Lesson 1: How to pack a hiking backpack

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I just returned from guiding a 9-day backpacking trip through the Torres del Paine Circuit (see trip post!), and can’t help but write a post about the backpackers most symbolic piece of equipment (and the one I saw constantly in need of some serious help): the backpack.  We saw big packs, small ones, lopsided ones and backpacks so full of random gear hanging off the back that it was questionable how the people were able to finish the trek with all their gear! (not to mention people carrying duffel bags, bringing electric water heaters, and carrying entire bottles of shampoo and conditioner).  So here is lesson #1: How to pack a hiking backpack, and other useful packing tips.


My beautiful drawing of ‘how to pack a hiking backpack’. I am better at trekking than I am at drawing, apparently.

  1. There is a specific order in which to fill your backpack.  The general idea is to put the bulky, heaviest gear at the bottom/middle of the pack and nearest the spine.  Traditionally, the bottom of the backpack is reserved for the sleeping bag.  It not only provides a more protected compartment for that oh-so-crucial piece of gear that you need to keep dry, but also keeps in out of the way and acts as a cushion for your other gear.  Line the sleeping bag stuff sack with (or put it inside of) a heavy-duty garbage bag to ensure that it stays dry.
  2. On top of the sleeping bag or in the middle of your pack you should put your heaviest gear, positioning it as close to the spine as possible and well centered for balance.  This can include food, cooking gear, and extra water if you are carrying it.  Make sure to pack these evenly, so all of the weight is not too much to the left or right of the pack.  Some people recommend putting your clothing below your cooking gear, but this depends on the size and shape of your pack (I put mine below and in front of the cooking gear).
  3. Clothing, lower-weight item, and softer items can then be packed in and around the heavier items.  For example, if you do not have a tent bag, stuff the tent fly and body around the heavy items to fill space and stabilize the items.  I like to keep my clothing in a dry-bag, which I put in front of or around the heavy items.  Other lower-weight items can include the first aide kit, sleeping pad (see below), toiletries, rain jacket, etc.
  4. Frequently used items: These can be put on the top of the gear or in the lid of the backpack.  Items include camera, headlamp, snacks, pack cover, toilet paper, map/compass/GPS, sunglasses, sunblock, etc.
  5. Sleeping pad, tent, and other awkward items: The most important tip is to reduce the amount of gear hanging off the pack, which can throw off your balance, increase the risk of injury to the back, or get lost/broken/wet.
    1. My sleeping pad is very small (NeoAir), so I also put it in my backpack along with the lower-weight items.  However if you are low on space or the sleeping pad is too big to enter, I recommend securing it outside of the pack in front of the sleeping bag compartment (where you can also put the tent if it is in a stuff sack), vertical along the body of the pack, or even underneath the lid of the pack.
    2. If the tent is in a stuff sack, you should put it outside of the backpack in front of the sleeping bag compartment, or vertical along the body of the pack and securely strapped down.  Again, I recommend putting it in a heavy-duty trash bag or dry sack, there is nothing more uncomfortable than a wet tent, wet sleeping bag, or wet gear.  If you just have the poles (i.e. have shared the tent pieces amongst other backpackers), they can be secured firmly to the side of the back vertically, just make sure they won’t slide out! They can also be put inside of the backpack or with the sleeping pad.

Here is an example of what NOT to do (sorry hikers we met in TdP!):

Hehe, some hikers we passed with crazy backpacks

Hehe, some hikers we passed with crazy backpacks


  • LINE YOUR BACKPACK WITH HEAVY PLASTIC BAGS! When the conditions are wet, you want your gear to stay dry.  Also, line your stuff sacks to keep your gear protected from the elements! Use a pack cover, which will help reduce moisture entering your bag and gear.
    • Bring a lot of ziplock bags for your gear, which will help keep it dry and organized.  Books, camera, toiletries, etc: put them into zip-lock bags.
  • If you are carrying a bear canister, then it should be filled with food and cooking gear unit full and placed where you would put the heavy items, along the spine in the middle of the pack.
  • Bring repair-items, for example duct tape (wrap it around a water bottle, trekking pole, cardboard, etc) or a small sewing kit (not super necessary, but I have seen a lot of ripped seams and it can easily fit in the first aid kit).
  • TREKKING POLES are amazing tools that increase your speed while protecting your body from the impacts of trekking, especially the knees. They allow you to more evenly distribute the weight of your backpack between 4 points (arms and legs) instead of just 2, help with balance, and can increase your speed and rhythm.
  • WATER HYDRATION BLADDER (i.e. camelback): Soooo much more convenient than a water bottle.  Hands-free, you don’t have to stop and look for your water bottle, and makes it so you can easily stay hydrated.

Have fun and happy hiking!

5 thoughts on “Lesson 1: How to pack a hiking backpack

  1. Ellendee Pepper

    pack bigger than you! ? would you do this trip again? Fun or just hard? – (we pick up our brazil visas tomorrow. took 7 weeks)

    1. On the Road Patagonia Post author

      Yes I would absolutely do this trip again. and again. and again. The backside is really beautiful and more laid back than the popular “W” part of the trek. You can make the trekking as difficult or easy as you want, depending how many km you want to walk in a day.


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