For some campers, packing for a multi-day backpacking trip is a task that’s as boring as watching paint dry, and for other’s it’s an art form with all the subtle complexities of Ikebana. There’s a happy medium between the two, and the following pointers will help get you there. Note that I’m writing this article based on my experience with my large 75L capacity pack (comparable to the current REI Yosemite Pack), but that the ideas I discuss can be applied to backpacks of all sizes.

Weight is King

It might not seem so heavy when you lift your pack in the living room, but trust me, it’ll feel twice as heavy once you’re on the trail. As a rule of thumb, weigh your pack on a bathroom scale to ensure that it doesn’t exceed ¼ your body weight. If you are near this threshold, be very deliberate in your movements when wearing your backpack in order to avoid suddenly stressing your muscles. This is especially important when putting on or taking off your pack. Before leaving on your trip, it’s a good idea to do a short 1 hour hike with your backpack fully loaded. This will give you an opportunity to test if you’re carrying too much weight. In addition, you’ll have the opportunity to adjust the hip, shoulder, chest, and load straps that are common to most modern backpacks. Once they’re all in comfortable positions, it’s a good idea to mark the location where the straps meet their corresponding anchors with a pen. This way, you’ll always know roughly where they should be adjusted even if their position gets changed somehow.

To Bring or Not to Bring, That is the Question

The perceived benefit of bringing extra items is usually overshadowed by the additional weight and clutter that they add, so be absolutely ruthless when deciding what to pack. To help you, ask yourself the following two questions:

  • Do I absolutely need this item to survive?
  • Is this item’s function unique enough that it can’t be replaced by another item I’ve already packed?

If the answer is “No” to either of these questions, then you probably shouldn’t bring it. A classic example of an item that fails both questions is the pillow. You certainly don’t need it to survive, and it can usually be replaced with a rolled up jacket, so don’t pack it!

As you do more backpacking, you may find one or two personal items that fail this test, but are still worth bringing. Sandals are one thing that I always bring that violate these rules because they allow my feet to breathe when I’m walking around the campsite, and are easy to kick off/on when climbing in/out of my tent. My favorite pair are the extremely rugged, but comfortable Chaco Zong Sandals. I like them because they have a strap that goes around my “big toe,” which keeps them firmly attached to my feet, but, if I’m wearing a pair of wool socks in the evening, I can easily slide my foot over that strap so that it’s out of the way. Yes, I can practically hear the groans from here about the socks with sandals thing, but it keeps my feet happy.

Sub-divide and Conquer

It’s tempting to try to save time by hurling all your loose gear, indiscriminately into your pack. Instead, subdivide your gear into categories, for example: campsite set-up (tent, sleeping bag, ect.), clean clothing (shirts, pants, ect.), and cooking supplies (stove, fuel, ect.). Then, bag up the items in each subcategory separately. Although you can use almost any type of bag, I like using theEagle Creek Pack-It Cube Set because they have a mesh top which makes them breathable, and allows me to see the contents inside. Note that it’s especially important to keep your food in a sling bag or a bear canister (required in some locations), so that you can easily suspend your food in the air or store it in some location far away from your campsite. Subdividing makes unpacking a breeze, and cuts down the time you need when digging through your pack for a specific item.

Location, Location, Location

In general, try to pack heavy items in the part of your pack that rests around the middle of your back, and closer to your body. This will improve your stability, and will place more of the load on your hips/legs, which are much better at supporting weight than your back. It’s also good practice to shield your back from any hard items, by placing a soft item in between. Try to pack your subdivided item bags in the reverse order you’ll need to take them out. For example, once you’ve reached your destination, you’ll probably be setting up your campsite, changing into some clean clothes, and making some dinner. So, pack your subdivided items with you cooking items towards the bottom, your clothing in the middle, and your campsite items towards the top. Although most of your gear will go inside your pack, take some time to consider what will go on the outside of your pack too. Generally, it’s a good idea to keep the things you many need to access as you’re hiking in your pack’s outside pockets. Emergency items like: a first aid kit, a knife, and bear spray (if necessary in your region) should be easily accessible at all times. Other items that are best kept in the outside facing pockets include: water, trail mix, your map, camera/phone, and rain gear.

Whether you’re doing a dayhike or a multi-day backpacking trip, following these easy packing guidelines will greatly increase your comfort, and ease of use. Enjoy the adventure!

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