Outdoor Horizon is a reader-supported site. Purchases made through links may earn a commission.

What’s The Best Way To Pack A Hiking Backpack?

A hiking backpack must be capable of carrying so many essentials that the packing of it becomes key. Packing your hiking backpack in the wrong way can lead to damaged goods and much frustration, so it’s important to understand the best ways to pack a hiking backpack.

The best way to pack a hiking backpack is to put large things at the bottom, and keeping light, important items at the top. You should also utilize the various pockets on your backpack, ensuring your important items like food, water and navigation equipment are always within reach.

In this article, we’ll go through the basics of correctly packing your hiking backpack, so you can not only feel more comfortable, but also more organized on your next trip. But first, why is it so important to pack your hiking backpack in the right way?

Why It’s Important To Pack A Hiking Backpack Correctly

Later, I will talk about three key concepts: center of gravity, comfort, and convenience. All three are important as they are directly related to the way in which you pack your hiking backpack. However, to help stress why these are so important, I perhaps need to mention what happens when you fail to pack your hiking backpack correctly.

You Ache More

When the weight in your hiking backpack is not distributed in the correct manner, it will inevitably lead to additional stress and strain being placed on your shoulders and back. Also, keep in mind it won’t only be your back or shoulders that hurt.

Packing a backpack incorrectly also puts pressure on your hips, and that means your legs and feet will also feel the impact. Basically, your entire body can start to suffer, and it’s all from failing to do the right things with your backpack!

You Tire Faster

An incorrectly packed backpack will lead to you feeling fatigued earlier than you would have otherwise experienced. That is not something you want to encounter on your hike where you will be dealing with normal fatigue without having this added on top.

Once again, it’s all because of how your body needs to battle to contend with an incorrectly packed backpack. Sure, you may be aware of the weight you are carrying on your back, which does depend on your aim with your hike, but it should never feel like something that is capable of impeding you.

Doing this wrong will mean those already steep inclines become significantly tougher, using up more energy leading to your hike just not being as enjoyable as it should be. So, with the risk of hurting yourself and not enjoying your hike, it’s clear that knowing how to best pack your hiking backpack is key!

The Different Pockets On Your Hiking Backpack

I understand that different designs of hiking backpack will have various pockets, but there is a general rule of thumb when it comes to what the different pockets offer.

Now, I’m not talking here about the actual core of our backpack – the biggest pocket. That is something that is pretty obvious. Instead, it’s those other additional pockets you see on the external part of your backpack. Keep in mind that each pocket is some additional storage space, but you still need to be aware of what it’s best to use them for.

The Brain

The pocket that is sometimes referred to as ‘the brain’ is actually talking about the uppermost pocket on your pack. This is really the pocket you will open up most often during your hike. It’s going to be the spot where you keep your snacks, maps, and even headlamps.

The key here is that you can quickly access these items that you may need to use on a regular basis, so it makes sense for it to be on the top of your pack.

The Front Pouch

The front pouch has its own role to play, and I suggest using it to store your waterproof jacket or trousers. Not only does it make it relatively easy to get to, but it also means those items are kept away from anything else that they can dampen.

Don’t use the front pouch to store anything that is heavy. The reason for this is simply that anything heavy in this pocket will change your balance. It will automatically pull you backward, so your walking position becomes different and unnatural. You don’t want that to happen! So, keep it for your jacket or other light items, and it will serve its purpose well.

A Hip Belt Pocket

If your pack comes with a hip belt pocket, then I would use this to store an energy bar, trail mix, or even some lip balm. Basically, it’s a small pocket that won’t be able to store too much, but you should use it for any items you may need to use on a regular basis.

Your Water Bottle Pockets

The pockets on the side of your pack will often be for your water bottles, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend changing what they should be used for. If you’re storing your water bottles elsewhere or are perhaps using a hydration pack or water filter, you could simply use these pockets for other containers or easy to grab snacks.

How To Pack A Hiking Backpack Correctly

So, now we can get on with the important part, which is teaching you how to pack your hiking backpack in the correct manner. Trust me when I say it’s not simply a case of throwing everything into your pack and just going out and hitting the trail.

Instead, you need to focus on three main areas, which are comfort, convenience and center of gravity. All are key, and if one isn’t quite working for you, then it means you have packed your backpack the wrong way!

Center Of Gravity

In general, when talking about center of gravity, it means putting the heaviest or densest items closest to your back. If you put them to the top or away from your back, then you are automatically moving your balance away from where it should be – close to your body. That makes it easier to topple over if you lose your footing.

This is something you need to work on and try out when packing. Put the items in your pack, wear it, and determine if the pack feels as if it is pulling away from your back. If it is, move things around until it’s sitting flat against your spine.

Comfort

Comfort is another important factor of any hike, and that’s not only connected to how you organize your pack, but also how items are arranged.

If you put the heaviest items in the wrong position, which largely means having them away from your body, then it’s going to pull on the shoulder straps and that just won’t be comfortable. Also, you need to think about the items that will be pressing against your back. You certainly do not want anything with corners or that is lumpy that will then be uncomfortable.

Convenience

Finally, we have the convenience factor. Convenience means being able to get to the key items you have to access on a more regular basis without any problems. We’ll talk more about convenience shortly when we discuss packing your backpack in stages, but essentially you want to be able to access everything with ease as and when you need it.

If you keep these three core elements in mind when packing, then it should make your life a lot easier. However, there are a few more things you can do to ensure you pack your hiking backpack correctly. 

Know What You Need To Carry With You

Make sure that you know exactly what you need to put in your hiking backpack. Now, I cannot give you a definitive list as it depends on where you will be hiking, the trail itself, the time of year, weather conditions, whether you are camping or not – the list goes on and on.

However, some tips for knowing what to carry with you on your next hike are:

  • Look at the hike you plan on doing, and study it carefully
  • Know how long it will take, the likely conditions, and any potential problem areas
  • Read up on what other people have experienced when completing the hike
  • List only essential items required to complete the hike
  • Lay these items out beside your backpack

The key to a successful hike lies in the planning. By planning, you will know if you will require waterproofs, the number of snacks and amount of water to take, the clothing you need, any necessary safety equipment, and even if you need bug spray or not.

It is only by doing this that you will then know what to pack and how to set about arranging it. But once you do this, the next step is to try it on to make sure it ticks the boxes of comfort, convenience and center of gravity.

Try It On

Now, even if you sat and ran through a list of items every hiking backpack should contain, it wouldn’t be a perfect fit for you. So, what I do is gather together my essentials, and then start packing. I then stop and try my pack on to see how it feels.

You can believe you have found the perfect way of packing those items, but it’s only when you put it on your back that you will see if that is indeed the case. I would suggest trying your pack on, rearranging things, then trying it on again, taking the trial and error approach. But now that you know the general approach, let’s get more specific with the best way to pack your hiking backpack.

The Best Way To Pack A Hiking Backpack

Bottom Of Pack Items

Start off with the items that go at the bottom of the pack, and it should come as no surprise as to the types of items that should be put in first. For this, the key items you will put at the bottom of your pack will be items related to camping, if you plan on staying out overnight. That means a travel pillow, sleeping bag, and anything else related to how you will spend the night.

This makes sense as you will have no need to access them during the hike itself, so they can sit there at the bottom quite happily. But if you are going on a day hike, then there’s clearly no need to carry around a sleeping bag.

With a day hike scenario, you should place spare clothing at the bottom, or food that you will only eat when resting. You certainly do not want to have anything you will require while on the move at the bottom of your bag, as that will make life extremely difficult. So, the bottom of the pack items are easy since they only relate to those things you won’t really need to access while on the move.

Middle Of Pack Items

Moving onto the middle of the pack, and this is where the heaviest items should be located. That’s due to the center of gravity point I mentioned earlier. Keeping heavier things in the middle keeps them closer to your back, which means your center of gravity won’t be pulled more backwards and towards the ground, which is less natural.

If you plan on cooking something during your hike, then this is where your cooking equipment should go along with your main food items. You should also consider packing electronics here, but have them closer to your back, but ideally with something softer between them and your back like a bit of clothing. This just gives them some added protection should you fall.

When it comes to the middle of the pack, always make sure the lighter items are those towards the front of your pack, and the heavier items are closer to your back. This ensures your balance is not affected by heavy items. You may also have your waterproof clothing in this area. It means it’s still easy to access it, but it’s not covering other essential items at the top.

Top Of The Pack Items

Finally, we have the top of the pack, and it makes sense that the lighter items, along with those you will need to get to most often, should sit right up at the top. It just makes it so much easier to access them as a result, and it prevents them from getting damaged under the heavier items in the middle.

This will primarily be light items as you do not want your backpack to be top heavy. It’s also the best place to put your first-aid kit, small snacks, torch, and your map. But now that you know where everything should go, how do you avoid overpacking for your next hiking trip?

How To Avoid Overpacking Your Hiking Backpack

Lay Everything Out

Lay out everything you think you will need to take in your backpack. Put it all over the floor, and then stand back to see what is there. It may surprise you at how many items you believe are required! After that, take a look at your backpack and attempt to visualize what it would be like to carry all those items in that one pack.

Work Out What Is Actually Essential

The next step is to actually be honest with yourself and work out what is really essential. That does mean you must put anything deemed as a ‘luxury’ into another pile. You can look at adding the luxury items into your pack after you have dealt with the essentials.

It’s always nice to have some nice items with you on a hike, but that is where the overpacking issue really comes to fruition. By focusing on the actual essential items first, it helps eliminate that problem.

Pack Essentials First, Then The Luxuries

After you have created the different piles, you need to pack the essentials first, and use the tips mentioned above regarding what to put at the bottom, middle and top. After that, check the space you have available, and also check the weight.

Put the backpack on with all the essentials inside and see how it feels. Is it too heavy? How do you feel you will be able to cope when it comes to actually hiking with this pack on your back? If you feel you can easily carry more weight, then it’s time to look at those luxury items.

For that, grade the luxury items in order of preference. Which items would you really miss out on the trail? Which items could you honestly do without? Start by packing a few luxury items, depending on the space available, and then wear the pack again.

Be honest with the weight. You don’t want to keep on putting in luxury items that you don’t really need if the weight will become too much for you after a couple of miles. That is the best way to avoid overpacking. It does involve you being quite brutal in your approach, but it will undoubtedly make your life a lot easier.

How To Choose The Right Hiking Backpack

Finally, I want to just spend some time walking you through how to choose the right hiking backpack for your needs. Once again, this will depend on your aims when it comes to hiking, so I’ll try to cover more than one eventuality. The key things to consider when choosing a hiking backpack are the length of the hike and the kind of support you need.

Length Of The Hike Is Key

The first thing to mention is the length of your hike. Clearly, a day hike requires different things to a hike where you are camping out overnight.

A Day Hike

In general, a day hike should mean you need a backpack with a volume anywhere between 10 liters and 25 liters. This is perfect if your hike is only going to take a couple of hours on a relatively easy to moderate trail. With a pack of this size, it means you will have enough space for your food, water, some sunscreen and bug spray, a small first-aid kit, and some light waterproofs.

An Overnight Hike

If your plan is for an overnight hike, then it means you are camping out, so the volume of your backpack needs to increase accordingly. Here, you are looking at an absolute minimum of 20 liters, but I would recommend getting a backpack that is closer to the 35 liter range.

By getting something around, let’s say 30 liters, it means you have a lot of space for your camping equipment. That might include a sleeping bag, cooking gear, and a travel pillow, since your tent will likely be attached elsewhere. This larger size requirement is also down to the fact you will need to carry more supplies with you as well, on top of your camping equipment.

A Longer Hike

If you plan on hiking for a couple of days as a minimum, it’s generally accepted that the smallest backpack you need is about 35 liters. This applies even if you are going to be staying in some sort of accommodation, which means you won’t require the same camping supplies. This larger size is due to the need to carry more clothing, as well as more food and water.

Also, having something with a minimum of 35 liters will still provide you with adequate space for all your camping items along with those extra clothes etc. However, you’ll need to spend more time working out how to pack it correctly. The more items you have, the harder it becomes to get it right!

Proper Support

Support covers the padding on the shoulder straps and also throughout the back section. Also, for larger packs, you’ll need to have a strap that goes around your waist, and also ideally around your chest. That helps to balance out your pack when it’s on your back, and it will prove to be more supportive as well.

In addition, those shoulder straps should be relatively wide. This distributes the pressure more evenly across your shoulders, and it stops things from digging in and hurting.

Final Thoughts

The best way to pack a hiking backpack is to pack large things at the bottom, heavy things in the middle, and light and important things at the top. You should ensure your pack is conducive to a reasonable center of gravity, along with offering plenty of comfort and convenience on your hike.