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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 checklist I go through to make sure I haven’t left anything behind.

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. 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.

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 sacks 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 42 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 lifesaver 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 Dyneema DCF (formerly called 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 drawstrings, instead of a roll-top stuff sack or compression sack that traps extra air and assumes an awkward shape. Gear stored in drawstring 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 drawstring 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!

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One comment

  1. Good advice – thanks for posting.

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