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How to Pack a Backpack and Eliminate Wasted Space

I like to lay out my gear in camp before I pack it back up in the morning. I have a mental check list I go through to make sure I haven't left anything behind.
I like to lay out my gear in camp before I pack it back up in the morning. I have a mental check list I go through to make sure I haven’t left anything behind. While I use stuff sacks, I pack many items like my sleeping bag, quilts, outerwear, and spare clothes loose in my pack because they take up less volume that way.

It’s easy to get carried away when organizing your backpacking gear and use more stuff sacks, dry bags, or compression sacks than you need. While stuff sacks are useful for keeping small items together, it’s beneficial and more space efficient to use as few as possible.

What is the harm of using more stuff sacks than you need? Besides the unnecessary added weight, packing puffy items like sleeping bags, quilts, or insulated jackets loose takes up less space than if they’re packed in waterproof roll-top stuff sacks or compression sacks.

When you stack up firewood, there's a lot of wasted space between the logs.
When you stack up firewood, there’s a lot of wasted space between the logs. Using stuff sack can have the same effect inside your backpack, wasting interior volume.

Consider this stack of logs. Lightweight dry bag style stuff sacks, like the popular Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil roll top stuff sack or the Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil compression sack turn into solid log-like tubes or balls inside your pack, resulting in unused space between items inside your backpack – just like the space gaps in a stack of firewood. While stuff sacks can help compress puffy items, you can usually get the same amount of compression without them by piling heavier gear on top of them and tightening your pack’s compression straps.

White plastic bags are inexpensive and waterproof backpack liners.
White plastic bags are inexpensive and waterproof backpack liners.

Use a Pack Liner

When packing a backpack, I always line it with a scentless white plastic garbage bag before I pack any gear in it. The white color makes it easier to find items inside and the plastic provides perfectly adequate waterproofing if it rains. If you want, you can use a commercial pack liner like the 44 liter Hyperlite Mountain Gear cuben fiber pack liner or the 45 liter Exped Schnozzel which doubles as an inflatable sleeping pad pump. They both work well in my experience, but they cost a lot more than a plastic bag. If you like to keep a hydration reservoir in your backpack, a pack liner can be a life saver when they leak.

You need a pack liner because most backpacks leak at the seams when they get wet in the rain or you put them down in a puddle. It doesn’t matter if you own a pack made with a waterproof fabric like cuben fiber. When manufacturers attach a hip belt and shoulder straps to a pack, they need to sew them on, creating needle holes which leak.

Pack Your Insulation

Next, pack your sleeping bag, top quilt, hammock underquilt loose at the bottom of your pack. Mush it around so it fills every corner and abuts the interior walls of your pack’s main compartment.

Pack Heavier Items

Next up, pack the heavier dry items that you don’t need during the day on top of your insulation. Items like a hammock, a tent body, your sleeping clothes, mid-layer insulation, loose outerwear, first aid kit, gear repair kit, stove, fuel, or cookware.

If you want to use a stuff sack to group smaller items, pack them a stuff sacks with a draw strings, instead of a roll top stuff sack or compression sack that traps extra air and assumes an awkward shape. Gear stored in draw string stuff sacks is more malleable and will conform better to the items adjacent to it.

You can also save a little money and use plastic sandwich bags or ziplocs to organize items instead of stuff sacks. Just poke a small hole into them with a pin so that they can vent air more easily like a draw string stuff sack. Plastic bags are great because you can see what they hold.

Fold the top the plastic bag liner over to seal in the items you don’t need during the day and to ensure they stay nice and dry. All of the items you’ve stacked above the insulation layers in the bottom of your pack will compress them so they take up less space.

If you have food bag or a bear canister, pack it next (above the odor barrier created by your pack liner) layering items that you’ll want access to during the day and can survive getting wet, closer to the top of the main compartment like maps, navigation tools, hats, gloves, or rain gear.

Wet items like water filters or tent flies should be backed on the outside of the main compartment to keep them away from your dry stuff. If your pack doesn’t have external storage, put them into a waterproof sack near the top so you can pull it out and dry items during rest stops or sunny breaks.

Benefits of More Efficient Packing

If you can consistently reduce the amount of space that your gear requires, you can switch to a lighter weight backpack and save yourself an additional pound or two of gear weight. Backpacks in the 40-50 liter range weigh a lot less than 70-80 liter backpacks. Packing more efficiently also means you can carry more food than before, so you can stay out longer and have more adventure!

See also:

Disclosure: Philip Werner received free product samples from Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Exped some years ago which are mentioned in this post. This post contains affiliate links.

46 comments

  1. A few years ago, when I took up backpacking again after a 20-something year hiatus, I had to start with a new pack and it was a roll-top. The compactor bag was a revelation to me! That and not creating football and softball size lumps with compressor stuff sacks as I used to with my old, heavy panel-loader pack. Now I pack in the same order as you describe, but I use two compactor bags. Your “Pack Heavier Items” go into the second bag. When I set up camp, with two bags, I have a bag in which I can put all my in-tent gear at night so that it’s all in one place. The other bag first gets used to inflate my sleeping pad and then is available to go over the foot of my quilt if I need it for warmth or protection from condensation.

  2. I love the idea of loosely storing sleeping bag & puffy at the bottom of the pack, but that never seems to work for me in practice — my sleeping bag explodes & fills up my pack. I don’t seem to have enough heavy stuff to weigh it down and the ever-expanding sleeping bag makes it tough to pack the rest of the gear. So I’ve resorted to using a compression sack for the sleeping bag, which is lumpy and annoying, but not quite as annoying as a huge pack filled mostly with air. Am I missing a trick here?

    • Do you hear a loud screeching sound when you try pile gear on top of your sleeping bag? Have you checked to make sure the cat didn’t crawl inside?

      No, seriously….

      How is your other gear organized? Is it in water proof stuff sacks, loose, or in stuff sacks which close with draw strings?

      What’s the volume in liters of your backpack?

      Do you have a synthetic or a down sleeping bag? What temperature is it rated for?

    • I only pack my quilts and down puffy into the trash bag. I press them down as far as possible, then loosely gripping the top of the bag try to squish everything down as far as possible into the bottom of the pack. Then while it’s squished, I twist the bag closed multiple times and stow the remaining plastic to the side where it won’t come undone. The down stuff absolutely cannot get wet, and this keeps it dry. It also makes a nice conforming blob at the bottom of the pack.

      On top of that goes various gear about which I don’t care if it gets wet. I have a cuben dry bag which holds sleep clothes and additional insulation. I try to not stuff that too full lest it become a log in the pack. Individual things needing non-critical waterproofing are placed in robust ziplocks. I only have one stuff sack for my “dinky stuff” plus one for my cook kit. Everything else goes loose or is in ziplocks.

      I went on a creek-stomping trip a while back and put my hammock into a compression dry bag. That made it into an annoying little log, but I can stuff it into the huge mesh pocket on my Ohm 2.0 and I’m good to go. Yesterday I was on an overnight in the Olympics and it rained on me, but the hammock stayed dry. And on the creek-stomping trip everything that needed to be dry stayed dry, even after a swim with pack.

  3. I put the compactor bag in, shove in the sleeping gear, gather the top of the compactor bag a bit, compress, and then quickly roll closed the top of the compactor bag while continuing to mash down. It does take some practice to get it all coordinated.

    • I think it helps to let the top of the sleeping bag “embrace and “flow” around the items above it, like my hammock, tent body, first aid kit, gear repair kit/electronics, etc. Enclosing it in a plastic bag would inhibit that somewhat.

  4. The cat’s tried a few times, but I usually get him out before closing up the pack. ;-)

    Sleeping bag is either a 20 or 0 degree down. It goes in the bottom in a compression sack, along with sleep clothes. Sleeping pad is rolled up in a drawstring stuff sack. Food’s in an Opsak on top (doesn’t weigh much, my caloric needs are very low). Misc small items, including toiletries, are in a large MLD cuben zip bag. Shelter (16 oz) in a drawstring stuff sack on top of that. Small clothing items (gloves, hat) are in a silnylon drawstring stuff sack on top for easy access. Rain gear, if I’m bringing it, gets stuffed into crevices toward the top of the pack. Stove, fuel, lunch, dinner, plus an extra layers go in the outside front pocket.

    Pack size is 65L (ULA Circuit). For 3-season use, I’m not utilizing the extension collar at all.

    • If you don’t have to use the extension collar, then I’m not sure why you say you have problems getting all your stuff into the pack. Sounds like it fits fine, but that you’d get more of a compression “effect” if you did pile 5-10 pounds of food on top of everything else. You won’t get the added compression without that extra weight.

      There’s also a subtle point worth making, which I left out of the main article, because it is hard to visualize. Letting your sleeping bag “self-expand” in your pack provides a stiffening effect that augments the rigidity provided by your pack’s frame, especially if you carry a frameless backpack (pretty rare these days) or one that uses a frame stay. More rigidity os good because it provides better control over the pack’s momentum, since it moves as a unit, especially when scrambling.

  5. It still fights back! I don’t cram it down so much that it had just as well be in a compressor stuff sack. I may change my approach some day, but I like having two bags that I can pull out of the pack and get myself organized regardless of the weather.

  6. I got a new pack, an Osprey Stratos 50 for short backpacks. It has a sleeping bag compartment, first pack I ever owned with one. I found that if I stuff my sleeping bag in there loose w/o a stuff sack, then I can keep stuffing more loose items in with it like a hat, gloves, even a phone. Of course this leaves the sleeping back unprotected from wetness, but I will soon test out the built in pack cover and maybe this will be sufficient to keep rain out. Lining the pack with a garbage bag kind of defeats the purpose of the Stratos because it also has a front zip panel for access. I do use a garbage bag to line my Golite Jam 50 which is great for a 1-2 night summer backpack. I’m just experimenting to see if I find the front access on the Stratos useful. It probably isn’t, but it’s fun to try out new ideas.

  7. I had the same problem with my down, 40*(?) sleeping bag. I now use a compression sack for it and it fits nicely at the bottom of my 36L pack, with lots of room for my other stuff (which can be shoved down into the small gaps around the stuff sack. If a compression sack works better for you than leaving it loose, that should be taken into account when trying to figure out what to do.

  8. Thanks, Phil. I hate using the extension collar (don’t like it behind my head; the only time I ever use it is if I’m carrying a bear can or it’s winter). I also never carry anywhere near 5-10 lbs food (maybe if I was thru-hiking but a week’s worth of food is about 3 lbs for me & some of that is in my hipbelt pockets for snacks). So that’s probably the answer — unless I’m carrying a serious amount of food weight, I’m probably not going to get compression by weight alone, so I’m left with mechanical compression.

    The other issue I’ve had with the Circuit is that it tended to barrel with the sleeping bag loose, which is another reason I’ve resorted to a compression sack.

    • 3 pounds, really? That’s not much food. I carry about 1.75 pounds/day.
      I had that same barreling problem with the Circuit when I packed it super tight.
      Sounds like you need the compression sack…..I can understand why the SMD Fusion was appealing. It *doesn’t* barrel at all.

  9. I use a Schnozzle as my pack liner and love. Since I use a fairly water resistant Arc Haul and the Schnozzle, I recently changed out the few stuff sacks I still used for STS ultra mesh bags. The mesh allows all air to escape AND it’s very easy to see/select the contents.

  10. Do you ever worry about damaging your sleeping bag by doing this? That’s one reason why I like to keep it in a separate stuff sack, so I don’t have to worry about it. I’m rough on my gear. :-)

  11. lol yeah, I’ve always had a super slow metabolism & now that I’m pushing 50 it’s pretty much glacial. Guys never quite believe me & think I must be starving myself out there.

    Yes, exactly re Fusion — haven’t pulled the trigger on it yet, but likely will.

  12. A few questions, if you are in a tent, is there ever a time when you would need to use the pack liner as an emergency bivy? Does it cause condensation in your bag? Do you pack your tent in a stuff sack or is that also loose? Where do you keep your tent stakes? I like the idea of the cook pot smooshed in there. I use a HMG pack and am afraid the abrasion from the stove may rub a hole. I think this would protect the pack better, but I may be paranoid and maybe that won’t ever happen.

    • Yep. Camping in a tarp tent on the platforms at the Imp Campsite on the AT. I think it was July. Very windy and cold. Crawled in my plastic bag to stay warm. Sweated like hell, but made it through.

      Packing my tent. Depends what the weather is. If it’s wet, I stuff it in a pocket on outside of my pack. If dry, I tuck it inside. If it’s dusty, on top of the plastic bag. I doubt you have to worry about abrasion from the stove inside your pack. Have you considered getting a stove you can pack in your cockpot?

  13. Maybe it’s just out here (Pacific NW), but I haven’t been able to find any trash compactor bags that aren’t strongly scented, under the guise of “odor control.” I am sure that the scent will attract bears and other varmints. Plus the scent, to me, is sickening! I use a lightweight dry bag for my sleeping bag, another for my clothing insulation, and a freezer bag (which can be seen through) for first aid. My food is in individual freezer bags anyway and it doesn’t matter if any other stuff gets wet. The total weight (dry bags vs. trash compactor bag) is basically the same.

    I’ve looked at the possibility of a cuben pack liner, but looking is as far as I’ve gotten.

    • My supermarket just started carrying the scented ones instead of the unscented kind. Disgusting. I’m hoarding the ones I have while looking for the old style. In a pinch, a clear plastic bag or even a trash bag will work. The compactor bags are super durable though.

      • Ebay , thats where you’ll find them . Most ship free . Got two boxes a year ago , gave a few to each of my sons. Still using my first one after two long AT section hikes and several; 2o mile hikes on the North Country trail . They work great !!

  14. I get my compactor bags, unscented, from big box home improvement stores. The other big retailers and grocery stores around me don’t even have the plastic compactor bags, just the ones that have brown paper as part of the bag.

  15. To answer someone’s question above:

    I use a trash compactor bag as Phil suggests, but don’t like having external mesh pockets on my pack. So I just stuff my tent body and fly into the pack, between the trash compactor bag and the front (no strap side) of the pack. This has the added benefit of moving the heavy items (like food) in the middle of the pack closer to my back.

    I never put them inside the trash compactor bag because they are always very damp and often wet in the morning in the areas where I hike.

    I also load my food bag inside the trash compactor bag – because it rains a lot where I hike, and damp oatmeal (etc) gets moldy pretty quickly…

    I leave my extra insulation layer in the top of the trash compactor bag, and my rain gear outside the trash compactor bag, but stuffed in along an edge (so I can still get into the trash compactor bag easily).

    I use 3 stuff sacks total: 1 is the trash compactor bag, 1 is a silnylon food bag, and 1 is a 6×9 ditty bag for my first aid, hygene, and accessories. I bring an extra trash compactor bag though – because I manage to poke a hole into it one time. The second bag works great as something to sit on when the ground is wet :)

  16. For some reason, trash compactor bags don’t seem to be very available in Canada. (This is likely related to the scarcity of trash compactors in Canadian kitchens.) Perhaps someone could suggest an inexpensive altenative?

  17. Maybe a contractor bag could substitute for a compactor bag? They’re pretty tough, too.

  18. The one time I used my bag as “foot bivy”, the end of my sleeping bag was quite damp from the moisture “trapped” by the compactor bag even though it wasn’t sealed in any way. Perhaps just laying it over my sleeping bag would have worked but would not have stayed put as I move a lot.

  19. Excellent tip about the trash compactor bags. I usually just use a black garden trashbag, but they are always too large, and they make finding things difficult.

    One thing I found very helpful is to lay all the round gear sideways in my ruck. Between tent, sleeping pad, Jetboil stove, quite a bit of camping gear is cylindrical, and everyone wants to stick them straight upright like pillars to make them easier to get to. Simply laying them over helps pack them in tighter.

    Another space saving item that is not necessarily the cheapest: a bear bag rather than a bucket. This item alone can save a ton of space.

  20. I used a contractor bag for a while and found that it was too large and took quite a bit of room itself in scrunching up to fit. I sometimes bring one anyway for emergency use.

  21. I checked Home Depot’s website and learned they stock a pretty good selection at my neighborhood store. The descriptions don’t mention scented but I’m going to check.

  22. I do keep the stove in the pot, I just thought the edge of the pot might rub. I just keep hearing that abrasion is the downfall of cuben but I really have no idea how much abrasion it would take to wear the cuben. So, it seems I don’t really have to worry about it. Thanks.

  23. I think you are right but still like some organization. You can leave civilization but OCD does not leave you :). I have several Reynolds oven turkey bags. I keep them loose so they conform and do not have any shape on their own. I can see all my stuff and no issues packing up in the rain. may not be the best, but it works for me.

  24. In using a Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest sleeping pad that I’ve cut down to about 34″ long as padding in a backpack, I have struggled with where to put it – inside the compactor bag liner or outside. Convention would dictate that it should go inside the liner to keep it dry, but I always have problems keeping it in place while I’m pack the rest of my items. I have found that putting it in my pack first before lining the pack with the compactor bag works better, but then it is susceptible to getting wet. What do others do?

  25. I use a Osprey Trip 20 ultra light pack…Base weight 10# & 10 # food & water..1 liter bladder..mini sawyer filter
    pop can /alcohol stove.& fuel bottle..650 Ml cup.. spork…Hammock & Bug Net..Hex fly….680g light bag rated 40*degree’s… 1 change of outer wear.2 tough socks…trail runners..dry duck rain jacket…Emerg Space Blanket..Personal toilet items..fist aid..Head Lamp…Bug dope(Deet)..20 foot of Lash it…..This is good for a 5 day outing….I use a Bigger Osprey Pack 55L for Longer trips or even a thru hike….Happy Trails.
    Oldmiser

  26. For really cramming that sleeping bag down into the bottom of a limited space pack I use the “potato sack race” trick. Put the sleeping bag in first as best as possible, then get inside your pack. Seriously step into it like you are getting ready for a good ole’ fashion potato sack race! Stomp around a little bit (careful, don’t fall down, you already look pretty silly at this point), then step out and enjoy the extra 700 cubic inches of space you just made allowing you to drop everything else in with ease!

  27. Phil, thank you for this post. I’ve always had a problem with packing my items and my tent into my pack (Deuter ACT Lite 65+) together. I’ve always thought that centering the most weight against the back was best practice, so in trying to center my tent against my back, I would stuff the rolled tent/fly combo with poles down the center and attempt to fit my other gear along the sides. But not all my gear is designed to fit nicely into such a set. (I would stuff my sleeping bag in my stuff sack and pack it in the bottom compartment of the pack, zipped off from the man compartment, to keep all my sleeping gear together, including sleeping pad and pillow).

    After reading this post, I tried something else this weekend. I removed the poles and stuff sack and simply stuffed the tent and fly into the bottom of my main compartment, and carried the poles in a side pocket. This created a lot more space for the remainder of my gear. It also rained this weekend and because I forgot to pack everything in a plastic bag, I flip flopped my sleeping bag setup and tent so that the wet tent/fly was self contained. It worked wonderfully and I think I’ll use this setup going forward.

    An idea for a future post. How to breakdown a tent in the rain to preserve as must dryness as possible. My fly was obviously wet, but my tent beneath the fly was fairly dry. I tried to unclip my tent (2013 version of REI Quarter Dome 3), from beneath the fly and had some success, but when releasing the tent from the pole rings, the fly collapsed and the whole thing sat there in a wet pile on the ground. Experiment failed. Any suggestions?

  28. Good comments….I am a bad bad multiple mini compression sack user…use 4 of them plus the stove and put the used clothes and other small things around them
    My theory was that each sack had their own complete change of clothes or things alike….may help find things easier
    Also…..if someone or something stuck their hand in the bag they may find my day old shorts…..joking
    Will read all the comments…..I could use this advice
    Thanks all

  29. Sorry, but I am a dedicated user of Sea to Summit SilNylon Dry bags. I use one for my quilt, one for my clothing, one for my puffy and other warm-up gear, and one as a general dity bag. I keep my NeoAir pad in it’s stuff sack. I have no trouble at all filling the gaps between stuff sacks with other small gear (whiskey flask, first aid kit, etc. I have no trouble at all fitting everything for an 8-day backpack (including a BearVault 500 and my mid) into my ULA Catalyst.

    I can unload my pack at camp without worrying about keeping a bunch of loose gear organized and dry. I can use my sleeping bag stuff sack for a pillow with my puffy inside. And I don’t need to worry about a plastic pack liner. I paid too much for my quilt and down puffy to cram them loose into my pack.

    • The Catalyst is rather large backpack…

      • The Catalyst seems entirely appropriate for 8-day trips in SEKI where bear cans are required. I also have a ULA Circuit for shorter trips, and a 1700ci Mountain Hardwear summit pack for quick overnighters. I pack the same way for each pack using my silNylon dry bags, and seem to make it all work.

        YMMV and whatever works for you.

  30. I have been using compressor bags for my down items to keep my pack from puffing up. It seems a logical way to address the issue.
    But tried your method with the down items at the bottom and it worked quite well, so I will try this technique on future hikes.
    I still like organization and the ability to pack or unpack w/o things getting wet or dirty So I will continue to use multiple Reynolds turkey bags to group things. They are only partially filled (1/4-1/3) so it does not interfere with the loose packing method. It also prevents anxiety about extra gear getting wet if there is blowing rain (I use a tarp-tent).
    Thanks for the articles and new ideas

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