Packing a backpack is a distinctly different skill than packing a suitcase. For starters, the weight of your bag matters a lot more when you’re carrying it on your shoulders rather than dragging it along behind you. And because most backpacks have one large compartment that can only be accessed from the top, putting things in the wrong place in a backpack can lead to major inconveniences later. (Who wants to dig for their passport under a pile of dirty laundry?) That’s why it’s important to know how to pack a backpack the smart way.
Whether you’re packing for a camping trip or a month of bouncing from one European hostel to another, these tips will teach you how to pack a backpack without wasting space or risking personal injury.
Start with the Right Backpack
Some backpacks come with wheels so you don’t have to carry them on your shoulders at all times; others transition into duffel bags that make it easier to access the main compartment of the backpack, such as these hybrid duffel backpacks. Depending on your itinerary and packing style, one of these options might be more useful to you than a regular top-access backpack. If you’ll be outside for prolonged periods of time, you might want a waterproof backpack to protect your stuff.
No matter which type of pack you choose, put some weight in it when you try it on to make sure it’s comfortable on your body. Do the straps adjust enough to let you position the pack in the right place for your height and center of gravity? Are the shoulder straps well padded, and do they stay in place as you move? Is there a waist strap to help you handle heavier loads?
Never bring a brand-new backpack on a trip without road-testing it at home first.
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Minimize Your Load
I once unexpectedly had to hike all the way up to one of Tuscany’s hill towns with a huge pack on my back because the local bus drivers were on strike. As I sweated my way up the hill, I regretted every single “just in case” item I’d thrown into that increasingly heavy backpack. Did I really need that spare pair of shoes?
Before you start loading up your backpack, lay out everything you want to bring and consider whether you truly need it. For example, will you have the opportunity to do laundry at any point during your trip? Doing so can help you cut down your wardrobe significantly. If you’ll be out in the wilderness, can you eliminate bulky jeans in favor of lightweight, water-resistant hiking pants? Can you pack a compact, quick-drying towel instead of a full-size version?
Keep in mind that you might be able to shed a little weight by removing extras from the pack itself. For example, some packs have a metal frame you can remove if you feel more comfortable without it or don’t need it for a particular trip. Frames are most useful for heavier loads, as they help distribute the weight more comfortably.
Once you think you’ve got everything you need, load up your backpack and walk a few blocks with it on your back. Too heavy? Return home and cut a few more items.
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Put Everything in the Right Place
To avoid injuring your back or having your load pull you off balance, put heavy items in the vertical center of your pack and as close to your back as possible. That means putting some lighter items at the bottom, such as a sleeping bag or clothing, and then using the middle of the pack for heavier things like a laptop or cookware. Wrap awkwardly shaped items with clothes so you don’t end up with anything poking painfully into your spine.
When deciding what to put where, keep in mind how soon you’ll need each item. Anything to which you want quick access—think sunscreen, a rain jacket, or snacks—should go either in the small pockets on the outside of the bag or at the very top of the main compartment.
Packing cubes can be useful in keeping your clothes organized, especially in larger backpacks where it’s easy to lose track of things. They can also add a little shape and structure to your bag. Consider grouping similar items, such as toiletries, cooking utensils, or underwear, together in either a single packing cube or plastic bag.
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Compress Your Load
A well-compressed pack is easier to carry, so don’t let your stuff take up more space than it needs to. For example, you can fill shoes with socks and store food inside your cooking pot. You may also want to experiment with rolling vs. folding to determine which way lets you fit more clothing into your pack. (You might be surprised.) Once you’ve got everything in, use the backpack’s external straps to compress the bag as tightly as possible.
Items that don’t fit inside the pack can be clipped to carabiners on the outside, but try to avoid this when you can; hiking poles, reusable water bottles, or other items dangling from your pack can pull you off balance or get caught on branches along the trail. Consider hiking poles that you can collapse and store easily between uses. Again, the more compact you can make your pack, the more comfortably you can carry it.
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Protect Your Pack from the Rain
Hiking in the rain is a bummer; not having any warm, dry clothes to change into after hiking in the rain is even worse. That’s why you’ll want to make sure your backpack is as waterproof as you can make it. Some backpacks come with built-in rain covers, but if yours doesn’t, you can buy a separate one.
What are your top backpack packing tips? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Best Travel Day Packs
- 8 Great Crossbody Bags for Travel
- The Ultimate Camping Packing List: 29 Essentials
Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.