12 Packing Tips for Beginner Backpackers
It’s always fun when you blend hiking with backcountry camping; but amongst other concerns, you should worry about the size of your package, and how you are going to fit everything inside. Seasoned backpackers agree that the art of packing is not a skill you can learn overnight.
The thing is: you don’t want a heavy pack; neither do you want its contents to sway precariously whenever you set foot on the ground.
Surprisingly, a good number of backpackers assume they can stuff their gear without organization; and the biggest culprits are beginners. These explorers don’t understand that packing the right way will overall improve the entire experience. Organizing your gear before packing, for example, will help eliminate unnecessary items and prevent you from forgetting things. Generally, you want to keep the weight down; you want to fill the nooks, and you want to maintain balance.
This is the only way you’ll achieve convenience, stability, and comfort.
Here are some Basic Packing Tips
These are the packing guidelines I’ve been using for the longest time:
- Accessibility – Things that you are going to use regularly need to be on top of your pack. These are things like snacks, a raincoat, a first aid kit, sunglasses, and a compass/map.
- Balance – Weight should be evenly distributed around your pack. What this means is that if you have a bottle of water weighing 1.8 pounds on one side pocket; the other side pocket needs something of a similar weight.
- Compression – Your belongings should take as little space as possible, and the best way to achieve this is by rolling things like clothing. Fill any available spaces/spaces with something.
- Everything inside – Try as much as possible to have everything inside your pack. Whenever you have stuff hanging off your bag, you are likely to be thrown off balance. Also, you will occasionally be getting caught in branches, and you increase the chances of losing your belongings.
The reality is that there is overwhelming information available for beginners. But to get you started on the right foot, I researched the questions that beginner backpackers often ask and answered them with expert knowledge from seasoned explorers. I was finally able to come up with twelve solid packing tips for newbies.
1. Make a checklist of your items
It’s as simple as it sounds: take a piece of paper and list down all the things you need. Of course, this is after considering where you are going, the weather, the duration of your stay, and your needs.
The advantages of making a list:
- You can quickly identify the gear you are going to need and those you don’t require
- You will avoid forgetting items
For newcomers, the cost can be an issue because camping gear tends to be costly. These are your options:
- Repurpose whatever you have at home
- Borrow from other backpacking friends
- Rent. But before you rent; test. This has always been my policy, especially for high-cost items like tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads.
The most obvious things I expect you to write down are:
- Kitchen supplies
- Sleeping bag
- Water treatment
- Sleeping pad
You need to be as detailed as possible and think of anything that is of importance for your trip. This is going to be the checklist you’ll be using to load your pack and to unload when you get back home. I take my lists seriously and even make notes on what worked and what didn’t. When you practice this, you are going to have a refined and customized checklist in the future.
2. Consider the size of your backpack
Bigger is better?
Let me put things into perspective: a single mile in the woods has averagely 2,000 steps, and Mother Nature has all manner of hills and valleys. Therefore, if you buy the bigger is better narrative, chances are you are going to pack too much, and you will ruin the fun.
The only thing I can guarantee is that a bigger backpack will give you more packing space, but that does not mean it is better. You don’t want to opt for a 70Litres pack that will prompt you to carry irrelevant stuff. Any bag with a volume of between 30-40L should suit most of your needs regardless of the length of your trip. Anything from 30-40L is big enough to accommodate everything you need while giving you enough mobility. This is the magic volume if you are not obsessed with clutter. I know a colleague who visited New Zealand’s Milford Sound for a week with a 35L bag, and he was fine. I’d recommend you go for 40 liters if you are of average size, and avoid going beyond 55 liters unless you need to carry excess equipment.
Most importantly, try to evaluate whether your backpack is large enough to accommodate all your items.
3.Lay out all your gear
Lay out all your gear and try to look for the loading routine that works best for you. This is also the time to consult your checklist, and while you are at it, be ruthless with things you don’t need.
Spread out your gear on the floor or the table and put group them into categories:
- What you need
- What you want
Go through the stuff again and again. Remember, if you are a beginner backpacker, the decision may difficult because you don’t want to feel unprepared. Get everything out. Your camera, pillow, first aid kit, kitchen supplies, laptop, clothes, toiletries, and any other thing you think you may want to carry with you. Of course, these items must be there on your checklist. Just put everything out and stare at them for a sec before grouping them.
Once you have them in groups, put them in piles. For example, clothing, camping, or cooking. This way, it will be easier to pack them together. Identify all the loose belongings and put them aside because they will go into a sealable bag.
One of the methods I use to get rid of stuff is having a dummy pack. Usually, I will pick something from every pile, assess it and put it in the dummy pack. I will then gauge the result and determine if I’m okay or if I still have too much luggage.
A common mistake that beginners make is having too many clothes. I have spent a week in South East Asia with less than 15 pieces of clothing, and I can confirm the only clothing necessities are wet-weather clothes and base layers.
Despite giving you an overview of everything, spreading out your items will help you visualize where each gear should go. It’s one of the baby steps when coming up with a packing strategy.
4. Start with the essentials and save weight as much as possible
Food, water, first aid kit, and navigation are my essentials. I think about them first before I start packing, and so should you. For other people, it may be the tent, the headlamp, or the sleeping bag. I usually pick my essentials from the pile and set them aside.
I cannot stress enough the importance of leaving unnecessary items. While arranging your gear in piles, you may also consider organizing them by weight. In the spirit of saving weight, find multiple uses for common things. For example, trekking sticks can also be used as tent poles. I have learned that cutting weight is a skill that someone acquires from the experience and confidence gained after backpacking for a while. The more you are out in the woods; the more you’ll see things you don’t need.
Otherwise, you will likely be tempted to bring extra camp shoes, food, clothing, and tons of other belongings you don’t need. Often, I see people carrying two bags when it’s not even necessary; or packs busting at the seams because they are overloaded. Your shelter, sleeping bag, and pack are the most essential items when you want to embark on a weight-cutting mission. Otherwise, you can always gamble with everything else.
A rule of thumb amongst seasoned backpackers is to carry a pack that does not exceed 40% of your body weight. Others maintain that more than 30% of your body weight is suicide.
While it may vary, try to keep the weight of your pack at around 25% of your body weight. Once your bag is packed, weigh it on a scale to know exactly what you are getting yourself into. If you are 150 pounds, for example, it will be strenuous if your backpack exceeds 37.5 pounds.
I still consider the weight that you choose to carry a personal decision, but it is crucial that you start light. I remember this one time when I brought two books, multiple pairs of shoes, and an extra fuel canister that I discovered didn’t have any use. I was still new and naïve, and I thought I was going to fall off the end of the earth. For this reason, I am never surprised when a first-time backpacker overloads.
5. Distribute the weight evenly
Weight distribution is often overlooked. Typically, heavy items need to be near the top of the backpack; NOT the bottom. The weighty load should, in fact, be closer to your back and between the shoulder blades to avoid straining your back. This is also crucial in ensuring the bag is not wobbling when you move. Therefore, place lightweight – and bulky – stuff like clothes, sleeping pad and sleeping bags at the bottom of your pack. Heavy goods will then go in the middle and as close as possible to your back. These are the items that need to be well distributed because they are the heaviest.
Weight distribution plays a crucial role in achieving stability, comfort, and convenience. Sometimes, it may be useful to have the heavier stuff further down when you are hiking on extremely rough terrain. This will give you a firmer foothold and increase stability. However, if you are on level ground, pack the heavy things a little higher for better posture. Men and women tend to have different centers of gravity, and so, it’s essential to try placing weighty effects at different heights to find what’s best for someone.
Distributing weight will make your pack feel lighter and effortless to carry around before you can think of adjusting the straps for a snug fit. Remember, the heaviest items should be close to your boy and midway (the middle) up your back.
Keeping the weight closer to your back/body reduces any outward pull on your shoulders and will help maintain a normal center of gravity in case there is a need for increased maneuverability. Your heaviest goods are probably your food bag and your water.
6. Pack in a way that makes sense to you
I’ve found that if I pack my stuff the same way, I tend to reduce the possibility of misplacing items.
Often, I will categorize my clothes based on their use instead of burying all of them inside my sleeping bag. For example, sleeping, layering, rain. I will also use a Ziploc to keep batteries, my phone charger, a headlamp, and anything that doesn’t seem to have a place. I also pack a plastic bag for all the stuff that may get wet during the hike.
Things like rain gear, flashlights, food, and GPS should go in the external pockets of your pack. These are effects that should be accessed as fast as they are needed. Think about it: fishing for a GPS at the bottom of your package is not fun when it’s snowing and you have lost direction.
7. Keep items grouped by frequency of use
If you are using your pocket knife, sunscreen, and sunglasses after every short trek, then pack them together for easy access. Probably have them in the outside compartments, top lid, front pockets, or hip belt pockets, if your pack has one. When you place these effects together and in one pocket, you can reach them with minimum searching. In fact, the more the pockets, the more the options you have for smaller essentials like:
- Bug spray
- ID and cash
- Water bottle
- Car keys
- Rain cover
Eating utensils and pots can go into a ziplock, and you can color code them if you want. I do that all the time, and it makes my work easier.
Let me introduce some lifesavers for when you want to keep things grouped based on the frequency of use. They are called packing cubes. These packing units are especially important if you have fewer pockets and will make it easier to locate your stuff.
Normally, I will carry four packing cubes – two large ones and two smaller ones, and I will ensure they are marked.
While it may be tempting to group odd-shaped gear and carry them outside, always try to carry the least number of belongings on the outside of your pack. After all, you won’t need to attach many things outside if you pack right way. I understand sometimes it is unavoidable, but you should know that hanging items outside increases the probability of them falling off or getting ruined by branches and bushes.
Now that you know, these are the gear that will typically find space outside:
- Climbing rope
- Large sleeping pad
- Trekking poles
- Tent poles
Let them go into the special loops, compression straps, daisy chains, lash patches, and fasteners around your pack. Bulky items like sleeping pads or tents can then be attached horizontally on the top or bottom of the bag. But you must careful on your hike because these belongings can snag on branches or scrape against rocks.
8. Light and bulky items go to the bottom
These are mostly camping gear that tend to be bulky and fluffier. Examples are:
- Camp shoes or boots
- Sleeping bag and sleeping pad. You can use a compression sack to help reduce the size of your sleeping bag
- Heavy layers that you will likely use for sleeping
- Clothes that you are not going to need during the day
These items are better packed way down because they will only be required when in camp – you rarely need them while hiking. Most of them are soft and squishy and will help in creating shock-absorption. Don’t put hard objects like a fuel bottle or metal stove next to your body because they are going to rub your back.
Something that you should note is that your tent may not be able to fit inside your pack, and even if it fits, it's going to eat up too much space. So, your only option may be having to carry it outside. If this is the case, be extra careful and ensure it is protected from thorns and prickly bushes. The same goes for your sleeping bag; especially if its inflatable.
9. The heavy load goes in the middle
These are heavy and dense gear, and you still won’t need them during the hike. They are:
- Cook kit (pots and pans)
- Water reservoir
- Food stash
Stash them in the middle section of your backpack and as close as possible to your back while keeping in mind balance and stability. They need to be on top of the bulky and light items to distribute weight around your core and back. In case you are headed to bear country, and you are carrying a bear canister then it should also find its place in the middle section.
When the weighty goods are placed in the middle and close to your back, they help in creating the center of gravity and direct the load down instead of backward. Remember, when the heavy stuff is located too low, then the pack will sag. On the other hand, when they are packed to high, the camper will feel tippy.
If you have your fuel bottle in the middle section, always ensure the cap is closed as tight as possible. Also, make sure it is in an upright position. Sometimes, your fuel can go to the side pockets; if it is not too bulky.
A great tip is to wrap soft things around the heavy ones to prevent them from moving. For example, you can cushion the layer between the bulkiest items and the water reservoir. As for the water reservoir, find the right time to pack it rather than slipping it into a full loaded bag.
Take note that while the weighty and high-density goods need to be close to your back, they also need to be a little high – not at the bottom. This will quickly enable you to position the center of gravity of your pack.
10. Medium-weight to lighter items go to the top
The top is for your layers and other medium-weight items. This is where I also store what I consider leftover things or belongings that I will need quick access to.
Examples of goods that should go to the top include:
- Toilet supplies
- First aid kit
- Fleece jacket
- Extra layers
- Insulated jacket
- Rain jacket
- Other small necessities
I’ve seen campers placing their tents on top of their pack in case there is an emergency storm. I don’t see a problem, as long as everything up there is well placed to enable you to pull the drawstring without things poking out and getting caught by branches. I like to store some t-shirts and socks at the top if I don’t want their search to be as difficult as that of the Holy Grail. But I must roll them into snake-like garments and package them inside drawstring bags.
Your objective should be to avoid having a bottom-heavy pack that will drag you down or a top-heavy pack that will pull you backward. Don’t try to stuff weighty items here at the last minute. I see campers doing that, and it gets in my nerves.
11. Cram all the nook
This is something that should be ongoing from the bottom to the top. I keep telling backpackers that packing for the backcountry is different than packing for a hotel stay. You don’t have to worry about the wrinkles, and, therefore, you need to stuff all your clothes in all the “holes” to avoid “carrying air.”
The empty spaces need to be filled with all the small or compressible items. For example, you can stuff some socks and T-shirts inside a pot. If you have a bear canister, ensure it is filled with food and other scented belongings. The best way to explain cramming all the nook is to visualize stacking cordwood. If you want a compact and stable load, you should be more concerned with the rows rather than the columns. And while at it, also remember to distribute the weight evenly.
You are mimicking the brick and mortar system, and your sleeping bag, food bag, and tent are your "bricks." These items are large and cannot be squashed. Your “mortar” are things like books, toiletries, and clothing. These belongings can easily squeeze into the “cracks” between the “bricks.” In the end, you will have yourself a solid, dense “wall of gear.” Surround hard things with clothing or other soft goods to eliminate empty pockets of air, and always consider your accessibility needs. I always wrap clothes I won’t need in my tent fly to ensure my luggage is compact enough and I have more room to pack.
Once you are satisfied everything is intact, try to feel your pack’s outside and look out for any empty spaces. Just punch the bag lightly and try to locate areas that feel soft. If there are several, your luggage needs more “mortar.” You don’t want your items wobbling while you walk.
12. Test your packing
I hate it when I assume I have done my packing right only to realize there is a pot sticking into my back. To alleviate this kind of problem, I always advocate for testing. It is the most straightforward and practical method you can use to identify if anything is off. You can then rectify your mistakes by moving your goods around until you feel comfortable enough. Look at testing as pre-trip planning.
An easy test is performing a trial run with your package. A day or two before your trip, pack your bag and go for a short hike. Pay close attention to weight distribution, balance, and your posture. If you notice anything unusual, try reloading your pack until you find what works for you. This is the time to also throw in a waterproof pack cover. Backpacks tend to have vulnerable zippers and seams even though they are made using waterproof fabric. When your items get rained on, they’ll become more burdensome to carry around.
Don’t panic when you make some blunders. Always learn from them and get out there. But remember, sometimes bags can get lost, and you should consider having crucial documents with you. Otherwise, when you pack with accessibility, balance, and compression in mind; your pack will thank you, and so will your back.