Whether you’re heading out for a weekend camping, or preparing for a trip around the world, the most important thing you need to know is how to pack a bag properly. Indeed, there’s nothing more beautiful than a well packed bag, and nothing uglier than a bag packed like a dog’s breakfast.
1. Buy a bag that actually matches your needs
This might seem obvious, but I’ve lost count of the number of travellers I’ve met with bags that simply don’t fulfill their needs. Going on one week backpacking trip? You probably don’t need a 70 litre trekking pack. Doing lots of hiking? Don’t get a pack with wheels! Also consider cost. If the bag is probably only going to be used for a few trips, consider something cheap. Likewise, if you intend to do a lot of travel, invest in something durable that will really last.
I personally use a Kathmandu Interloper 70L Gridtech, with a detachable 18L day pack. I like to think of it as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. It’s got plenty of room for backpacking, but is a little large for hiking. However, it’s got great water resistance, is durable but not too heavy, which makes it decent on the trail. Overall though, it’s a good fit for my specific purposes – and that’s really the only thing that matters.
2. Don’t pack at the last minute!
Packing should be a soothing, almost meditative process. Backpackers should start at least 3 days before their trip, while hikers should pack the morning before departure day. The idea is that you want to allow not only plenty of time to pack carefully, but also give your brain enough time to remember those little things you’ll forget to pack the first time.
Don’t just rush in! Assemble everything you plan on taking next to your bag, then carefully develop a gameplan. As a general rule of thumb, big items should be packed first, with smaller things going in the spaces between, starting with small niches and the corners of the pack, and working out.
4. Pay attention to weight distribution
If you’re planning on lugging that pack every day while you’re travelling, cut your hips and spine a break and distribute your weight wisely. Assuming you’re using an internal frame pack (which you almost certainly are, unless your pack looks like this), the heaviest items should be packed closest to your back. In terms of how high to pack, things are a little more variable. On easy terrain (like cities), pack heavy items high, generally around your shoulder blades. This should ensure the weight is nicely balanced between shoulder straps and hip strap. However, if you’re expecting rougher terrain (such as off-trail hiking), consider experimenting with lowering heavier items slightly. This will punish your posture, but minimize the likelihood of losing balance.
5. Regularly used items at top, less used at bottom
For general travel, this means things like maps, guidebooks, your rain jacket and other items you may need to access on the fly should be at the top of your pack. Items you rarely need to quickly access should be at the bottom. For hikers, your cooking fuel and sleeping bag should be at the very bottom, with an emergency kit at the very top, followed by items like food, water, etc.
6. Wrap things inside plastic bags
Virtually no backpack is 100% waterproof, and exterior plastic covers can’t save your gear if something inside your bag leaks. During flights, duty free beverages can break open, and on the trail fuel can leak. In either situation, that throw-away plastic bag you carried your groceries home with could save that expensive shirt you packed. Plus, you never know when a bunch of plastic bags may come in handy.
You’ll be amazed at how much space you’ll save by rolling clothing instead of folding. Roll long-ways, and as tightly as possible (paying attention not to damage fragile items of clothing).
8. Use clothes as padding
Any clothing you don’t roll should be used to protect other items. Socks are great for packing small objects, while shirts can be useful for giving fragile items a bit of cushioning.
9. Leave a bit of space
Whether backpacking or hiking, always leave plenty of spare space. Some people argue for leaving as much as a third of your pack empty for backpacking. For a pack as large as mine (70L) this is feasible, though you may need to set a lower goal if your bag is smaller. The key thing to remember (especially for backpackers) is more spare space = more souvenirs.
10. Never pack laptops or other fragile items in checked luggage (if you can avoid it)
Find a way to cram that laptop into your carry-on. Always.
11. Don’t attach stuff to the outside when flying
It will disappear. That’s all there is to it.
12. Bring padlocks, and use them
An unlocked bag left in a hostel dorm or even storage area will almost certainly be searched by either hostel staff or fellow travellers. Someone will steal something. Locks will hugely reduce the chance of robbery, especially for bags left in storage rooms. However, keep the locks discrete, and don’t lose the keys!
13. Consider compression sacks
Still struggling to fit everything in your pack? You may want to try buying some compression sacks, which can work wonders for reducing size.
14. Don’t over pack!
Pulled out all the stops and still can’t fit everything in? Congratulations, that means you’ve over packed. Even for long backpacking trips, there really isn’t a good reason to bring more than a few sets of clothes. Personally, I usually get by with just one spare shirt, one spare pair of underwear and a spare pair of socks. While I understand not everyone is into that kind of thing, based on anecdotal evidence I estimate probably 80% of backpackers carry more than they should. As a general rule, hikers never carry more than one third of their body weight. I weigh around 75Kg, so I aim to ensure my pack never exceeds 25Kg. I This rule holds quite well even for backpackers that leave their packs in hostels for much of their trip. Put simply: you are not going to enjoy your trip if you need to see a chiropractor each time you lift your pack. Not sure what to bring? Check out the what to pack guide!
15. Adjust everything
Finally, adjust your straps to perfection. When you finish this step, you should be able to carry your pack while standing comfortable upright, with most of the weight on your hips and legs. This is easier than it sounds. First, we need to start with a nicely loosened bag, Pull all the straps out super loose. Then, put on your shoulder straps, and slowly tighten them until your pack slides gracefully into a firm but comfortable position on your back. Next, clip on that big hip strap. This is where many people go wrong: the hip strap sits on top of your hips, not around them. You’ll know you’ve got the positioning right if the strap is covering your belly button. Tighten this strap only until you feel the weight of the pack fall from your shoulders to your hips. Lastly, if you have a chest strap, tighten it so it sits comfortably.