How you fill your pack will determine the character of your trip; either you’ll have everything you need ready to hand.
At its very simplest, a well-organized pack will:
- Put the heaviest items closest to your spine. That’s usually your food and water, plus your stove, fuel, and toiletries (both for the sake of convenience and to keep everything with an odor away from the rest of your gear — see “Bear Safety for Hikers”).
- Put low-priority items you won’t need until camp in the bottom of your pack.(Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes to sleep in, a book to read, etc.)
- Put high-priority items you need constant, quick access to in the top or side pockets of your pack. (Your headlamp, your first aid and emergency kit, your guidebook, your cell phone, snacks, your water bottle (if you’re not carrying a hydration pack), any extra layers you expect to need before you hit camp, and so on.)
If you find yourself unsure where the heaviest items in your pack should go, just take a hint from backpack judge: They position one of the heaviest items you’ll carry, the hydration reservoir, at mid-height in your pack and close against your spine.
Organizing the Inside
All right, you know where to put things in your pack — but how are you supposed to keep it all straight? Try these tips for fine-tuning your packing system:
- Pack similar items together in stuff sacks, either color-coded or labeled (write on the bag with a permanent marker, or write on a piece of duct tape and stick it to the bag).
- Your camp shelter will usually fit to one side of your food/water stash; either split it (tent body and poles on one side, rainfly on the other) or pack it on one side and put something(s) of comparable size and weight on the other side.
- If you’re hiking in bear country, anything with an odor — including toothpaste, soap and your cookware — should be either bear-bagged (preferably in an odor-proof bag) or stowed in a bear-proof canister.
- Another bear-country caveat: Don’t stow your bear spray in your pack! Keep it somewhere you can reach it in an instant — either in a side pocket of your pack that you can get to without adjusting the pack, in a cargo pocket on your pants, or in your jacket pocket.
Don’t Be That Hiker
Friends don’t let friends dangle items on the outside of their packs. That’s usually a sign your pack is too small, and it’s a great way to lose said items or get yourself hung up on trees or bushes.
The few exceptions are sleeping pads and bear canisters, which are often so bulky that they have to ride on the outside of your pack; hiking poles or snowshoes; the occasional water bottle that’s made to clip to your pack’s straps for easy access; and an extra outer layer that you might stuff into your pack’s bungee compartment, if it has one.
If you have something particularly bulky that needs a home — like a sleeping pad or bear canister — consider placing it on top of your pack’s main compartment, then fastening the pack lid over it to hold it in place. Whether or not that’s actually a workable solution depends on the size, height, and balance of your pack and load. — but it usually works pretty well.
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