How to Pack a Hiking Backpack or Bugout Bag

Believe it or not, there is a correct way to load a backpack; something most hikers find out the hard way while suffering from all sorts of uncomfortable backpack related pains out on the trail.

Backpack with Gear

The first thing you should consider when packing a bug out bag, hiking pack, or any bag that you’re going to be carrying for any length of time is pack weight. While it’s tempting to cram your pack full of every piece of gear you can get your hands on; once out on the trail, you’re going to realize the importance of light hiking quickly.

Considering Pack Weight

Before selecting a single piece of gear for your bag, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much weight can I realistically carry? Just because you can strap it on your back for a few minutes, doesn’t mean you can carry it for hours upon hours through rough and unforgiving terrain.
  • Is the gear essential to my survival? If it isn’t something that’s essential to your ultimate survival while out on the trail, now is the time to either ditch it, or somehow justify the extra weight in your pack.
  • Is there a lighter alternative? When buying new gear, weight should be a significant consideration. If it’s going into a backpack, you better make sure there’s not a lighter alternative.
  • Can your gear be used for multiple tasks? Any piece of equipment that can perform double duty is a piece of gear that will help lighten your load. Look for things that serve more than one purpose.

How to Pack your Backpack for Comfort and Safety

Yes, there is a correct way to pack your bag. While some of the rules are flexible and will depend on your unique needs, there are a couple of rules of thumb you should keep in mind.

Instructions on how to pack a backpack

The Bottom of the Bag

The bottom of the bag is usually reserved for items that you don’t need to get at quickly. When packing my bag, I usually reserve this space for things like my tent, and my sleeping bag; gear that I’ll pull out once I’ve made it to camp. Most hiking packs have an area at the bottom of the bag for your sleeping bag. It’s a good idea to keep your sleeping bag separated from heavier gear, because compressing some bags can cause damage to the bag, resulting in a loss of warmth.

Some bags also have a bottom compartment specifically designed for your tent or shelter; this can be especially helpful during bad weather. The last thing you want to do in a rainstorm is unpack your entire bag just to get to your tent.

The Middle of the Bag

The heaviest gear should be close to your back and should be packed somewhere near the middle of the backpack (near your belt line). Packing the gear into this area helps bring down your center of gravity, making it easier to walk in rough terrain. This really is a rule that should not be overlooked, because an unbalanced pack can cause you to easily fall while walking on steep terrain.

The Top of the Bag

The top of the backpack should be filled with light items and the gear that you will need the most. I usually reserve the top of the bag, and the outside pockets for things like rain gear, water filters, water bottles, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellant, and anything that you’re going to be grabbing a lot.

Just make sure you don’t overload the top of the bag, which could cause you to become top heavy and make hiking on rough terrain even more dangerous.

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  1. I have an Osprey Atmos the pack it great to wear and well worth the money. I sweat like a pig in an oven, this pack keep the weight off your back.

  2. a hint when packing is to have a system of bags inside of your main bag you can use dry sacks but ziploc storage bags work just as well to keep everything dry if it starts raining and it keeps everything organized

    • I agree with ziploc bags as a good solution to keeping key things dry and organized — for example, separate each day’s clothing change items (socks, underwear, undershirt, etc.) in gallon ziploc bags by day. As you find a consistent way you like to pack you’ll be able to find items easily and pull them out without upsetting everything else in the bag. Same system works for food, and anything else you use in portions. It even gives you a bag to put trash from the meal after eating or dirty clothes in after changing without soiling other items in your pack. Gives redundancy too, as you can always consolidate bags if one fails.

  3. Amazon has folding solar panels that are cool for boogie bags. But you’ll also want some sort of energy storage, and that can get heavy. Also, I like the Mossad backpack; it has plenty of room and can be carried in multiple ways.

  4. FYI…Packing alchol preps or hand whipes from rib joints,are a great aid in starting a fire. Also to sooth bug bites!

  5. Hi, has anyone else folded the tent up with the sleeping bag inside? I lay out the bag on the floor. Fold the tent on top as usual and fold and roll. Bag stays dry.

    If I take extra shoes or boots, socks and underware goes inside them.

    I’m right handed so my knife sheath is attached to the left pack strap on the front, upside down….guess it’s an Army thing, but it’s handy. Wearing it on my leg, I have to bend to get it, if it’s on my side or hip, the pack and load bearing equipment is in the way. It’s also out of the way if you repel.

    • Depends on the material and if the tent is wet or damp as the water can be pushed through the material once it gets rolled (been there, done that). A wet bag is simply uncomfortable and could become deadly if too cold.
      I have rolled up gear inside a tent when I have had to quickly evacuate an area in fear of flash flooding, but to me it is not worth it to do as a regular practice.

      • Cut your tent weight and get a Bivy Bag. No poles and you can store your sleeping bag in it. I always have a Bivy Bag in my packs.

  6. how bout ya pack stuff in the order of need, like rain gear on top, then 1st aid. set your sleeping bag up top cuz ya dont wanna set it down in water
    camp food/cooking stuff in the bottom
    fire starters in o/s pocket

  7. If you’re not colored-blind, I suggest using color-coded sb-bags within your pack. e.g. blue for water supplies/filters, yellow for fire-starting gear, red for first-aid, green for mess kits & food, etc. When digging deep into your pack to find something, it’s a bit easier to find (e.g. your first-aid kit, instead of you mess kit) when you need to.
    Also, expand on the trash bag for sleeping bag program. (e.g. if ALL of your sub-bags are water-tight, it not only protects the contents, but can ALSO cause your pack to FLOAT (instead of sink) when crossing rivers/lake/streams. <– I learned this little trick in the Army. 50lbs of wet-anchor, versus 50lbs of canoe-like buoyancy.
    Cammo sub-bags: Forget 'em!!! Otherwise, you WILL forget them later… I've seen some campers use cammo binoculars, cammo GPSs, cammo handheld radios, etc. When it's time to break camp and depart, those cammo things tend to get overlooked and left behind.



    • Just a tip on the garbage bag thing. Use heavy duty construction grade trash bags (only adds a bit of bulk) also if you are planning on crossing alot of water, pack a childs pool ring (very small) and it can be inflated with breath, pack placed in one of the construction trash bags (goosenecked) and placed on top of pool ring and you can swim almost any amount of weight across a river. PS the pool ring can double as a solar cooker with the addition of a space blanket and a turkey sized cooking bag and dark anodized camp kit. I know it adds weight but if your water filter runs out or you can’t light a fire, it will get you pasturized water and emergency cooking ability.

  8. i put a small LED light attached inside my pack, so when I look for something inside, I have a ready light. Theres plenty of cheap china ziplock wannabes, it help keep stuff dry. extra candles in d first aid kit cum sewing kit helps in some situation, i carry a citronella type to keep bugs away.

    • I do this as well for all of my packs. I really like the Photon Micro light, they come in different colors, and I use the RED lights for this as they do not detract from your night vision. The GREEN lights are awesome for map reading and for allowing night vision without compromising the depth perception.

  9. I got several modular kits I put together depending on where I am going to teach or practice, and the amount of hardship I want to put on myself for practice reasons. for impromptu backpack searches in darkness I always bring a Beta Light.. It got no moving parts and works uninterrupted for up to 20 years, after which you send it to any tritium recycling facility.. and buy a new one.

    Everything I got is put in SeaToSummit waterproof bags and positioned according to the order of unpacking and weight. Naturally I colorcoded the bags according to what group of item it is. Easy to pack, unpack and repack. My experience tells me that if its not easy and foolproof you will sooner or later cut corners repacking your stuff when you are tired, hurting or busy. This will lead to confusion that will reduce your gear functionality and reduce your mood even more. When you have made your packing list, look at it again and for each item imagine how often you expect to use it. When your bushcraft and survival skills are honed and ready you will agree with me that the more you know, the less you have to carry.

    • That is so very true. I slowly purchased these bags in a variety of colors for items. they are a bit pricy at first though. I still recommend that you add a few construction grade bags in the bottom of each so that if you get a hole or it wears through then you are OK.

  10. Oh yeah, very nice and sweet info. I was always wondering what in the hell do those backpackers pack in their huge rucksasks. I’d follow just the basics. first 5 and then 10 C’s of survivability and that’s it.

  11. I can’t but to read the copy right at the bottom of the page.I personally put my survival pack together 30 some odd years ago at the age of 15 when I picked up and walked a way from home over the years I’ve added and culled it to fit me as an individual .I hear about the 5-10 c’s this and that. keeping everything dry.and can’t help but wonder where this people are coming from.The contents of my bag are in separate component only as to have a mental note to whats in the bag.color coded “hua’ I do not want to be seen every thing is camo or green ,black ,brown.and I’ve never left any thing behind…???? the pack it self is fairly heavy 65 some odd pounds.But it’s based on only 4 things WATER,FIRE,FOOD,SHELTER..And at 65 lbs it dose float the resonant floods taught me this upwards of 6 hrs.It was one of the few things salvageable And one of the few thing that I went back after.The contents were wet but undamaged .Tried true and tested with 30 years of experience….Government official tried to stop me from going after the one thing I knew could keep me alive .SO with night fall and my buddy’s boat I retrieved the only piece of my life that has endured to this day.

  12. And a note to all those who read.The creatures of this world are predictable.But mother earth can sweep it all away in a brief moment.Sense that one moment I’ve lost it all all the prep as you all call it.just gone. the lord took my sweetheart my family and gov. took my job ……..but the survival bag and I endure…….

    • Sounds like you are another Job. Me and my family have had very tough times. My big feet is that what’s left of my family, they are all aging and might die before everything happens. And I don’t have the heart or health to do this alone. I’ve been prepping for so long. But I can’t do it alone :’(

  13. Anyone have any tips on how to pack a “day bag” for a family of 4 (one is 8 and one is 4 mos., so diapers, wipes, bibs, bottles, etc. hafta fit) and have 3 hounds that go with us…

    • It’s been a number of years as the kids are grown and on their own…
      In addition to water, rain gear, snack foods etc., you or the spouse need to carry the baby stuff, split duplicate items between you to lessen the load for one.
      The 8 year old should carry their own pack with water, rain gear and a toy or game to keep from getting bored.
      My Lab has its own pack with collapsible bowl(s), toy, food and 1 liter water bags to balance on either side, but that does not work so well for small dogs. If a small dog, treat like the baby.

  14. I have compiled over the last roughly 30 years an amaglomated survival bag that has served me well. There are a lot of good tips that all can learn from and some tips that are just not worth keepin in my personal oppinion.
    those of you who have little or no experiance in the arts of survival, camping and or hunting would do fine in following thesetips from the orriginal post

  15. Former Mtn guide and infantryman.
    Pack as light as possible and then pack even lighter.

    As far as where the majority of the weight should go, the old school tip of packing it low, especially in an external frame pack, puts the extra leverage on one’s shoulders. That’s bad. I advise the heaviest weight in an external frame pack to be above one’s hips and close to the back. On uneven terrain (which is not optimal for an external fr pack) weight a little low. On nice, flat trails, the weight higher allows more load to your hips, and that is good. Follow? I recommend internal frame packs, and on the business of heat and sweat I advise you will suffer less with a better balanced load. My analogy is of a prize fighter on your back trying to throw you down every few steps versus a well balanced load that you can manage best.
    I used to fit packs on customers at REI, and proper fit and then proper wearing of a pack is critical. You’d be surprised at the benefit of wearing the sternum strap in the right place, the hip belt at the correct angle (common error) and the load lifters at the shoulder correctly operated.
    Organize your load for comfort, not convenience, if it is a heavy load. Make sense?
    Proper footwear, no cotton in most climates, excellent rain gear if available. That is my advice. Best wishes.

  16. If its one thing i learned from all the P.C.I.’s ive done with my time in the Army is pack your pack and when all is said and done dump it out and repack it then when thats all done dump it out and repack it I personally use a 50L pack i got from R.E.I. And a 3 day aftermarket assault pack i dont use a tent i use a poncho and a woobie depending on temperature of course a good sleep system is key but sometimes you just need to “embrace the suck” but i digress its all up to the individual and his/her needs for outdoor comfort i truly wish everything just breaks down and we all go back to the hunter gatherer tribe mentality good bush craft is sadly lacking in todays society but if 3/4ths of the population cant handle a situation that extreme that just means theres more supplies for those of us who can

  17. Great advice. I’ve seen people hiking with a newborn and with little to no water in the middle of the day. And some kind of gym clothing on lol. People don’t realize just how much a simple hike a few miles can turn ugly real quick. If I’m out hiking I always carry at least two bottles of water with me one. On the way there and one on the way back. If I know it will be longer I’ll take more gear.

  18. I agree with Ziploc bags as a good solution to keeping key things dry and organized — for example, separate each day’s clothing change items (socks, underwear, undershirt, etc.) in gallon Ziploc bags by day. As you find a consistent way you like to pack you’ll be able to find items easily and pull them out without upsetting everything else in the bag. The same system works for food and anything else you use in portions. It even gives you a bag to put trash from the meal after eating or dirty clothes in after changing without soiling other items in your pack. Gives redundancy too, as you can always consolidate bags if one fails.

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