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Packing a hiking bag

From Guides

It is very easy not to give much consideration to how your bag is packed before a hike. However, if all the factors are considered, it can be a complicated problem, with difficult choises to make. However, even if you don't want to spend ages thinking about how to pack your bag, a little planning will make a substantial and very noticable difference!


The Basics; Bulk, Disorder and Weight

There are several aspects of the use of the backpack that you'll want to consider when packing one, but a few things will greatly improve them all. The first is simply how much you put in to the backpack. Also, irregularly shaped, rigid, large items will cause more problems than smaller, compact flexible things. Choosing carefully what you put in will make the bag lighter and the easyer to carry, as well as to search though, and also make many miscelaneous tasks easyer, such as passing over fences, balanceing on a canoe, and so on.

Placing things in in an order, any order, will be better than just piling them in; you will fit more in and it will be easyer to rummage if things aren't getting jammed together; it will also be easyer to rearange things without repacking everything. Put things in specific places if you can, this will make it far faster and easyer to find them, and will help you realise you have lost something while there is still time to do something about it.

Ease of Access

When considering where to put things in the bag from an accessability point of view, there are a number of factors; how frequently the item will be used, how urgently it will be needed, and in order you will be using/unpacking things. These considerations may contradict, for example, a first aid will (hopefully!) not be needed very often, but when it is needed, it will be needed very urgently. In general, sort out what you can first; you will likely need to change your cloths only after you have set up your tent, but if you get soaked you could need them before hand. However, there isn't really a likely situation where you will need your wash kit before your tent, so you can definately put it underneath/behind the tent. In general, even the most critical situation will not need an item so urgently there isn't time to take out a couple of things. For example, don't worry about putting your map case et c. on top of your first aid kit or coat; in a emergency you can always chuck the case on the ground temporarily, and it will save a lot of bother with maving the 'emergency' kit every time. There could be exceptions however, so items like a whistle, inhaler, insulin or chocolate may have to be right at the very outside, take a moment to consider if 'panic' items like these are in the right place when you are done packing. Make full use of pockets and alternate openings; do not just use them for general stuff, but for things that would benefit from being quick to hand.

Distribution of Weight

The most important weight distribution to consider when paking a hiking bag is the left-right distribution. Putting enough heavyer things on one side of the bag will cause you to have to walk unnaturaly to keep balanced, tiring you faster over long walks, and make balancing harder, for example in windy conditions. Consider this especially if you pack something like tent poles down one side.

Also important is the front-back distribution. Ideally, put as much weight as you can as near to your back as possible. Any weight near the back of the pack, especially heavy objects hanging off the back, will pull you back, making you less stable and tiring you faster. Don't worry too much about keeping weight near your back though; it is more important to keep hard/sharp objects away from the back, than to keep heavy ones near it.

Different oppinions exist over the best up-down weight distribution.


If possilbe, try to store a thin layer of soft items against the part of the bag resting on the back, and definately don't allow any hard or jagged parts to push againt or into the back; on a long hike you will definately end up repacking the bag if you do, whether you think you can put up with it or not. It will also make you walk awkwardly and become tired more quickly.

Protecting the Contents

  • Keeping stuff dry - rucksack liner/ individual waterproof bags.
  • Covering up hard/sharp edges/points.
  • Packaging fragile things / rolling them inside others.

Inside verses Outside

Generally it is better to store things inside the bag, rather than attatching them to the outside. However, when space becomes tight, or if things need to quickly to hand, it can be tempting to put things on the outside.

Downsides of items outside the bag include:

Tiring Effect

Having things outside the bag can make hiking more tiring in several ways:

  • If the item is loosly attatched and can swing, this will mean every time you step the item will swing, and will be very tiring over a long walk, especially for medium to heavy items.
  • If heavy items are attatched on the back of the pack, this will unbalance the bag, as discussed in the 'distribution of weight' section.
  • Protruding items can catch on vegetation, gates etc. This will be very tiring and annoying if it happens often.


Things on the outside of the bag are also less secure in several ways:

  • If badly attatched, items could fall off the pack. Generally, there is more chance of items outside the bag falling off.
  • Items on the bag can be torn off the bag if they catch on something.
  • Whether easyer to take or not, items on the outside of the bag can be more tempting to thieves.

Use of the bag

Attatching things to the bag in a way it is not designed for can stop the bag being usable in some way:

  • Items and string/rope/straps covering enterances to the bag will make it far more difficult to get to the contents.
  • If the bag has a rain cover, items attatched to the outside could stop it being usable.

Tieing things to the outside of the bag may make it look like they are easily avaliable, but in fact take lots of time to untie, untangle and remove.

If you are going to attatch things to the outside of the bag, make sure they dont interfere with using the bag. Make sure you wont need to use them often or quickly, and attatch them securely so they don't swing and can't fall off.

For ease of access, look for bags with external pockets, rather than attatching things to the outside of the bag.

Example Layouts

See Also

Hiking bag

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