Video: How to Pack a Backpack

By Michael Lanza

Wonder why I’m smiling in the above photo? Well, sure, two friends and I were hiking the incredibly scenic Besseggen Ridge in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park; that had something to do with it. But the other big factor was that I was comfortable—and how well my pack carried had a lot to do with that. And how I loaded it greatly affected how well it carried on my back. In this four-minute video, I’ll show you how to properly load a backpack to make your backpacking trips much more enjoyable.

I have refined my method for loading my backpack over more than three decades of backpacking and more than a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear—including the 10 years I spent as Backpacker magazine’s lead gear reviewer and even longer running this blog. In the four-minute video below, I will demonstrate how to pack all of your stuff into your backpack in the most efficient way and to maximize your comfort on the trail.

If you have not been using good technique when loading your backpack, you may be surprised at what a difference it makes. But even if you have been following what you understand to be the recommended way to load a pack, you might learn some new tricks from this video.

There are two basic goals when loading a backpack:

1. Organize it so that the items you want to get to quickly while on the trail are readily accessible;

2. Balance and distribute the weight in the pack to maximize your comfort.

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Watch the video below to see me demonstrate how to properly load a backpack.

Don’t miss the comments section below, where I have a good exchange of questions and answers with some readers, and please type in your own questions or suggestions.

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See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs,” and all reviews of backpacks and backpacking gear at The Big Outside, plus “5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack,” which includes instructions on how to measure your torso and properly fit a backpack, and “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.

And find all gear reviews organized by categories and expert tips on buying gear at the Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.

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11 thoughts on “Video: How to Pack a Backpack”

  1. Awesome “How to Pack” video- just got a nice new Osprey pack for my birthday and was puzzling how to carry my tent without straps on the bottom. Break the tent up into separate components! Makes you feel like a dummy for not thinking of that yourself! Thanks, Michael

    • Thanks, William, I’m glad you learned something from this video. I don’t think not knowing something makes anyone a dummy. I can remember when I first learned to separate tent components to pack them up and I hope I wasn’t a dummy then (or maybe I was, but for other reasons), I just had less experience. Enjoy your new Osprey pack!

  2. I enjoyed the video. Just moved to Washington and need to organize and update my backpacks. Thank you for the information and direction.

    I keep looking at my bear cache, wondering what to do with it. Read where one hiker painted his yellow and left it on the ground. He could always find it because of the color. Good idea???

    • I’m glad my video was helpful, Helen. Check out my review of “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs.

      As for painting your bear canister yellow, I suppose that or orange would help make it easier to relocate the morning after you’ve stashed it some distance from your tent. I like to be careful to find a spot where a bear cannot easily roll the canister away, and to look around that spot closely so I remember it in the morning.

      Good luck and keep in touch.

  3. Good video & it seems as though I follow the same approach. I do have one question for you though. I stuff my sleeping bag and tent in the bottom but without their stuff sacks. To stuff sack or not…just a personal preference?

    • Hey Darren, thanks for that question. I’m getting good questions on this topic. I always stuff my bag inside a compression sack, and it’s usually a roll-top dry sack, for a few reasons. First, it’s the best way to really compress your bag. Second, if my pack gets soaked (drenching rain, falling in a river, hydration bladder leaking, all have happened to me), at least my bag will stay dry. Third, I think the sack gives your bag’s shell a little better protection from snagging and tearing when transferring it in and out of the backpack–a minor concern, but many bag shells are made with thin material, and good bags aren’t cheap.

  4. When carrying a bear canister, where (and how)would you place it in the pack? Toward the bottom above the sleeping bag? More towards the top of the pack just below the shoulder blades? Would you store it vertically and stuff around it, or just store horizontally across the pack? This is my first year going places that require them, and I can’t find an answer.

    • Good question, Rickard. A large backpack (~60-liter and bigger) is usually wide enough to lower the bear canister inside horizontally, which is the most efficient way to pack it. Many smaller packs are not wide enough, and then your only option is to insert the canister vertically and stuff items around it as well as you can. The one advantage of inserting it vertically is that the top of it will be near the top of your pack, so you can easily access snack or lunch food that’s in the canister.

      If you pack the canister horizontally, place it roughly halfway down in the backpack, in the middle of your back; so probably atop your sleeping bag, tent, and clothing stuff sack. If it’s horizontal, you’re probably not taking it out until you’re in camp, so it should contain only food that you don’t need to access during the day. (You don’t have to keep all of your food in the canister when you’re hiking.) You’ll want to keep daytime/lunch/snack food outside the canister to have it handy, so keep in mind that food won’t actually fill the canister every day on the trail; there will be extra space inside it. Then I fill that canister space with other stuff, like my clothing stuff sack, rather than having a half-full canister.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for posting this – just what I needed to see. Was wondering if you happen to know the total weight of this particular pack-up? Also, would you be able to provide a list of all the items packed, please? I did not see things such as a poop trowel, t.p., clothing (other than jackets), water bottle (saw the filtration system), etc. Was this a setup for a single overnight trip? If so, how would this change for multiple nights but also keeping total carrying weight on the radar?


    • Hi Carl, good questions. I shot this video toward the end of a four-day, 34-mile backpacking trip with my family on the Rockwall Trail in Canada’s Kootenay National Park. While I had started out with about 50 pounds (carrying much of my family’s gear and food), a lot of the food had been consumed before I shot this video. But to answer your questions, see this tag, which links all stories I’ve posted that are related to gear I carry backpacking (including one that provides my suggested backpacking checklist):

      I do virtually always carry a water bottle for convenience in camp and for harvesting water from a calm pool, although the bottle is often empty on the trail because I’m also usually carrying a bladder. I don’t bother with a trowel; I can usually find a sharp rock to dig.