How to Pack a Backpack

Every seasoned backpacker has their own special way of packing their bag. And almost every one you speak to will tell you that there’s a different way of doing things.

An efficiently packed backpack can hold many more items than a bag that has had all of its contents thrown together in a random order. There are a range of different theories on how to properly pack a backpack, but they can all agree that it is important to plan your packing strategically to get the most out of your luggage.

Whether you’re loading up all the gear needed for an intrepid hiking expedition or just trying to fit everyone you need for a weekend away into one bag, here are some of our best backpacking packing tips.

Packing a Backpack – The Ultimate Guide

The size of your backpack will affect the way that you pack it, as some types will have additional storage compartments, front and side pockets, or straps that allow for other equipment to be attached. This guide applies to all sizes of backpacks, as it looks at the areas of a rucksack where different items should be stored and what approach you should follow when packing for backpacking.

  1. First, organise your items. Place the heaviest, bulkiest items together, everything you might need to hand whilst you’ll be wearing the backpack, the lighter items, and then any items that can be folded or squashed to fill a gap.
  2. Then, start with the heaviest and bulkiest items. If you’re packing for a camping or hiking trip, this will probably be your tent and sleeping bag. These should go right in the middle of your backpack, aligned vertically so they will be carried against your spine. This makes it easiest to bear the weight.
  3. Next, add the remaining heavy or bulk items into the main compartment. If your backpack has a bottom section you shouldn’t put all of the heavy items here, as this will unbalance you and make the bag difficult to carry. Try and keep the biggest weight in the centre of your backpack.
  4. Then, fill the gaps around your bulky items with lighter and softer items, such as clothes. It’s a good idea to keep a spare change of clothes somewhere easy to get to as well, such as the top or bottom compartment of the bag.
  5. If your backpack has side pockets, ensure that they are both filled with equally weighted items. Liquids are a good thing to store in side pockets, whether this is drinking water or liquid fuel.
  6. Any items that you are going to need to hand whilst you are carrying the backpack should be kept at the top of the bag. This may be food, extra layers of clothing or maps and documents that you might need to quickly get hold of. The lid of your backpack (if you have one) should be filled with similarly useful, small items such as sunscreen, a compass, a first aid kit and a torch.
  7. If you have straps on your backpack designed to carry specific equipment or tools, these should be used. Always attach items to the outside of your backpack after everything else has been packed, so that the backpack weight distribution is even.

Below are specific backpacking packing tips for a range of different scenarios, so you know what to bear in mind when you are packing for different kinds of trips.

How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

A hiking trip requires a meticulously packed backpack, as not only do you have to fit everything you need into one bag, you also have to carry all of these items around with you for the entirety of your walk. Hiking backpacks are often large, so you should follow the above advice to ensure that the weight of the bag is balanced and the bulk of your items are in the middle of the backpack, as this will make it easiest to wear on your back for a long time.

With hiking backpack packing, it’s also important to remember to pack essential clothing items in easy reach, as the last thing you want if the weather takes a turn is to be scrabbling about in your backpack trying to find the waterproof that you stored right at the bottom. Alternatively, if you’re hiking somewhere hot then ensure that your water bottle is within easy reach so that you avoid getting dehydrated because your drink is packed out of the way.

How to Pack a Camping Backpack

The advice for packing a camping backpack is pretty similar to that of hiking backpack packing; ensure that heavy items are stored in the middle of the bag, keep essential items within easy reach, and don’t overbalance yourself with an oddly weighted backpack.

Camping trips also require carrying a tent in your backpack however, which can be the hardest item to pack if you’ve never tried before. The best advice to follow is to store your tent vertically and place it so it will be resting against your spine when the bag is on your back, as this means the brunt of the weight is supported and that it won’t overbalance the bag.

How to Attach a Tent to a Backpack

If your bag is equipped with tent straps or you cannot fit your tent in the main compartment of your bag, you may decide to attach it to your backpack instead. Most people strap their tent to the bottom of their rucksack using the straps, either tying the bag straps and tent straps together or slotting the tent through extendable loops that are on the bottom of the rucksack.

You can also use the side compression straps on a rucksack to store very small and thin tents, although you will need to balance this out with a similarly weighted item on the other side.

Bear in mind that a tent may get damaged if attached to the outside of a backpack as it can get caught and rip on external items, so this is not a recommended storage solution if you’re going to be carrying the backpack through dense landscapes or in busy places.

How to Pack a Sleeping Bag in a Backpack

Sleeping bags are a common item that is carried in a backpack, particularly on camping and hiking trips. Whilst a lot of good-quality sleeping bags aren’t actually that heavy, they do tend to be quite bulky and so should be one of the first things that you pack in your backpack if you want to use the space efficiently.

If your backpack has a bottom compartment then this is an excellent place to pack your sleeping bag, as it is easy to get to without having to go through the main section of a bag and means that you have something relatively light stored at the bottom of the bag. Some people choose to attach their sleeping bag to the outside of their backpack if they have appropriate straps, which can work as long as the bag is properly secured and does not move around whilst you are in motion.

How to Pack a Backpack for Air Travel

Whether you’re taking a small backpack as a carry-on item or are travelling abroad with a backpack as your luggage, it’s important to know the proper way to pack a backpack for air travel.

If you’re packing a small backpack as carry-on luggage, the most important thing to consider is whether it fits within the size regulations. Don’t attach lots of extras to the outside or over-stuff it, as this could cause problems.

If you’re taking a backpack on a plane and it is going to be stored in the hold, again you need to ensure that nothing is attached to the outside that is going to fall off. Avoid storing anything breakable where it might get knocked or crushed, and make use of your backpack’s flight protector cover if it has one.

Weekend Backpack

How to Pack a Backpack for a Week

When you’re packing a backpack for a week-long trip, your main priority is going to be fitting everything you need for seven days into one bag. This can be made more tricky when you are also carrying a tent and/or a sleeping bag, as you have less room for clothes and personal items.

If you’re living out of a backpack for a week or even longer, you’re likely going to have to unpack and repack the whole thing at least once. It can be very useful to store clothes in smaller bags within your backpack to make it easier to get hold of certain items and to try and keep belongings like toiletries in side compartments or the lid so that you can reach them more easily.

Multi-purpose items are your best friend when loading a backpack for longer trips, so make the most of clothes, equipment and toiletries that double up to help save space.

How to Pack a Backpack for a Weekend Trip

Packing a backpack for a weekend trip is much easier than for a long time away, as you have fewer belongings and also tend to be carrying a smaller rucksack which is easier to carry. Despite having less on your back however, you shouldn’t forget the advice on packing the heaviest items in the centre of your bag and ensuring that weight is equally distributed, as this will make the bag easier to carry.

There is a tendency to pack more than you need when you are only away for a few days and can see that there is spare room in your backpack. However, compression straps can be used to shrink backpacks so that they are more compact, which you should do if you find that you have extra room.

How to Pack Clothes in a Backpack

Clothes are often one of the hardest items to pack in a backpack, as there are many different ways of folding or storing which can take up varying amounts of room. The highest recommended method for packing clothes in a backpack is to use separate, lightweight storage bags to store different items or outfits in, as this not only protects them from other items in your backpack but also makes them easier to find without having to unpack everything.

When it comes to packing your clothes, rolling them up is often the best way to take up the least amount of space possible. Thicker or bulkier items should be packed in the middle of the bag, whereas lighter pieces of clothing can be fitted in around other things in the backpack to take up the least space possible.

How to Pack Clothes in a Backpack Without Wrinkles

If you’re trying to minimise wrinkles when packing clothes in a backpack, the best approach is to roll them instead of folding them. Not only does this reduce the number of wrinkles that an item is likely to have when you unpack it, but rolled clothes also tend to take up the least space which is ideal when you’re got a lot to fit in a backpack.

Clothes Packing


Wondering how to pack a backpack for travelling in the best way is common before your first proper trip with a backpack, but the proper method is quite easy to get your head around once you’ve done the research. The most important things to remember are

  • Heavy items in the middle
  • Distribute weight evenly
  • Essential items at the top

Keep all of these backpacking packing tips in mind, and you won’t have any trouble!

If you’re looking for more backpacking guides, when not check out our post on the Ultimate Guide to the Best Backpacks?

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About the Author

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Charlotte Armitage

I’ve been writing content about travel since I graduated; a job that is continually adding new destinations to my future holiday list! As a reformed anxious traveller, research is an essential part of planning a trip, which is why I love writing guides that help other people discover everything they need to know about a place they’re going to visit. I consider myself a bit of a staycation expert, so I love writing about UK destinations. I’m also a big train travel enthusiast, so if you can get there by rail, I’m going to want to write about it! I’m a photographer as well as a writer, so one of my favourite things to do whilst travelling is to visit art galleries or seek out the best architecture or landscapes in a new destination and document them with my camera. The best place I’ve visited on my travels so far is Barcelona, but I also really enjoyed Amsterdam, Lucerne, and Edinburgh.