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Packing the Unpackable: Backpack Loading Tips

This Backpack is Too Small for Winter Hiking
This Backpack is Too Small

One of my readers, a guy named Tim, is having problems getting all of his backpacking gear into his backpack. This is something I’ve wrestled with too. I had a few breakthroughs this year though, based on some advice from a more experienced mentor that I thought I’d share. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions to help Tim out.

Right off the bat, there are some basic things you can do to make things fit better:

  • Try to share gear with a partner and eliminate duplication
  • Eliminate any gear or supplies you absolutely don’t need, like extra clean clothing or a tent footprint
  • Attach some of your gear to the outside of your pack, such as a tent or sleeping pad. Strap the gear as close to your back as possible to prevent it pulling you backwards, like the guy above. Strapping it under your pack’s side compression straps is best.
  • Carry your water on the outside of your pack, not inside in a reservoir pocket
  • Replace large pieces of gear with smaller more compressible gear:
    • Use a down sleeping bag instead of a synthetic one because they compress smaller
    • Use a small pot instead of a big one
    • Replace hard sided water bottles with a collapsible Platypus style reservoir
    • Replace a pump water filter with a gravity water filter like the Sawyer Squeeze
  • Switch to a wood stove instead of a white gas or canister stove – use fuel you find instead of fuel you carry

If none of these ideas work and you want to avoid buying a new pack or new gear, here are a few more suggestions for squeezing more stuff into your backpack.

Stuff Sacks

I used to use a lot of stuff sacks to keep my gear organized and prevent moisture sensitive items from getting wet. The  problem with stuff sacks is that they don’t fit flush together inside your pack and create ‘air gaps’ that end up wasting space in your pack. For example, I used to pack all of my extra puffy winter insulation including a down jacket, insulated pants, and base layers in stuff sacks for winter hiking. I stopped doing that this year and stuffed them directly into the main body of my pack: this resulted in more space in my pack because I could stuff these clothes into all the unused spaces between other packed items. It also helped keep the water bottles I store in my pack much warmer – even hot – well into the day.

When I winter backpack, I still compress my -25 sleeping bag in a compression sack because I think it shrinks the bag’s volume more (-25 degree down sleeping bags are huge!), but I now carry most of my other clothing, including extra socks, jackets, gloves, hats, and my various layers loose in the pack, organized by frequency of access with the most frequently used item near the top of my pack.

I line my backpack with a big see-through plastic bag to prevent water from leaking into my pack and getting my gear wet, but that’s the only waterproofing protection I use.

Minimizing Food Volume

Another way to maximize the existing space in your pack without replacing it or any of your gear is to minimize the amount of space your food takes up. Think about it this way – food is the biggest variable weight and variable volume item in your pack between different trips, and the only thing you can really change without spending extra money on new gear.

For example, Mountain House or other prepared backpacking meals take up a huge amount of space, much of which is air and excess packaging. You can shrink this by either repackaging them, or by packing your own calorically dense food including nuts, dried fruit, dehydrated quinoa, oatmeal, olive oil and so forth. If you aim for food that contains at least 100 calories per ounce and repackage it, you can usually make significantly more space in your pack.

Bear Canisters

If you need to use a bear canister where you backpack, try to use all of the space inside it instead of putting a partially empty canister in your pack. Don’t put clothing or anything in it that will be out at night and might pick up odors from your food. Instead put your pot and stove, toiletries, gear repair kit, first aid kit, stove fuel, insect repellent, map, gps, phone, etc. into it to make more space available in your pack. You won’t need any of these items at night and can keep them in the canister and away from your tent/shelter.

What other packing pointers can you suggest for Tim?



  1. Those are useful tips.

    A couple of quibbles though. Since this article focuses somewhat on winter I’d avoid keeping water outside the pack because it will freeze faster that way. Also, filters are prone to freezing in the winter so I usually use melted snow and treat with chemicals If I feel there’s reason to suspect the source

    Stuff sacks do lead to unused air space inside the pack but mainly if they are stuffed tight. Using too large stuff sacks allows the sacks and their contents to conform to the shape of available space much better. But definitely pack the puffy jacket loose in the pack and near the top … so that it is easily accessible when you stop for breaks.

    Regarding wood for fuel, I’ve found backpacking wood stoves to be quite slow as snow melters so plan on more down time if melting for water. Full blown campfires would work better though. Also be sure to know your destination and its wood supply situation. On a trip this winter my companion had to range pretty far collecting fuel, most of the suitable fuel was buried under 40 inches of snow!

    • Tim was a little ambiguous about whether he was a winter or 3 season hiker – you’re absolutely right about not relying on wood or reservoirs for winter. I only came to som eof my refined tips this winter – under the stress of having to fit all my winter gear into the pack – but some of the tips translate to all 4 seasons.

  2. Interesting, because all the things you suggest are exactly the same conclusions that we’ve come to over the years!

  3. +1 on the oversized stuff sacks – I do that, too, and voila – very few air gaps. There are a few things that will always be taught – like a compression sack for a sleeping bag, but all the oversize ones fill the gaps around the taught ones.

  4. In the ADK’s, bears are a problem. Most are not too interested in your gear, but they might be if it smells of food. Perhaps packing stuff IN the bear canister is not the best idea. Most of the cook gear is fine. that will get heated and will retain a wood smoke or burned chemical type odor that most critters will naturally avoid. But things like your light, can pick up a food odor. Oils, in general, will stick quite strongly to many plastics. Your water drops or tablets packaging can pick up odors from your food if it is put in with it. Keep this in mind when packing stuff in the bear ball. Course this stuff should be in the bear ball or hung at night.

    Food is a good one. Dehydrated foods smell less strongly than fresh foods and weigh less. A couple heavy bags of dehydrated veggies works well. And, they add a lot to meals. Generally they have good nutritional density, though they lack “fresh” vitamins (vitamin C for example.) They average about 100-120C per ounce depending on the mix. Dried onions are quite high in calories, as is corn. For trips of about a week, I recommend taking a multivitamin to make up what is lost during dehydration…well, mostly, anyway. Over the past 6 or 7 years I have been working to really reduce the ammount of food I carry, without cutting myself short, of course.

    Typically, most MH meals have about 1200-1600 calories. These are NOT really designed for one meal per day eating. As you say, not recommended. The rice sides (Lipton) work well, and they have MANY rice and pasta meals. Coupled with peperoni, salami, cheese, jerky, dried beef, olive oil or what ever add ins, they make a fair supper at around 2000-2500 calories. A good stew is somewhat heavier at around 2300-2600 calories. Soups are somewhat lighter at around 1800-2000 calories. Little macaroni (pastina) cooks in about 3-5 minutes. Add oil (parified butter if you have it) salt and pepper makes a simple and fast meal coupled with a wrap and a chunk of cheese. Use the water for cocoa…about 2000-2500 calories.

    Anyway, these will reduce food volume to about half what is normally taken. A pin hole in the rice sides lets you compress them pretty well. Cocoa, macaroni, dehydrated veggies, bulk cheese, jerky, peperoni, dried beef, work well. You can dry hot dogs in a microwave by slicing them and heating them till they are hard. Then putting them in a single baggie. They keep for about 4-6 weeks. Chocolate bars, M&M’s, crushed snack foods are all good for saving weight and volume. They make OK add ins to breads and snack cakes. Trail brownies are real good, add about 3/4 pound of semi-sweet chocolate to the mix before baking them. They should be baked fairly hard to eliminate water. Oatmeal, or wheat germ can be added, too. These are about 160 calores./ounce.

    Food is the biggest single weight in my pack for anything over two nights out. Gone are the days of reducing a couple grams here and a couple grams there when I can easly reduce my food weight by 8 ounces per day by selecting higer density foods. But, it will take some fiddling with to figure out what tasts good and what you can do to make things tast better. My problem is ALL food tasts good on the trail!

    • Something I’ve found for density of foods and lighter weight is using whole grain foods like whole grain rice for dinners. Instant whole grain foods is much lighter and added grains like lentils and barely add variety. Lentils will take a bit more cooking.

  5. Thanks for the tips!
    I’ve always reached for the smallest stuff sack possible, but I do vary how much I cinch them down to change the size of them. Much of my problems stem from trying to get everything into the pack, as I’m just not a fan of lashing things onto the outside.
    The tent and sleeping bag in particular give me the most pain. I’ve been using a stuff sack for the tent (inner and fly) and I do carry the footprint. When possible I will take just the fly and footprint. The poles do go on the outside. Any tips on packing the tent (stuff sack, no stuff)? I’d love to get a new lighter tent, which would be easier to lash to the outside, but I have to work with what I have for now. As for the pad, I like to protect that by keeping it in my pack, but have once lashed it to the bottom.
    As for carrying water. I like the convenience of a hydration bladder and I’ve always been able to cram it in. In winter my bottles go in insulated carriers (hipbelt and pack). I’m just getting into platypus like bladder bottles, but am wary on keeping one in the pack and getting them back into side pockets is a pain as the bottoms snag (just a nit-pick). Think I just need a little more confidence in their strength.
    I’m slowing going thru my gear and replacing all my original gear with better, lighter options and I think packing will only get easier in the future….

    • Tim, you can round the bottom edges of a platy with a scissor so they don’t snag. You only have to take a little bit off to round the corners and there’s plenty of seal so that a little trim won;t weaken it. I’ve done it on mine.

  6. I find packing my sleeping bag and extra clothes loose (but inside a large plastic bag) helps quite a bit. My tent (SMD Luner Solo e) is just rolled loosely inside the pack, but outside the plastic bag/liner. Stakes and guylines go in a small stuff sack.

    My sleeping pad has been my pack frame, but I just purchased a pack with a light frame, so I think I am going to splurge on a Neoair Xtherm, which should be easy to pack…

  7. lol @ that guys pack. A floating lid would have helped him a lot here, even if his pack was full he could strap in his layers on it. Wrong pack is an understatement, he can’t even get his zipper shut!

    And the platypus might take up pack space vs. Water bottles but the bottles take up water bottle holder space! I usually put my tent poles in one water bottle holder and camera, bug spray, etc in the other for easy access.

    Also water bladders have a diminishing pack volume throughout the day (hypothetically without refill) where water bottles do not although that’s more of a 3 season benefit.

    Also Napoleon pockets are a great way to spread some smaller items around and I started using some ditty bags for other smaller groups of gear so things are easier to find and don’t fall out.

  8. In his case, I suggest a larger pack for winter hiking. I use a ULA CDT for 3 season, and an Osprey Exos 46 for winter. If he’s not willing to do that, your suggestions are good. Other things could be done, though. Increase compression strap length to stow items on the sides better. Add a chest pack too. This would separate his common use items and distribute his weight much better. Maybe sew in some loops on the back corners as well. Then he’d have more options for tie points. Dispense with water pump as well. You have to sacrifice something in most cases when you add new items.

  9. LOL love the first picture at the top!

    The only things that I pack into stuff sacks and compression sacks are things that are compressible. My winter fleece for example doesn’t compress much so I just cram it into wherever it fits in the pack, usually wrapped around other large items.

    Phil mentioned repackaging backpacking food. I take this one step further by making my own food to bring along. I love cooking and baking, so what I’ll do is find a recipe for a caloric dense granola bar. I can bake it in a 9×13 pan in the oven and use whatever ingredients I want (oats, honey, nuts, peanut butter, etc). Saves money too.

    Depending on if you are expecting rain or not, lash your tent to the outside without a stuff sack, just roll it up and stick it on the bottom of the pack. If you have a large enough stuff sack, or a plastic bag, shove it in there and lash it to the bottom if you are expecting rain. Its a good idea to keep the tent dry when its not setup. Mold can start to grow fairly quickly on the inside of a rolled up wet tent.

  10. For a minute, I thought you’d taken a picture of my brother and me hiking the CDT eight years ago with 60+ lb. packs, however, our packs were larger than what’s in the photo but still weren’t big enough. I wouldn’t trade the misery we endured for anything because that’s where we met Geertje Francois, an ultralight hiking guide. We were ready to listen to him and it completely changed our way of doing things and turned backpacking from something to be endured to reach beautiful and noble surroundings to an enjoyable part of the journey.

  11. Great info. I’m a “stuff sack guy”, but I’ve found that they tend to frustrate me, however I use them out of habit… My REAL problem is that I tend to take too much food. I’m with Marco, in that all food tastes good on the trail. I live out in Oregon, and I don’t know much (experientially) about the East coast trails. What would be a “top ten” list for someone out there?

    I ask as I’m acting as Chief Recess Officer for KEEN footwear and we are looking for all the best outdoor spots to add to our maps.

    If anyone knows about a great hiking/camping place in their area feel free to share it with us so that other hikers can discover them too.



  12. I bounce between “stuff it all in my pack” and put it in stuff sacks and ended up sort of siting… standing… striding… stumbling… in the middle. I bought a set of three Walmart Outdoor Recreation Group dry sacks for ten bucks and use them. The medium size red stuff sack carries my first aid kit, any medicines or vitamins needed, my toothbrush, soap, powders, deodorant, etc. The small blue sack carries anything electronic: batteries, cell phone, head lights, etc. Both are easy to grab and I know what’s in them. The contents of each bag are organized into appropriate size Ziplocks which also add additional water protection if needed. The larger green one carries the Neo Air pads for me and my grandson. I keep my food items in a large Opsack for organization and odor control. My silk liner goes into the down bag which is in a Big Agness Pumphouse waterproof bag. If the weather may be wet, I line the inside of my pack with a contractor’s heavy duty trash bag so I don’t worry too much about things getting wet and can stuff clothes, my puffy and shell, etc. around things to fill the gaps. My Tarptent doesn’t take much space and also fits in my pack in its stuff sack. All of my gear and some of my grandkids’ gear fits in my Pinnacle pack and I carry about forty per cent of the weight (including a gallon or so of water) I did when I met Geertje on the trail a few years ago.

  13. I’ve done 3~4 day climbs with a 35l Mammut pack, and without looking like the guy in the top photo. Compression sacks are a must, but you have to balance them with enough loose gear to fill the resultant dead spaces. But I think the biggest space saving is to eschew the tent and go with a bivy bag & small tarp, and dig snow holes/trenches in winter or simply biv out in summer. And inevitably you have to pare aware the “nice to haves” from the “must haves”, which is never an easy decision at the margin.

    Actually looking at the top photo, I’m not sure that pack is too small, I think he’s just got it packed very, very badly. The snow shoes should slot into the compression straps on the side (like the chap in front), the gloves could hook on the belt, the shovel lashed properly to the back of the pack, and the jacket pulled through the shoulder lift straps…

  14. Ditto on ‘Shawn A’. Down need compression sacks, fleece doesn’t., so: UQ-sack, then fleece undies, then Sleeping Bag-sack, makes efficient use of pack space. And wet fleece isn’t nearly as big a problem as wet down. (Yeah, going to ground would help a lot but hanging and swinging rocks ;-)

  15. All good suggestions but one. Hard sided water carriers are much safer and dependable than a collapsible carrier. A quart of water takes up the same amount of space wether it’s in a soft container or a hard container. You’re going to need space for it no matter what its in. When the water’s gone, what does it matter wether you can collapse the container or not? The real advantage of a soft collapsible is it’s weight. They do weigh less, but, if you’re in a hard environment, like desert or snow conditions, you want dependable, ultra durability with something as critical as hydration.

  16. John,
    As far as lentils go, the Indian Red Lentils cook in about the same time as rice. The Green lentils take about 45minutes. Try it. Too much cooking wil turn the red lentils to mush, so you have to be carfull. Very high in nutritional value . . .

  17. I carry a gatorade bottle filled to drink from on the trail. I take a 4-liter water carrier and a wide-mouth nalgene on the trail – both empty. I use a Steripen to kill the critters in water.

    If I need more water on the trail I fill the nalgene and treat it with the Steripen. It just takes a few minutes.

    The collapsible container is for camp. I fill it and bring it into camp. I fill the nalgene from the collapsible and treat the water one liter at a time in the nalgene. This is really handy when camp is not right on the water source.

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