How to Pack Your Pack for a Hike

Our favorite way to pack your backpack for a more hassle-free, enjoyable day on the trail.

With the exception of a twisted ankle or sudden onset of illness, nothing – and we mean nothing – ruins a hike quite like a poorly packed pack. It doesn’t matter if you walk into a downpour or have to make multiple clothes-drenching water crossings; pack your pack properly and you exponentially improve your chances of an enjoyable hike.

You may be thinking, “how can that be?” because hiking in wet clothes is pretty awful. True. But an unbalanced load that constantly shifts in transit and places pressure on your back or shoulders rather than your hips can cause pain that lasts for days rather than a few hours of soggy discomfort.

So keep your hike pain-free by following these few simple steps. While we are assuming a few things about your pack, namely that it’s a top-loading internal frame style, understand that these rules are universal, so even if you opt for an external frame or a zippered front/side panel, you’ll still want to distribute your gear in a similar fashion.

THE BOTTOM OF YOUR PACK 

Think of the bottom of your pack as the overnight section of the bag. This includes your sleeping bag, clothes, toiletries, the bulk of your food, etc. The exceptions? Snacks, rain gear and first aid. You’ll want to keep some frequently used gear more readily available regardless of weight.

“The key is keeping the heavier, less important items closest to your back and as close to the bottom of your pack as possible,” said Steven Miller, DICK’S Sporting Goods outdoor expert. “This lowers your center of gravity making for a more stable and comfortable day out on the trail.”

THE MIDDLE OF YOUR PACK 

The middle, or core, of your pack is where the lighter, less frequently used items live. This includes sleeping pads, tent poles and water filter. Fill in any excess space with smaller items (compressible pillow, water filter, down jacket, etc.) packed around the bulkier items.

“The goal is to fill as many empty spaces as possible,” Miller said. “This will maximize the volume of your pack while eliminating the chance of the load shifting while on the trail.”

THE TOP OF YOUR PACK 

The primary reservoir of your pack should be pretty much full by now. Next, layer in the items that need to be quickly available should the need arise. This is where you want to keep items such as rain gear and your first aid kit. While the weight of these items might not be ideal for carrying at the top of your pack, sometimes convenience trumps comfort.

“When rain does hit on the trial, you don’t want to be scattering your gear all over the place in order to get to your rain gear,” Miller said.

THE LID/BRAIN OF YOUR PACK 

Most packs have additional storage compartments on the lid. Use the lid or brain of your pack for frequently used items or just small odds and ends like navigation (map/compass/GPS), tent stakes and cordage, pack cover and other items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bug spray, snacks and sunblock.

THE SIDE POCKETS OF YOUR PACK 

Most modern packs are equipped with water bottle-sized side pockets along with smaller accessory pockets. These are great places to carry your cook kit and fuel, trekking poles, tent poles or extra water,” Miller said. “Smaller pockets can be used to hold knives or multi-tools or fire kits.”

THE HIP BELT POUCHES

Hip belt pouches are great places for anything you want immediate access to while on the trail.

“The benefit of a hip belt pocket over a lid pocket is its ability to be accessed without stopping or removing your pack,” Miller said. “So this is where I keep snacks, a headlamp/flashlight or navigation tools.”

Lastly, we recommend compartmentalizing all of your essential or bulky gear in compression sacks or dry bags. This increases organization and protects your gear against the elements, in case you have to open your backpack in a downpour or accidentally go for a swim.