how to pack a backpack for travel

How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

After all the years that I’ve been traveling, I would like to think that I know how to pack a backpack for travel.  However, just because you are great at packing a suitcase or a car for a cross-country trip, doesn’t mean that you know how to pack something that you will be carrying on your back!  During our recent trip to REI for a fitting session, we learned that there is a science for how to pack a backpack appropriately so that you maximize the features of the pack and minimize the strain on your body.

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Why Knowing How to Pack a Backpack for Travel so Important?

When we were sizing and fitting our backpacks, we learned so much about the science behind all of those straps and why getting fitted is so important. But after learning all about why it is important to have a proper fit, and how to use the different straps to adjust the weight balance of the pack on your body, it only makes sense that there is a certain way you should pack the bag.  After all, that would have a pretty big impact on the weight distribution and how all those adjustments work!

how to pack a backpack for travel

Now before I get into how to pack a backpack for travel, I must mention that I realize different people may have different methods for packing their backpacks.  Of course, everyone had personal preferences and everyone is taught differently.  This is just one of those things where there will be varying opinions.  But overall, I’m sure the methodology is similar.

Read How to Choose to Best Backpack for Travel

How to Pack a Backpack Properly – What you Need to Know

how to pack a backpack for travel

If you have a top loading backpack, then Hayes (an awesome REI employee who helped us learn about our packs) recommends that you lean the bag upright against your leg and reach in from the top to pack it.  The purpose is that you can push items down to fill in the space easier and use gravity to help you out.

You can also easily lift the pack up to gauge how the weight is as you go.  If the pack is laying down on the floor or on it’s side, it is more difficult to do this and even a little more awkward to pack.

Of course, this means that you will be standing up while you pack because the bag is leaning up against your leg.  To minimize having to move around a lot of bend over, you may want to lay our items out on a bed.  That way you can stand next to the bed as you pack and it is more convenient for you to grab items, and even take some out to adjust a you go along.

Most backpacks have a top loading feature, but some may have a side loading capability, similar to a duffle bag or standard piece of luggage.  Our Mountainsmith backpacks actually have both features.  

With the Mountainsmith Juniper and the Mountainsmith Lariat you can either load from the top, or we can lay the bag down horizontally and open the huge U-shaped zipper to pack it like a standard suitcase.  We have grown to love this feature.  You can keep your pack organized and able to have easy access to what’s in your pack.

how to pack a backpack for travel

How to Pack a Backpack for Travel – Weight Distribution is the Name of the Game

Contrary to what you may think (or at least, what we thought) is that the heaviest items in your pack should not go at the bottom is how to pack your backpack properly.  Hayes explained to us that having all the weight at the bottom would make it more difficult to adjust the balance with your straps, causing your back to always feel bottom heavy!

Related:  Tips on How to Check your Backpack at the Airport

What you actually want to do is start off with light items in the bottom, such as sock or light clothing.  Then as you get to the middle section of the pack you should add the heavier items.  Then work your way along with lighter items again until you get to the top of the pack.  This method enables you to balance the weight more evenly, so that you can use your straps to shift the burden of the weight on your body as you see fit.

how to pack a backpack for travel

Why might you want to use your straps to shift the feel of the weight from the top or bottom of your pack?  Well, just think about when you are hiking uphill or downhill.  The balance of the weight can really help you here!

Arrange Your Backpack so the Heaviest Items are in the Middle, Closest to Your Body

Not only will you want to have the heaviest items in your pack arranged so that they are in the vertical middle, but you also want to pack them closest to your body.  As we learned throughout our backpack fitting process, having the weight hug your body is the best way to minimize strain.

Also, if you have the heavier items out toward the back, it can throw off your center of balance when you are walking.  So having the heavier items rest near your body and the light items on the outside toward the back is the best way to pack your backpack.

Download Carry On Bag Requirement for all major Airliners

Pack Your Backpack so You Can Access Your Gear Conveniently

Of course, when packing your backpack you need to keep in mind what items you may need to get in and out easily.  I probably won’t need to access my pajamas during the day, but I might want to change my shoes.  And if that’s the case, I certainly don’t want to have to unpack the entire contents of the bag to get to my shoes in the bottom!

This is one of the benefits to having our Mountainsmith packs that open in the front like a suitcase because we can easily get to items at the bottom if we needed to.  Although, laying the pack down to open it while you are traveling could also be a pain.  Overall, you will figure out what works best for you as you travel.  And different days or destinations could impact the way that you pack the bag.  There are many different packs and features out there.

how to pack a backpack for travel

Final Tips for How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

The final thing that we would recommend when it comes to packing your backpack is to test it out before you leave.  Pack everything that you want to take with you and do a test run.

Walk around your house, or even go outside for a walk.

If you will be doing some difficult trekking on your trip, try to take your pack walking up and down some hills.  This is going to help you get a feel for it and whether you need to adjust the weight distribution, or the weight of the pack itself!

Overall, we have learned that less is usually more when it comes to packing for travel.  It may difficult for some to pack light (ahem, Josh…) but in the end you will be much happier with a lighter load.  Testing your pack before you leave for the trip is a great way to decide whether or not you need to leave home some of the “just in case” items.

I’ve learned that if “just in case” actually happens (which it rarely does), I would rather buy something there than haul it with me during the whole trip and never actually use it!

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SE Asia Pre-Travel & Packing Checklist

Southeast Asia Packing List page 1

Being Mountainsmith users and fans for years, we were ecstatic to begin working with them.  However while we did receive free products to test and review, all opinions are strictly our own.

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