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The Proper Way to Pack a Hiking Backpack

Consider these tips before hitting the trail.


I fill my luggage the same way I fill my kitchen garbage. Mindlessly. The process goes something like this: I toss a bag onto my bed, grab a heap of clothes from my dresser, throw ’em in and slam the lid shut. Who cares. Packing for a hiking trip, however — now that’s something I obsess over. Unlike air travel, or even commuting to work, hiking involves wearing packs, often big and heavy ones, for days at a time. That’s why it’s crucial to choose the right hiking backpack, and even more critical to pack it correctly.

Here’s the tried-and-true packing method for hikers, taught by JJ Jameson, a senior instructor at the REI Outdoor School. Follow it, save yourself from painful back cramps and wobbly legs, and enjoy convenient access to your goods without having to unload your whole pack.

Minimize, minimize, minimize. Probably the single biggest mistake you can make before embarking on a hiking trip is overpacking. Camp mugs, pillows, tons of stuff-sacks, fancy gadgetry, fluffy towels, a change of clothes for every day — all that stuff should be left at home. Bring only what you know with absolute certainty you’ll use every day, as your pack should be as light as possible. (Of course, emergency survival items are 100 percent necessary.)

Daytime gear on top, nighttime gear on bottom. “If I have stuff I’m only going to use for sleeping — that might be my clothing, my sleeping bag, my tent — all that stuff I can put on the bottom because I don’t need access to it until the end of the day,” Jameson said. During the day, when you’re crawling over rocks, putting in mile after mile on the trail and slogging through riverbeds, situations will arise when you need quick access to your gear. Keep the most-used stuff, like a rain jacket or your lunch, at the top; that way you won’t have to go through 10 minutes of hangry digging in search of a granola bar. Once you’ve reached camp for the night, that’s when you unload your pack and unload dinner, your tent and your sleep system. As for the tent (often the bulkiest item in your pack), consider taking it out of its sack and separating it into its individual parts. Use the tent body as a load stabilizer by stuffing it around the heavy gear in the middle; stash the tent poles on the outside of the pack.

Heavy gear in the middle. This is all about center of balance: “You put the heaviest things as close to your spine as you can — sort of in the middle of your back. And then you pack stuff around that to stabilize,” Jameson said. A top-heavy pack would send your weight forward, causing you to hunch over. A bottom-heavy pack would pull you backwards, which makes it damn near impossible to walk without toppling over. If all the heavy stuff — food, cookware, fuel, tools and so on — is in the middle, you’ll be able to stand and walk with good posture, and the bag will distribute the full weight of your bag more evenly over your hips (an absolutely essential function of hiking backpacks). And remember to pack the weight as close to your body as possible, otherwise, “… if you walk and sort of swing your body a little bit side to side, the center of gravity being further out like that, it’s going to have a tendency to feel like it’s swinging, versus carrying nice and low,” Jameson said.

Separate food from fuel. This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often it’s forgotten. “If you’re carrying your fuel and your food — especially if it’s liquid fuel — if you’re carrying that inside your pack, always make sure you carry your food on top of that. That way, if for any reason it decided to leak, it won’t spoil your food,” Jameson said. No one likes a soggy lunch. (Or a poisoned one.)

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