How to *Actually* Pack a Rucksack For a Backpacking Trip

Want to know the real secret to packing a rucksack? Forget all that other rubbish floating around online. This is the only thing you need to read before your next long-distance walk or multi-day trek.

Words and pictures by Joly Braime @ WildBounds HQ

The internet is full of articles on how to pack a rucksack. Things you must never do. Hacks and pro tips. Lists of hard-and-fast rules. Compelling reasons why only a total rookie packs a sleeping bag when they could make do with a woobie and a space blanket.

The problem is, this stuff is mostly written as Google bait by people who’ve never been on an overnighter, let alone a long-distance hike – collated from other articles by similarly uninformed click-chasers in the endlessly misleading echo chamber of the internet.

As someone who genuinely has spent quite a bit of time as a back-country snail, I’d like to suggest an alternative point of view:

There is no correct way to pack a rucksack.

If there were, we’d have found it by now. Talk to ten experienced hikers and none of them will tell you the same thing, because every person and trip is different. Each time I set out, I think I’ve got my packing nailed, and a few days down the line everything seems to have shifted in my bag.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to pack well. But instead of setting rules, I reckon packing for a camping trip is about asking yourself a series of questions.

Backpack 2

What will you need easy access to?

Not everything can be at the top of your pack – and while most bags will have some quick access compartments (lid pocket, side slips, stretch mesh on the front etc.), the question is what you put in them.

This is where stock advice like ‘always keep your waterproofs handy’ falls down. What if the forecast is for bluebird skies and 25 degrees? Wouldn’t your sunnies and a bottle of factor 30 be more useful? When you pass an inviting mountain tarn, will you really want to be digging down past bone-dry wet weather gear to find your swimming kit? Similarly, at the height of a Scottish summer, your midge repellent will need to remain close at hand while your head torch is unlikely to get a lot of use. Come winter, the reverse will be true.

In reality, what you pack where will often depend on the trip and the conditions – but there are some things that you’ll almost always want quick access to. Water, snacks and any emergency equipment you might be carrying, for example. The last of these is easy to get sloppy about. I usually take a small satellite beacon if I’m going anywhere remote, and I have occasionally caught myself burying it deep down in my pack where it would be no use at all if I actually came to grief.

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Backpack 8

Do you need any add-ons?

Continuing on the same theme, it is quite hard work to be constantly taking your pack off and putting it on again every time you want to get something out of it – so you might want to keep your most-used items closer to hand.

The better part of a century ago, during the hiking boom of the 1930s, walkers often carried a lightweight shoulder bag called a haversack as well as their main rucksack. This sat at their hip, and would hold essentials like their beef paste sandwiches, OS map, Silva compass and cigs.

Haversacks fell out of fashion post-WW2, but they made a lot of sense in some ways – and there are plenty of modern equivalents. I’ve met some long-distance hikers who like to pair their rucksack with a compact chest pack (of the sort favoured by fly fishermen), and there are specially designed cases for things like cameras and maps. On my last week-long trip in Scandinavia, I wore a useful little canvas satchel clipped across the front of my waist belt, and I often attach a small MOLLE pouch to my shoulder strap that takes my phone, wallet, keys and dog poo bags.

Of course, you might prefer to remain streamlined without any extra bits and bobs – and that’s fine too. Don’t be afraid to experiment and adapt as you work out what suits you.

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How will you distribute the weight?

Here, at least, is an area of packing where there are actually some helpful guidelines.

The further out something is from your back, the heavier it will feel, so it makes sense to put the weightier stuff in the middle of your pack – between your shoulders and your hips and right next to your back.

Placing heavy items too high in your pack can make you unstable, so keep the top pocket for lighter bits. Likewise, don't load lots of heavy things right at the bottom of the pack, where your hip belt will take the brunt of the weight rather than sharing it with your shoulders. The exception to this is if you're skiing, in which case you might want your centre of gravity a bit lower.

Organise your gear with packing cubes


What needs protecting?

My brother – a man who rarely buys kit from an outdoor retailer if he could get it from Homebase – defends what one friend calls his ‘bin bag dry bag approach’ by pointing out that his bin bags are heavy-duty rubble sacks, not your flimsy black bags. Be that as it may, when he’s wading across a high river in northern Norway, items in the bottom of his pack are unlikely to stay dry.

Some bits of gear are more vulnerable to damp, impact, cold, dirt or sand. It’s as well to consider what those things are, where you put them and how you pack them. Do they need padding, insulating or waterproofing?

Conversely, some items are likely to cause damage to other things, so it’s worth putting some thought into where you pack stuff like crampons or ice axes.

I tend to work on the principle that if something can go wrong, sooner or later it will. If you’re tackling a scramble, having your £500 camera dangling on its strap is asking for a bash on a rock. If you’re out in extreme cold, your phone is best kept in a chest pocket where a bit of body heat will stop Jack Frost killing the battery. If there’s any possibility you could get wet, you probably don’t want your passport and electronics right at the top of your pack.

Oh, and buy cheap drybags at your peril. You might as well use rubble sacks.

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What are you going to do with your sleeping bag?

However cold and wet and ragged you feel by the end of the day, a decent meal and good night’s sleep will set you straight. And a good night’s sleep means being warm and dry, which is why a wet sleeping bag is the kind of horror that you try not to experience more than once in life.

Received wisdom has always been that the sleeping bag should go in a dry bag at the bottom of the rucksack, but I’ve come to grief with this tactic more than once over the years. The thing is, if (when) you have a really filthy wet day, rainwater can pool at the bottom of your rucksack – particularly if you’re using a rain cover. Dry bags have a habit of being less infallibly waterproof than you’d hope – especially on long trips where they’ve had plenty of wear and tear – and if your sleeping bag is sitting in water for several hours then damp can work its way through into the down fill.

By all means, put your sleeping bag in the bottom compartment of your rucksack if you want, but I’d suggest putting something underneath it, just to separate it from any standing water.

Then there’s the question of whether or not you use the compression sack for your sleeping bag. This will reduce the size of the sleeping bag considerably, but it also transforms it into a hard, cylindrical lump. This is a shame because the squashy quality of a sleeping bag makes it perfect for packing around other items in your bag, providing padding and helping you make the most efficient use of the space.

In more recent years, I’ve tended to pile my sleeping bag into a large drybag, loosely sealed so that air can still be forced out of it. I put a waterproof liner in my rucksack and half pack it with the heavier and bulkier items (see above), then I stuff the sleeping bag down into the backpack, working it into the hollows and empty corners. I end up with a tightly packed rucksack where things don’t rattle around, and the sleeping bag is protected by at least two layers of waterproofing.

Once again, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, but you’ve got options.

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What are you going to do with your tent?

A contentious one, this. I know at least one man who insists that everything – including the tent – should go inside the rucksack. And it’s true, strapping things on the outside of your bag can make it lopsided and throw the weight off. You’re less streamlined in heavy weather, which does feel like a shame when gear designers have put so much thought into aerodynamic pack design. No-one wants to look like those walkers on the West Highland Way with bits of kit and random Tesco bags lashed all over the outside of their pack like a Victorian tinker.

And yet, for my part, I still prefer to keep my tent on the outside of the pack. Partly because it takes up so much space if you pack it inside, but also because the tent is often going to get wet, and I’m not sure I want that packed in with all my dry gear – even if I’m using drybags.

Remember too that a tent doesn’t always have to be one single item. You can split out poles, pegs, fly and inner (if you’ve got one) and pack them separately if that suits your packing system better.

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What are you burying deep down in your pack, and can you leave it behind?

I know, I know, we’re drifting from how to pack into what to pack, and that’s a whole different article. But my point, really, is about the packing process. When you’re considering what needs to go where in your pack, then ‘I won’t need that very often’ probably means you can leave it at home.

Apart from a few items of emergency kit, if you’re not using it most days then you probably didn’t need to bring it. The trick is working that out before you start.

I’ve found it helpful to get my gear together for a backpacking trip in plenty of time. Laid out on the floor of the spare bedroom for a couple of days, the bulk and weight of it begins to haunt me and I soon find myself whittling it down.

The big bushcraft knife usually goes back in the drawer. The enamel mug that makes me feel like Captain Scott gets traded for a less cool (but lighter) plastic one. The spare shoes get switched for sandals and sometimes the sandals get ditched too. Spare socks, pants and t-shirts gradually get skimmed out. I wonder whether I really need that full bottle of sun cream, or whether the dog-end of an old one will do. The camera tripod and long lens always start out on the pile and rarely make the cut.

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Joly Braime

What will annoy you?

I speak, of course, of lumps, rattles and squeaks. The rim of a camping gas canister grating on your vertebrae through the back panel of your rucksack. The teaspoon stashed inside a kettle, jangling all the way down the mountain. The carabiner that clacks against a buckle at every step.

Like the strike of a flat tarmac road on an incipient blister, repetition magnifies small annoyances and makes them into big ones, so it’s better to avoid them before you start walking for the day.

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What are you overthinking?

There’s a piece of well-worn hill wisdom I’ve heard many times over the years, which is that every item in your pack should do more than one thing. This sounds clever but is absolute nonsense when you think about it.

It’s a good example of the pointless kit-fretting that can dog long-distance hikers when they’re packing for a trip – even (and perhaps especially) when they’ve been doing it a while. The pursuit of perfection in a game that just doesn’t lend itself to that.

By all means, consider the questions above, browse the many Reddit threads, talk to other walkers – but it’s your own time on the trail that will help you most. You’ll discover what works for you, what compromises and adaptations you’re willing to make, and eventually you might figure out the best way to pack a rucksack for a backpacking trip. Let me know if you do…

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