top-loading main compartments and older designs) don't have this second main compartment, so more is stored in the upper compartment.  Sometimes the two compartments have a removable (drawstring or zipper) separator and it is incomplete so that long things (like tent poles) can "passed-through" both compartments. Instead, sometimes one of the external side pockets is not fastened to the main pack at the top and bottom to allow tent poles to be "passed-behind" or "tunnel" it to rest in a lower pocket.  Some items to store here:

3. Left Upper Pocket

Because of accessibility, this is a good place to put rain gear.  Some items to store here:

4. Right Upper Pocket

Because external pockets allow isolation of potentially contaminating items, this is a good place for the stove fuel bottle and other potential contaminants (toiletry articles) and things that can be washed if contaminated (cat hole / sump trowel).  Some items to store here:

5. Front Pocket

It is sometimes called a "shovel pocket."  Because of accessibility and its prominent visible position, this is a good place for important things like the first aid kit, tour permit and medical forms.  It may also be a place for a camera.  Frames without this pocket often have a "top pocket" that can be used for the same purpose.

6. Other External Pockets

They may include the top pocket on a top-loading main compartment (#6 of internal illustration), lower external pockets (lower-left #6 of external illustration) and elasticized throw pockets (middle #6 of external illustration).  Except that I wouldn't put the fuel bottle or other contaminants in a top pocket for fear of contaminating the contents of main compartments, they can be used to distribute the contents of #3, #5 and #6.  The lower left pocket is where I keep my compass, flashlight, zip-locked toilet paper and iodine bottle.

7. Water Bottle Holders

Sometimes they are specifically designed for this function. Other times extra external zippered or elasticized pockets can be used. Some packs have the bottle pockets near the top where #3 and #4 are pictured, with these pockets positioned lower. This provides "over-the-shoulder" access instead of "under-the-shoulder" access. Both work. If none of these are available, bottle bags [$4 in Campmor] or canteen holders with belt loops or clips [Army surplus stores] can be used on the hip belt.

8. Top Lash Points

These points are often used for sleeping pads, tents (in bag), and ground cloths, especially on external frames (as pictured). The same purpose can be achieved by placing things between the top pocket (#6 of internal illustration) and the top-loading upper main compartment (#1 of internal illustration) and tightening the fastening straps. I don't recommend this, though, if you don't have a drawstring on that compartment.

9. Bottom Lash Points

They serve the same purpose as those on top.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, you need to decide.  These are just suggestions based on the advice and experience of veteran backpackers.  As with any advice, though, you must take the time to consider the merits and relative value of the "words of wisdom" found here and decide what works best for you.


A scout is always prepared, right?  One way to make sure is to have a pack shakedown.  This is especially true for inexperienced backpackers, but is also useful for everyone, since what you leave behind can't be retrieved and whatever you take will burden you. Bring your equipment checklist to the shakedown.

How do shakedowns work?  The crew gets together a day or two before departure on a trek/tour and each spreads all equipment, clothing, and provisions on a table, bunk, floor or ground cloth.  Each item is considered carefully.  Is it necessary?  If so, it is put in one pile.  If not, it is put in a separate pile (to be left home).  Each item on your list is checked off to be sure all the basics but nothing more is in the "keep" pile.  It helps to pair off in "buddies," for one to call out each item on the list and for the other to hold that item up.  The first then checks it off. Then they switch roles.  Buddy Scouts with experienced Scouts, so they can offer advice.  After going through everything once, go through it again.  Finally, take one last look through the pile designated to stay home.  If you aren't already at maximum pack weight, you may decide that some of the items could make your trip more pleasant.  The answer may be yes for a book, binoculars, or a camera, but remember that ounces add up quickly and an ounce in the morning feels like a pound at night.  The more thorough your shakedown, the lighter your load.

Another interesting concept is to do a shakedown after you get back from a trek, to remove items that you didn't need and won't pack again.  The more experience Scouts get, the lighter their pack is likely to become.

Total Pack Weight

How much a Scouts pack weighs depends on the length of the trek, the food and equipment you must carry, and your personal preferences for optional (luxury) items.  Traveling with a crew allows tents, food, cooking gear, and other crew gear to be divided.  The amount of weight that a Scout can carry depends on a lot of physical factors (size, physical condition, age, experience) and terrain.  A useful rule I've seen and adopted is that MAXIMUM packing weight not exceed the greater of 20 lbs. or 25% of body weight much higher and you should leave the kitchen sink at home.

Body Weight MAXIMUM Pack Weight
80 lbs 20 lbs
100 lbs 25 lbs
120 lbs 30 lbs
140 lbs 35 lbs
160 lbs 40 lbs
180 lbs+ 45 lbs
Pack weight above 45 lbs?  Get real and repack!

Remember that these are maximums and many Scouts may struggle even at these weights.  This weight includes food and full water bottles.  In almost all excess weight cases, nonessential items can be found to be left behind or shared/crew gear can be redistributed to bigger, stronger, more experienced crew members.  Excessive weight and the resultant fatigue from overexertion can lead to loss of fun, irritability, and even injuries.  Follow this link to go to the Backpack Weight Calculator.

Hoisting Your Pack Onto Your Back

The best way to learn how to get the pack onto your back without straining is to watch experienced backpackers do it, then practice imitating them.  The first time, do it with an empty pack, then work yourself up to the full weight you will carry.  At the beginning or when the pack is heavy, it helps to loosen the shoulder strap a little.  Bring the pack up to rest on your knee/thigh/hip with the back strap side facing me, then lean it to one side.  Slip the closest arm through the shoulder strap and, with a smooth motion, swing it around behind, reach down and catch it by sliding the other (free) arm through the other (free) shoulder strap.  A couple of small jumps or jiggles allows you to position it squarely high on your shoulders (for stability and so that the hip belt is above the hips).  Then clip the hip belt, followed by adjusting the shoulder straps and fastening the sternum strap.