How to Pack a Backpack

You’re getting ready for an overnight backpacking trip—or maybe you’re going out for multiple nights. You have a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, food, clothing, and water, all of which needs to fit inside your backpack. Where should you place each item? Does it matter? Sure it does. How you distribute the weight within your backpack goes a long way in determining how comfortable the pack will be to carry.

Pack Loads and Posture

When you have a load on your back, weight that you’re unaccustomed to, you’ll naturally bend forward. You’re trying to maintain your balance by positioning that extra load over your center of gravity, which is located at or near your hips.

Look at a backpacker with a full pack. Notice their posture. Are they bent forward slightly, looking fairly comfortable? Or are they bent way far forward, laboring, looking literally like they’re supporting the world on their shoulders? You can tell quite a bit about how the pack is loaded by a backpacker’s posture.

Place Heavy Items Close to Your Back

Place high-density items like water, food, and fuel up against the pack’s back panel. That’s the section of the pack that’s closest to your back. By keeping the heavy stuff close to you, you have only to lean over slightly to position that weight over your hips. On the other hand, if you positioned the heavy items on the outside of the pack, as far away from your body as possible, you would feel like the pack is constantly yanking you off-balance.

So relegate the lower-density items like clothing and the sleeping pad to the outer portion of your backpack. Your back will thank you.

Heavy Items Toward the Top

Water, food, fuel, and other heavy hard goods should not only be placed close to you, but also be placed a little high. Again, this is to enable you to more easily position the center of the pack’s gravity over your hips by leaning forward just slightly. Clothing and your sleeping bag can go lower.

Having said that, this is something you should experiment with first. It’s easy to go overboard and make the pack too top heavy. Having all the heavy stuff in the top compartment might make you feel like the Poseidon (disaster movie reference). It depends on the type of hiking you’re doing. If you’re hoofing it on a standard hiking trail, keep the weight higher. If you’ll be scrambling around on the rocks, or maybe even skiing or snowshoeing, keep the heavier stuff down in the center.

Organization and Convenience

Keep those items that you’ll be reaching for during the day, like food, an extra windbreaker, or GPS, in easily accessible compartments. Keep a water bottle in the pack’s side sleeves, located toward the bottom of the pack. This will let you reach the water without taking the pack off. Better yet, place a hydration sleeve with a drinking tube in the pack, close to the body and up high. That way you can hydrate on the go.

Sleeping Bag

Many full-size backpacks include a bottom compartment specifically designed to hold a sleeping bag.


Most people stuff these inside the pack, toward the center. If you want, you can carry the poles separately, sliding them under the compression straps on the side of the pack and anchoring the bottom of the poles in the pack’s side sleeves.

Sleeping Pad

Though bulky, sleeping pads made of closed-cell foam are very light and can be positioned anywhere on the pack that’s convenient. If it’s a self-inflating pad, it’s probably small and can be kept inside the pack.

Make a Trial Run

A day or two before starting on a long backpacking trip, load up the pack and go for a short hike. Pay attention to your posture and sense of balance. Try loading the pack several ways to see what works best.

Have a Great Hike!