Once the appropriate pack is chosen, it’s time to think about how to pack it. It’s worth spending a few minutes now to stay safe, comfortable and save time when you’re on the mountain.
After you decide what to bring…
Do your best to keep the heaviest items centered down the middle of your pack (in line with your spine). This will help with your side-to-side balance, especially when you need it most on uneven or difficult terrain.
For the majority of people, most of the weight should be in the higher half of the pack, between the base of your neck and the horizontal line across the middle of your back. This will help the pack transfer the weight to your hips (the pack shouldn’t be “hanging” from your shoulders).
Now factor in what you’ll likely need access to and what you won’t. If I’ll be bushwhacking, I’m not going to put my compass in the bottom of my pack. I never hope to use my first aid kit, so that’s not near the top. The more you use it, the easier it should be to get to.
Compromises must be made. A fuel bottle is heavy, but it should be packed below food so if it leaks you can still eat. My camera is heavy, but I’m going to pack it where it’s least likely to be damaged, and that changes from trip to trip. The pack doesn’t need to be able to balance on a pinhead. This doesn’t need to be a science project.
If you’re ultralight, your pack might not have much padding between what’s inside and your back. Keep that in mind when the pointy stuff goes in.
That being said… I suggest you accept that a fact of hiking, backpacking or mountaineering is that you’ll spend some time digging through your super stuffed pack – try not to get frustrated with it.
- Line your pack with a trash bag – especially if it’s cold. Your pack is not waterproof, despite what the tag or the description might say (sorry!). There are zippers on it and a giant opening in the top. Not waterproof. I line my pack with a sturdy trash bag every time. You bring a rain shell every time because you know that even on days with a great forecast, it can rain, right? Plus, you’ll end up on your back in a stream at least once in your hiking career. Find a bag as close to the size of your pack as possible – extra trash bag material in the pack makes all sorts of places for gear to hide from you. You can usually use a bag several times, don’t waste!
- Know what your stuff feels like – when crammed into a pack, a glove might not be in the shape of a glove. If you’re familiar with the textures of the things in there, you can save yourself the trouble of pulling them out to see what you’ve grabbed. Make a mental note for each item as you put it in the pack.
- Remember how you pack – seems obvious, but if you put time into thinking about how to arrange your things, make sure to remember what you decided on. In a large pack, knowing your shell pants are at the bottom left will save you quite a bit of frustration and digging. This is especially true when it’s too cold to remove your gloves, and you can’t use the “know what your stuff feels like” plan mentioned above.
- Consistency – there will be certain things you bring on every trip (I hope!) – try to put them in the same place every time.
- Repack your essentials after each trip – I don’t do this carefully, but after I pull out any trash, uneaten food, things I need to wash, and camera gear, I toss some things back in. First aid, compass, headlamp (don’t forget to be aware of batteries, though), multitool, buff – these things and anything else you bring every time can go right back in the pack. Now they aren’t taking up space in a closet or drawer and you won’t forget them. I do keep my clothing in drawers or on hangers, to keep it dry and in good shape and to keep any down nice and lofty.
When it’s going to be a tight fit, such as on overnights or long winter day hikes, remember that part of the reason all this gear is so expensive is because it’s supposed to be durable.
With every few items that go in, I stand my pack up on the floor and put a leg in there and crush things down with body weight. I don’t want any dead space. This will help you fit everything you need as well as make the contents of the pack less likely to shift around, throwing you off balance. This is one reason I don’t usually use stuff sacks – they leave spaces between other stuff sacks and gear. No space – cram it all in there.
I tell myself I’ve packed well when I’ve got everything inside my pack. Nothing hanging from straps or sticking out of side pockets.
Sometimes this entire routine takes all of 30 seconds, because there won’t be enough stuff for it to matter – things will be easy to find because there won’t be much to dig through.
More often, packing is worth some thought.
The goal and the payoff is less time focusing on things or discomfort when we’re out there, leaving more for the people, the places and the peace.