How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking Trips

By Alexander Popp


Spend a few days in the backcountry and you’ll learn that how you pack your backpack is nearly as important as the things you pack in it.

Pack your bag the wrong way and your back won’t thank you, neither will your stress level if you need to empty your whole pack every time you want a snack or clean pair of socks.

But with those things in mind, packing a hiking backpack, like many hiking topics, is all about personal preference. In this guide, we’ll talk about one specific way of packing that we’ve found success with, but there are many other methods, so keep trying new ways that fit your needs.

Two hikers put on backpacks before heading out on a hike.
Two hikers put on backpacks before heading out on a hike.

Start from the bottom and protect your dry stuff!

Depending on your backpack, this first part might differ a little bit. Some bags, especially older bags, have multiple compartments throughout the main compartment.

But for our method of packing, you’re going to start with a completely empty main compartment, which you’re going to fill with a large-sized, heavy-weight compactor trash bag. This is called a Pack Liner and it’s going to keep the bulk of your possessions safe and dry.

With your pack liner now in your backpack, you should pack your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, spare clothes and other items that need to stay dry into the bottom of your bag.

Keeping things that need to stay dry at the bottom of your bag will keep them as far away as possible from the rain while you’re hiking, insulating them, and keeping them away from possible sources of moisture.


Compression Sacks – Yeah or Nah?

Some folks are enthusiastically pro-compression sack, and it does make some sense. Space in your backpack is limited, so why not compress everything you can as tightly as you can, right?

Well in our opinion, you’re better off skipping individual compression all together!

Here’s the problem with compression as we see it: When you compress things down in compression sacks, you will invariably end up with your clothes, sleeping bag, etc. in hard balls of tightly packed gear, that can be packed easily, yes. But which leave spaces and gaps that otherwise be filled.

Feel free to organize and pack your stuff in bags. They make sacks, storage cubes and dozens of other products that are great for this but consider leaving them uncompressed so that other gear items can be packed on and around them, filling your bag more completely.

Hiker filers water during a rest stop during a hike.
There are many ways to pack your backpack, so you’ll need to figure out the method that fits your gear and hiking style.

Layer things how you’ll use them

With your dry and warm gear packed safely at the bottom of your bag, you’ve got to pack the rest of your gear.

For this, our rule of thumb is this: Pack your gear in descending layers based on when you’ll be using or unpacking the gear.

For example, on top of our clothes, sleeping bag, and other dry items at the bottom of the pack, we nearly always pack our tent or hammock fabric next. In the middle area, we pack our stove, fuel, bear canister, food, and trash. Lastly, at the top of our pack, we place items that need to be accessed quickly and easily like snacks, rain jackets, first aid kits, and medications.

 Hikers unfold a tent at the end of a hike.

Big, bulky items, like tents and sleeping bags, are often the last items to come out of your pack, so they should be some of the first things you pack.

Use your brain – And all the nooks and crannies wisely

If you have a backpack that’s been made any time recently, it probably came standard with a top pocket called the pack’s Brain.

Many experienced backpackers who are concerned with base pack weight remove their pack’s brain, but we suggest you keep it on since they normally have several clever pockets and storage spaces to keep important items.

We find that the pack’s brain is a great place to store medications, toiletries, tools, electronics, and other items that are usually needed quickly.

In addition to the pack’s brain, your pack likely has many other different pockets, pouches that can be used to store odds and ends.

Example: Many packs have long vertical pockets on their sides that can be used to store tent poles. Also, many packs have mesh pockets on their back, which can be used to store wet items, bulky items, trash bags, etc.


Be Flexible

So, what happens if you wake up one-morning mid-hike, and rain, snow, or dew has gotten your tent, rainfly, fabric, and ground cloth, soaking wet? Do you put it all deep down inside your pack with all your nice dry stuff?

Obviously not. In that situation, you’ll need to think on your feet and pack differently to make sure everything dries out and stays dry. So instead of packing it deep, maybe you’ll pack it all in the backpack’s back mesh pocket? Or in a trash bag at the top of your pack?

The point is, the outdoors will throw some curveballs at you, so you’ve got to be flexible with how you pack.


Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this winter and spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina. Learn more here.

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