How to Pack a Backpack for Thru-Hiking

So you’ve got all this gear ready to go… but now what? While out backpacking, everything that you need is carried on your back, in this pack. You’ll pack and unpack multiple times a day and likely try different things before settling on a method that works best for you. The key to it all is organizing your stuff in a way that saves you time and energy. So, where do you start?

Gear roundup. Photo: Effie Drew

The principles of packing are the same across the board: 

  • Efficiency 
  • Comfort 
  • Convenience

Here, you’ll learn from three experienced thru-hikers who have spent thousands of miles trying out different packing methods. This should give you some idea of where to start so you can hit the trail organized and informed. 

The Pre-Packing Steps

Stuff Sacks + Dry Bags

Before loading up, it’s helpful to organize all of your gear. To maximize space and make packing more efficient, use stuff sacks to store your gear. Combine items that will be used together and exclude anything you’ll keep accessible outside your pack, like a headlamp or water filter. Dry bags are an easy and inexpensive way to organize items like clothes and toiletries and protect them from wet weather. For larger items like a sleeping bag, you may opt for a compression sack to optimize space. Not sure what size to get? Don’t be afraid to bring your sleeping bag into your local outfitter to find what fits. 

Your gear may be organized into stuff sacks looking something like this: 

Sleep layers  Toothbrush + toothpaste Chargers Stove
Rain gear First aid kit External battery  Pot
Down jacket  Medications Wallet Spoon
Hat, gloves, extra socks Gear repair kit Camera equipment Knife

Organizing smaller items might look something like this. Photo: Effie Drew.

The 50¢ Waterproof Pack Liner

Ditch the rain pack cover. They eventually get saturated in water and won’t hold up for an entire thru-hike. Instead, opt for the heavy-duty trash contractor bags to line your pack. Even if your pack is made with Dyneema or water-resistant fabrics, it  will eventually wear down over time. Trash bags are cheap and easy to replace. 

Assess YOUR Pack

The style of your pack will tell you a lot about what your options are for packing and organizing. Does it have a full-suspension frame or removable aluminum stays? Or maybe it’s frameless? Get familiar with your pack and where the external pockets are located. Do you have a roll-top design or a brain at the top? Suspension frames will be more forgiving to heavier loads and uneven weight distribution compared to frameless or semi-frameless. Before you get started, learn your way around the pack you’ll be using. 

The Basic Approach

The intention is to create a packing system that works for you in terms of comfort and convenience. This can look differently from hiker-to-hiker and your methods may evolve over time. Generally, you want the weight balanced at your core, which provides a center of gravity. You’ll probably want your lightest items and/or the things you want to be easily accessible towards the top. Load it evenly and use items like clothes or a sleeping bag to fill in gaps and cracks. Reserve outside space for items you’ll want to use throughout the day. 

Bottom: Heavy, bulky items you may not need until camp

Middle/Core: Dense, heavier items at your back

Top: Lighter items, and anything may want accessible during the day

External Pockets: Front mesh and hip-belt pockets are best for the essentials you may want to access throughout the day. Some packs will have a “brain” at the top for these items as well. 

Straps + Loops: Reserve for bandanas, awkwardly shaped items or snow gear

Baby’s Packing Method

Miles hiked: ~8,000 (AT ’15, *PCT ’16, CDT ’17, CT ’18, NET ’18, WRHR ’19, NH48)

Baby on the Long Trail. Photo: Emily Sawchuck.

Backpacking Style: Ultralight, base weight ~7lbs

Preferred Pack Style: Semi-frameless 40L, with removable aluminum stays (Hyperlite Mountain Gear  2400 Southwest or Northern Ultralight Sundown)

Pre-Packing Steps: I use a trash compactor bag to line my pack, which adds a water barrier. Next, I’ll organize all items into stuff sacks—storing my quilt and clothes in two 8L dry bags, and using 2L sacks for electronics and toiletries. The tarp and sleeping pad stay in the bags they came with and food is stored in Opsaks.

Bottom: Quilt and food bag make up this first layer. I’ll try to put the food upright so it’s closest to my back, usually coming up into the second layer. It carries more comfortably that way, even when I remove the aluminum stays on shorter, lighter trips. Normally my quilt stays horizontally in it’s stuff sack, but for shorter food carries, I may free stuff it below/around the food bags to compress and fill in gaps, since this can provide more padding. 

Middle/Core: I stuff my shelter, sleeping pad and electronics into this second layer. If I can, I’ll put my shelter closer to the top in case I need to set up camp quickly. I like the added comfort knowing my electronics are buried somewhere in the middle for extra protection from weather.

Top: The top layer consists of clothes, toiletries and food for the day. My clothes are fairly light  so I prefer to keep them up top so I can have easy access to a jacket or layers. Toiletries are also convenient to have at the top. In the morning as I pack up, I’ll often try to grab a handful of snacks or lunch foods and move to the top so I don’t have to empty my entire pack during breaks.   

External Pockets: In the front mesh of my pack I always put a windbreaker and headlamp, along with any additional bulky snacks that I’ll likely plow through in the first day or two. I’ll fill the hip-belt pockets with my headphones, phone, chapstick, dog treats and snacks. The chest pocket I like to keep my phone or camera, and sunglasses. In the side pockets, I’ll typically keep two 1L water bottles, a filter and Talenti jar for cold-soaking. When not using trekking poles, I store them in those side pockets too. 

External Straps + Bungees: After rolling down the top of my pack, I strap my sit pad and groundsheet to the top. I attach my bandana/pee cloth to the bungee attachment. If I’m carrying snow gear like an ice axe or microspikes, I’ll attach that to the appropriate loops or outside mesh. On the days when my shelter is soaked, I’ll strap it to the top of my pack to dry out during the day, which avoids making a mess of everything inside.  

Stuffing Style: I really shove things in there, less methodically and more out of routine. I try to save space by using stuff sacks for most things and use my down jacket and occasionally my quilt to fill any gaps or pad bulky items. Sometimes there’s a little variation to it but typically the same general layers and the goal is always the same: distribute the weight comfortably.  

(*3/4 of PCT)

Critter’s Packing Method

Miles hiked: ~5,300 (CDT ’17, AT ’19, WRHR ’19)

Critter in the Wind River Range. Photo: M.E. Sorci

Backpacking Style: Ultralight, base weight ~9lbs

Preferred Pack Style: Frameless 38L (YarGear Rolltop Pack

Pre-Packing Steps: I line my pack with a trash compactor bag to help with smellables and add a layer of waterproofness. 

Bottom: My sleeping clothes and extra socks are stored in a stuff sack, which goes into my pack first. Next, I free stuff my quilt around the stuff sack filling up the empty space. I use a Sea to Summit Dry sack (1 to 2L) to store my Anker power bank and camera supplies. The dry sack goes in next since I usually do not need to access it until the end of the day. Plus keeping the electronics away from the top adds that much more protection if it does rain. I use the heavier items to compress the sleeping bag down as much as I can. 

Middle/Core: I fold my sleeping pad and position it against the back of the bottom 2/3rd of my pack. My food bag—the heaviest part of my pack’s weight—occupies the core. My stove is in the food bag unless I am carrying five days of food, and then I store it next to my food bag or right underneath. If I am hiking with my dog, Milo, I have a separate food bag for him and that goes in front of my food bag. Both bags are square and sit up straight. 

Top: I stuff my rain jacket, rain pants and down jacket around my food bags and try to fill up any empty space. I pull out my snacks for the day and keep them right on top or in my mesh. My tent goes in last since it is the first thing I need when I get to camp. I also keep my toiletries/first aid kit, in a mini stuff sack from Zpacks, at the top. Usually, I remember to check the back of my pack for any lumps or bumps. If I do not do this now, chances are I will have to stop later and reposition. 

External Pockets: I keep my trekking pole in one of the two external pockets as well as my water bottles. 

Mesh: A pack’s mesh is probably the most important part of a pack to me. I end up storing a lot here. My sh*t kit and water filter always live in this pocket. I will also store a bag of chips here. Sometimes my rain jacket moves from inside of my pack to this pocket as well. 

Straps and Bungee: I attach a Kula Cloth, my pee rag, to a loop on the bottom of my shoulder strap so I can take it on and off without having to take my pack off. 

Bottom Mesh: I store my ground sheet in the mesh pocket underneath my pack. 

Fanny Pack: In my High Tail Designs fanny pack, I keep anything that I need multiple times a day, such as my phone, sunscreen stick, sunglasses, identification, and so on. My fanny pack is one of my favorite pieces of gear, because it allows me to keep items handy. I can also drop my pack and take just the essentials if in town or running up a side trail. 

Stuffing Style: I do a combination of free stuffing and stuff sacks. Depending on the trail and how many days I will be carrying food for, I will even use a stuff sack for my sleeping bag to make more room, if I have larger food carries. I switched from a full-suspension pack to a frameless pack after my first long distance hike. With a previous neck injury and lower back compression, the longevity of my hiking career rested on not aggravating these injuries. The approach I took preparing for my next thru-hike was to lighten my load by reducing my base weight and switching to a frameless pack. How I distribute the weight is super crucial for me and keeps me on trail longer.   

Camel’s Packing Method

Miles hiked: ~5,000 (1/2 PCT ’17 PCT ’18 OCT ’19)

Camel in the Sierra. Photo: Justin Schlaf

Backpacking Style: Luxe, ~25 base weight

Preferred Pack Style: Full-suspension frame 70L (Osprey Aether AG

Pre-Packing Steps: I double line my pack with trash compactor bags for moisture defense.

Bottom: First thing in my pack is always socks. Usually one pair wool and two cotton. Then I stuff my synthetic sleeping bag down to create my base. And lastly I throw in my sleeping shirt before rolling down the inner bag.

Middle/Core: The mid-layer of my pack is where all the magic happens! On the PCT I used this space for a junior folk guitar. More recently I’ve been filling this layer with audio visual gear in ziplock bags. On top of that I pack my freestanding tent fly and base as well as a light tarp.

Top: Up top I put my 600ml mug and a pound or two of peanut butter, as well as my fuel canister. Then I sttuff a light top layer and pants to fill in gaps. I keep all of my food at the very top in stuff sacks because I love food and do not want to have to dig for it.

External Pockets: I put my tent poles and stakes in my front pouch . My trowel and a small plastic bottle with a sports lid as my hiker trash bidet round out the pouch. In my side pockets I keep a sewing kit, super glue, headlamp, water treatment, pillow and stove.

Straps + Loops: On the shoulder straps I carry multiple bandanas color coded for different uses. I strap a roll-up closed cell foam pad to the bottom front. This adds stability to my pack when I set it down. Finally I strap my camp shoes over the front pouch.

Stuffing Style: I use compacter bags and ZipLocks solely for moisture protection. I use stuff sacks for food because food deserves special treatment. Besides the exterior and my bottom layer everything is stuffed free form and is constantly changing. This is where the suspension system comes into play. It allows me to carry extra weight and even if it’s not perfectly packed or balanced the suspension system will help immensely in distributing the weight into your hips saving back, shoulders and neck.

What about the Bear Canister?

With a bear canister, the pack shape and size will really dictate your options here. Play pack Tetris and see how you can get it to fit. 

Horizontal: In packs with enough width, often it’s possible to fit a bear canister horizontally at the bottom. This maximizes space and allows you to pack the upper layers as you normally would.  

Vertical: The large majority of mid-size packs will only accommodate a canister vertically, which can be terrifying at first glance. It’ll appear like nothing else will ever fit in there, but with a little creativity, it works. Try taking your sleeping bag and shelter out of their respective stuff sacks and shoving them around the canister, filling the gaps on the front and sides. 

Up Top: With a roll-top pack, sometimes the easiest option is to forego trying to fit it inside, and instead use the strap to secure it at the top. 


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Comments 5

  • Michael Duff : Feb 19th

    Nice post.
    Thanks for the good read and info.

  • Rick : May 5th

    For longer excursions, I use a 90 liter, old school Lowe Alpine pack with accessory pouches and two 1 liter nalgene bottles on the hip belt.
    Having run out of water on a very hot summer night in my “invincible” years, I avoid being thirsty…so I carry a 2 liter military canteen, food bag or bear canister, inflatable pillow, seat and sleeping pad in the bottom of my pack. I zip out the “shelf” and press my sleeping bag or blanket and clothing bag into the trash bag lined middle cavity. My stove and cook pot rests on that, surrounded by rain or sweatpants and jacket. Fold over the liner… At the very top of the bag, I keep my zipper lock bag of trail mix.
    In the “brain” I carry my car keys, a few glow stick lights, a clip-on headlamp that doubles as a sternum strap lamp, a poncho, first aid kit, spare socks in a dry bag (not sure when I used any of these last – HA!).
    Outside pockets carry the stove fuel, lighter, fire starter/emergency signal kit, hygene and vitamins bag, electrolyte powder drink mix, tourniquette and suture kit. I have a solar flashlight and 30kw solar phone charger that clip on my compression straps – mesh map pocket on the outer face, bandana slipped through the shoulder strap loops…my old hockey ref whistle and compass on a lanyard.
    Comfort and safety are my biggest concerns. Over the years, I’ve streamlined my equipment (weight) and typically carry a 40-45lb load. Sometimes I’ll even slip in a well insulated can (or two) of…adult beverage.


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