Written by Adventure Outings staff member Riley Cox

During my time as a backpacking guide in Yosemite, I saw all too often the sufferfest of groups on the John Muir Trail, hauling the equivalent of their tiny home on their back.

Even I am guilty of this from time to time. I still have nightmares from my first trip, carrying an unholy amount of weight, with the pack sagging to one side, and the fry pan jabbing into my side from inside the pack.

About to drop into a canyon in Utah, Can you guess which pack is mine?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way! Follow these simple steps for a comfortable and streamlined experience next time you hit the trail.

Perform a Gear Shakedown Before Your Trip

It is common to want to bring various items of comfort on your backpacking trip. All that these items do is take up space and weigh you down, and most are not even used. Aim to bring one comfort item. My comfort item is a comb for my beard!

Before you leave, lay out all of the gear you think you will need. Then, identify all your comfort items and put them aside. You don’t need them anyway!

Gear you Absolutely Need:

  • Water: Purification method & bottles
  • Food
  • Navigation: Map/compass minimum
  • Shelter
  • Sleeping bag/pad
  • Warm insulating layers
  • Rain Jacket
  • Light source
  • toothbrush/toothpaste/biodegradable soap for hands/dishes
  • Toilet paper and a “dirty TP bag”
  • Medical kit

Gear you DON’T Need:

  • A change of clothes for every day
  • Deodorant
  • Makeup
  • 12 extra batteries
  • Rambo knife/machete
  • Solar shower
  • Ipad/laptop
  • Saw
  • Hatchet
  • Hydro Flasks in the summer (HEAVY)
  • Huge pillows
  • Lawn chairs (seriously, I saw this in Olympic NP one year)

The ABC's of Packing

Now that you have filtered your gear and have it all laid out, it is time to start packing. There is no “right way” to pack a backpack, but there are much more efficient ways to do so. These are my pillars of packing I always keep in mind when I am loading up the bag.

Before you start loading your backpack, first maximize the internal storage space by unclipping all the straps and expanding the compression straps on your pack.

Accessibility:

First things first, figure out what gear you won’t need to touch until you reach your destination and what gear you always need to have accessible at any moment.

For me, all of my “nighttime” clothes, my sleeping bag, and my sleeping pad do not need to be easily accessible. These are not necessary to access until I reach camp.

My headlamp, map and compass, one light insulating layer, rain jacket, snacks/lunch, water, and medical kit will be set aside. These items I may need to get to quickly during the day and are my “easily accessible items”.

Pack your sleeping bag first and then literally stuff the rest of your least accessible items around the sleeping bag, one individual item at a time. The goal is to fill all the voids of air space between your sleeping bag and pack.

So far, so good! note the use of space around the sleeping bag.

Balance:

Once you have a nice base foundation of your least accessible gear at the bottom, start thinking about your heavier items.

Most packs are designed to carry the heaviest weight close to the back, in the middle, just below the shoulder blades. Your goal is to pack the heaviest items (i.e. FOOD!) here.

There is a bear can in there...

Conveniently, the base of “inaccessible” items creates enough height in the pack to allow you to pack the food in the most balance-appropriate space. I like to put the bear can in vertically (if you can) and stuff any extra layers or flexible items around it to keep it in place (I prefer using my tent body/rain-fly)..

We dare you to keep it looking this nice for the whole trip!

(Notice how I have layered the items around the bear can to maximize space)

***Note: If you are in an area that doesn’t need a bear can, it is crucial to balance the weight of your food on each side of the pack.

The last items I usually pack are the pot/fry pan, water filter, and all of my accessible items. The pot or pan is usually light, and just fits better on top for my system. This item can go anywhere that fits. If the right size, a pot can nestle over the top of the bear can very nicely.

Compression:

Now on to compression. Funny thing is, you have already been doing this!

Compression just means maximizing your space by filling all the tiny air spaces that get left between items of gear.

Compression is:

  • Stuffing all your “in-accessible items” around the sleeping bag.
  • Using your tent body and rainfly to stuff around a bear can to keep it in place.
  • Putting snacks or small items in a food bowl or pot to eliminate the empty space.
  • Re-clipping and tightening all your straps once the pack is full.

Compression and how you stuff is an art and is totally subjective. Play around with it - it will evolve.

Streamlined:

Now that you have most of your gear inside the main body of your pack, tidy up and streamline that puppy!

If you are like me, you will have some random small items and snacks left over. This is where all those small sleeves and pockets on your pack come in. Pack them in whatever way you see fit, just remember: balance is paramount!

A truly svelte and streamlined pack will stand up straight on its own and will not have any gear dangling on the outside. Good luck!

Side view of a well packed pack!
Daaang! nice looking pack!