How to Pack a Backpack for Camping

If you think you can just “stuff” a pack willy-nilly like a suitcase, you will regret it. There really are few things worse than having to unpack mid-trail and spend your valuable outdoor time fussing with gear. 

Do it right before your trip and you’re going to get more enjoyment out of your camping experience. Learning the basics of how to properly pack your backpack is totally worth the effort.   

I have broken down the process into simple steps and basic ideas that will go a long way to get you packing like a pro. 

Choose the right backpack for camping

I am not going to go into great detail on this here, but it is worth noting that without the right backpack, well-planned packing is futile. 

In brief, consider some of the following tips when choosing a backpack that is right for the trip:

  • Frames: If you plan to be hiking during your trip, you will want a framed pack for getting a balanced weight distribution. 
  • Fit: If you haven’t already learned this lesson, trust me, fit matters. Any-old-pack will work if you are camping a short distance from the car. If you plan to be traveling on foot with your pack, it needs to fit your specific body type for comfort and safety. 
  • Size: The smallest pack that will hold what you need for the trip is what you want.
  • Activities: What kinds of activities are you planning on your camping trip? Think through the specific gear you will be needing and find a backpack for camping that fits your plans. 
backpack with doggo

Line your backpack before you pack 

Most backpacks are water resistant, but few are truly waterproof. High-end packs often come with custom liners you can purchase separately, but if you are low tech or camping on the cheap, a garbage bag works just fine. (Make sure to use the scentless kind!) 

Lay it out

Before you put a single item in your pack, get everything in one place and lay everything out. 

Hopefully you have a pack list that you use for every camping trip, if not, start one. This is a list you can add to or takeaway after each trip so over time you will hone in on the perfect backpack for your style of camping. 

Organize your items into the following groups: 

  • Soft and mashable
  • Heavy 
  • Light 
  • Fast or regular trail access

You’re ready to start packing!

Packing a backpack for camping is a trial and error process. Prepare yourself to spend some time moving things around to find a good balance, and expect a learning curve. 

The general weight distribution recommended can vary depending on the terrain you plan on traveling and your own center of gravity. However, a solid starting goal is:

  • Lightweight bulk at the bottom of the pack.
  • Heaviest items towards the middle to upper part of the pack, nearest your back. 
  • Items you will need to access quickly or regularly on the trial towards the top and external pockets/attachments. 

1. Start with your sleeping bag and other soft items. 

If your pack is an internal frame you will want at least one soft item folded and packed along the inside closest to your back. The last thing you want is hard items digging into your back on the trail. 

Soft items will compress at the bottom of your pack as you place heavier items on top. This is an ideal way to make the most of your limited space. 

If your backpack is designed to hold your sleeping bag on the outside, then save this for after the inside is packed. Reserve a few smaller squishy items to pack between harder and bulky items in other sections of your backpack. 

2. Heavy items towards the middle of the pack. 

This may include things like your tent, food, water reservoir and other dense items that you won’t need to access until you make camp. 

If you are using a bear canister, it is likely the heaviest item in your pack so you want to be sure it is in the middle of the pack, closest to your back. Other heavy items will also go in this center section. Use some reserved soft items as necessary to pack tightly to keep things from moving around in your pack. 

Left to right balance is critical if you plan to be traveling any distance. Keep that in mind when packing heavy items. 

3. Other lightweight items near the top of the inside of the pack. 

This list might include things like your cooking system, a spare sack with a change of clothes, or an extra tarp. If your pack does not have enough external pockets to fit your instant access items, then put them at the top of the pack. 

4. Pack items you need to access quickly or regularly in outside pockets. 

This list needs to at least include things like snacks, maps and compass, GPS, identification and cash, sunscreen, bug spray, and camera. You will want to pack water on BOTH sides of your pack, switching off drinking from them to maintain balance.  

There may also be some weirdly shaped items that don’t fit well inside your pack that you may want to attach to the outside.  Things like tent poles, camp axe or fishing gear may be too awkwardly shaped to fit inside your backpack. 

Keep in mind that anything on the outside of the pack may snag on trees and brush, make unnecessary noise, or sway back and forth. None of these are ideal. 

More packing backpacks for camping tips:

  • Pack cooking fuel away from food, separately sealed, upright, and preferably on the outside of the pack. Fuel leaks happen and they can really spoil the entire trip if you are not planning in advance in the event of a leak. 
  • Bear safety: In black bear country you can usually get away with storing food in an airtight plastic sack that you hang from a tree. However, grizzly bear country requires special bear vault containers that you stow at least 100 yards from camp.
  • Compression Sacks have become a popular way to organize gear in different color and size bags before putting them in the pack. You can go overboard with these sacks and create a lot of wasted space, or make it hard to remember what is where. Use only a few and fill gaps between them with loose items.
  • Pro tip: To make your own compression sacks on the cheap, use high quality Ziploc bags, fill, prick a small hole in them, squeeze, then cover the hole with electrical tape. You can repeat this process several times on your adventure, but use new tape for each camping trip.

Test drive that backpack!

Before you hit the road for your trip, put the pack on and do a short walk around the block or on a nearby trail. It can take a little time to identify an imbalance that could be a major pain to fix once you are already on your camping trip. 


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