Few things are quite as invigorating as escaping into the wilderness on the power of your own legs! A properly packed backpack makes hiking for many miles over multiple days a delight rather than a distraction from the epic views and the bliss of being deep in nature.
According to Berne Broudy, a Vermont-based writer, photographer, and adventurer, the key is to start with a pack that fits your build and has snugly fitting shoulder straps. Once you’re outfitted with a properly fitting pack, the next step is optimizing weight distribution to help you maintain your center of gravity. In other words, loading your pack in such a way that the weight takes the least toll on your body – while also ensuring that your gear, food, outerwear, and other essentials are accessible when you need them. For our tangible tips on how to pack a backpack for hiking (while simultaneously reducing single-use plastic in your life), just read on!
Bottom of the pack: sleeping bag & mid-weight gear
Start by placing any mid-weight gear at the bottom of the pack, including your sleeping pad, thicker clothes, and a compressed sleeping bag. (If your pack has a special sleeping bag compartment, use it!) The bottom of the bag is also a great spot to store bulk food packed in Stand-Up Mega bags, like oatmeal and dried fruit for breakfasts, or dog food for your trusty four-legged companion.
Middle back: tent, cookware & other heavy items
To best maintain your center of gravity (and to save yourself from a whole lot of shoulder and back discomfort), pack your heaviest gear near the middle-back of your pack. Heavier items include a water reservoir, cookware, your camping stove, a fuel canister, a tent, and any dense or particularly heavy food items. To avoid wasting any precious space in your pack, fill cooking pots with bagged-up food. Some folks like to pack a few clothing items (packed in waterproof compression dry sacks) around cooking pots and fuel canisters to pad any sharp or awkward edges and protect the fabric of their pack from wearing down over time.
The length of the hike will determine how and what you’ll eat on the trail. To avoid carrying a lot of trash, opt for packaging-free, quick-cook meals for breakfast and dinner, like oats and dried fruit with maple sugar in the morning, and rice noodles with dehydrated coconut cream and curry powder, dried veggies, and a dehydrated protein for dinner. As for cooking essentials, try packing olive oil in a leak proof soft flask, and salt in a Stasher Pocket bag.
For longer trips, assemble bulk bags of your favorite meals in a Stasher Half Gallon. Also bring a Stasher Sandwich bag to hold lunch — at dinner time, you can load your empty Sandwich bag with your dehydrated meal, add boiling water, and use your bag as a bowl. Rinse and reuse the bag for breakfast, then pack it again for lunch.
The front: clothes, toiletries & other lightest items
The middle front of your pack is a great spot for lightweight items that you don’t need quick access to 24/7, like extra clothing, a towel, your pillow, and lesser-used toiletry items. If there’s any empty space, this is also a good spot for lightweight slippers or flip flops so that you have a pair of shoes to wear around camp besides your hiking boots.
Top of the pack: easy-access, light items
The top of the pack is ideal for lightweight, small items you need to access frequently throughout your hike, like a water filter. For ease of access, group everything into pouches or Stasher bags so that you can find what you need without searching. For toiletries, group small items like hand sanitizer, toothpaste, face cream, sunscreen (don’t forget to apply it often!), and bug wipes in a Stand-Up Mini Bag to keep them in one place. The top of the back is also an optimal spot for things that you’d need to grab quickly in the case of an emergency, like a safety kit stocked with an emergency beacon and all the hiking first aid essentials. We prefer storing emergency goods in our Go Bag because the handy carabiner makes it ultra easy to access. The Go Bag is also great for the basic supplies you’ll need every day, like a knife, fork, lighter, phone cord, charger block, headlamp, and other electronics charging cords.
Side pockets and hip pockets
If the weather looks threatening, keep a rain jacket close at hand by stuffing it into an outside pocket on your pack. The side pockets are also great for storing a water bottle, as well as the food you’ll want for the day, portioned out into your reusable Stasher Snack bags — cheese and salami, a sandwich, a chocolate bar, dried fruit, homemade trail mix, you name it. And since the goal is super even weight distribution, be sure to use the side pockets on each side of your pack – no one likes to hike when they’re feeling lopsided!
As for the hip pockets, we like to use one waistbelt pocket to hold nourishing snacks like almonds, raisins, chocolate chunks, and coconut flakes loaded into a Stasher Snack bag. By tucking a snack bag inside one of waistbelt pockets, you can easily grab a nibble with or without a rest stop. In the other waistbelt pocket, you can keep more snacks, but we often use it to store a second Snack Bag filled with dog treats. One of the benefits of using Stasher bags in this case – rather than just dumping snacks and dog treats right into the pack’s waist pockets or your pants pockets – is that you can remove the bags and store them in your bear canister overnight when hiking in bear country.
If it’s a sunny day, clip a hat to the outside of your pack where you can grab it when you need it. Your sunglasses and map or GPS can go around your neck or into shoulder strap pockets if your pack has them.
Waterproofing your hiking backpack
There are several ways to waterproof your hiking pack. While you could certainly get a waterproof backpack in the first place (keep in mind that most everyday hiking backpacks are not), experts also recommend getting a rain cover for your pack. Rain covers are basically a rain jacket meant just for your backpack – they’re easy to use, lightweight, and keep the contents of your bag nice and dry in rainy weather. Because being stuck in the rain and having a soaking wet sleeping bag and wet clothes isn’t just miserable; it’s dangerous, too! Using a rain cover and storing your things in dry bags and Stasher bags is crucial to protecting your essentials.
Packing essentials checklist
- Stasher bags in various sizes
- Rain cover
- Sleeping bag
- Pillow or stuff sack
- Sleeping pad or air mattress
- Toiletries: toothpaste, toothbrush, sunscreen, bug wipes or spray, toilet paper, face cream, hand sanitizer, biodegradable soap, menstrual products
- Trowel for burying waste
- Meals and snacks
- Camping stove and fuel
- Cookware and pot grips
- Lighter and/or waterproof matches
- Dishes and utensils
- Small towel
- Water bottles and/or reservoir
- Water treatment method
- Hiking boots
- Wool hiking socks
- Sandals or slippers for wearing around camp
- Underwear and/or long underwear, depending on the season
- Hiking pants or shorts
- Short-sleeve and/or long-sleeve t-shirt
- Insulated or fleece jacket
- Rain jacket and waterproof pants
- Sunglasses and hat
- Gloves and a beanie, depending on the season
- Map, guidebook, compass and/or GPS
- Cell phone and extra battery
- Whistle and/or emergency beacon
- Fire starter
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Knife and/or multitool
- Piece of duct tape
- Bear canister (if in bear country)
- Permits (if required)
- Personal essentials like keys, license, credit card, cash
- Itinerary left with your emergency contact and in your car
Once you’re all packed, try to take a quick walk with your pack on before you leave home and hit the trail as Berne suggests here. That way, you can ensure that your pack feels sufficiently balanced, and you can readjust if anything feels pokey, lopsided, or uncomfortable. Taking your pack for a quick test run by walking around the house or around the block also gives you time to remember anything you’ve forgotten, like a collapsible water bowl for your pup, a French Press for morning coffee, a deck of cards... or more Stasher bags!
Then, all that’s left to do is to put your phone in airplane mode, leave the world behind, and disappear down the trail for a few days. Happy hiking!