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
- Whether you're traveling on- or off-trail, keep your heaviest items close to your back, centered between your shoulder blades.
- For on-trail travel, keep heavy items slightly higher inside your pack. This helps focus more of the weight over your hips, the area of your body best equipped to carry a heavy load.
- For off-trail exploration, reverse the strategy. Arrange heavier items slightly lower in the main compartment, starting again from the spot between your shoulder blades. This lowers your center of gravity and increases your stability on uneven terrain.
- Stuff your sleeping bag into its lower compartment first. Squeeze in any additional lightweight items you won't need until bedtime (pillowcase, sleeping shirt, but nothing aromatic lest you wish to add the aroma to your sleeping bag!). This will serve as the base of the main compartment, which you'll fill next.
- Tighten all compression straps to limit any load-shifting.
- As with an internal, keep your heaviest items close to your back, centered between your shoulder blades
- Externals are recommended for on-trail travel only. Most external frame packs have attachment points for items stowed against the sides of the pack. These will often catch on branches and limbs of trees along less traveled trails as well as adversely affect your balance. Secure any equipment you carry outside so it doesn't swing or rattle.
- Load heavier items high inside your pack and close to your body. This places the center of gravity high and close to your back. Doing so centers the pack's weight over your hips and helps you walk in a more upright position.
- Load your main compartments first. Pack your sleeping bag in its stuff sack then strap the bag to the lash points on the bottom of the frame last. If rain seems likely, consider stuffing your sleeping bag inside a second stuff sack or wrapping it in plastic.
Tips for Either Pack Style
- Prepare a checklist and review as you pack.
- Check all your gear to make sure it's in good working order.
- Load your pack a day or two before your hike. Rehearse loading several times to ensure you know where all your gear is stowed. Assign each item a specific "home" in your pack. Know where "home" is so that items can be located quickly and always return it to that "home."
- Where stability is vital, some comfort can be traded for the stability of a lower center of gravity by placing heavy gear in the bottom of the pack. Women and people with smaller upper body frames (e.g., Scouts) may sometimes find it preferable to do so whether they're traveling on- or off-trail and regardless of which pack style they're carrying. You must be the ultimate judge of what feels comfortable to you. Experiment with different load arrangements during our short hikes to determine what feels best.
- Equipment you won't need until you make camp can be buried deep in the pack, but reserve an outside pocket for isolating things such as white gas (fuel) and any other "smellables" that could contaminate food, clothing, tent or sleeping bag if they leak.
- Small, frequently used items should be readily accessible. Make sure these items are stowed in places where they can be reached with a minimum of digging. Use your pants pockets for some and "throw" pockets on the pack, hung from your shoulder straps or other accessible place. At the same time try and minimize the number of items you strap to the outside of your pack. Gear carried externally may adversely affect your balance so be sure to secure any equipment you carry outside so it doesn't swing or rattle. Accessible items should include:
- Water bottles
- Snack food
- Rainwear and Pack Rain Cover
- First-aid supplies
- Insect repellent and sun screen
- Watch (if not worn)
- Safety whistle
- Your water bottle should be very easy to retrieve and store. The harder it is to drink, the more likely you are not use it and the more likely you will to get dehydrated. Other items that need to be readily accessible to you or others should be in conspicuous outside pockets. These may include rain gear, trail snacks, lunch, your "yummy sack," bandanna, toilet paper, digging trowel, camera, and paper & pencil.
- Don't waste empty space. Cram every nook with something. Put a small item of clothing inside your pots, for example. Smaller items, such as food, pack more efficiently in individual units rather then when stored loosely inside a stuff sack.
- Decide who will carry which part of the patrol gear and divide the weight equally amongst the patrol members:
- Tent parts (if you're carrying a two-man tent)
- Water filter or purifiers
- Pots, lids, opener, etc.
- Serving/cooking utensils
- Stove and gas bottle
- Folding water container (1 gal. or larger)
- Dish soap, scouring pad, dish towel
- Packing several small similar items together in heavy plastic (zip-lock) bags organizes items that could get "lost" inside the pack and keeps the contents dry even if the pack gets soaked. Cluster related small items (such as utensils and kitchen items) in color-coded stuff sacks to help you spot them easily.
- Stow long tent poles horizontally with your sleeping pad across the top of an external pack; with an internal, carry them vertically, secured behind the compression straps on one side of the pack with the ends tucked into a "wand pocket" at the pack's bottom. A daisy chain and ice axe loops are designed for specific mountaineering gear; but feel free to improvise with them. Just don't get so creative that you affect your comfort or stability.
- Make sure the cap on your fuel bottle is screwed on tightly. Position it below your food inside your pack in case of an accidental leak or spill.
- Carry a pack rain cover. Backpacks, though made with waterproof fabric, have vulnerable seams and zippers. After a few hours of exposure to persistent rain, the items inside your pack could become wet—and much heavier!
- Items that must be kept dry but are too large for zip-lock bags, like a sleeping bag, should be placed inside a heavy plastic bag and the opening closed with a "gooseneck" tie.
- Wrap strips of duct tape around your water bottles; 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.
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:
- Cookware—utensils, cup, cleaning pad, dish towel and stove inside cook kit, all in stuff sack
- Food and matches in zip-lock bags stowed in a stuff sack used only for "smellables"
- Toiletries in bag—sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellent, biodegradable soap, toothbrush & paste, bathing towel, and emergency coins
- Bear bag and rope (lashed on outside if soiled)
- "Yummy bag" and sump strainer in plastic bag
- Extra garbage and zip-lock bags
- Water bag or collapsible container
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:
- Complete change of cloths—light "liner" socks, heavy wool socks, underwear, pants, shirt, each "rolled" & sealed together in gallon zip-lock bag (wear other set)
- Clothing appropriate for the season in gallon zip-lock bag(s)—gloves, ear muffs, other hat (brimmed), wool/flannel shirt, sweater or coat, etc.
- Camp footwear (if not hung on exterior compression strap)
3. Left Upper Pocket
Because of accessibility, this is a good place to put rain gear. Some items to store here:
- Rain jacket or poncho
- Pack cover
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:
- Stove fuel bottle in zip-lock bag
- Matches (spares) and fire starters in waterproof container
- Repair kit—duct tape
- Sewing kit
- Tent pole sleeve
- Zip ties in zip-lock bag
- Light rope or twine
- Trowel for digging sump and cat holes
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.
- First aid kit and personal medicines
- Bandana (with first aid kit)
- Camping/tour permits
- Medical forms
- Maps inside zip-lock bag (usually in pants pocket)
- Pencil and paper, diary
- Advancement, training materials
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.
- Lower Left Pocket
- Regular compass
- Pocket knife & watch (if not in pants pocket)
- Toilet paper in zip-lock bag
- Shoulder Strap Pouch
- Whistle and mini compass hang from shoulder strap
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.
- Two 1 qt. Lexan water bottles—one for "clear" water, other for "mix" (note: on the trail, consume the mix bottle first as this is considered a "smellable" and gets hoisted in the bear bag each night)
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.
- Therm-a-Rest/foam sleeping pad in stuff sack or…
- …tent, stakes, poles and ground cloth rolled together inside tent bag
9. Bottom Lash Points
They serve the same purpose as those on top.
- Tent, stakes, poles and ground cloth rolled together inside tent bag or…
- …sleeping bag in plastic bag inside stuff sack or…
- …foam sleeping pad in stuff sack
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.
||MAXIMUM Pack Weight
|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.