Ruby Bayan
is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing her simple joys. She used to be an avid backpacker.

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How to Pack a Backpack
by Ruby Bayan

The success or failure of a backpacking adventure is largely influenced by the contents and ergonomics of the backpacker's pack. How you fill your pack will determine how much time it will take you, and how much energy you will spend, to get to the items you need at any given moment during the trip.

Timing is critical in a trek, and energy conservation is paramount; you don’t want to have to wrestle with a disorganized backpack! So, to save yourself from dealing with a "backpack from hell," here are tips on how to arrange the stuff in your pack:

Packing Clothes

If there's one terrible disaster in an outdoor trip, it's pulling out wet clothes from a backpack. No matter what your backpack's label says about being ultra-waterproof, you have to safeguard your clothes from wetness by slipping them inside durable, resealable plastic bags. A sudden downpour, a river crossing, or an awkward slip into a puddle can cause water to seep into your pack.

When packing clothes in plastic bags, group them by event, not by type. It may be "logical" to put all your socks in one bag, all your underwear in another, and all your T-shirts in yet another bag, but when it's time to freshen up and change, you will need to open all the bags, pull out one item from each, then reseal all of them again. Your backpack will be a mess, and you will be exhausted just from picking out the clothes you need.

So, the wiser thing to do is to pack your clothing based on when you will need them at any particular time. Put all the related items together (socks, underwear, shirt, and pants) -- one set in one bag for sleeping, another set in another bag for the return trek (if different from the ones you plan to sleep in or the ones you used going there), and another one for the clothes you will wear for the commute home (if you still want to change!).

By packing your clothes in sets based on specific activities in your itinerary, you will need to pull out and open only one bag at a time, which you will then use to seal the soiled clothes you took off. It saves a lot of time and energy.

Packing for Ease of Access

Your ID (or dog tags) and whistle should hang from your neck. If you're carrying a supplementary belt bag, it can contain the items you will need to reach in a flash, such as your Swiss knife, lighter, compass, mirror, first aid kit, money, pen and paper, some trail food, camera, and cell phone. Your backpack’s topload, front pocket, or utility pockets should hold your trail water, other trail food, flashlight, maps, garbage bags, gloves, and rain parka -- things you will want to pull out without having to unbuckle your pack.

The main pack itself needs to be organized so that the heaviest items (like your water supply and cooked food) are in the middle. Too heavy on top will make you keel over, too heavy at the bottom will force you to uncomfortably bend forward to balance the weight. Keep the pack’s center of gravity in the middle so that it rests on your waist and lower back area.

With that in mind, choose the items you may need to pull out in a hurry and load them on top, like your jacket (sudden cold spell), sandals (river crossing), or bag of toiletries and tissue paper (for emergencies). Your extra clothes, cooking utensils, and sleeping bag can stay at the bottom.

Packing With Foresight

Without resorting to bringing every single thing you think you "might need", load your pack with items that you know will make your trip just a little less aggravating. Aside from those you have in your basic checklist, here are some items you will also want to take with you:

Moist wipes -- for quick freshening ups and "virtual" baths, especially when water becomes a luxury.

Plastic twine -- practically weightless but extremely durable, a couple of yards of twine can be used to tie down a flapping fly sheet, or hold together a busted backpack; they can be cut into strips to serve as trail markers, or tied across trees to hang wet clothes from.

Reusable plastic plates and cups -- lighter and more durable than paper; they serve as backup when there's no time or water to wash soiled dishes.

Trash bags -- the rule is: leave no trace, and more importantly, leave no trash. This means you will be trekking home with everything you did not consume. Therefore, you have to pack extra garbage bags. Big, durable plastic bags are not only ideal for packing trash, they can also be used at night to insulate your feet from the cold, and to wrap your backpack and other stuff safe from moisture and malicious nocturnal creatures.

Pen and paper -- no adventure trip should happen without them. Chronicle your trek. Jot down landmarks, contact persons, timeframes, fares and fees, directions, etc. Remember to bring the lightest ballpen you can find. Be sure the ink is indelible, or you’ll sadly discover that your journal has transformed into one psychedelic inkblot after a sudden downpour.

Lightweight, compact, waterproof camera -- because the only thing you can take home with you is a set of beautiful memories immortalized in pictures.

Steps in Packing a Backpack

Here's how to pack efficiently:

  1. Line the main cavity of your backpack with a durable plastic bag. This will protect the contents of the pack from moisture and wetness. Be sure the plastic bag is about a foot taller than the pack so that you can tie the opening securely before closing the backpack.

  2. Arrange the contents of the pack such that the heaviest items are located in the middle. Put your extra clothing, sleeping bag, and cooking utensils at the bottom. Put the items you will need to pull out in a hurry at the top.

  3. Cram all the contents well to create a taut and firm bundle; this will prevent the jiggling and roughing up of the items while you walk. Take care not to allow items with sharp edges to cut through the walls of your pack.

  4. Slip all other essential items into side/front pockets or topload compartments. Be sure nothing will slip out along the way.

  5. Check and tightly secure all buckles, zippers, and drawstrings; tuck in all loose straps. Be sure the tent pegs and poles, if attached to the outside of the pack, are bound and fastened firmly.

  6. Protect the pack with a backpack cover or netting, if available. Resist the temptation to hang loose items outside your pack because they could fall off, or worse, get tangled with protruding branches or shrubs along the trail.

  7. With everything secure, strap your pack on and enjoy the trek!
Suggested Reading:

Hiking and Backpacking: A Complete Guide, Karen Berger John Viehman (Introduction); Format: Paperback, 1st ed., 224pp.; ISBN: 0393313344; Publisher: Norton,Ww; Pub. Date: May 1995

Backpacking: Essential Skills to Advanced Techniques, Victoria Logue; Format: Paperback, 320pp.; ISBN: 0897323238; Publisher: Menasha Ridge Press, Incorporated; Pub. Date: June 2000

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hiking, Camping, and the Great Outdoors, Michael Mouland; Format: Paperback, 2nd ed., 361pp.; ISBN: 0028631862; Publisher: Macmillan General Reference; Pub. Date: September 1999

Related Tutorial:
How to Pack Food


Introduction to Backpacking

A first guide and set of tutorials on preparedness, presence of mind, and delight in memorable escapades in the great outdoors.
[First published as an online course at Suite101 University.]

Fitness Exercises
Outdoor Survival Basics

Choosing Equipment:
Choosing a Backpack
Choosing a Sleeping Bag
Choosing a Tent
Choosing Hiking Boots

Gearing Up:
What to Wear
How to Pack a Backpack
How to Pack Food

Campsite Management:
How to Choose a Campsite
How to Pitch a Tent

Emergency Situations:

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