How to Load a Backpack

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MLD Exodus (photo from Mountain Laurel Designs)

A well loaded pack can mean the difference between being comfortable and uncomfortable out on the trail.

It is one of the simpler backpacking skills to learn, yet it seems to be a process that many hikers overlook.

There is such a big emphasis on what goes into packs, and relatively little in regards to how that gear should be distributed.

Comfort, stability and convenience are all enhanced in a well loaded backpack. It’s by no means rocket science, but it is a skill that’s worth taking the time to get right.

Here are five tips for loading a backpack:

1.  What Type of Pack?

If you are using a frameless pack, start by inserting your sleeping mat** into your backpack (either in cylinder form or flat against the back). If you have an internal frame pack begin with Step 2. For external frame users, take a good hard look at yourself and go and buy a different pack. 😉

2.  Waterproof

Line the inside of your backpack with a trash compacter bag. Cheap, light and effective. For extra protection, make the trash bag big enough so that you can either tie it off or fold the top over when the rain starts coming down in earnest.

3.  Bottom

I place my bivy sack and clothing items I will not need during the day (e.g. extra socks, rain pants, thermal underwear, insulation layer when it’s warm) at the bottom of the pack. Such gear is generally not excessively heavy, but its bulk provides a base upon which you can place weightier items (see below).

4.  Middle

Heavier objects such as food, shelter and water (if you happen to be carrying more than a couple of litres) should be situated close to your back in the medium to upper regions of the pack.

Utilise your sleeping bag to fill the outer sections. This method has the dual benefits of keeping the pack’s centre of gravity close to your back, as well as helping to maintain the long term loft of your sleeping bag (i.e. less compression than when placed in a stuff sack and/or put at the bottom of your backpack).

5.  Top

For ease of access, put your snacks, shell, extra maps and any other items you think you may need during the day at the top of your pack (Note: smaller objects can also be placed in convenient hip, shoulder or side pockets).

** For frameless backpack users, if you have an inflatable mat such as a Thermarest NeoAir, I suggest folding it and putting it flat against your back. If it is not giving you the buffer you require when completely deflated, try leaving a little bit of air in it (only a smidgen, as you don’t want to run the risk of popping it).


Comments

How to Load a Backpack — 3 Comments

  1. Hi Cam,
    This question is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the one shoulder method of carrying a backpack? Some ultra-lightweight hikers prefer this method, instead of fully strapping the pack on. I have tried it on a few day hikes, with a load of about ten pounds, and found it to be more comfortable than wearing the pack.
    Thanks,
    Cal

    • Hi Cal,

      Good to hear from you.

      For the most part I use both straps.

      Occasionally when my pack is really light I will use the “one strap” method or even go “front pack” style for a while.

      I’m a big believer in regularly make small adjustments to the pack’s harness, hip belt, shoulder and stabilizer straps. By “fine-tuning” in such a fashion, I have found it helps to minimize the build up of tightness/stress in any one area.

      Cheers,

      Cam

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