How To Pack Your Backpack

By Mark Roberts

We all remember our first backpacking trip: trudging for miles with an over-packed rucksack hanging off one shoulder, centre of gravity two steps behind us. Toppling over is a constant danger; all-body soreness is guaranteed!

Working out what to take and where to pack it results in a far more enjoyable trip — you can actually focus on the views and not the searing pain in your shoulders! Here’s how to pack your rucksack:

Packing a rucksack in the Slovenian mountains

Why good packing matters

A well-packed rucksack is more comfortable, preserves energy and saves endless time rooting around for what you need mid-walk. Packing so that the weight is closer to your centre of gravity has two benefits. Firstly, it makes best use of your rucksack’s padding and structure, transferring the weight to your hips rather than your neck and shoulders, preventing discomfort. Secondly, it’s much easier to walk over rough terrain when your rucksack’s weight is close to your body. Toppling over backwards on steep or exposed ground with a heavy rucksack can cause serious injuries. And walking with a wobbly rucksack, tent swinging off the back, is exhausting!

Choosing what to pack

Once you’ve planned your trip and considered everything from duration to weather conditions, get everything you think you might need out on the floor, along with the rucksack you’re using. You can read more about this in our 'What Size Backpack Do I Need?' Spotlight but make sure you choose a rucksack big enough to avoid strapping too much weight to the outside of the pack.

Separate out everything that’s non-essential and then give each item a long, hard stare. You may also like to pick up each item in turn ten times. Or line them all up in order of most essential non-essential item to least essential non-essential item (not an essential step but we still do it every time). Weighing these items on your kitchen scales may make it easier to decide what to carry and what to leave out. Speaking of weight…

Multi-day backpacking kit

How much should your backpacking pack weigh?

Your rucksack should only weigh as much as you can comfortably carry – that’s the simple answer, anyway! We’ve heard lots of advice over the years from “no more than one third of your bodyweight” to “no more than twenty per cent.” Your pack weight will actually vary wildly depending on the length of your trip, time of year, expected weather conditions, water availability and opportunities to restock on food. Your physical fitness and the amount of distance you plan to cover each day will also be a major determining factor.

Ultralight backpackers pride themselves on carrying a base weight (everything except food and water) of 4.5kg. For most of us, the aim is just to keep our rucksack as light as we possibly can without forgoing too many comforts – these decisions usually revolve around how we make our morning coffee! As a rough guide: substantially over 13kg for a fully loaded rucksack is considered to be pretty heavy for a multi-day trip. Anywhere between 9 and 13kg is a good target to aim for.

Pacific Crest 65L Backpacking Rucksack

How to pack your rucksack

Try to pack heavy items in the middle and as close to your back as possible. Getting the balance between weight distribution and access to what you need can be tricky at first. It helps to split your rucksack into imaginary sections:


Pack all the light, bulky items you won’t need until you make evening camp in the bottom of your rucksack.


Pack your heaviest items here, against your back, with lighter items towards the front of the rucksack to sandwich them in place.


Pack light, bulky items you may need during the day here. Make sure you pack your waterproofs as close to the top/side zip as possible.

  • Waterproof jacket
  • Waterproof trousers
  • Spare warm layers
  • First aid kit
  • Toilet kit (toilet roll/trowel)

Lid/Side/Accessory pockets

Pack all the small items you might need throughout the day across these pockets. Some rucksacks have hip belt pockets – handy for keeping your snacks and compass close to hand.

Packing Top Tips

Use dry bags

Packing items in different coloured waterproof dry bags makes it easy to find what you’re after in a hurry and keeps everything dry in wet weather. Dry bags do add weight though so don’t go too crazy!

Take only what you need

You probably don’t need an entire bottle of oil or a full packet of pasta for an overnight trip. Separate out what you need into smaller (and leak-proof!) plastic bottles and containers or zip-lock bags. Zip-locks are a backpacker’s best friend and decent quality ones can be re-used for multiple trips.

Fill in the gaps

It starts to look like a poorly executed game of Tetris once you’ve packed your larger items in. Fill in the gaps with smaller or compressible items to stop everything rattling around.

Sharing is caring

If you’re going on a backpacking trip with friends, coordinate your packing together and share the weight around — especially the tent, stove/gas and cookware.

Get creative

Backpackers have been coming up with packing solutions for as long as there have been rucksacks – that old cliché about cutting toothbrushes in half is a cliché for a reason! Internet forums are always a good first place to look. Some tips are utterly bizarre, but some seem so obvious we’re amazed we didn’t think of them. One of the best solutions we’ve seen is wrapping duct tape around your water bottle so you don’t have to take a whole roll – genius!

There’s no such thing as perfect (packing)

It all sounds like a lot to remember but as long as you remember these three basic bits of advice, you can figure everything else out yourself.

  1. Pack light (ruthless packers are happy walkers)
  2. Pack heavy items centrally and close to your back
  3. Keep anything you might need during the day accessible.

Your rucksack will need repacking as you use up your food and water supplies/throw on layers anyway, so it’s never going to stay exactly as you first packed it. When you get back from your trip, write a list of everything you’ve taken with you and work out what you could leave out or what you wished you’d taken so you’re ready for your next trip. Happy backpacking!

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