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The Best Way To Pack a Backpack

No back pain for you.

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Photography by: Getty Images

Ready for a fun day outdoors? Now that you know what to pack, it’s time to get your checklist together in a handy carryall.

 

But where do you start?

 

We spoke to two outdoors experts — Kristin Hostetter, the Editor-in-Chief of outdoors magazine SNEWS and former gear editor at Backpacker magazine; and Adam Cole an instructor at REI whose courses include Wilderness Survival and Essential Wilderness Skills —  for tips on everything from shopping for the right bag to where to store the snacks.

 

Backpack Buying 101

Backpack shoppers will find most high-quality backpacks are made from rugged fabrics like nylon treated to be weatherproof. While shopping look at the size of each backpack, measured in liters, to decide on a pack that suits your needs. “For a day hike, a backpack between 15 and 25 liters is just fine,” says Hostetter. “For a weekend hike, you can use a backpack that holds anywhere from 30 to 45 liters, and for a longer trip, or a trip with a large group or extended family, you can go above 50 or even 70 liters.”

 

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It’s All About The Hip Strap

For the most comfortable backpacking experience, take a look at the ergonomics of your backpack. “It needs to have a strong suspension system, because that’s where the pack connects to your body,” says Hostetter. Make sure the shoulder straps are sturdy and adjustable. Check the frame of the pack to see that it fits comfortably across your torso. A flimsy, cheap suspension system will distribute weight unevenly and leave you feeling sore.

 

One vital feature, a substantial, padded hip strap, will be the biggest factor in your comfort level. “People think that when backpacking they need to hold weight in their shoulders, but your shoulders actually can’t take it for very long,” she says. “A hip strap directs the weight onto your hips, which makes it easier to carry.”

 

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Exterior Pockets Help

Cole says that outer features like webbing and incidental pockets are also important to consider when choosing your bag. “If you get a pack with molle webbing, you can lash gear to the outside of your bag,” he says, adding that many packs have tool loops or hook-on points that first-time hikers might not notice. “You can carry clunky gear that won’t fit in the bag, or lash on a towel to the back of your bag, to easily wipe your brow,"he says. Cole and Hostetter both agree that outside backpack pockets are a helpful feature for younger children, who will want quick access to toys and snacks at a campsite or on the trail.

 

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How To Pack

To pack a backpack effectively, Cole recommends dividing the pack into three zones. The bottom of the pack is for big, clumsy items, like your sleeping bag. Hostetter recommends using compression sacks, stuffsacks with integrated straps that compress the size, to minimize the size of a sleeping bag as much as possible. “Compression sacks can reduce the space a sleeping bag takes up in your pack by almost half, so choose that rather than trying to fold your bag neatly—that’s just a waste of energy,” she says. Clothing, too, can be layered into the bottom backpack zone without folding. “When you’re out in nature, wrinkles really don’t matter,"she says.

 

The middle layer of the backpack is what Cole calls the “core zone,” and where your heaviest items should reside. “That area falls at the center of your back, where you can hold the most weight,” Hostetter says. Food, water bladders, and your tent are all heavier gear that can stay in the middle zone. These are things you’ll need when you arrive to camp, or to a picnic area on a trail.

 

On top, in the section close to the backpack’s opening, is where you should keep anything you may need access to on the trail. “Rain gear, warm layers, light snacks, a hat—these can go in the top of your bag, or outer pockets if they’re smaller,” Hostetter says. Cole added essentials like lip balm, a map and compass, and sunscreen as top-of-bag items you don’t want to end up digging for midway through a hike.

 

How Much You Can Carry

Even if you have a massive backpack on hand, don’t feel tempted to fill it up completely — especially if you’re new to hiking. “This is a conservative number, but for newbies, it’s best to never carry more than twenty percent of your body weight in a pack,” recommends Hostetter. Carrying too much, she says, just adds stress and pain to an experience that’s meant to be enjoyable.

 

Even small children can carry backpacks with a few snacks, toys and a water bottle in them. “My kids started carrying packs when they were 4 or 5,” Hostetter says. “By the time they’re older, especially in their teens, kids can definitely carry their share in group gear.”

 

Cole recommends allowing children to pack their own backpacks, too. “Kids should be included in the logistics of packing and carrying,” he says, “because it gives them a sense of ownership, and a stake in the hike.” Some stores, including REI, will allow shoppers to try out backpacks with weights, to see what’s most comfortable for each person. Cole recommends any first-time hikers do a trial run like this.

 

The Best Way To Store Your Backpack

After your day hike or weekend of family fun, store your backpack properly to make sure it lasts. “Empty your backpack completely—and by that, I mean shake it out, upside down, to get rid of little crumbs and trail mix,” Hostetter says. “I’ve had mice chew through packs before—those little crumbs are a huge magnet for them.” Additionally, Hostetter says you should never store gear when it’s damp. Instead, hang it to dry until there’s no moisture. Then, stack backpacks flat on a shelf until your next hike.

 

Make it Memorable

The most important thing to remember is that a day outdoors is meant for enjoyment. “If you’re uncomfortable and not having a good time, you don’t have to keep going,” says Hostetter. “Take a break every hour, or take cues from what’s around you—if you come to a really beautiful clearing, don’t just keep walking because you think you have to. Take a break and look around.”

 

And when in doubt, start small. “It’s easy to start with low-stress, short hikes and work your way up,” says Cole. “If you do too much at once, you’re going to create negative associations.” Plan the hiking trip that’s right for your family, and see how they respond, Cole recommends. You can always try something new or increase the intensity on your next hike, and once your family falls in love with nature, every trip after.

 

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