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Here's my current setup.

  • First I put my earthpad in my pack, using it like a cylinder to provide cushion and make my pack stay upright.
  • Then I place a plastic bag within the earthpad for waterproofing (I hike in the tropics).
  • Inside the plastic lining, at the bottom I put my sleeping bag and campsite clothes.

  • I use the first-in-last-out method wherein the last items that i will use are at the bottom.

However its takes a lot of time and effort if I need to take out an item at the bottom or at the middle and repacking everything back. Sometimes I get tired I just stash everything inside my pack.

So how do you keep your backpack stuff organized and keep your sanity? Am I doing something wrong?

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I have backpacks with zippers at the bottom. Some have long zippers at the side so you can reach everything in the mid too. You may have to re-organise the earthpad then but I also didn't understand why you need it standing as a cylinder. Never happened to me that the stuff isn't saying upright, my backpack is full. – Wills Jan 23 '14 at 5:45
@bashophil That could be my problem as my backpack doesnt have zippers at the bottom/sides. My setup is similar to this (not my pic). Helps make my pack upright and protect the sides from sharp objects. Another reason is its too big to tie it outside my pack. – outdoornix Jan 23 '14 at 6:32
There really isn't a generic answer to this. Different styles of packs are different. For example, ultralight packs are basically just a big sack, while heavier packs have frames and usually compartments. Climbing packs are designed so that the outside has nothing that will stick out or catch on anything, but hiking packs often have pockets. – Ben Crowell Jan 23 '14 at 15:01
@BenCrowell Indeed. It helps to know what other backpackers are doing. – outdoornix Jan 28 '14 at 1:39

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I have always viewed packing of backpack in terms of:

  • Ease of access.
  • Distribution of weight to prevent unwanted strain.

Distribution of weight is a very important aspect that you have to consider while trekking for a longer duration. Ideally, the heavier things should be closer to your body and the lighter ones away from you. The logic being, the center of gravity will shift awkwardly away from your body if the heavier stuff is too far away from your body.

Having said that, ease of access is also important. I have learnt over the years that there is no right way to pack to meet all your criteria. One thing that I do to allow for better organisation is:

  • Use plastic bags to compartmentalize your stuff. Usually trekking bags have one big compartment and you are forced to stuff everything into it.
  • Group similar items together and keep them at one place. Eg: All my electronic stuff go into one pouch. All my toiletries go in together into a plastic cover. Similarly, all your warm clothes can go into one plastic bag, your normal clothes into another and so on.
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For every item, I weigh up the regularity of use, vs the urgency of use. For example, my kettle and mug and lunch are always right at the top. My medkit, raincoat, light jersey, headlamp and pocket knife are in the side pockets or top pocket. Anything I will only use at camp is at the bottom (so generally, my camp clothing, sleeping stuff, toiletries, etc) Beyond that, I kinda pack things that get used together always, in individual packets, which makes jamming them back in very easy, and you never have to root around in there.

Some examples:
- Clothing is in a bin liner, at bottom of bag, with air sucked out of it, and then molded into some sort of artistic shape that fits nicely
- Each meal gets its own jiffybag, with all the exact ingredients I'll use, no more, no less
- Cooking utensils sit together in a bag (stove, pot, matches/sparker, spork)
- Often have a third/fourth 1-litre water bottle balancing on top, which is for noodles/tea
- I have a packet of snacks (chocolate slabs, nuts, dried fruit, whatever) which I delve into at each stop to replenish my pockets :)

This means that during the walk, I only ever unpack at most the top third/quarter of my pack, when I stop for lunch. If I need to stop to grab a raincoat, firstaid kit, camera, etc, its all in a side pocket. Water is obviously available without stopping :)

Once I'm at camp, then I unpack all the individual packets anyway, and repack in the morning, making sure the top items are the next meals, usually in order even (if I'm not the last one awake, as usual!)

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+1 for regularity vs urgency. You'll not use a med kit often (hopefully), but if you do, it better not be buried at the bottom beneath all your other stuff... – fgysin Oct 6 at 9:30

When I pack my backpack in the morning, I sort everything into two categories:

  • Things I will (almost) certainly not need before I set up camp again (sleeping bag, tent, kitchen, most food, etc.)
  • Things I might or certainly will need before I set up camp again.

Usually, the two categories don't change. The only item that changes is the items I need for fording rivers, as I'm sometimes quite sure that I won't need to ford any; although I've been wrong there at times. I do not put my things in plastic bags¹. I used to, but for optimal packing efficiency, it is much better to pack everything separately as much as possible; 10 packages of hard tack can be stuffed into otherwise empty corners (nature abhors a vacuum!) much better than a plastic bag with 10 packages of hard tack.. In practice, this means I use my food (packages of hard tacks, dried meals, breakfast food) to fill the areas that remain unused after packing bulky items like my sleeping bag and kitchen (those go near the bottom, as I don't cook for lunch). Overall, this works very well.

In the evening then, when setting up camp, I open my backpack at the bottom — and immediately reach my tent, kitchen, sleeping bag, etc.

Note that I have not hiked in bear country, so I might need to make some adaptations when I do.

¹Except things like sugar, oats, dried fruits, that I put in doubly-layered ziploc bags

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You have mentioned that you don't put your stuff in plastic bags(anymore) but haven't really specified why. Can you elaborate on this? – Unsung Jan 23 '14 at 10:23
I did? Immediately after I'm writing but for optimal packing efficiency, it is much better to pack everything separately as much as possible. I shall elaborate a bit more. – gerrit Jan 23 '14 at 11:02
Okay. It didn't link up immediately to the statement of not using plastic bags. Or maybe I didn't read it well enough. :) – Unsung Jan 23 '14 at 11:04

Stuff is first put into plastic bags according to type. I use different coloured carrier bags so I can tell what is in each bag easily. There may be bags for small things within a larger bag.

The pack is fully waterproof and only has an opening at the top.

First goes in clothes. Underwear and socks. (For a soft landing when I drop the bag on the ground.) A different bag for dirty clothes. If I am walking in the sun two wet socks will often be attached to the outside of the pack to dry. If I am walking where there aren't many people I will also attach wet underwear to the pack.

Next goes in hard food such as pasta (vermicelli/cheveux d'ange cooks fastest), couscous, porridge etc. Emergency soya etc. Then a cooking stove (MSR Whisperlight), which goes inside a pan. The pan will be in its lid wrapped in their own plastic bag. Inside the MSR Whisperlite's bag will be a lighter and the pan handle.

Next there are big things, the tent and sleeping bag. Between these, near my back will be the bottle of petrol.

Heavy maps and maybe a guide book go in a pocket inside the backpack which puts them near my back. They will stay in there all the time.

I then push in a silk sleeping bag liner and a NeoAir mattress.

Near the top will go fresh and soft food. Like bread and bananas/apples etc. This is for easy access for a snack. Heavy stuff at the top and near the back. Softer food the highest.

On top will be a waterproof coat.

The lid of my backpack has two pockets, one inside, a larger one outside. In the inside pocket goes my passport, medical kit, toilet paper, toiletries and other small things. In the outside pocket goes my head-torch, GPS (only used in emergencies), camera accessories and waterproof trousers.

On the outside of the backpack will be the sponge mat (=earthmat), and one or two water bottles. These are 2pint plastic milk bottles with hoops that go through the straps. One at either side, then the mat horizontally behind the backpack, or one on one side and the mat vertically on the other side. (Sometimes one bottle may be used in an emergency inside the tent. When I get to a shop I will throw it away and buy another bottle of milk.) If in Europe I may also have a baguette on the outside of the pack, maybe in the mat.

(I have a NeoAir for inside the tent, and a sponge mat (=earthmat) for sitting on while resting and then putting underneath the tent as a protector.)

If it's raining and I put on my waterproofs this makes space for the camera if necessary.

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First-in = Last-out.

In order:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Those three more or less together, the heavier pieces closer to the back
    • Sleeping pad (if fits in the backpack)
    • Camp clothes
    • Tent
  • Camp stuff, mostly:
    • Food (Except for day food)
    • Kitchen
    • Book
  • Depending on the weather
    • Extra day clothes if any
    • Rain shell if any

Stuff that need to be accessible in top/side pockets:

  • Headlamp, knife, sunglasses, water purification system
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Map

I waterproof each element that needs it instead of the whole thing: the sleeping bag is in one, the clothes in another, the day clothes possibly in a small pouch. Food is usually wrapped on its own (otherwise, ziplocks), books go in ziplocks, map is either plastified or in a flat transparent thing, the rest does not need water proofing.

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Assuming that you have the right kind of a backpack according to your requirements.

First, you need to separate things that you need frequently and things you'll need less often. The way I camp/trek and plan things, I am okay to pack everything all over again in the morning.

Generally, it is best suited to pack lighter items in the bottom of the pack and heavier stuff toward the top, the idea is to keep heavier stuff closer to your back and not on bum. This keeps your center of gravity relatively high. Center of gravity plays a very important role in balancing your body when in motion. Higher Center of gravity tends to make it easy to haul the backpack easily while your performance with balance is hampered. Women naturally have a lower center of gravity, so the women I know and trek with, they pack heavier stuff at the bottom, that further increases their stability.

Remember, The lower your center of gravity is , the easier it is to keep yourself balanced, pack feels heavier. The higher your center of gravity is, the easier it is to haul the pack but chances are more to dwell/tip off or go off-balance.

  • If your pack doesn't have a separate space for sleeping bag, keep it at the bottom, usually you'll only need it after you are done for the day. So extra Clothing and your sleeping bag can go lower sections of the backpack.
  • Heavier items like water bottles, tins, food and fuel up against the pack’s back panel, and not in the front. If you place the heavy items on the outer sections of the backpack, you will experience that the pack constantly putting you off-balance, leaning back.
  • Importantly, keep the Headlamp, Flashlight, Medical Kit (Um, wait, you do carry these, right?) always handy, i.e. upper most sections of the pack.
  • Unimportant things like Jellys, Bars you can keep in the top outer section of the pack.
  • A well-folded Garbage pack can find its place in the side-pouches if there are any.

So, order of packing:

  1. Sleeping bag
  2. Extra Clothes
  3. Food (Heavy meal)
  4. eat-on-the-go Food for next day (Lighter)
  5. Liquid items (Water, juices, fuel bottles/can)
  6. Hydration pack (closer to the back)
  7. eat-on-the-go food for today (Lighter)
  8. Electronic equipment like portable chargers, camera lenses
  9. Medical Kit, Headlamp, Flashlight.
  10. Rain Cover (If it is not in a small pouch compartment at the bottom on the backpack)
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