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How To Pack A Hiking Backpack

Climb Snowdon - How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

Packing a hiking backpack is as much an art as a science. Many people will have experienced that frustrating feeling as you prepare to leave camp on the second day of a multi-day hike and can’t quite fit everything back in your pack. If I got it all in on the first day, why won’t it fit now? you howl as you frantically stuff items into your bag and your companions look on, bemused.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tips, tricks and techniques you can use to pack your hiking backpack properly. Doing so will improve comfort, balance and stability while ensuring easy access to essential items, too.

With this in mind, here is our quick guide to packing your hiking backpack.

Select the right backpack

Packing your hiking equipment is much easier when you have the right backpack. Go too big, and you will have too much free space. An oversized backpack may also restrict movement and affect comfort. Go too small, and you will struggle to fit everything in. We recognise most people won’t have a 20-litre, 30-litre, 45-litre and 65-litre backpack just lying around, so selecting the right bag is always a bit of a compromise. But get as close as you can.

Three main elements determine a backpack’s suitability:

  1. Size – 20 or 30-litre backpacks are usually a good choice for day hikes, while multi-day hikes involving overnight camping will require something closer to 60 litres.
  2. Fit – backpacks can weigh a fair amount when fully loaded. A good fit is essential for comfort and allows the pack’s straps to do (some of) the heavy lifting.
  3. Features – think about the features you may need. Space for hydration systems can be good for longer hikes, while bottom compartment access is also useful for larger packs. Adjustable straps are an absolute must and waterproof covers can save the day.

Developing a packing strategy

Everyone has their own twist on packing strategy and it can take a few hikes and a little experimentation to find what works for you. However, there are some general guidelines to follow.

  1. Gather your gear
    Typically, getting all your gear together and laying it out on the floor is the best way to start. It helps ensure you have everything you need and allows you to start categorising and organising equipment.
  2. Weight and accessibility
    When packing, weight and accessibility are the two most important factors. Place heavier items where the pack provides the most support and items you are more likely to need during the hike within easy reach.
  3. Categorise your gear
    With these two organising principles in mind, start arranging your gear into categories. Group your sleep system, your cook system, food, clothes and miscellaneous items.

Starting the pack

With everything organised and categorised, it’s time to start the actual packing! Obviously, we begin at the bottom and load up, so pack the things you are unlikely to need first. This usually means your sleep system (tent, sleeping bag and any camp clothing). Use a compression sack to reduce your sleeping bag to a manageable size and consider attaching any sleeping pad to the outside of your pack, if possible.

Heavy items, such as your cook system (stove, fuel, cookware etc.) and bulkier clothes, should be placed in the middle of the backpack. It centres the weight and keeps it close to your back, making you more stable and balanced and offering greater support.

Reserve the top of your backpack for items you may need quick access to throughout the day. The best examples are your rain jacket, navigation aids and warm, lightweight layers. You might want to keep snacks here, too. Although, external pockets and pouches are often a handy spot for them.

If your pack does have external pockets, make good use of them! Water bottles tend to slide nicely into side pouches, some bags feature external attachment loops for trekking poles, and your strap or hip pocket is just the right size for a multitool or compass.

A few top packing tips

You may also want to try out a few of the following tips:

  1. Use compression sacks – compression sacks can significantly reduce the space bulky items like your sleeping bag and clothes take up.
  2. Bags or sacks for similar items – things can be tricky to find if they are loose in your bag. Reusable zip-loc bags or stuff sacks are a great way to keep things organised and easy to locate.
  3. Be (kind of) ruthless – only pack what you need. It is so easy to take items that never see the light of day when you are out on the hike. However, never remove items that are essential for safety.

Always do a final check

Before you head out and hit the hills, always do a final check and make sure you have everything you need. Consider the following:

  1. The forecast – have you packed appropriately for the conditions? Remember, the weather in hilly and mountainous terrain can change quickly. MWIS and Windy are great resources.
  2. Research the terrain – not all trails are alike. While rocky trails may require footwear with good ankle support, it might be a good idea to pack an extra pair of socks if you are likely to encounter boggy upland areas.
  3. Leave no trace – we encourage all hikers to follow ‘leave no trace’ principles and pack out what they pack in. This may require you to bring rubbish or dog poo bags for banana peels.

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Convenience and comfort mean different things to different people, so you will refine your packing approach over time. Some people love a post-lunch coffee, so it makes sense to make the stove a little more accessible. Others want a notebook close at hand, so it might go in their hip pocket. The most important thing is that you make your pack work for you.

The best way to find your perfect packing strategy is through plenty of experience, so why not join us on our next Climb Snowdon guided walk and test your new hiking pack out?