How to Pack a Hiking Backpack like Pro – Essential Guide for Beginners

How to Pack a Hiking Backpack like Pro – Essential Guide for Beginners
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Start with where, what, why, when and how!

Before we discuss how to pack a backpack for hiking, we need to answer a few preliminary questions.

Packing a 35 liter backpack for an overnight hiking trip in a popular national forest during the summer where food, water and other provisions may be available will be different than packing for a months long thru hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in the spring where you need a 5 day supply of food and water carried on your person for much of the hike.

Once you know where you will be hiking, during what season, what food and water you need to pack and for how long, choosing the backpack is next.

After you decide on a backpack, you have the information you need to get started.

Our example Trip

outdoors path trail

For simplicity, and because it is impossible to outline a packing scenario for every possible trip, our hiking example will be packing for a 33 mile round trip multi day hike from Hoh River Trail to Elk Lake.

The trail is often rainy, and muddy at times, although it is mostly level hiking with a climb at the end.

The trail meanders thro an old growth rainforest, along raging rivers, through cedars, an emerald valley, across a bridge over a river in a steep gorge where the hike intensifies, getting steeper as it rises into alpine terrain before reaching the lake, with an optional hike to the glacier nearby.

Our example hike is done during the summer but we will need to plan for mud on the trail, drizzle, and a good jacket for the glacier hike, although we will not camp overnight there.

Water is available, so we will pack a modest amount, but all food will need to be packed, and a cooking stove is best since a campfire is restricted in some areas and rain may hinder it in others.

We will need a rain cover, rain jacket and hiking boots for mud and river crossings, with an extra change of clothes. Plus the traditional supplies we will cover in the checklist.

Our example hike will last 3 nights and 4 days in mid July.

A few Resources for Packing

One resource we can use for his hike is the Washington Trails association Packing Guide. You can Google your planned hike and possibly find a packing guide, or gear selection tips as well.

Another general but thorough packing resource is REI’s guide on how to pack a backpack and a checklist can also be found on REI’s web page.

The National Park Service has a handy packing guide for wilderness hiking including separate summer and winter lists.

Our friends up North in Banff, Canada have a packing guide with separate lists for day hikes and backpacking.

If you are interested in Zion national park, or just want to look at another packing guide, here is one specific to Zion national park, created by a park enthusiast.

Channel Islands Packing list anyone?

You can Google your planned hike and possibly find a packing guide, or gear selection tips as well.

Our Packing Checklist

Footwear

Choose appropriate footwear for trail conditions. If the trail is flat and easy you might get away with regular sneakers, but if you have to cross streams, trudge through mud, climb rocks, you will need to consider your footwear.

For our hike, we will bring a pair of waterproof hiking boots and Gaiters to keep the mud out of our shoes.

What to Wear

  • Base layer – depending on the weather this could mean long johns or a simple t-shirt and shorts.
  • Insulating Layer – a jacket or sweater for cold nights, maybe one of each as a sweater is more comfortable to sleep in.
  • Rain, wind, weather outer protection – A rain jacket, wind breaker, rain pants will keep you dry and comfortable if there may be rain. Don’t forget a rain cover for your gear or backpack.
  • Socks – Long hikes and multi day hikes need socks designed for hiking. They have more cushion and prevent blisters. Bonus for finding antimicrobial socks to ward off foot funk.

Pick your Pack

Your pack must hold all the gear, food and water you plan to bring.

The pack should ideally have a decent suspension system, since this will make the difference between a comfortable trip and a miserable one.

A comfortable well fitting hip belt and harness are a must. We will use an Osprey 65 liter backpack for our example since it can fit the gear extra clothing and food we need for our 4-day trip.

Navigation

It is OK to use a Smartphone just do not rely on a Smartphone. Any number of things can happen, the battery may die, it could malfunction, get wet or get lost.

Use a map and carry a compass, even if you do not plan to use it.

If you are hiking in an area with a park ranger, ask the ranger about conditions and get a map from them, if possible.

backpacking compass

Hydration

Water is a critical consideration when hiking. If you do not know if there will be water available, plan to hike with it in your pack. Carry enough to last all days of your trip, plus one extra day.

If you are hiking where water is available, plan to bring purifying tablets, a water filter, or plan to boil all water because it may have organisms in it that could make you sick and ruin your trip.

Even the purest looking rivers and lakes may have organisms, so play it safe.

Nutrition

To start, you should always pack enough food for the number of days you will be on the trail, plus one extra day in case of emergency.

The type, style and variety of food you can eat while hiking is practically limitless.

Focus on foods that are dense in calories and take up less space. For example, foods that have 100 calories or more per ox would be considered calorie dense.

Food that does not weigh too much is also good, for obvious reasons, especially if water for cooking is available on the trail. Prepackaged freeze dried camp food meals are always an option.

Your calorie needs may be higher than normal if your hike is strenuous. Hiking 12 to 15 miles with a moderate elevation gain could mean you need between 3000 to 4000 calories a day.

If you are hiking shorter distances or the hike is easy, it may be less. Use common sense to decide your daily calorie needs.

Some resources to give you ideas are the section hikers 3-day food guide.

This Blog at lot’s of Fresh air has some creative, practical and down to earth ideas and a clever 24 hour ration pack idea we love. Plus she lists ideas for food you can pick up at any grocery store, no need to order or make anything special, and she has a downloadable shopping and prep list. It’s just that easy!

Rain Gear

raining

For our sample hike in the Pacific NW rain, or at least drizzle will be a likely occurrence. Consider the area you are hiking, time of year and what the weather will be like.

If you can, try to find hiking reviews other hikers wrote that occurred during the same time of year to give you an idea of what the weather will be like.

For our sample hike we will carry a light rain jacket but no rain pants because the rain is usually just a drizzle, and the weather is not too cold.

Fire Starter, Matches, Stove, Fuel

If you decide to use pre packaged dehydrated meals you will need a stove or be able to build a campfire, which is not always practical and sometimes, you just want to eat without the hassle of building a fire.

For our hike, we will bring a small camp stove. For our hike we will use a Coleman portable stove and bring 2 canisters of fuel, because the fuel is easy to find and will not leak, plus the stove works quickly.

We will also bring an 8” aluminum pan, an aluminum coffee pot and a cup or two for coffee. This together will weigh about 10 lbs.

We will also carry a disposable lighter and waterproof matches in a Ziploc bag so they stay dry.

Knife, Swiss army knife or multi-tool

folding hunting knife

Carry a knife or multi tool and a length of duct tape, because it can be used for on the trail repairs.

A tool can be used for cooking or food preparation and any number of unplanned or emergency situations.

First Aid kit

You can purchase a first aid kit that weighs under a pound and is good for hiking.

More important than that, you should familiarize yourself with common emergency procedures and even consider taking a class from the Red Cross.

Flashlight with extra batteries

Even if you don’t think you need it, you never know, you may underestimate a hike time, or have an emergency that keeps you out later than you planned and in this case a flashlight is indispensable.

Sun protection and Sunglasses

Even if it is not hot and sunny, sunscreen and sunglasses are a must if you are outside all day, especially if you are not hiking in a forest or well shaded area.

Shelter

three person backpacking tent

A tent or a plan to stay covered. We plan to use one of these rain proof 2 person tents. Of course, you can use hammock tent. Looking for something that weighs about 7 lbs.

Extras

These items are not absolutely essential, although you (and I) may deem them essential, so it’s is up to you.

  • Tarp for under the tent
  • Sleeping pad
  • Sleeping bag
  • Plates and forks
  • Whistle- less tiring than yelling if you need help
  • Insect Repellent
  • Deck of cards
  • Watch
  • Trekking poles
  • Bear canister- to store food while you are sleeping or away from camp
  • Nylon cord- for hanging food and other uses
  • Lantern
  • Toilet Paper
  • Toothbrush/towel/toiletries/soap
  • Trip itinerary, one copy with a friend, the other in your car

Any other extras for activities you plan for the trip, rock climbing gear, swimsuit, fishing poles etc.

How to Pack Your Backpack – the Positioning of Items in the Backpack

In addition to the REI guide listed earlier, Outward Bound has some great ideas and diagrams for packing a backpack for hiking.

There are 4 ‘zones’ to your hiking backpack.

  • Zone 1: Top/lid – this is where you place items you need to be accessible. Maps, ID, food for the day, sunglasses, sunscreen, TP, light jacket and navigation gear. This zone is for medium weight items.
  • Zone 2: Top main compartment – This zone is for heavy items, stove, cooking gear, plates, utensils, toiletries tent, fuel (only if it is leak proof, otherwise store away from food and water, in an outside pocket) Extra water and heavy food items in the bear canister.
  • Zone 3: Sides / outer side compartments nd gear hooks or daisy chains – water bottles, first aid kit, trekking poles, rain cover, knife or multi tool, flashlight, and lighter food items.
  • Zone 4: Lower compartment/ bottom straps – sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, socks, light food items.

Looking for instructions on how to attach hiking poles to backpack? This tutorial gives you 4 ways to do that.

Packing Tips

  • While hiking, the weight of the pack should be centered between your shoulders.
  • Carry snacks, chap stick, sunglasses and other small items you need to access during the trip in the hip belt pockets, if your pack has them.
  • Women have a lower center of gravity. Pack heavier items lower in a woman’s pack. See diagram 5.2 here for a visual.
  • If you plan to use a hydration pouch, pack it first as it will be very difficult to insert it later.

A Final Word on Backpack Suspension

Internal frame backpacks with a decent suspension system are designed to carry weight on your hips and keep you comfortable even under a heavy load. If the weight feels like it is on your shoulders, the pack needs to be adjusted and may even be the wrong size.

Try adjusting the harness and straps until you feel the weight on your hips. The shoulder straps are only meant to stabilize the load and keep it upright.

Also, always secure the sternum strap that keeps the shoulder straps in place.

We hope you find out how to pack a hiking backpack guide useful and wish you many happy trails.

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