Couple of women hiking with rucksacks

How to Pack a Rucksack (A Step by Step Guide)

Whether it’s for hiking, traveling or camping, getting the weight right when packing a rucksack is vital in avoiding fatigue or even injury.

Here’s our breakdown on how to pack a rucksack the right way.

Arrange and group your items before packing a rucksack

Preparation makes perfect. When packing a rucksack, it’s best to start as you mean to go on. Kick off your process by separating your bring-alongs into several different categories. Not only will this simplify your approach to each stage of packing, but it will also highlight if there is anything that you are missing (or maybe that there is something you could do without).

Trekking tent and essentials

Heavy items first

This includes items such as tents, cooking apparatus, food that needs to be cooked and other solid items that will impact on the overall backpack weight distribution. 

Quechua water bottle

Easy-to-find essentials

these are items that by themselves usually don’t take up a large amount of space but all need to be quickly accessible. Good examples of these items include liquids, snackable foods, caps, waterproofs. 

Man wearing a Quechua fleece

Clothing fillers

While it’s obviously very important when undertaking a sweaty walk to have a change of clothes or sleepwear, grouping clothes that only serve a purpose once you sit down for the day will help both in your packing and the backpack weight distribution overall.

Binocular storage outside the rucksack

Exterior add-ons

These will be items that don’t have any great weight to them but will take up unnecessary room when packing a rucksack and make it hard to fit other essentials in. They can be attached to the straps on the front of the rucksack. Examples of these add-ons are tent poles, waterproof covering and sometimes sleeping bags if a greater amount of clothes are needed.

Step 1 - Prepare a rucksack bedding

Once you’ve sorted each item into its own group, you’re ready to start laying down a rucksack bedding. As weight plays such a big role in how to pack a rucksack, it’s important to begin with the items that are used least for hiking (or whatever else you need your rucksack for) and only come into play when camping. These include sleeping bags, sleepwear and a pillow.

Place your pillow and sleepwear at the bottom of your rucksack, providing a buffer between the heavier items.
Once this is done, place your sleeping bag vertically, so that it sits on top of the pillow and sleepwear, and leaves enough space for the incoming items.

Before you do start packing, make sure each of these items is as compact as possible, whether that be folding up your sleepwear or making sure your sleeping bag is tightly packed inside your sleeping bag. This will greatly help with maximising space in the long run.

How things are packed inside a rucksack

How to pack clothes in your rucksack

- For clothes like t-shirts and trousers, fold instead of roll. For maximumspace-savingg, fold horizontally twice.
- Roll up socks into small bundles, so that they resemble a ball shape.
- Roll underwear to resemble small long tubes.
- If you are bringing a second pair of shoes, pack your socks and underwear inside the shoes.

Step 2 - Distribute the weight evenly

Next up are the heavy items. This will be the stage in the ‘how to pack a rucksack’ process where getting the positioning and weighting right is key.  

- The first of these items to be packed is your tent. When looking at how to pack a tent in a backpack, try to fit it as vertically as possible. The aim will be to have it as central and as close as possible to where your back will be and just above your hips when you’re out walking.
- If necessary, rearrange your sleeping bag so that it is packed tightly next to your tent bag, which should provide a balanced feel across
- As you place other bulkier items, such as cooking apparatus and continue to focus on positioning them as centrally as possible.

Having heavier items closer to your back means the weight will be more balanced throughout your body. If these were to end up at the bottom of your rucksack, you will start to feel as though your rucksack is pulling you down. If they are placed too high up or towards the front of your rucksack, your body will be pulled backwards, adding greater tension on your back and legs whilst walking. Similarly, if these items are placed too heavily onto either side of the bag, it will create a lopsided effect, which could make it difficult to walk in a straight line.

Step 3 - Fill any space with clothes

Although the heavier items are now all packed, there is more work to be done in this area. To keep a good balance with the heavier items, and to stop any jumbling, fill the remaining spaces in the central space of the rucksack with any folded clothing items (fleeces, thermals) that are not essential to the walk. If your rucksack is on the smaller side or if you need to bring more clothes, there is also the option to carry your sleeping bag by hand or attached to one of the straps on the front of your rucksack.

Clothes inside rucksack

Step 4 - Put your most important items in arm’s reach

Now that you’ve got a good backpack weight distribution with all your heavy items packed up, you’ll have a good foundation to pack essential belongings. Although it depends on how many side pockets or compartments your rucksack has, the majority of your important items will sit at the top of your rucksack.

Backpacking can be unpredictable, so when packing your rucksack, it's vital to be able to quickly find exactly what you need. So they remain easy to access and to avoid any misplacement caused by movement, essentials such as first aid kits, torches, suncream, hats, gloves and potentially squashable food will need to be economically packed.

Most importantly of all however, make sure you leave space at the top of your rucksack for your waterproofs, so that when the heavens open, they’re quick to find.

Cereal bar stored inside a rucksack's pocket

Step 5 - Make good use of your straps and pockets

Your rucksack is fully packed, and now it’s about making the very most of its outside features. The first of these is the previously mentioned additional pockets that traditionally appear on either side of the rucksack. One thing we didn’t mention is water. By fixing a water bottle in one pocket or holster, and waterproofs or other protective clothing in the other, you are not only able to stay hydrated without pause, but it will also keep a good balance across your rucksack.

To make the best use of the rucksack’s straps, attach items such as tent poles and camping mats that would otherwise take up space inside your bag, despite not weighing much. Another smart way to make use of your rucksack’s exterior is by attaching a protective waterproof or insulating lining across the front, meaning your belongings will be protected in extreme weather conditions.

Sun cream and map inside a rucksack's pocket

Step 6 - The final test before you leave

Before you start your adventure, the final thing you need to do when packing a rucksack is to check one last time that the backpack weight distribution is correct.

Start off by placing your rucksack down on the floor. If it falls to either the left or right, the weight has not been evenly distributed and will need adjusting. If it falls on its front, it means it’s overloaded and will pull you backwards once it is being worn. Try to rearrange your belongings again and so that each of your items remain fixed in their correct position.

When your rucksack can remain upright unaided, see how it feels when carried.

Once you’ve lifted it up onto your back, take it for a walk, and make any necessary adjustments to the straps. Then you’ll be ready to go. 

Two final tips for packing your rucksack

1. Add a waterproof inner lining - although we mentioned waterproofing the outside of your rucksack, it can also be useful to do the same to the inside. By fixing a pack liner inside before you start packing your rucksack, all your belongings will be safe from water damage, no matter what happens to your bag.
2. Don’t overload the straps - despite being incredibly useful for certain items, overly relying on the straps can have an impact on the overall backpack weight distribution. It’s important to be tactical with what you'd add to them, or it can cause the rucksack to be pulled in all different directions.

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