Loading your backpack is a balancing act in the sense that you want easy access to contents in the order you use them on the trail and in camp, and literally in the sense that you want to balance the load to maintain your center of gravity. Here's how to do it, starting from the bottom of your pack:
Bag at The Bottom
Most backpackers will shove their sleeping bag into the bottom of their packs. On some packs, there is a zippered opening at the bottom of the pack specifically for this purpose. The bottom of the pack is also a good place for items you won't need until you make camp at night: long underwear being used as sleepwear, for example; a pillow or maybe a sleeping pad if it's the kind that can pack down instead of folding or rolling up. Any other campsite-only items can go down low, except a headlamp or flashlight—it’s always a good idea to have your light source readily accessible.
Mass in The Middle
Your heaviest items should be placed 1) on top of your sleeping bag or other items at the bottom of the pack and 2) close to your spine. Usually, these items will be:
- Your food stash, either in a couple of stuff sacks or in a bear canister
- Your water supply, either in a hydration reservoir or bottles
- Your cook kit and stove might also go here, though both could be wedged into the periphery of the load if small and light enough
- Part or all of your tent, packed into a sack that you can remove from the top without too much trouble when you reach camp
Heavier items should be centered in your pack—not too high, not too low. The goal is to create a predictable, comfortable center of gravity. Heavy items too low cause a pack to feel saggy. Too high and the load might feel tippy.
Pad the Periphery
Wrap softer, lower-weight items around the heavier items to prevent heavier pieces from shifting. Your tent body, rainfly, an insulation layer, or a rain jacket might work well. These items help stabilize the heavier core by filling empty spaces.
Tools on Top
Stash frequently used items in easy reach: This includes your map, compass, GPS, sunscreen, sunglasses, headlamp, bug spray, first-aid kit, snacks, rain gear, pack cover, toilet paper, and sanitation trowel. Place them in the pack's top pocket or another external pocket, if one exists. Many backpacking and trekking packs include small pockets on the hipbelt for trail snacks and accessories.
- Fill up hollow items with lighter, smaller, items or things that need protection. For example, you can put utensils, a cup, bagged grains or beans, or a small item of clothing inside your cooking pots.
- Fill up your bear canister all the way to make sure you maximize usable space.
- If you’re carrying liquid fuel, make sure your fuel bottle cap is on tightly. Pack the bottle upright and always below your food in case of a spill or leak.
- Share the load: Divide the weight of communal items (e.g., a tent) with others in your group. You carry the main body, for example, while your tentmate carries the poles and rainfly. But whatever you do, don’t give a critical piece of gear to someone who might split off from your group!
- Stabilize: Tighten all compression straps to limit load-shifting. Ideally, a well-loaded pack will:
- Feel balanced when resting on your hips.
- Feel cohesive, a whole unit with nothing shifting or swaying inside.
- Feel stable and predictable as you walk, at one with your upper body.