How to Pack Your Pack
The goal here is to help you pack your backpack. You want to be balanced, resulting in a natural walk that won't leave you hurting after three steps. If you're on a trail that slants to the right, you don't want a side-heavy pack knocking you over, tumbling and sliding down into a ravine. Worst of all you don't want to end up like a beetle on its back, legs and arms waving around in the air, unable to get upright without help from a friend. Grab your gear and let's embark on this backpack packing journey together!
Lay It All Out
Organize your gear ahead of time
Find yourself some sort of clearing, such as a living room and get ALL the gear you intend to bring. Lay out every piece of gear, not all willy-nilly, attempt some sort of organized chaos. Survey the situation and tackle it head-on. With everything laid out all nice, you can perhaps see a few items that aren't worth the hassle of carrying, such as the hardcover copy of George R. R. Martin's latest. Ditch anything you'd rather not carry for miles. Grab your gear checklist and make sure you have the essentials and any non-essentials that you deem necessary.
Stuff sacks can help you get organized, and maximize space in a pack
While not required, stuff sacks help make trail life way more organized. An organizationalist's dream, if you will. Small ones can make a handy first aid kit. Waterproof compression sacks are a staple for storing your sleeping bag. Use a large one as a food bag (if you're not using a bear canister). Handy for storing clean clothing and then doubles as a pillow at night. They often come in bright colors, so you can go crazy with color coding. Then you'll be grabbing the right one from the depths of your bag every time.
Pack heaviest gear near the bottom and close to your body
Distributing weight properly all has to do with that beetle image I left in your head earlier, on its back with limbs flailing. If you don't have heavy, medium and light weight gear properly placed, you're gonna have a bad time. To carry your pack most comfortably, you want to distribute most of your pack weight to your hips. Just assume when I list weights from here on out, you should be starting from the bottom of your pack and working your way up to the top.
INTERNAL FRAME PACK - The majority of packs on the trails these days are internal frame. To get the right balance with an internal frame, gear should go into the pack based on weight, from light to heavy to medium. The heaviest stuff should be aligned as close as possible to the middle of your back, so your pack can most efficiently distribute the weight to your hips.
EXTERNAL FRAME PACK - Few and far between are the external frame packs, but they do exist and some hikers just love them to bits. The proper way to pack gear weights into this type of pack is light to medium to heavy. With their straight-up architectures, heavy gear on the top can be centered almost directly above your hips.
FRAMELESS PACK - Frameless packs are a bit trickier to load, as they don't have a frame or stays to help distribute pack weight. This means that proper packing is critical. With the absence of a substantial suspension system, it's a good bet to use a closed cell foam sleeping pad, roll it up, and expand it along the inside of the pack, giving it some structure. Then pack the rest of your gear in a similar manner to internal frame packs, with lighter gear on the bottom, and heavier stuff close to the middle and top of your back.
Packing Bottom to Top
A good pack is designed to hold specific gear in just the right spots
SLEEPING BAG COMPARTMENT - This is your starting point. Most packs that are 50L or more will have a sleeping bag compartment. Packs that are under 50L usually won't, but it's not unheard of. Regardless of whether you have this lower compartment or not, your sleeping bag needs to go at the bottom of your pack. It's lightweight and compresses down quite nicely. Depending on how small your bag compresses, you can sometimes even fit a super lightweight air mattress in there with it.
HYDRATION SLEEVE - A little self-explanatory, but this is where your water goes. There is a good and bad way to do it however, so listen up. First, fill your bladder with water, then slip it into the hydration sleeve. Do this before packing the rest of your pack, otherwise it's like trying to wrestle a wriggling, wet alligator on top of a water bed. It is difficult and not worth wasting precious trail time. Water is one of the heavier items in your pack, so hydration sleeves aim to keep it pressed directly against your mid to upper back, right where your body can support it most comfortably and efficiently.
The meat and potatoes of your gear will reside in the main compartment. Start by placing the heaviest items closest to your back, which will probably end up being your food and stove. Pro tip for that stove: it probably fits inside of your largest pot, but stick a hand sized camp towel in there first to prevent clanging as you walk. Your tent and clothing are usually in some sort of stuff sack and can be molded in around the food and stove. Fill every nook and cranny as you pack in your stuff, empty space is wasted space.
• The Little Things
The top lid is super easy to access when you remove your pack. The top lid can have one or two zippered compartments depending on the model. Items such as headlamp, sunscreen, toilet paper, sunglasses and compass are a good fit here. Don't forget your trowel.
FRONT STASH POCKET
• Rain Gear
The front stash pocket doesn't usually fully close, as it tends to be made of a stretchy fabric with an elastic band at the top. For this reason, you'll want to put in items that won't be able to find their way out easily. This is prime real estate for your rain gear, specifically, your jacket, pants and pack cover. Putting these items here allows incredibly quick access when the skies open up. It also allows you to stuff the wet gear back in the same spot after the rain, without soaking any of the gear you have on the inside of the pack.
SIDE MESH POCKETS AND HIP BELT POCKETS
• Extra Water Bottles
• Tent Poles
• Trekking Poles
At first glance, the mesh pockets on the side are just for extra water bottles, and they're great for that purpose. If you think a little outside of the box, especially if you don't carry extra water bottles, they have even more uses. Tent poles and trekking poles are two awkward shaped items that can be slipped right into those hand mesh side pockets. The bottom stays secure in the pocket, while the top can be secured by your side compression strap.
Hip belt pockets are the best spot for anything you'd like to reach without taking off your pack. Snack bars, camera (sorry no DSLRs here), pocket knife. You can probably fit one or two of these items in each pocket.
EXTERIOR LOOPS AND COMPRESSION STRAPS
• Sleeping Pad
• Ice Axe
Seeing a pack for the first time and can't figure out why it has a billion straps and loops on it? Never fear! If you have a closed cell foam sleeping pad, you'll want to use the two straps on the bottom of the pack which have a male/female clip on them. Pop open the clip, wrap each around the pad, clip it closed and then cinch it tight so it won't come loose.
Next closest to the bottom of the bag are the ice axe loops and they're built specifically for your ice axe. Grab your axe from the head, slipping the shaft through the loop first. Make sure the pick is facing towards the center of the pack, then flip the shaft upwards towards the top of your pack. Up at the top, there is often a bungee cord or other type of tie-down to secure the axe to the pack.
Crampons are tricky, as they have a whole bunch of pointy sharp ends. Before putting them near your pack, place them together, bottom against bottom to protect the points from jabbing you and your gear. Then strap them to the front of your pack, typically there are compression straps or a bungee cord available there for this purpose.
If you're storing anything else on the exterior, make sure you secure them well. You will want to avoid any swinging items, as this will cause you to waste more energy on the trail.
Over packing = extra weight and more time rooting through gear
There is a difference between stuffing your pack to the gills and things just not fitting. When you just can't get certain gear items in there without almost busting a seam, pause and take a breather. You're gonna need a bigger boat. I mean pack. This isn't the end of the world, if you just bought your pack, we've got a great exchange policy. If you straight up need to buy a new pack before embarking on this adventure, we've got plenty of those too.
Split up gear accordingly, but all hikers should carry their own first aid kit
Hiking with a friend? Give your pal all the heavy items. Just kidding, disperse any shared gear items such as a tent, water filter, or stove evenly. You can even split up a tent, hiker #1 carries rain fly and poles while hiker #2 carries the tent body. Unless you meal planned together for the whole trip, plan on packing and carrying your own food. Life is easier when you're not fighting over the last bite of mashed potatoes in the bowl during day 20. Don't share a first aid kit, if you get split up and only one of you has the kit, trouble can arise.
Now Pack Up (Properly) and Get Out There
It may be a little bulky, but congratulations, your pack is stuffed and happy, just like a Thanksgiving turkey. If you're new to this packing game, you'll eventually learn what packing method works best for you, just be sure to follow the general weight balance rules. It's something you can always perfect to your personal preferences. All that is left to do is to heft your gear onto your back and step onto the trail head.