There’s nothing really more fundamental to backpacking than sensibly loading your backpack (such as with our lightweight Pro-Paks). That might seem overly obvious, given the name of the whole pursuit, but actually many backpackers sort of wing it when it comes to packing—not necessarily in terms of what they’re packing, but how they’re packing it. It's all too common to simply stuff gear in willy-nilly, then tough out the awkward load during the trip.
A poorly packed pack (how’s that for alliteration?) costs you in aches and pains, accumulating fatigue, maybe even a few tumbles on the trail. Here are a few tips on loading a backpack sensibly so you’re saving your body and improving your on-the-go organization and efficiency.
The two foremost considerations when loading a backpack are (1) distributing weight such that you're comfortable and well balanced, and (2) keeping frequently needed items in easily accessible places.
As far as weight distribution goes, here’s the general strategy:
You should put most items you’ll want easy access to in the top zippered compartment of your backpack: a water filter/purifier, headlamp, sunscreen, a first-aid kit (which also works at or near the top of your pack’s main compartment), trail snacks, GPS, weather radio, insect repellent, and the like.
Some people like to store their map(s) in the top compartment; others prefer to slip it into an external pocket. If you’re carrying water bottles instead of or in addition to a reservoir, cinch them in the side pouches. A hip-belt pocket is an ideal place for your compass, and for more of those all-important snacks.
Backpacking packs come outfitted with all sorts of loops, lashings, and straps with which to attach items to the exterior. The outside of your pack is generally a good place to secure a sleeping roll or sleeping pad, your trekking poles and/or ice axe when they’re not in use, and perhaps your tent if you’re not storing it inside.
Keep in mind you don’t want horizontally lashed items extending too far to the sides, as they’ll liable to snag or bash against branches and tree trunks. And if you’re doing a lot of bushwhacking, you’ll probably want to minimize externally strapped gear for the same reason.
Besides keeping heavy items in the core of your pack and against your back, another fundamental of backpack loading is making sure the right and left sides are roughly balanced: You don’t want to be leaning to one side on your whole hike, after all.
You’re unlikely to load your backpack perfectly the first time. You’ll learn through experience what weight distribution works best for you, which items you find yourself needing quick and ready access to, and which of the myriad pockets and pouches of a typical backpacking pack are best suited to store which miscellaneous supplies. Pay attention to how your body’s feeling, and if something’s jamming your back, or if the pack feels ungainly, or if you find yourself becoming fatigued or sore early, stop and adjust.
Once you’ve ironed down your backpack loading system, stick to it: Consistency will help smooth out your operations, and allow you to keep better track of your supplies.