This post may contain affiliate links or mention our own products, please check out our disclosure policy.

How To Properly Pack A Backpack For An Outdoor Adventure

This post was updated on March 15th, 2024

Packing for a hiking or camping trip can be challenging. Not only do you want to make sure that you have everything you’re going to need, but also somehow cram it all into one bag that’s still light enough to carry.

Backpacks of all types and sizes can be purchased everywhere from Walmart to REI. But even with a costly, top-of-the-line bag with tons of compartments and features, a little bit of organization and planning ahead can make it a whole lot easier to lug around.

First things first – what should you pack?

how to pack a backpack
cmor15, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Travel as light as possible. Everything that you bring will add on to the total weight you’ll be carrying over your shoulders, so only pack things that you know are going to be essential.

Sign up for the newsletter today!

Please enter a valid email address.

An error occurred. Please try again later.

× logo

Thank you for subscribing to the Do It Yourself RV newsletter, keep your eye on your inbox for updates.

Some things – like food and water – you’re going to need no matter what, while other items will depend on where you go, what time of year it is, and how long the trip is going to take. If it’s only going to be a few hours, you won’t need to worry about bringing sleeping gear. Or if it’s in the middle of the blazing hot summer, an extra coat is probably not going to be necessary.

Start out with the basics, and then add in other essentials as you may see fit:

The must-haves:

  • A tent, sleeping bag, food, water, camera, maps, compass, clothes, First Aid, a lighter/matches, flashlights, TP (in a plastic bag, without the toilet paper roll).

Seasonal gear:

  • Cold weather (A hat, extra jacket, gloves, socks, Hand Warmers)
  • Hot weather (Sunscreen, bug spray, sunglasses)

Regional items:

  • If you’re going to be in Grizzly Country, pack bear-proof food containers and bear spray.
  • Bring a backpack rain cover if you’re not sure how the weather’s going to be. Some backpacks are made with waterproof materials, but rainwater can still leak in through the seams and zippers if you get stuck in a major downpour.
  • Rain ponchos are also handy to have on hand to keep from getting soaked.

How to pack it all in your bag:

how to pack a backpack

Instead of packing your things in piece-by-piece, try gathering everything you’re going to need first and lay it all out. Then you can start to plan the best way to place it all in your bag.

While you’re getting everything together, keep two things in mind: the weight of your items, and how often you’re going to need them. Set aside anything that you’ll want to pull out throughout the day – like maps, food, and water – so they can be placed in at the top (or in their own separate compartment) for easy accessibility at a moment’s notice.

Start with the bottom:

Lightweight items that you won’t need often should be packed at the very bottom. This may include your sleeping bag, coat, or other nighttime supplies that aren’t bulky.

Then pack the center of your backpack:

Above that, pack medium to heavy things – like your cooking gear and First Aid kit – in the middle of your bag. If you put them in too low, it will make the backpack feel like it’s sagging. But if they’re packed too high, the bag will feel tippy and unsteady.

Put your heaviest items in the center towards the back, so when you’re carrying it, they’re up against your back and between your shoulder blades. This will shift all of the weight onto your hips, without putting strain on your back.

And finally, top it off:

Things you’re going to need throughout the day – like food, drinks, and a compass – should be set in last at the top. Or if you have a larger backpack, you could put them in their own compartments, as long as they’re within easy reach. It can just be so frustrating having to dig out your snacks because they got buried underneath your extra jacket.

Attaching things to the front of your pack:

As hard as you try, there are some things that won’t fit – like your puffy sleeping bag or awkwardly-shaped tent poles. Instead, they can easily be attached on to the front of your pack.

Try using the loops on the outside of your bag to hold tent poles and the compression straps to secure your rolled-up sleeping bag. Most hiking packs already have adjustable straps that come down the front, top and sides – but if yours doesn’t, you can always pick up extra ones from the store (or on Amazon here). When you’re all done, try on your backpack and make sure the weight is evenly balanced out on both sides.

If possible, though, limit how many things you secure on to the outside of your bag. It’s more comfortable to keep everything contained, and less likely for your gear to get caught on trees or bushes while you’re out hiking.

More ways to keep it organized:

how to pack a backpack
Flickr/Steve Bernacki
  • Fill all of the empty spaces in your bag with small or compressible items. For example, keep silverware inside of your cooking pots.
  • Split up bulky items, like the tent, with others you’re traveling with. For instance, you can take the main tent body, while your buddy carries the poles.
  • Roll your clothes, rather than folding them.
  • Get a stuff sack (like this one from REI) to hold things like food, or your sleeping bag.
  • Take strips of duct tape and wrap them to things like your water bottles in case your pack has any tears on the way that may need a quick repair. Also take a few safety pins in case your zipper breaks.

Do you have any other tips for packing a backpack? Feel free to share them with us below!

DON’T MISS: Helinox Camp Chairs Go From Backpack To Campground