How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking, Backpacking and Traveling

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Packing your backpack for a trip that could potentially last for over a year can be a daunting task. Whether you are planning on traveling a country extensively, taking to the forest for some camping, or heading out into the mountains on a multi-day hike, your backpack is an essential part of nomadic life. How you pack it can be the difference between the trip of dreams or the journey of nightmares!

Backpacks have many advantages over bulky luggage options such as suitcases and duffle bags, the freedom to roam being one of them. That freedom doesn’t come without its sacrifices though! The lighter and more compact your pack, the easier and more enjoyable your adventures will be, but fitting all of your essentials in such a small space is not without its challenges!

The way you pack your backpack is the key to maximizing space and reducing the list of essentials that you would have otherwise left behind. Luckily for you, in this article, I will be guiding you on exactly how to pack a backpack for hiking, traveling, and camping. Let’s get to it!

The Difference between top-loaders and front-loaders

The first thing to look at is whether your backpack is a front-loader or a top-loader. How your backpack is accessed and loaded will affect the way you pack your travel essentials. There are benefits to both the top-loader and the front-loader. 

The front-loader backpack, as the name suggests, opens at the front. Having a zip that runs the entire length of the backpack gives you instant access to your belongings no matter where they are inside. Owning a front-loader gives you the accessibility of a suitcase with the freedom of a backpack. 

As well as gaining access from the front, most front-loader backpacks offer access from the top as well. This gives you the best of both worlds. If you are the hiker or traveling backpacker that needs access to the entirety of your backpack often, then the front-loader is great. 

The top-loader backpack is the more common of the two variants. As the name suggests, it is accessed from the top. This is the style of backpack that is most common amongst the hiking community because they are lightweight and hard-wearing. Its design has had years of development and finding a sensibly-priced durable backpack with plenty of room for all your kit is a breeze. 

The simple design and reliability of these backpacks is what attracts people to them, and it is the reason they have dominated the scene for so long. Of course, you can’t access your kit in the same way as a front-loader, but this shouldn’t be an issue if you know how to pack a backpack. You certainly need to be a bit more organized but with a bit of thought, you will have no problems using a top-loader.

Also read: 12 things you need to know when you go backpacking for the first time. 

Weight Distribution

Weight distribution is key to packing a comfortable backpack. You want to place your heaviest items as close to your spine as possible, this puts less strain on your back. If you are packing a front-loader, simply lay your heavier items in first. If you are packing a top-loader, in layers, stack the heavier items at the back and lighter items at the front.

If you have a laptop or tablet, the best place to put this is close to your spine along with your heavier items. This is the most comfortable place to carry it, the safest place to store it, and it protects it from any knocks and bumps while you are traveling. Remember to make it easily accessible if you are going through any customs borders!

If you keep the bulk of your weight close to your spine you will notice less strain on your shoulders, and your backpack (even if loaded heavy) will feel much lighter. As for weight limits, your backpack should weigh no more than 20% of your bodyweight. Be sure to check airline weight limits, and the max-load-limit of your backpack as well.

I tend to pack even lighter than 20% of my bodyweight when I am hiking as I feel this improves my distance averages and overall enjoyment during the hike.

How to Pack a Backpack for Traveling

Packing a backpack for traveling certainly takes some planning and consideration. You will need to consider how you are going to fit all your kit inside while keeping things compact and comfortable.

You will have to consider your load weight and backpack size, not only to save your back, but also to keep the joy in your adventure.

If you are looking for the perfect backpack to bring on your next journey, be sure to check out our handy backpacking backpack buying guide. But for now, let’s have a look at how to pack a backpack for traveling… 

The Main Compartment

The Main Compartment of your backpack is going to contain the bulk of your luggage. If you are backpacking, this is going to be mostly clothing. Think about where you will place your clothes in regard to access. Do you have a sweater or raincoat that you need to hand? For top-loaders, place any clothing that you may need while traveling at the top. For front-loaders, pack any clothing you may need near the front opening where the zip starts. Simple!

Your clothes will make up the bulk of your luggage so pack these wisely. This is where my old friend the packing cube comes in…

Packing Cubes!

Packing cubes were a game-changer for me. They are great for keeping your clothing separate in your travel backpack. I use a large packing cube for my t-shirts, shorts, and pants, I use a smaller one for my underwear and swimsuits, and I bring two spares. The spares pack down small and they see their use when I have dirty clothes that I want to keep separate from my clean clothes. The second spare is for any extra clothing I may purchase along my travels.

These little beauties help you stay organized and make repacking a breeze when you want to get out of the hostel fast to seize the day.

External Pockets

The external pocket at the head or front of your backpack (depending on your bag’s design) should have things that you need to access regularly. I store liquids (shampoo, soap, and toothpaste), my passport, any travel tickets I have here, so I can quickly access them at border control. Lock the pocket with your passport in with a small padlock, just in case.

As for the hip and side pockets of your backpack (if applicable) you should store things that you will need to access without taking your backpack off. I keep my phone, cash, and bank card in my hip pockets and a water bottle, sunscreen, and glasses in the side pockets.

Interesting: 11 essentials for every backpacking trip

How to Pack a Backpack for Hiking and Camping

You could say that packing your backpack for hiking is similar to packing for traveling. Generally, packing is similar when it comes to weight distribution and loading style, however, there are some big differences as well. When packing your backpack for any hike, whether that’s a day hike or an ambitious month-long trip, you need to be frugal and prioritize necessities above all else.

Unlike travel backpacking, you will need to be far more self-sufficient. You will effectively live out of your backpack. The mountains can be vast and if you plan on trekking a multi-day trail that doesn’t cross paths with civilization, you will need to pack wisely! You will need the addition of a sleeping arrangement, a way to carry water, a way to filter water, and a means of nutrition (your dinners). There is a lot more to pack in your hiking backpack and a lot less space, so you have got to be smart.

Similar to the last section, I have devised a go-to guide to teach you how to pack a backpack ready for hiking. You will, of course, have to adjust the guide to suit you depending on how long your route is. You can also use this guide to pack your camping backpack. If your campground is only a short hike away, you can be less frugal with your packing.

The Main Compartment

In the main compartment of your hiking backpack, you are going to have an array of items, not just clothing. How you pack them is going to affect your comfort on the trails massively.

In the bottom of your backpack, you should store light gear that you do not need instant access to. Your sleeping bag, towel, and unneeded clothing can go here.

On top of your light kit, in the center of your backpack close to the back panel, you should keep your heaviest gear. Your tent, camping stove, pots and pans, a battery pack, and food should be stored here.

In front of your heavy gear, you should place any other clothing items that are lightweight and unessential. If you are using a front-loader, you can store some light items that you may need to access throughout the day here. 

On top of your heavy gear, you should place some lighter items that you may need access to throughout the day. This could be a light rain jacket, a spare pair of socks, and some napkins/wet wipes.

External Pockets

If your backpack has a head pocket you will want to pack some light snacks such as trail bars and nuts. You can also slip your phone in here if you don’t use it often.

The side pockets should hold your water bottles so you can stay hydrated on the trail without removing your backpack. If you are using a water bladder, these pockets can store other essentials like your water filtration system, a first aid kit, or extra trail snacks. 

Your hip pockets should hold things that you need to keep close to hand. I keep a trail map and compass as well as a few trail snacks and a knife in mine. It is also recommended to have an emergency whistle on one of the shoulder straps for quick access if you need to attract attention.

Strapping Extras onto Your Backpack

You can strap bulky light items on to the outside of your backpack to save space inside. Never strap your tent or anything else heavy on the outside of your pack, this will throw off the weight balance and make life difficult for you.

I often take a lightweight roll mat to sleep on when I go hiking. I strap this close to the head of my backpack with the straps that connect the top pocket flap to the body of the bag. If your sleeping bag is light enough and your backpack allows it, you can also save heaps of room by attaching it directly underneath the pack.

If you are just planning on taking a short hike into the wilderness to a campground, then you can be a little less frugal with your packing. As long as your backpack and your body can take the extra weight, then strapping your camp setup (tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, and pans) can free up heaps of room inside. This allows you to fill the backpack’s body up with some more luxuries and creature comforts.

Staying in one place rather than camping nomadically means you can pitch up and make your campsite more of a home rather than a quick place to sleep for the night. If you haven’t got far to walk to your campground, then why not load up your bag with those creature comforts that you would lack on a multi-day hiking trip.

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We Love to Hear from You

Thanks for reading our guid on how to pack a backpack! This should have given you an insight into what it takes to pack a backpack effectively for traveling, hiking, and camping. All the tips in this guide have come from our own experiences. No doubt some of you out there have developed some of your own packing hacks along the way. If you have your own packing hacks and want to share them or have any questions about packing your backpack, please leave a comment below. And if you are interested in more, check out our other travel tips.

Happy backpacking!

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