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How to pack a backpack

The way a pack is loaded will have a big effect on how it feels on your back. If you just cram everything in without thinking about it, you might feel uncomfortable and unbalanced – plus you could end up unloading your entire pack in the rain to get to a jacket you somehow stuffed at the bottom.

Before you start packing, spread everything you plan to take on the floor in front of you. Leave behind the things you may not really need, and remember to include the essentials. If you’re not sure what to take, start with our backpacking checklist or one of our hiking checklists.

Make sure your backpack fits you well – it should feel like an extension of your own body. If you have any questions, stop by your local MEC store for help.

Video: how to pack a backpack

Whether you need to pack your backpack for hiking, camping, travelling, climbing or ski touring, the main principles are the same. Imagine that your pack is made up of three zones:

Bottom of the bag: Zone 1: Put light items, like your sleeping bag, at the bottom. It gives structure to the bottom of the backpack and is a solid base for other items above it. A compression sack can help reduce the size of your sleeping bag.

Against your back: Zone 2: Pack your heaviest items, such as your tent, food for meals, water or climbing gear closest to your back. If you’re using a bear canister to store scented items, this is the zone to put it in.

Top of the bag: Zone 3: Place medium-weight or bulkier items toward the top or down the front of the pack. This will likely be things like extra clothing layers, your water treatment system or your first-aid kit.

Your objective is to avoid having a top-heavy pack, which will pull you backwards, or a bottom-heavy pack, which will make you feel like you are being dragged down. Packing heavier items close to your centre of gravity (middle of your back) will keep you balanced and make the load feel more natural.

Side and accessory pockets

Side pockets on your pack are perfect to store and organize smaller and frequently used essentials. Think water bottles for staying hydrated on the trail, maps or a GPS for when you need a quick check on where you’re heading, or rolled-up raingear for a fast change when the rainclouds roll in. If you stuff extras in both sides of your pack, make sure to distribute the weight evenly between left and right so you’re not teetering too much to one side.

Tool loops

Most backpacks have tool loops and fasteners attached to the sides, which create a nice way to hold equipment like hiking poles, tent poles, sleeping pads and more. You can also clip carabiners onto the loops to create additional hanging points and maximize your carrying potential. On a sunny, warm trek, you could even hang wet clothes or gear on the outside to help them dry out as you hike. Be careful not to get too carried away with what you attach to your tool loops though, as things could get caught on rogue branches, scrape against rocks, or be an uncomfortable landing if you slip and fall.

Hoisting a pack

When it comes to putting your loaded pack onto your back, it seems simple, right? Not necessarily. There are a few tips to hoist it on correctly, and avoid hurting yourself (or your pack) in the process.

  • Loosen all the straps a bit to make it easier to slip on.
  • Lift your loaded pack by the haul loop (the little loop at the top of the pack), not the shoulder straps. Grabbing it by the shoulder straps can eventually wear them out, and also makes it awkward as you try and swing it onto your back.
  • After lifting it by the haul loop, rest it on your thigh with your knees bent.
  • Keep holding the haul loop and slip your other arm through your first shoulder strap. Shift the pack onto your back, and put your other arm through the other shoulder strap.
  • Keep leaning slightly forward as you buckle up your hip belt. Stand upright, adjust the straps and buckles to finish off your fit, and you’re set to go.

Preparing a backpack for rain

A bit of rain on the trail is bound to happen, so it’s best that you have the right gear and protection to make sure your backpack or the contents inside don’t get soaked by the occasional downpour. Make sure all items that can’t get wet are waterproofed (plastic garbage bags are an easy option), and also make sure all liquids are very well-sealed. Rain covers and pack liners are your best bet when it comes to a packable piece of gear that can slip on easily and ward off wetness.

Packing for convenience

Stuff sacks are awesome – they allow you to quickly pack and unpack your gear and find what you need. Super organized people put each category of items (first aid, kitchen, etc.) in different coloured bags to make them easy to spot. Try not to stuff the sacks full, as a little play makes them easier to squeeze into gaps. Make sure that items you’d want to unpack easily on your hike (first aid kit, headlamps, snacks) are packed right at the top.

Avoiding overpacking

Before you leave the house, weigh your pack. As a general rule, your pack weight shouldn’t be more than a quarter to one third of your body weight. It can be easy (and tempting) to overpack and make your bag heavier than it needs to be. Prepare at home beforehand by packing up everything you want to bring, weighing your pack, putting it on and walking around to see how it feels. It it’s too heavy, take a close look at clothes, food or camping dishes you may not need for this particular trip. Make sure to spread the load across your hiking group (you can divide up your tent into the body, fly and poles so each person can take one part of the tent).

More tips for packing your backpack

Before you leave the house, weigh your pack. As a general rule, your pack weight shouldn’t be more than a quarter to one third of your body weight. Some more tips:

  • Use your compression straps to bring the load closer to your body and keep everything in place.

  • When you’re hiking on easy terrain, pack heavy items a little higher for better posture.

  • On harder terrain, putting heavy items lower down helps give you better balance.

  • Use your pots as hard metal stuff sacks to protect delicate items.

  • Pack your food above your fuel bottle.