How To Pack and Carry a Backpack

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Sara Freeland

Chief Camping Officer

Are you nervous about carrying a backpack? Don’t let this hold you back (pun intended 🙊). Carrying a pack can be a daunting thought, and often is one of the things people are most nervous about when embarking on a multi-day hiking trip. Luckily, it’s also one of the things people are most surprised about! Don’t underestimate your own strength; our backs are made up of some strong muscles, and we are designed to carry a little weight.

These days, hiking backpacks are like rocket ships. There are so many bells, whistles, straps and adjustments, that you really can customise it to fit you exactly right. In this post, I’m going to unpack the pack, and examine the following issues:

  1. What the best body weight/pack weight ratio is
  2. How to correctly pack a backpack to ensure correct weight distribution
  3. Some tips and tricks for reducing your pack weight

1. Pack Weight

As a general rule, you should be carrying no more than 25% of your total body weight. For example, if you weigh 70kg, your pack weight should not exceed 17.5kg.

This simple calculation can help keep your pack at a manageable weight, but it should be used as a guide only, as there are some instances where it doesn’t work;

  • If you’re very petite, it’s hard to keep the weight down because you can only skimp on so many things
  • The trip duration: The longer the trip, the more food, water and fuel you’ll need to carry.
  • The season/weather play a large role in the clothes you pack, and the gear you carry which can affect pack weight.
  • Personal preference can also impact, with some people preferring comfort at camp, i.e. comfy pillows or chair pads, which naturally increase the pack weight.

When lifting a pack, use the haul loop (the handle at the top of the back panel of your pack) rather than the shoulder straps to reduce wear and tear, and increase the longevity of your pack.

2. Packing a Pack

You might have the weight calculation spot-on, but it’s also important to think about how you distribute that weight to ensure the most ergonomic and comfortable positioning of the pack. Have a look at the diagram for a quick visual on the best packing methods.

Starting with your sleeping bag and sleeping mat, place these items at the base of your pack. This helps to create a sort of internal shock absorber between the pack and your back. These are also the items your least likely to need during the day, so it’s best to tuck them out of the way.

The next layer consists of your medium weight items, such as tents, stove, pots and pans etc. Once again, focus on keeping items you’re not going to need during the day, so you don’t need to unpack your entire bag each time you stop.

Then, place your heavy items, such as fuel, food, and water against your back. This will help create a stable centre of gravity and direct the load downward rather than backward. Placed too low, heavy gear causes a pack to sag; placed too high, it makes a pack feel tippy.

Finally, your light items such as clothes, odds and ends, toiletries and any other bits and bobs can be distributed in the top layers of your pack. When popping these items in, make sure you keep things such as first aid kits, warm layers, hat’s, and raincoats close to the top for quick and easy access. If your pack allows, strap items such as tent poles and walking poles outside, and keep smaller items such as cameras, lip balms, and sunscreen in hip pockets.

When you have your pack on, it’s important to focus your attention on the waist strap.

If fitted and tightened appropriately, you should be carrying around 80% of the weight on your hips, and 20% on your shoulders.

A good test to see if you’ve tightened your strap correctly is to try to slide your flattened palm between the buckle and belt. If your strap is appropriately tightened, you should be able to slide a finger or two in, but not the whole hand.

3. Tips and Tricks

Naturally, the easiest way to ensure your pack is comfortable is to reduce the overall weight. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve learnt on the trail, to help reduce your pack weight:

  • A pretty basic one, but pack less! It can be tempting to take multi-changes of clothes, and everyone has their own comfort levels. But think twice, do you really need a new pair of socks each day? Lay everything out on the bed, and cull cull cull!
  • Take smaller containers of personal items, such as sunscreens and toothpaste. When I hike, I take deodorant, a small toothpaste, my toothbrush and a comb. That’s it! Out in nature, it’s so great to keep things simple, and better for the environment to avoid using heavy creams and soaps.
  • Think about the liquids. They can be extremely heavy, and you can often find freeze-dried or powdered substitutes. Consider things such as milk powder, powdered soups, freeze-dried mushrooms and peas etc. for dinner.
  • Invest in lightweight gear. It may seem like a small number to you, but when you compare the difference between a 3kg tent and a 1.8kg tent, it can make a significant impact on your overall weight. Unfortunately, lightweight gear is often expensive, so choose some key items and invest over time.