How to Pack a Backpack for Camping Like a Pro

The best campsites are cached away in mountains and valleys, often at the terminus of long hiking trails that course and wind through the most untouched backcountry wilderness. Hybrid backpacking trips and multi-day camping trips delight backpackers who camp at these remote places. Before the natural vistas and landscapes can be taken in, though, backpackers face a slight logistical issue: how does one transport all the backpacking gear needed to outfit a complete backcountry campsite?

Many campers have correctly singled out the infallible rucksack as the unsurprisingly fitting tool for backpacking trips and camping excursions. Sometimes, however, novice backpackers can undo all the conveniences and utility of a rucksack by packing their backpacking gear incorrectly. Sleeping bags are not tightly packed or held outside of the pack using compression straps, or essential items are packed buried underneath heavy items or shift while backpackers are hiking because of empty spaces left in the rucksack. 


Man carrying a black backpack and sleeping pad in the mountains.

Sleeping pads and water bottles are essential items that can be carried outside of your backpack in the side pockets.


If you take the time to learn and understand how to pack a backpack for camping, your next backpacking trip will go much more smoothly and you’re liable to notice a significant improvement in post-backpacking trip back pain if you can master the art of even weight distribution in your rucksack. Ultralight backpackers who eschew the heavier items from their backpacking gear collection will find proper organization and weight distribution especially vital since ultralight rucksacks are smaller and ultralight gear generally has to be packed in a specific way without any empty spaces to fit inside the smaller rucksack.

Hikers and campers who do hit the trails with heavy gear such as cooking gear or use trekking poles to maintain a proper center of gravity also need to pay attention to packing tips because heavy gear can cause physical distress, pain, or injury on a longer multi-day backpacking trip. 

The most important thing to keep in mind when you pack a rucksack for your next backpacking trip is that essential items should be placed in stuff sacks or plastic bags for water resistance and heavy items should be in the bottom of your pack and near the center of the bag to sit between the shoulder blades for maximum comfort. Read on for more packing tips and save yourself some exertion and back pain on your next backcountry backpacking trip.


How to pack a sleeping bag

The sleeping bag is one of the most essential items and a central piece of backpacking gear that almost no camper leaves out on backcountry backpacking trips. While a sleeping bag isn’t usually one of the heaviest items in a rucksack, it is oftentimes one of the bulkiest, so packing it away correctly is vital. The sleeping bag must be packed in such a way that the rest of your backpacking gear will have enough empty space to get packed in tightly. The first step to correctly packing away a sleeping bag is to roll it up as tightly as possible. Just as we’ll see with other gear, stuff sacks, and compression sacks, squeezing all the air out of a sleeping bag before it’s packed is essential. Roll up the sleeping back as tightly as possible, using internal compression straps if available. 

Many rucksacks designed for backpacking on multi-day camping trips are built with a specific sleeping bag compartment that is separate from the main compartment and allows backpackers to store the sleeping bag in its own individual space without impeding easy access to essential items. Usually, the sleeping bag compartment is found at the bottom of the pack, although sometimes it is a side or central section in the main compartment. Sometimes small items can be packed in the sleeping bag compartment alongside the sleeping bag, but be wary of packing away liquid items like sunscreen just in case a leak occurs and your sleeping bag gets ruined. You won’t want to arrive at the campsite only to discover that you’ll be snuggling up in a coconut-scented, greasy sleeping bag.


A couple standing on a mountain cliff by a body of water.

For an even weight distribution, larger items like a rolled-up sleeping pad can be attached to the bottom of your pack using compression straps.


Rain gear and waterproofing

Experienced campers and backpackers are always on the lookout for inclement weather when they’re out in the backcountry on a backpacking trip. The most daring among them demonstrate their admirable dedication to the backcountry by continuing to camp in the winter. Wet conditions are unfortunately common but frequently visually stunning for backpackers who are able to take some shelter from the storm but still at a good vantage point to watch the drops fall from the sky.

All of your essential equipment should be waterproofed or packed in a stuff sack, plastic bag, or similar implement to protect it in case water should get in and puddle at the bottom of your pack. Essential items for any backpacker out in rainy or snowy conditions in the backcountry are rain gear such as a hooded rain jacket, an ultralight tarp to use as a tent footprint, and a sleeping pad to lift a sleeping bag up off the damp ground. 

Toiletries and first aid kits are especially susceptible to damage from water than can render them useless. If you prefer to keep your toiletries and first aid kit in a homemade container that’s not watertight or you prefer to just keep the contents of a first aid kit in your bag, it will definitely be necessary to pack them in a stuff sack.

You’ll have easy access and they’ll be easier to unpack when you reach your campsite, plus you won’t have small items mixed in indiscriminately with your sleeping bag and other essential items. Rain gear can seem like overkill to some backpackers, especially those obsessed with ultralight packing. Savvy hikers and campers know that it can rescue a camping trip and save campers the hassle of trekking through the backcountry soaked to the bone and possibly developing blisters or catching a cold. 

When you’re going out into rainy or snowy weather, the extra rain gear will take up space. That’s why it’s really important to follow the proper packing procedures. Make sure there is no empty space inside your pack, or as little as possible at any rate. Pack smart; you may have trekking poles, a sleeping bag or a sleeping pad that are possibly stored with compression straps on the outside of your backpack but that you don’t want to store on the outside of the pack so as to avoid them getting wet from precipitation. A sleeping bag compartment will really help solve this dilemma should you ever face it, so look out for one next time you’re on the market for a rucksack for your backcountry backpacking trips. 


Backpacking balance: center of gravity and weight distribution

Putting your backpacking gear into your rucksack seems fairly straightforward in theory. Most packing tips are probably common sense to most backpackers, although that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not helpful to consider them from time to time to stay on top of your backpacking packing game. The largest heaviest items should go into the main compartment first and the sleeping bag in the sleeping bag compartment if you’re lucky enough to have one.

The empty spaces can then be filled with small items, with the smallest at the top for easy access and to prevent them from being crushed by the heavier items in transit. Everything should fit inside as tightly as possible, and the compression straps pulled to as strongly and securely as possible. All of these packing tips are important and deserve regular consideration and adherence in practice. Another extremely important consideration is the center of gravity. 

More than just a science fiction novel, your center of gravity is the sense of where your weight seems to stem from. It’s not technically a tangible discoverable point on the body but rather a conceptual ideation of an interior location through which it could be said that your weight acts considering forces on your body and its movement under the forces of gravity. Anyone who has ever slipped on a slick or wet surface knows what it feels like to lose your center of gravity.

Hikers and backpackers know all too well that an improperly packed rucksack can throw off your sense of gravity, causing you to be imperiled and at risk of losing your center of gravity and falling head-over-heel in the backcountry, risking unnecessary injury and damage to your backpacking gear. The center of gravity is best maintained by packing your backpacking rucksack smartly, with everything snugly inside, no empty spaces, and, most importantly, an even weight distribution not just in the main compartment but in the sleeping bag compartment and attached outside your backpack with external compression straps. 

Weight distribution is important for your own physical well-being not just because you could exhaust yourself on a multi-day camping trip with a backpacking rucksack that is imbalanced or overly heavy on one side or at the bottom of your pack. It makes complete sense that the heaviest items should be centered and packed at the bottom of your pack, but make sure not to put all the heavier items in the bottom of your pack and leave the ultralight, lightweight small items all at the top.

Evenly packing the essential gear will stop you feeling like you’re being dragged down as you navigate the hiking trails on the way to and around your chosen campsite. Compression straps, be they external or internal, can help secure backpacking gear so small items won’t be crushed or damaged by heavier items that are stowed away above them in the main compartment. 


Two people hiking in the snow.

Backpackers with even backpack weight distribution can easily maintain their center of gravity in treacherous conditions. 


Cooking gear in a camping backpack

Everyone loves a hot, robustly-flavored meal after a long day of hiking through the backcountry. Cooking gear can turn your backpacking trip into a splendid adventure instead of a barebones struggle against the general discomfort you have exposed yourself to by camping without anything to cook with. The only issue about bringing cooking gear along is that if you aren’t selective with the model you choose, cooking gear can be among the heaviest items in your rucksack and be quite cumbersome to take along the hiking trail to your selected campsite. If you can find ultralight cooking gear and cooking utensils, like a DIY camping stove that is easy to assemble and operates on the wood you can forage for around the campsite to avoid carrying cooking fuel in your rucksack, then it’s a cinch to carry cooking gear with you.

Pots and pans are occasionally carried on the outside of the pack using rope or compression straps to secure them in place but be warned that it isn’t always super comfortable or convenient to have a hard piece of cooking gear dangling off the outside of your backpack where it can hit you or glance off trees and rock faces as you scramble by them in the backcountry. The best packing tip for stowing cooking gear is to wait and add a large pot or pan in the main compartment on top of the rest of your backpacking gear. Many manufacturers also offer collapsable cooking gear with removable handles that’s also ultralight for maximum portability.  


Health gear on a backpacking trip

Another realm of backpacking gear that is frequently overlooked or purposefully ignored by ultralight backpackers is health gear. A few band-aids probably won’t cut it if you get into some kind of non-emergency health situation, and a first aid kit is perfect to stop slight pain, bug bites, or minor allergic reactions. While most backpacking first aid kits come in their own carry case, most backpackers might not want to carry it in hand or have it dangling clunkily off the outside of the pack as they course through the backcountry on the way to their chosen campsite. Ultralight first aid kits are widely available and the contents of a first aid kit can also be removed from the first aid kit carry case and redistributed around the main compartment or stashed in the sleeping bag compartment if your backpacking backpack has one. 

Small items like lip balm can be used to fill up any remaining empty spaces in the main compartment to ensure all your backpacking gear is snug and secure and won’t budge during transport. Toiletries like toothpaste and camping soap can also be used to fill the empty spaces, although most backpacking enthusiasts put them into compression sacks or stuff sacks to prevent spillage or damage from heavy items stowed around them in the main compartment. 

A first aid kit is wise to pack along with you on excursions into the backcountry, but it’s likely you’ll need some other backpacking gear along with you as well. Safety equipment to repel predators will definitely be a godsend if you should be so misfortunate as to have to use it. On a hiking trip in bear country, for example, you’ll want to have a reliable bear canister with you in a side pocket or stowed on the outside of your pack somewhere for easy access if you run into a bear suddenly. Bear country is almost always perfectly safe for backpackers and campers on hiking trips, but they do occasionally attack, especially if they smell food. Bear canisters can dissuade the fuzzy eponymous bear country residents from bothering you and causing serious injury, and they’re designed to fit in the side pocket or hip belt of most backpacking backpacks. 


Securing your backpacking backpack

There are a ton of straps on some of the larger rucksacks on the market, and it can sometimes be a little confusing to navigate which does what. They all have some intended purpose that the manufacturer imagined would be useful on multi-day hiking trips in the backcountry and you can oftentimes tell what the intended purpose is when you try to tighten them. You’ll feel which part of the rucksack is tightened to our body as you pull on one of the straps. The most commonly included straps are the hip belt, which can be used to stow bear canisters as we mentioned already, the compression straps, of which there are often many that may be used to tighten backpacking gear on the outside of the pack or in the main compartment, and shoulder straps, which should be snug on your shoulders without shifting or sliding during motion. 

Extra features like side pockets and hip belt pockets are great for easy access not only to bear canisters in bear country but also to water bottles or a GPS device. Use the compression straps to secure everything you’ve brought along with you and the hip strap and shoulder straps to make sure the frame pack is flush against your back. You’ll be much happier if you take the time to secure yourself with adjustments to the hip belt, shoulder straps, and compression straps before you start out on the trail. A multi-day hiking trip with a shoddily secured rucksack can cause discomfort and even injury, which could possibly even cut the whole excursion short.


A man with a hiking backpack surrounded by green trees.

Compression straps make external frame packs better organized, more secure, and less stressful to carry.


Final Verdict:

The backpack is arguably one of the most essential items backpackers take with them on multi-day hiking trips where camping will be involved. Be they ultralight or chock-full of heavy items like cooking gear and trekking poles, backpacking backpacks serve the critical purpose of affording portable storage space for all the backpacking gear we use to make our memories while we’re out in the backcountry. Whether you’re going out to bear country or an icy mountain climb, packing your backpack for a camping trip is one of the most important pre-backpacking tasks facing you before hitting the trails and camps in the backcountry. 

It isn’t one of the most difficult camping tasks, but taking the time to properly organize and pack a backpack for camping will save pain, discomfort, and exhaustion later on down the line. It doesn’t take much technique beyond common sense, but it does take some consideration to do it right. Backpackers should also pay attention to their own comfort while out in the backcountry.

Shoulder straps and hip belts should be snug, not moving around causing chafing or blisters. If there is some issue that can’t be solved with a simple shoulder strap, hip belt, of compression strap adjustment, then you’ll want to remember to correct it next time you pack your rucksack. If you do it right you can be comfortable witnessing all that nature has to offer. It will only take some brief consideration before you strike out, but you’re prepared for it now that you know how to pack a backpack for camping.

Bonus tip: Watch this backpacker pack all his backpacking gear without even leaving anything outside of the pack!


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Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.