14 Packing Tips for the Perfect Backpack

Madison Dragna is a freelance writer, devoted yogi, and amateur photographer. Spending her winters in Colorado and her summers in travel, life in a backpack has become second nature for her. After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013, she found her calling as a writer. She writes for her personal blog, inanydirection.wordpress.com, and regularly contributes to AppalachianTrials.com.

I can’t help but laugh when I think of my first weeks spent thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Let’s face it, I was carrying too much weight; my pack weight in Georgia was 8 pounds heavier than in Maine. Ultimately, I learned to carry less stuff - and I'm here to share some of my pointers with you.

Below are packing tips to lighten your load and make your first miles easier and more enjoyable.

1. Know exactly how to pack your pack
If you are a backpacking novice, here are the basics: pack the heaviest gear closer to your back, lighter gear away from your back, frequently used items on the top, and less frequently used items on the bottom.

2. Get Organized
Before you leave, make a spreadsheet of your gear’s weight. This will give you a great estimate on how much your pack will weigh. Don’t forget to add in weight for food and water!

3. Do not put important things at the bottom of your pack
See Tip #1. If you’re expecting rain, the last thing you want to deal with is digging through your pack for your rain jacket.

4. Replace
Before leaving for your trip, handle each item of your gear and evaluate its weight. For example, I carried around a case for my glasses which was way heavier than the bubble wrap I replaced it with. Replace your camp pillow with your stuff sack of clothes. Replace your thick, heavy water bottle with a lighter plastic bottle or pouch. Replace that heavy ceramic filter with a mini squeeze. Ditch that heavy multi-tool for the smallest of Swiss Army knives. REPLACE!

5. Do not be afraid to ask for a shake down
Shake down (n) \ˈshāk-ˌdau̇n\ - The process in which a meticulous, experienced, or eager gearhead sifts through one’s entire backpack eliminating unnecessary or heavy pieces of gear while recommending lighter (but unlikely cheaper) replacements.

6. Use a trash compactor bag as a pack liner
Compared to normal trash bags, trash compactor bags are thicker and less likely to rip, which make them wonderful pack liners to protect against wet weather.

7. Reevaluate your first aid supplies
When I left for the trail, my first aid was overflowing. You don’t need 20 band-aids, ditch the bottles for your pills, and definitely stop carrying certain medications you can always wait to buy at the next town.

8. Plastic bags are your friend
I used zippered plastic bags for my food, electronics, first aid, wallet, trash, and other miscellaneous things. Replace your first aid sack or wallet with a plastic baggie. This will cut weight and make room.

9. If you haven’t used it in a week, get rid of it!
If you didn’t touch your compass/machete/book in a week’s time, you are simply carrying dead, useless weight! This also goes for weekend warriors. If you didn’t use a piece of gear for your weekend trip, consider leaving it behind next time.

10. Know the weight limit of your pack
Don’t use a lightweight backpack to carry a sixty pound load. You just won’t have a good time. Overloading a pack is very common for new thru-hikers. Eliminate this mistake with Tip #3.

11. Don't carry the entire guidebook
Within a week’s time, your guidebook will be tattered and water-stained. If you insist on carrying it, remember Tip #6.

12. Step away from the canned food
Canned food is ridiculously heavy and much is packed full of sodium. If you do insist on purchasing anything from a can, double bag the contents in zippered plastic bags and eat the first night out.

13. Say goodbye to your shovel/trowel
I can’t believe I brought this! Sure, my shovel came in handy a few times, but after I got Norovirus on the trail I ditched the bacteria infested utensil. Use your heel, a rock, or a stick.

14. Do not put your water bladder (if you choose to have one) in your pack
Stopping for water is a lot easier when you don’t have to struggle to retrieve your bladder from inside your pack every time. I placed my bladder between the body and “the brain” of my backpack.

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