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How to Pack Your Backpack

Posted by Michael J. on

How to Pack Your Backpack

Packing a backpack will always have one dilemma: Accessibility vs. Weight Distribution. While we have a tendency to organize our items strictly based on convenience, this often conflicts with our load comfort when carrying. In this blog, we'll briefly cover how to pack a backpack (25+ lbs), but first please note the following:

1. The design/style of the bag plays a significant role in this. Camping/Backpacking bags tend to make use of length/height, rather than width and depth. They are generally a cylindrical design with one primary compartment and minimal organizational pockets. They serve the purpose to provide optimal weight distribution, load compression, and comfort/ergonomics. They are simplistic designs with lighter-weight fabrics and zippers in effort to reduce the pack's dry weight. Tactical backpacks are quite the opposite. They tend to utilize width and depth, rather than length/height. They generally have multiple sections and ample organizational compartments (sometimes compartments are designed for specific items), serving the purpose of being extremely durable and organizational as a trade-off for weight distribution and comfort. They require heavier material for their durability, but also higher volumes of said material and zippers to create all the sectional dividers, increasing the pack's dry weight significantly over Camping/Backpacking packs. They do make Camping/Backpacking backpacks constructed of more durable material, and they also make Tactical bags with more emphasis on comfort. But generally speaking, you will be working with one of the two types.

2. All backpacks suit/fit everyone differently. You can read 1,001 reviews on a backpack that fits everyone like a glove, but it simply just may not work for you personally. Like most people tend to stick to a handful of clothing companies that they know will always fit well, choosing your backpacks may fall into the same trend. Over the years, I've purchased bags with 4.9 star average reviews that everyone raved about, and ended up hating them for various reasons. There is no "perfect backpack" (trust me, I've tried), but if you find something that fits well and suits most of your needs/criteria, consider yourself a winner. You would be absolutely astonished how a properly-fitted backpack combined with proper weight distribution can make 60 lbs seem weightless, and also how poor fitting and improper weight distribution can make 20 lbs seem like doubling your weight. Any reputable brand will make a decent pack, therefore you should be choosing it based on how good it feels on your back, and its ability to house all your items, which leads to:

3. Always have your contents before choosing your pack. This is a common mistake that costs many of us way too much money and leaves us with a pile of unused/unwanted backpacks in our closet. Accept the fact that you will likely go through a few different bags over the years (needs change, items/volume change, they wear out, new designs/materials are created, etc.). I often suggest keeping your items in a large bin or duffel bag until you have everything you need, then choose a backpack that accommodates.

Ok - back to packing. As mentioned, your weight distribution should take overall priority over accessibility. If there are a few items that you always want to have access to easily at all times, I suggest you put them in your pockets rather than your pack (i.e. knife, flashlight, phone, lighter, compass, pen/paper. etc). This will not only take some weight off your back, but also let you keep your essential items on your person in the event you need to ditch your pack.


See my diagram below for both Camping/Backpacking bags and Tactical bags:

This diagram is designed with the overall simplistic shape that each bag style forms. The heaviest items should be stored below your neck, but above your tailbone and as close to your body as possible - this will make the load seem lighter and also avoid feeling "tipsy" or "saggy". Also, keep in mind that if your pack is very wide, you always want to be putting these heavy items as centered towards your spine as possible for the same reasons. If you carry a sleeping bag and sleep system, this should ideally be put at the bottom of a Camping/Backpacking bag, or strapped to the bottom of a Tactical bag (most tactical bags have attachment points underneath the bag for this). This is because they have a low weight-to-volume ratios and tend to be one of the few items that are not easily damaged from stacking weight on top of it (clothing also fits in this category).

IMPORTANT NOTE: When considering weight distribution, you are generally considering where each "category" of gear goes, not necessarily individual items (i.e. consider where food/cooking, tools, hygiene, water, stationary, etc.) because you do want some basic level organization.

Even though I've mentioned ten times that weight distribution should take priority over convenience, you should absolutely still have some compromise on this. Yes, technically a simple knife or multi-tool with a high weight-to-volume would give optimal weight distribution if it were placed in the center of the pack, but do you really want to take out 17 items just to get to a knife, or separate it from other tools simply because it's heavier? Point is: be smart about your compromises. Maybe there are some people out there who take weight distribution to an extreme and divide every individual item purely based on weight, but you do not want to consider your backpack to be Alice's Rabbit Hole and make finding one item a journey in itself!

Stuff-sacks, packing cubes, and drybags are often good ways to organize your items without adding much weight, but some hardcore minimalists insist on ditching anything not absolutely needed, including cutting off the corners of their maps to save a couple grams (yes, really). I try to compromise and use ultra-light packing cubes, but it's all preference.

As a final note, weight is always something you should be cognizant of when packing. The more times you get out there and experiment, the less you tend to take with you on the next round. This is a big factor for comfort of your pack, and as a general guideline, you should never carry more than 20% of your weight, no matter how well you distribute the weight. Perhaps this is another topic in itself for another day...

I challenge everyone to experiment with weight distribution to best suit your needs (and maybe for fun, purposely do it all backwards so you can see what a difference it makes!). Like all my blogs, I always say to consider my advice to be nothing more than a guideline as each person and his/her situation is different. After all, it is all about exploring... Thanks for reading, hope this helps!

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