When packing for a backcountry camping adventure, a standard suitcase or duffel won’t cut it—you need a backpack that’s designed for the job. But having the proper backpack is just the starting point. If you’re headed on a backpacking trip, the “throw everything in and hope it closes” approach to packing is not a wise one.
Instead, you should choose gear that’s lightweight and packable—and then pack it efficiently. If you learn how to pack a backpack ahead of time, it’ll save you time and energy later (and prevent some serious back and shoulder pain).
Start with the Right Backpack
All the packing tips in the world won’t do much good if you don’t have a pack that’s designed for backpackers. That said, there are a dizzying number of options on the market—from streamlined backpacks with padded hip straps and integrated suspension to packs with compression straps and built-in hydration systems. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. With that in mind, here’s some advice on how to choose the right backpack for you.
Get (Lightweight & Packable) Gear
It’s always a good idea to consider gear weight and size when you’re camping, but it’s critically important when you’re backpacking. Backpackers usually measure weight in ounces and will often choose one item over another based on weight differences that can seem insignificant. But the truth is, an extra ounce here and there can really add up once you have a full pack!
As you compile gear for your trip, here’s a list of backpacking gear to consider:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Compass and map (and/or a GPS)
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Matches and/or lighter
- Stove and fuel
- Cook set (pot/pan and utensils)
- Dishes and eating utensils
- Food (and extra food)
- Water (and extra water)
- Water purifier (if applicable)
- Bug repellent
- Hiking boots or shoes
- Personal hygiene items
- Rain gear (if applicable)
- Biodegradable soap
- Biodegradable toilet paper
- Small trowel or shovel
- Microfiber towel
And no matter what else you pack, at minimum you’ll need what’s known in backpacking as “the big three”: tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. Here are their ideal weights. (If your goal is ultralight backpacking, these items should weigh even less.)
- Tent: 7 lbs or less
- Sleeping bag: 32 oz or less
- Sleeping pad: 16 oz or less
So how much should a full backpack weigh? Advice varies, but usually a pack should be no more than 20% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, your fully loaded pack should weigh no more than 30 pounds. If you’re 200 pounds, your pack can weigh up to 40 pounds. Any more than 20% of your body weight and you’ll likely put unnecessary strain on yourself. (And it’s possible you’re bringing too much gear!)
There are two other factors that can effect a backpack’s weight besides the weight of individual items: trip duration and weather. The longer your trip, the more water and food you’ll need. (Food and water can weigh a lot. But the good news is, you won’t have to carry it all back home again if you eat and drink most of it.) And if you’re camping in a season or location with cool temperatures, you’ll need cold-weather clothing which tends to weigh more.
Pack in Zones
Once you have the right backpack and gear, it’s time to pack. One of the most efficient ways to pack a backpack is to do it in zones: bottom, core, and top followed by exterior storage like accessory pockets, tool loops, and straps.
The bottom zone of your backpack will be the hardest to access once you’re on the trail, so this is where to pack items you won’t need until you reach a campsite like sleeping bags and sleeping pads. This is also a good place to stash bulky items like extra footwear or clothing you won’t need until later. The items in the bottom zone will serve as a good base (and cushion) for the rest of your belongings.
The core (or middle) zone is next. This is where to pack your heaviest or densest gear. Placing heavy items in the middle zone of your backpack will balance the load so that its weight is evenly distributed on your back and shoulders. (Key for avoiding back and shoulder pain!) Some good items to pack in this zone include: a tent, food (for meals), a bear canister, a water reservoir, and a cook set.
The top zone is the best place for things you’ll need to access en route: bulky yet lightweight items like rain gear and a fleece jacket along with lightweight necessities like a first-aid kit, a water purifier, or restroom supplies. Try to avoid placing any heavy items in the top zone because a top-heavy pack can easily throw you off balance.
Pockets, Tool Loops, and Straps
Most backpacks are designed with some smaller exterior pockets. These are great places to stash small items you want to easily access such as a phone, inhaler, headlamp, or snacks for the trail. Tool loops and straps come in handy for carrying things like trekking poles.
Compress Your Load
Many of today’s backpacks are designed with exterior compression straps. If your pack has this feature, be sure to cinch the straps tight once you’ve finished packing. This will reduce the overall size of your pack and make it more streamlined and easy to carry.
Test Out Your Backpack
Once your backpack is fully loaded and compressed, test it out. Wear it the way you would if you were hiking. (This is also a good opportunity to weigh your pack.) Be sure to walk around while wearing the pack to see if the load is balanced and if anything shifts out of place. Make adjustments as necessary.
If you don’t have a backpacking trip planned or a destination in mind (and these tips have inspired you!), we can help with that too. Check out our guide to free camping in the U.S. or our rundown of all 62 national parks!