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If possible, first load your backpack at home. You can spread out your gear on a clean floor, visually confirm you've got everything and feel less rushed as you load up.
The Basics of Pack Loading
Virtually all backpacks have large openings at the top and are known as (ta-da!) top-loading packs. An alternative is a panel-loading pack which uses a zippered sidewall flap.
Most backpackers shove their sleeping bag into the bottom of the pack. On some packs, there is a zippered opening at the bottom of the packbag, known as the sleeping bag compartment, for this purpose.
The bottom of the pack is also a good place for other items you won't need until you make camp at night: long underwear being used as sleepwear, for example; a pillowcase; maybe a sleeping pad, if it's the kind that rolls up into a tiny shape.
Your heaviest items should be placed 1) on top of your sleeping bag and 2) close to your spine. Usually these items will be:
Carrying a hydration reservoir? Most newer packs include a reservoir sleeve. This is a slot that holds a reservoir close to your back and parallel to your spine. It's easier to insert the reservoir while the pack is still mostly empty, so that leaves you 2 choices:
Heavier items should be centered in your pack—not too high, not too low. The goal is to create a predictable, comfortable center of gravity. Heavy items too low cause a pack to feel saggy. Too high and the load might feel tippy.
In the past, traditional pack-loading advice (previously published here) recommended that for trail-walking, heavy items should be carried a little higher in a pack. Today, with most packs designed to ride close to the body, the best tactic is to simply keep heavy items close to the spine and centered in the pack.
Wrap softer, lower-weight items around the weightier items to prevent heavier pieces from shifting. What items are these? Your tent body, rainfly, an insulation layer, a rain jacket. These items can help stabilize the core and fill empty spaces.
Stash frequently used items within easy reach. This includes your map, compass, GPS, sunscreen, sunglasses, headlamp, bug spray, first-aid kit, snacks, rain gear, packcover, toilet paper and sanitation trowel. Place them in the pack's top pocket or other external pocket, if one exists. Some packs even offer tiny pockets on the hipbelt.
If carrying liquid fuel, make sure your fuel bottle cap is on tightly. Pack the bottle upright and place it below your food in case of a spill.
The Desired Result
Ideally, a well-loaded pack will:
Beyond the Basics
You now know the fundamentals of loading a backpack. But for inquisitive readers, here are some additional points of interest.
Q: Where should I pack long, rigid items such as tent poles, not-in-use trekking poles or a rolled-up sleeping pad?
A: Packs typically provide external straps, loops and sleeve-like side pockets where such items can be lashed or stashed.
Note: Minimize the amount of gear you attach to your pack's exterior. External items can potentially get snagged on brush in areas of dense vegetation. Too much external gear could also jeopardize your stability.
Q: How do I know if my gear can fit into a new pack?
A: These charts that show how much space some common backpacking items occupy inside a pack.
The most popular backpacks for multiday trips hold between 60 and 80 liters. If you're aiming to maximize comfort or have older, bulkier gear, choose a pack in the 70s or higher. If you're going lighter, you can aim for a smaller pack.
Other Packing Tips