There are different types of backpacks designed for a wide range of uses, from toting schoolbooks to trekking backcountry peaks. In this article I will be focusing specifically on hiking backpacks with either internal frames or external frames. Any pack designed to carry heavy loads will have some sort of frame to assist in stability and weight distribution. The type of frame will vary between manufacturer and model and is really a personal preference. However, most modern lightweight hiking backpacks have an internal frame.

You may be thinking to yourself, “there is actually a right way to pack a backpack?”. Trust me, I know it sounds a bit simplistic and there was a point in time I used the “just throw it in the bag” method. However, I have since learned that there are certainly wrong and right ways to pack your backpack depending on the type of hiking, location, and length of stay. If you take a little time to learn and utilize some of these tips you will be able to hike longer and more comfortably than ever before. Practicing proper load packing techniques also leads to better safety and injury prevention, both long and short term.


Packing your bag is just like any other part of your trip, a little planning goes a long ways. You wouldn’t go out for a 5-day trip without mapping your route, buying your food, and preparing your essentials. So don’t leave the house until you plan your pack. Pick your gear according to how you plan to hike, the terrain you’ll be traveling, and the length of your stay. You want to make sure you have a good feel for what you need to take and the total weight of your load-out. An experienced hiker can pack and carry about 30% of their body weight in their bag safely. A novice hiker should try to limit the total weight of their loadout to about 15% until they have built the strength and endurance to gradually move up. This will certainly influence the amount of gear you can bring and will also make you think outside of the box as far as how to cut down weight without leaving out essentials. There are numerous forums and videos of experts sharing tips and tricks for ultra lightweight ideas and most quality brands offer lightweight alternatives to traditional gear. I'm not the type to cut my toothbrush in half to save the half ounce, but I’m also not going on 10-day excursions very often. It really all depends on the needs of your trip and your your experience. Try to separate your items into these 5 categories that will be useful in planning your loadout.

  1. Heavy Items
  2. Lighter Items
  3. Frequently Used
  4. Infrequently Used
  5. Easy Access Items

I know that not everything fits perfectly into these categories so there may be some crossover and probably a few additional odd items that we will discuss later.

Choosing The Right Bag:

With so many options out on the market these days you can certainly find something perfect for your exact needs. You want to make sure the bag you select will be big enough for the amount of gear you are taking because lashing items to the outside cas cause more issues along your trip. Some bags are meant for day trips while others can be used for multiple day hikes so know what your plans are and buy accordingly. If you are planning on taking a large load-out for a long trip you will certainly want a pack with a frame system. The new standard of frames are “internal” meaning they are inside the pack and you can’t see them from the outside. The opposite of this is the “external” frame system, these are the packs you see with a frame against your back (usually aluminum or other strong lightweight material) and are still manufactured by some brands. Some of the newest technology combines an internal aluminum frame with an air filled frame. These air frame systems allow you to adjust the rigidity and support as needed for your load or body type, while also being the most lightweight option. It is also important to look at the weight of the pack empty. They can vary greatly and if your goal is to limit weight this should be taken into consideration.

Packing You Pack For The Trail:

If you plan on staying on fairly well kept trails then this will be the best way to pack you bag to maximize comfort and safety

Heavy Items: You will want to pack your bag so that the heavy items are higher up and closest to the back to force the weight down on your hips rather than pulling on your shoulders. This gives you a much more comfortable trip and can help prevent fatigue. If you have an internal frame pack, which has become the industry standard, you will want to pack the heaviest items high up on the back in between the shoulder blades. You will leave a little space above the heavy items because you really want it to be centered over the internal frame and not at the tip tip of the pack. Conversely, with the external frame pack you want your heaviest items at the very top of the pack and centered to help keep you upright and force the weight on your hips. External Frame packs are recommended to be used on trail hiking only due to the stability issues they can create when going on rougher terrain. When packing your internal framed pack for hiking off-trail or on very rough terrain you will want to focus on making the weight of your backpack lower and giving yourself a better center of gravity to keep you steady. When shifting back to a trail you should readjust the pack to the normal loadout.

Lighter Items: These should be packed the furthest away from your back and near the bottom of the bag. Many lightweight items are soft and pliable (ie. sleeping bags, clothing, rope) and they should be stuffed into the outer parts of the bag around the heavy items to help keep the bag full and avoid shifting of the contents. If you have items of a medium weight (camp stove, water filtration, food) they should be packed like the lightweight items but should be higher up towards the middle of the pack.

Frequently Used Items: If you have items that will need to be accessed more regularly (food, water, filters, etc) you will want to put them towards the top of your loadout so that you don't have to waste time digging and re-packing your bag multiple times throughout the day. This generally is considered medium weight and would be packed away from the body towards the top of the pack.

Infrequently Used Items: Items that you will only use occasionally or only at night (Sleeping bag, bedroll, sleeping pad, tent, shovel) should be stowed away towards the bottom of the bag. Not only are most of these light items, but you know that you won’t be needing them until the end of the day so you won’t have to dig for them very much.

Easy Access Items: There are some other items that you will need even more frequently such as your flashlight, pocket knife, energy bar, water bottle, gps/compass. These items should be packed in the exterior pockets or top of the pack for easy access without having to take of your pack preferably. You can attach your hiking poles, emergency whistle, and other similar objects to the outside of your pack using a daisy chain, carabiner, or other lashing method. You do not want to have very many things attached to the outside of your pack because they can get caught on branches or rocks which is undesirable for obvious reasons. They can also start to swing and make you off balance as you hike or climb.

With this basic guide you have a simple yet effective blueprint for your pack. If you take the time to plan your load-out and pack placement correctly you will be in for a much more enjoyable hike and a lifetime of fun. Remember, it’s always easier to pack, unpack, and repack in the comfort of your living room than it is in the wild. Get ready for an adventure!