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So you're absolutely stoked for your big wilderness adventure.  That's understandable, but unless you are a veteran backpacker, you will most likely be wondering how to stow your gear in a way that optimizes pack space, weight distribution, and unloading efficiency.

Why do good packing skills matter?

At this point, you might be thinking that it's OK to haphazardly shove all of your equipment into your backpack.  That's a fine strategy.  That is, until you lose your balance when you catch a tree branch on the candle lantern that you carelessly lashed to you your daisy chain, twist your ankle because you didn't distribute the weight of your gear properly, and spend the next ten minutes rummaging through the contents of your upended bag because you can't find your first aid kit.  

A well packed bag will help prevent such a catastrophe.  Not to mention, a lumpy, excessively ornamented pack advertises to everyone on the trail that you rarely venture far from your cubicle.

What exactly is an internal-frame pack?

Most packs designed for backpacking belong to one of two groups, external-frames (E-frame) or internal-frames (I-frame). As the names imply, a pack's classification into either group depends on the location of the rigid bars that give the pack its structure.

With E-frames, the packbag is mounted on a rectangular frame, which is usually made of aluminum tubing.  These packs most often have a main compartment that loads from the front, as well as several smaller compartments and pockets, and these features make it veryeasy to organize and retrieve your gear.  Unfortunately, this design leads to lots of wasted space. 

External-frame backpack


I-frames, on the other hand, get their structure from bars, called stays, placed within the packbag. Most modern packs belong to this category, and they are usually top-loaders.  The main advantages of an I-frame are that the space within the pack is used more effectively and that the weight of your gear is kept closer to your body, which makes for a much more comfortable hike.

Internal-frame backpack(49308)

Because backpacking technology is constantly evolving, there are plenty of exceptions to the descriptions above.  Some packs don't have stays and use a molded plastic framesheet instead, and some I-frames are front-loaders, for example.

Check out this article for more information about selecting the right pack for your trip.

The 5 principles of a well packed bag:

Before you begin loading up your gear, you should learn some ground rules.

  1. Pack your gear based on the order that you intend to remove it.  This may seem like common sense, but it's a rule that's often violated in practice.  Things that are not removed until the end of the day, like a tent or sleeping bag, should go in first (on the bottom), while items that you may need periodically throughout the day, like a rain jacket, should go in last (on the top.)
  2. Whenever practical, use stuffsacks to organize your equipment into logical groups.  In The Complete Walker IV, the authors compare a backpack to a house, and go on to explain how all of your gear belongs in a different "room." Cooking supplies go in your "kitchen" sack, toothbrush and nail-clippers go in your "bathroom" sack, etc. It's also a good idea to have a sack for miscellaneous rubbish, like spare batteries and whatnot.  You're far less likely to lose your gear, especially the small stuff, if it's always in its designated bag when not in use.
  3. Keep the heaviest and most dense items as close as possible to the center of your back.  This includes things like food and stoves.  By doing so, you'll keep most of the weight over your center of gravity, which makes for a much more stable hike.  Pack your heavy gear against the backpad, and surround it with more compressible equipment placed on all other sides.  This will keep items from shifting when you tighten the backpack's compression straps.
  4. Keep things attached to the outside of your pack to a minimum.  You will move more quietly, be better balanced,  and be far less likely to get snagged on a branches.
  5. Don't have a lumpy pack.  Not only will you look like a goon, but lumps indicate wasted space.  By decreasing wasted space, you can bring the weight of your gear closer to your back and your equipment will be less likely to shift.

Packing your bag:

Once you have the 5 principles nailed down, actually packing your backpack becomes a fairly simple task.  Most I-frames have a large main compartment, a lid compartment, and some front and side pockets.

Most of your gear will get stashed in the main compartment.  Start by putting your sleeping bag at the bottom.  Some backpacks have a bottom compartment that's made specifically to accommodate a sleeping bag.  Either way, it's preferable to keep your sleeping bag watertight by either using a drysack or by putting it in a heavy-duty garbage bag. 

Next, you'll want to place your most heavy and dense equipment against the backpad, making sure to leave enough room for compressible items on the sides, front, and top.  If you are using a larger pack, you may need to add another layer of compressible material above your sleeping bag to make sure that the heavy items are near the center of your back.

At this point, you can start loading your remaining gear.  This equipment is lightweight and compressible.  Remember to put your gear into your pack according to the order that you plan to remove it.  For most situations, a good order (from bottom up) would be:

  1. Sleeping gear, such as a sleeping pad or pillow.
  2. Tent with rainfly and groundcloth.
  3. Spare clothing.  Like your sleeping bag, keep clothing in a watertight bag.

Store any items that you'd like to use throughout the day, like a map or snacks, in the top compartment or pockets.  Do not, however, use them to store more heavy gear because it will throw off the ideal weight distribution that you've achieved.  If you need more space, get a bigger pack!

Inevitably, you'll need to keep some of your equipment on the outside of your pack.  This includes any large, pointy objects that could potentially thrash your gear if kept inside, like tent poles, a trench shovel, or an ice axe.  Tent stakes are stored in a pocket or lid compartment for the same reason.  Some items, such as foam sleeping pads, might be to large to store inside of your pack and must be lashed to the outside. Try to keep these items to a minimum, and work on incorporating smaller, ultralight gear as you become a better backpacker. 

What about H2O?

Unless you are a geologist, water will likely be the heaviest thing, per unit volume, that you carry.  For this reason, its preferable to have a pack with an internal hydration bladder to keep all that weight near your center of gravity.  However, there are still lots of backpacks that have mesh side pockets for water bottles, and they seem to work fine.

Good luck and happy trails!