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Backpacking 101: How To Pack a Backpack for Thru-Hiking

Learning how to pack a backpack for thru-hiking is essential for anyone who wants to complete a thru-hike. While it may seem simple, it takes thought and proper preparation.

When you’re thru-hiking, your backpack is your home. It’s essential to take the time to organize and pack it in a way that will make your life easier on the trail, both for comfort and overall organization.

We’ll discuss many of the most vital considerations when packing your backpack for a thru-hike to fit all your gear while keeping it balanced for correct wear over the thousands of trail miles.

By learning these tips, you’ll be able to hike easily and comfortably!

group hiking up to a peak with multiple different backpack types and loadout styles

Overall Pack Knowledge and Differing Preparation Steps

To prepare your backpack, you will want to understand which type of pack you have purchased and its benefits or limits.

The first thing anyone should do is get a liner inside their backpack, which will help keep things separate that can be wet versus must not get wet.

Most thru-hikers will choose not to carry a rain cover for their backpack as they tend to be bulky and limited in real protection of gear in the case of inclement weather conditions.

Understanding Your Pack and Its Benefits and Drawbacks

There are many types of backpack setups; each will have its benefits and drawbacks as to why you may or may not choose to select them.

People are very particular about their backpacks, but to get an ultralight base weight, you must look to frameless roll-top ultralight packs like Zpacks offers.

Roll Top vs. Brain

You will find these two main backpack types: the roll-top allows a snap, velcro, or similar attachment on both sides, and then you roll the bag top closed to keep water out and everything safe inside.

These lightweight packs have loads of spare room in the roll area, allowing for easy expansion for a more extended section of days on the trail or for carrying extra gear.

On the other hand, a backpack with a brain features a secondary area or bag that covers the top hole in the backpack.

This brain provides extra storage capacity and the ability to keep valuables safe from being jostled inside the backpack. Many choose to keep keys and other valuables within quick reach.

This pack is often used by people who need quick access to their gear without going through a whole unrolling and re-rolling of the top of the pack and is frequent on many backpacks.

Each type will feature a different way to optimize how you store gear, the roll-top often having fewer internal and external pockets than a backpack with a brain.

Choosing Framed vs. Frameless

A frame on a backpack helps to distribute the load onto your hips and to keep weight off your shoulders which can increase comfort but will typically increase the pack weight.

Many framed packs allow them to carry heavier loads over extended periods, which is very common with more budget gear, where weight can get much higher.

A frameless backpack will often have some form of padding in the back area to help with comfort and make a “soft frame” but will not have any stays or a metal frame.

The main advantage of a frameless pack is its much lighter weight, which can be significant on a long-distance hike where you are carrying your home on your back day in and day out.

The drawback to frameless pack types is how much more challenging it can be to keep the weight low enough to be comfortable without a frame which often leads to discomfort.

Understanding the Backpack Liter Volume

Backpack interior and pocket space is measured in liters, most backpacks will state they are xx liters in total space, but you should note this frequently includes the outer pockets and extension collar.

To get an accurate idea of how much space you have to work with, look for the main body volume in liters without the external pockets or extension collar. This is where you will have to pack all your gear for your thru-hike.

As a general guide, most people will use a 40 to 50-liter backpack while thru-hiking. This can often be much less for ultralight gear setups.

Conversely, it can also be a much more significant weight depending on the gear you need and if it is heavier or more bulky gear.

Many people new to backpacking will often bring too much gear and then, when dropping gear at hiker boxes, realize they have loads of free space available in their pack.

So it’s essential to perform shakedown hikes to get an idea of how you like to organize your gear and what you may or may not need on the trail.

When you understand how much gear you need and how you like to organize it, you can start looking at how different backpack features will work with your packing style.

Add a Waterproof Pack Liner

The liner has become the go-to option for thru-hikers looking to ensure their critical gear is dry.

While some will choose a slightly more expensive Nylaflume liner, you can get away with simple compactor bags.

This is used to hold the warmth and clothing in case storms or poor weather soak your bag; the gear in the liner will be dry.

This includes your backpacking quilt or sleeping bag, puffy jacket, and any secondary clothing.

Why Organization Matters In Your Backpack

Now that you understand the pack options well, you know more about what you chose. You need to think about the organization overall; no one wants to spend time digging for the perfect item.

So focusing on baseline organization is something everyone will want to think about, ensuring the weight is appropriately distributed across the body and your comfort when wearing your pack.

Organize for Quick Accessibility

When organizing items in your pack, you need to think about what you will need the most frequently and the less often, the lower within your backpack that item should be.

This is why people will pack their dry camp gear and backpacking quilts at the bottom of their packs, and they need to have everything else set up long before they take out this gear.

With your food, though, you’ll need to get into this frequently throughout the day, so it is one of the more accessible areas like the top of a roll-top, or many will place daily snacks and meals in the brain itself.

Other items like your first-aid kit or tent poles can be stored further down or outside low in a front pocket as you will not need them as frequently.

Distributing Item Weight

While it may seem simple just to add everything to your pack and get going, you do want to pay attention to how the weight is distributed in your body.

If you carry a lot of weight in your pack, it can pull you backward and make it challenging to keep your balance. So, weight distribution, or carrying heavier items closer to your body’s center of gravity when possible, is essential.

This includes placing the heaviest items like food and bear canisters close to the back panel near your body to help carry them with less effort.

Having a reasonable frame can help to ensure weight is carried on your hips is also an excellent way to help distribute the load and make it feel lighter on your body as you carry it for long periods.

Managing Your Comfort

The last part is managing overall comfortability with your pack on, and this will be a mix of the item weight above and having a correctly fitted pack where the shoulder straps and hip belt are not too tight or loose but distribute the weight how you need it.

If your pack is uncomfortable, you will be less likely to want to wear it, which can cause all sorts of problems on a long hike.

So make sure to get a few shakedown hikes to perfect this before you attempt any thru-hike.

How To Organize Your Gear

Getting all your gear inside your pack and matching the above needs means you need to have a reliable way to pack your gear. This may require some tailored organization based on what gear you own.

The simplest way is to take everything out of your gear closet or backpacking pack and lay it all out on the ground, and this will let you take it all in visually and start to assemble the puzzle of adding it into your pack.

Lay out All of Your Backpacking Gear

This is the customary “Instagram” image many uses to showcase all their gear before their thru-hikes, but it is a reliable method to put out all your gear and check out what you have and how it will all fit.

Bottom of Your Pack Items

These are typically the items you will not need all day long, the items you need in camp but not during the day of hiking effort generally.

The most typical items that are included in this gear would be:

  • Backpacking Quilt / Sleeping Bag
  • Hammock Underquilt / Sleeping Pad
  • Sleep Clothes
  • Additional Clothing

While not heavy, it helps you build up the base of your pack and is the best place to avoid being drenched in water when upright.

Middle of Your Pack Items

The heaviest gear and items should be kept as it is the closest to your center of gravity, making it easier to carry without causing a loss in balance.

If you have issues with falling backward or losing balance frequently, this section isnt managed completely and organized the best it could be.

Items in the middle of your backpack should include:

  • Bear Canister (When required, typically stored inside or on top of the pack)
  • Food
  • Water (If using a bladder)
  • Shelter & Tent Body

As you can see this is a lot of weight when fully geard up for a hike, eaach can easily weigh over 10-15 pounds alone when carried.

Top of Your Pack Items

The most accessible gear is typically stored here as you will need it more frequently than anything else; this also includes the area known as the “brain,” which is a small pouch or pocket on the top of the pack that is easy to access.

You will also find gear loops on the outside of this area which is how you can attach gear like hiking poles, water filters, and other long and thin items.

The top section typically has these items:

  • First Aid Kit & Medications
  • Multi-Tool or Knife
  • Sunscreen & Bug Repellent
  • Headlamp & Spare Batteries
  • Hiking Maps & Permit
  • Toiletries Bag ( Toothbrush, Toilet Paper, Trowel)
  • Bear Spray (If Required)
  • Emergency Whistle & Mirror

This area is more about the items you may need throughout the day, so this gear will vary tremendously per hiker.

The above are meant to help you think about what you may need as you are packing your gear.

Additional Areas (Each Pack May or May Not Have)

Almost all backpacks feature some form of external pockets that can assist you in carrying extra gear, finding the perfect place for you to store items of need is paramount to maximum enjoyment.

Though you need to keep in mind since exterior pockets are not waterproof you need to use them for items that can get wet or do not mind getting wet.

Backpack Brain

On the top of many backpacks, you will find a small zippered area that is typically mesh on the inside, this is how the backpack gets its name as it acts like another area to store things.

The typical items stored in here are:

  • Hiking Permit
  • Bear Canister Key (If Required)
  • Lip Balm & sunscreen
  • Bug Repellent
  • Hair Ties & Bandana
  • Headlamp
  • Spare Batteries
  • Sunglasses
  • Cash / House Key

This is a great place to store things you may need quick access too but do not want stored in your pockets.

Hydration Bladder Compartment (If Included)

Some backpacks will have a specific area to store a hydration bladder, and this is great for easy access to water as well as having the hose ran over your shoulder.

This compartment is typically located on the inside back of the pack and has a hook system to hang the water and keep it from shifting too much.

Hip Belt Pocket(s)

These are perfect for snacks and quick-use items like a small point-and-shoot camera or your cell phone.

I always store my camera and headphones here so I can quickly and easily take pictures or switch on the tunes when my mind needs them.

Side Pockets

Almost all backpacks will come with some form of side water bottle pocket, and this is how you can carry extra water on long days or hot days where you may need more than what you can carry in your hydration bladder.

I also store my hiking poles, or also with a free-standing tent, and you could store tent poles in the side pockets when I am not using them. This keeps them from flailing around and getting caught on things.

Sleeping Bag Compartment

Some backpacks come with a bottom sleeping bag compartment that separates your sleeping gear from the rest of your gear.

This is also a great place to put extra gear like a stove, fuel, and cookware as it keeps the weight low and close to your center of gravity.

Front Pouch

The multi-purpose and best area of the pack for on-the-go storage, the front pouch is excellent for storing lightweight and quick-access gear.

This is how I store my poop kit, rain jacket and pants, extra layers, gloves, hat, and snacks so they are easily accessible.

I also keep my water filter in here, a small first-aid kit, and some hand sanitizer.

This pouch is just amazing for what it can carry, and nearly everyone you hike with may use it differently. Thats the best part of this pouch.

Pack Loops and Lash-On Points

Additionally there are many lash-on points and loops located all over the backpack that you can use to attach gear.

This is how many will carry their trekking poles to keep the side pockets free for water bottles.

In addition, this is an excellent place to store an ice axe when you are out on mountains with snow and ice.

Helpful Visualization: How to Pack a 50L Backpack

Using Compression Straps

When packing your backpack, there are a few key ways to ensure you are using all the available space and not overpacking your bag.

Using compression straps is one of the best ways to do this. These straps can be found on the side of most backpacks and run vertically along the front or back in some cases.

What compression straps do is they cinch down on gear to compress it and make it smaller. This will also help keep your gear from shifting too much in your backpack.

Another great way to use compression straps if you have extra long sleeping pads or tents is to run the strap over the top of the pack and clip/buckle it to the bottom, and this will keep the gear from hitting you in the back of the head while walking.

Strapping Gear Outside of Your Pack

You may want to strap on the outside of your pack when you have more bulky items like a bear canister or extra gear.

By using the daisy chains, loops, and lash-on points, you can easily attach gear to the outside of your backpack.

Just ensure that whatever you are strapping on is secure and will not fall off and get lost. You may use some extra cord or line to create a more secure attachment point.

When strapping gear to the outside of your pack, make sure it will not get caught on things or swing around and hit you; this could cause serious injury.

Final Thoughts on Packing a Backpack For a Thru-Hike

When all these factors are considered, you will be able to more efficiently pack your backpack for a thru-hike, ensuring you have everything you need while not carrying any excess weight.

This will help make your hike much more comfortable and enjoyable overall. So take the time to plan out how you will pack everything before heading out on your next big adventure.

While it may seem inconsequential, packing your pack is a skill that grows more each trek you take, and with a little knowledge, you can make sure you are as comfortable and prepared as possible.

Packing your backpack may not be the most exciting part of preparing for a thru-hike, but by following these simple steps, you can be sure you have everything you need and nothing you don’t.

If you would like to look at my best thru-hiking backpack options, I have my favorites here, and it should help you to make an informed decision if you are still in the decision stage.

Thanks for reading, and happy trails!

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