How to Pack a Backpack


Backpacks are the icon of hiking. Perhaps no other recreational activity is so singularly embodied by the symbol of one item as hiking is by the backpack. Pass by a trailhead in the mountains, and you are likely to see a welcoming stick figure on a signpost with a rounded rectangle on his back. Age-imparted wisdom has deemed it the most comfortable and efficient way to tote all your necessary supplies when the mode of transport is foot travel. But what should be found inside a backpack? Observe the crowds being funneled to a popular destination in the White Mountains, like Mt. Welch, and you will undoubtedly observe a motley assortment of bag designs and styles, and if you were able to peek inside some of them, you would probably find no consistent standard of preparedness among them. If you are just beginning to venture out into the mountains, you may be wondering how to determine what items you should carry in your backpack to ensure a successful outdoor outing and have peace of mind for the unexpected.

You may have heard of the most well-known standard for packing hiking equipment, the 10 essentials. You can find it easily with a quick internet search on many reliable websites, such as the National Park Service. This is a great guideline to use, but at first glance, it may seem like overkill if you are just going out for a short excursion. Do you really need to be that prepared if you are just heading out for an afternoon hike on Mt. Kearsarge? The answer is no - you will not experience the need for most items on an exhaustive list of backpacking equipment if you’re just out for a few hours - in normal circumstances. Maybe all you will need is just some food and water, and possibly less than that, depending on how long you are out. In fact, most backpack recommendations like these will be out of sight and mind even if you’re on a 12-hour 4000-footer peakbagging extravaganza. It is easy to convince yourself that you don’t really need all these things if you are not going on an outdoor trip that serious. But, as you hopefully know, the very reason for including these items as essentials is so you don’t have to think about them. Of course, to be safe in the outdoors, you must be prepared for the un-normal circumstances. Each of the supplies on the famous “10 essentials” list provides insurance against some type of unexpected scenario - losing the trail, sustaining an injury, experiencing an unforeseen weather hazard, failing to return before nightfall, or something else.

So is the solution to spend hours gathering gear every time you plan to go out for a hiking day? The good news is that it doesn’t have to be. A good strategy to use is to keep a backpack with everything you should prudently have always stored in it. Keep all your hiking equipment stored in one place, and whenever you go out, you can simply put together your daily supplies and know that everything else is taken care of from your previous diligence. This article will outline the basics of doing just that.

The first thing to consider will be the pack itself. We will refrain from making any product or brand recommendations here, but it is important to find a backpack that is suitable for your personal comfort and what you choose to pack with you. There are some important principles to consider with regard to this. First is size. Many people who haven’t had much experience hiking will choose to repurpose a backpack they have on hand for other uses. This can be a practical method for someone who only makes an occasional hiking outing, but backpacks not specifically designed for hiking may not have the storage space for sufficient emergency supplies. Someone who is choosing to go this route must be sure that someone else in their group with more experience has taken the precautions to be prepared with extra supplies to cover unexpected situations for everyone. You don’t want to be making compromises about which emergency supplies to bring because there is not enough space in your pack. A variety of compartments is a benefit when it comes to space. It will be helpful to have different storage areas for items you need to access at different frequencies. You don’t want to have to be rummaging through first aid and shelter supplies to access your lunch for the day.

Comfort is the other major consideration. You don’t want to find that the first thing fatiguing you on the trail is your backpack. Make sure to use one that is adjustable in many places for a particular fit and weight distribution. Chest and waist straps are always a benefit for extra security, as well as for storage for small items. Another great feature included in many modern hiking backpacks is an arched frame to allow for air flow between the bag and your back.

Accessibility is another concern to pay attention to. Is it easy enough to retrieve water bottles consistently? Does it have an outside pouch that can be reached into for storage of items used constantly on the trail, like maps? Or is it too easily accessible to the point that something might fall out if it is jostled? It can also be useful to choose a pack with ample options for hanging things, such as hats.

With your backpack picked out, it is time to move on to focus on its contents - what do you need to have inside when you’re off climbing mountains? Use the following list as a reference when assembling your equipment store.

Food and water

Clothing for all conditions



Other protection

Emergency Supplies

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