Why and How to Organize and Pack Backpacking Gear on the Trail and in Camp

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Why and How to Organize and Pack Backpacking Gear on the Trail and in Camp

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    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    Companion forum thread to: Why and How to Organize and Pack Backpacking Gear on the Trail and in Camp

    Having an intentional, consistent, and efficient approach to packing your gear for a backpacking trip saves time and energy while hiking and in camp.

    Matthew / BPL


    I focus on bringing fewer items.

    I do like a thin loop of cord tied near the top of the front pocket of my backpack. I keep my flashlight, Swiss Army Knife and compass attached to that loop with mitten hooks. That allows those items to be easily accessible without getting lost. I’m meticulous about returning those items back to the loop immediately after use.

    Murali C
    BPL Member


    When I was on the JMT, I heard hikers complaining about having to rummage through their bear canister for stuff they are looking for or having to empty everything. I told them what I do which is: layer every day’s food on top of each other – lunch, dinner, snacks for the last day goes in first, then the next day etc so that you never have to rummage or empty your bear canister. This seems elementary – but seems to escape many folks.

    Every morning or prior evening you want to separate your food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks) for next day so that it is easily accessible in the outer front pocket. Of course, with my Yargear bottom pocket, I keep my rain poncho so that I do not have to remove my backpack. I do not keep my snacks there in the bottom pocket as I like to take a break to eat snacks etc.

    I like having a fanny pack for electronics and first aid as a way to reduce weight on my shoulders plus easy accessibility or when I have to go into a store which typically doesn’t allow backpacks, you have your electronics with you. Not that anybody is going to steal it from backpack….but just for peace of mind.

    I also think it is important to have your Inreach in your pant pockets rather than on a backpack so that it is always with you for emergencies. And Nuun tablets/gatorade pouches also go in my pant pockets for easy access. I also carry my wind jacket in my pant pockets for easy access. I like to distribute stuff in various pant pockets, fanny packs to reduce more weight on shoulders:-)

    Water bottles on shoulder straps are another great way to not worry about accessibility of side pockets.

    Monte Masterson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Indiana

    Excellent topic Mark, one that’s long overdue.

    * To me weight distribution is the most important factor in packing and my philosophy goes against what many might think. I remember reading a packing FAQ on SMD’s website years ago that said it’s best to keep the heaviest items up high in the pack and as close to the back as possible. It’s somewhat counter intuitive because the center of gravity is higher, but I find everything rides so much better that way. I place lighter items in the lower side pockets of my pack and NOT water bottles because there again that puts too much weight down low on the pack (water and food on top). I’d like to know what others think about this approach. I mean putting fluffy, bulky and lighter per volume items on the bottom and heavier things on top?

    I always pack 3 DIY 7D stuffsacks of varying sizes that are meant just to keep many items concise and manageable, especially when I’m sitting around camp and I’ve unpacked for the evening. The smaller items all go into one of the 7D stuffsacks, as well as the stuffsacks from bag, pad, pillow, stakes, etc. This keeps everything together and I find I don’t lose anything that way. And when I pack up in the morning I put every item back in the same place as the day before so I always know where to retrieve something. I just get into a routine and then I don’t have to slowly think through what my next step is going to be all the time. Everything is practiced and is therefore easier and quicker to deploy.

    Matthew / BPL


    Monte – In a frameless pack, I like my heaviest items in the small of my back.

    Eric Kammerer
    BPL Member


    My general goal is that anything I need when not camped should be accessible from outside the main body of the pack. This protects my inactive clothing, sleep system, etc. from moisture or loss. Some of those things need to be more readily accessible (trail snacks) and thus packed where I can reach them.

    Other items should always be with me — whether or not the pack itself is. This last category includes such things as satellite messenger, phone, fire kit, whistle, backup light source (not the headlamp), etc. These items need to be stored in a way that can travel with me.

    Simplicity is key — less to keep track of, less to lose, less to carry.

    Todd T
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    Modern gear is light enough that I see little need to futz around with weight distribution.  Except for food, which I put at the top, everything else is close enough to the same density that I can just arrange things for fit and access.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    Great article! I like to think I am highly organized, and I’ve packed my pack pretty much the same way for about forever. I’ve made a few changes recently with lighter gear and less stuff overall, but basically the system is always the same and works well. However, I find when I am camping with others I am always, always, always the last person ready to go. Doesn’t matter what time I get up, or whether or not we are having coffee, or breakfast, or if it’s raining, etc. I’m always the last one ready. The only exception was when my husband and I did a group Chilkoot Trail hike; the other members of the group were always slower. Maybe my husband is just faster at taking the tent down than I am when alone? Or the other group members were socializing when we were ready to hike. I don’t know. The pattern has frustrated me, but I’ve given up worrying about it because that just makes things worse. And most of the time I go solo with the group (all our own gear).

    There’s nothing I would change. I know where everything is (I could pass the no headlight test), and I rarely bring anything unnecessary (with the exception of a few first aid items that fortunately go unused). But it does get tiresome being last, while others are trying to be patient. I would even try to get up ahead of others, but as soon as they hear me stirring, they start getting up too, even when I beg them to please just sleep longer! And they know why I’m getting up earlier. So it goes.

    Monte Masterson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Indiana

    “Modern gear is light enough that I see little need to futz around with weight distribution. Except for food, which I keep at the top, everything else is as close to the same density that I can arrange things that I can just arrange things for fit and access”.

    True Todd, but I’m talking more about water weight specifically because that can be the heaviest and most dense item in a pack, especially in drier areas where water accessibility is lower. And some people choose to bring along a little liquid spirits as well. For example I like to sip on a 24 oz mango flavored Corona Refresca Mas after I’ve set up my shelter and I’m just sitting around camp. Distilled spirits and water would of course be lighter, but the Corona sure is good after a long day’s hike (8% alcohol). It’s admittedly heavy though….goes on top in the pack.

    Murali C
    BPL Member


    Monte – I think having heavier items on top in a frameless pack help if the frameless pack is too wide and the pack becomes a sack of potatoes where everything gravitates towards the bottom or such. I felt that with MLD Prophet DX210 which is 7 inches deep. With Yargear, it is 5 inches wide and VX21 and so, there is a little bit more structure and things tend to stay vertically where you put them as they have no space to slide around.

    That said – I have definitely felt I can climb better when the water bottles are up at the top of the pack for easy access. I should try placing food as well like you do and try it. I am training for the AZT where 3L’s are common on some sections and having 2L on the top rather than on side pockets does help while climbing. But, I still feel like I like to have it on sides so that I don’t have any water accidents inside the bag etc.

    I feel 22 lbs with 1 L of water is easier to carry than 22 lbs with 3L of water. Water weight is so dense! I have tried splitting the 3L into several half liter bottles to distribute weight as well.

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    ” When I was on the JMT, I heard hikers complaining about having to rummage through their bear canister for stuff they are looking for or having to empty everything. I told them what I do which is: layer every day’s food on top of each other – lunch, dinner, snacks for the last day goes in first, then the next day etc so that you never have to rummage or empty your bear canister. This seems elementary – but seems to escape many folks.”

    Works if you are unconcerned about fitting all your food into the canister.  When space is tight, it becomes more important to fit the food inside, rather than layering it as you suggest. We stack our energy bars around the sides of the bear can, because they take up less space that way, and remain unbroken. And our lunch food usually goes on top, no matter what, because we want to access it during the hike without digging in the rest of the can…

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    I carry a bear can, and like to have it horizontal at the bottom of my pack. Hence, I have a larger bag. The advantage of a larger bag is, compression isn’t needed and organization is simple. I agree that after food and my bag and tent, everything is so light that organizing it according to fit and accessibility rather than weight is entirely appropriate.

    I do as Paul in terms of filling my Bearikade. I have a small, light belly pack for carrying lunch and steripen and map. I put lunch in that in the morning, so no need to unpack my canister until dinner. It stays at the bottom of the pack. For me, a canister up top creates too much sway. Plus, my pack has a ‘shelf’ on the bottom that carries the Bearikade (inside the pack) perfectly. No pack sag this way either.

    As for water, I rarely carry any. there’s enough en route to meet my needs, with rare exception.



    Locale: The Cascades

    This is why I like my packs to have two lower side pockets and two upper side pockets. Everything I need to access during the day is ‘right there’, except for rain gear, which is at the very top of my main pack bag, so also easily retrievable.

    BPL Member


    If I go through my gear list and write down the best place to store each item it doesn’t seem to make sense to use an internal frame or framless pack; inorder to simultaneously satisfy all gear requirements shouldn’t we use external frames?

    Food: bear can/bag outside pack bag to avoid contamination and for easy access. Most comfortable about shoulder height.

    Water: outside main pack bag for access. Heavy, packed against body.

    Rain gear + active insulation: outside main pack bag for access. Don’t have to open pack in the rain.

    Shelter: outside main pack bag for access. In high denier stuff sack for protection.

    Sleep system + warm clothes: dry bag protected in main pack bag

    Headlight, bandanna, small stuff: top lid pocket, hip belt pockets, front pocket, etc. for access

    Considering the popular dual stay pack and systems management, wouldn’t it make more sense for the pack bag to only be half the length of the back with its top creating a load shelf to support gear strapped to the exposed upper portion of the stays?

    Having learned to backpack online primarily from BPL, why all the popular packs are designed as 1 main pack bag with side pockets and stretchy front pockets has always confused me. It seems to me everything everyone here promotes about organization is at odds with the style of packs everyone is using. I’ve read here that these 1 main pack bag packs are lighter, but it seems to me a smaller bag would use less material and be lighter, given the same stays and suspension.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    My pack is nowhere near as light as some of you have achieved, but I’ve found a comfortable level that allows me to enjoy a trip, not fatigue from the pack weight, and get everything packed inside. Good enough for me! I hate dangly stuff on the outside and always have. Even when I have to hang wet laundry on the back, I worry about losing it.  The only thing strapped on the back are my crocs, fastened firmly, not swinging or dangling. I want the pack to be silent, and not very noticeable in general. Hip pockets keep phone and map and all the day’s food. Water is in a side pocket in a plastic liter bottle. At first I didn’t really like the big main compartment, but with less stuff it works just fine. I wouldn’t want lots of stuff strapped onto a frame pack, like the bad old days. Plus the frame always got stuck on brush when tunneling through alders.

    Pack liner goes in first, then sleeping bag in its original stuff sack. Puffy jacket, and all my clothes next, in a cuben sack. Electronics in ziplock next, except for phone and inReach which are kept at hand. If I bring a book or journal, it goes in a ziplock in the liner bag; I usually don’t bring those. That all gets cinched down securely. Bear canister next, surrounded by pot/stove/cup, gas, toiletries, first aid, inflatable mat. (Spoon goes in the bear canister or I would for sure lose it! If I need to stir something for lunch, I find a stick.) Rain gear and any extras like another top layer, hat and gloves if potentially needed, are at the top, easy to grab. Tent is on the side, along with water treatment system. Water on the other side. Or if I need two liter bottles, one on each side, with tent and treatment on opposite sides. The deep pockets keep it all secure. Toilet kit goes in the top lid, or if I don’t bring a lid, in the back stretchy pocket.

    The only problem with the current pack – a Granite Gear Blaze 60 – is that the side pockets tent to collect rainwater. Eventually that seeps through the pack. The dry stuff still stays dry, but everything else gets more damp than it would if the side pockets didn’t collect water. That’s on my list of thing to resolve this winter (while it’s dumping record amounts of rain, ice and snow on us). I’ve considered adding a pack cover, but I hate dragging it along in sunny weather.

    I have a lighter weight pack too, and everything fits into it – a GG VC Crown 60 – but I like the roominess of the Blaze, especially with a bear canister. Having a little bit of extra room doesn’t tempt me to bring more stuff, because I weigh it all, but it does allow a bit easier packing and unpacking.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range

    I thought this article didn’t apply to me until I began remembering searching and searching for small things. Organizing them into ditty bags, hip belt pockets, and pants pockets solved this. Now I could pass the blindfold test, I believe. By the way, I consider my pants pockets part of my Carry System, especially the side cargo pockets that zip closed for security.

    Matthew K: “I do like a thin loop of cord tied near the top of the front pocket of my backpack. I keep my flashlight, Swiss Army Knife and compass attached to that loop with mitten hooks.” I like this idea a lot.

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    I have a multi-coloured stuff sack which lives at the top of my gear in my pack and holds all the ‘little things’. Very convenient.


    Paul G
    BPL Member


    Karen and I seem to be kindred souls. I, too, am usually the last one out of camp, even if I’m the first one up. And I don’t even eat a hot breakfast or drink coffee. But then I’m getting close to 60, so I move slow in the morning until my joints and muscles have warmed up. Plus I need time to stretch, and I am fastidious about packing my gear carefully and neatly, not just blindly shoving everything in.

    I used to have a couple of small ditty bags that were made of different material so I could tell by feel which was which when reaching into the dark recesses of my pack, but neither one was waterproof so I’ve resorted to Ziploc bags instead. Better protection, but harder to tell them apart without looking.

    It’s all about trade-offs.

    Mike M
    BPL Member


    Locale: Montana

    I’m also of the “camp” that everything needed during the day is readily accessible.  That means a few items on my person- knife, phone, compass.  And several bits in belt, shoulder and side pockets easily reachable- snacks, sunscreen, map, water, water treatment, headlamp and rain gear.  I’ve had a few packs that had small side pockets, lacked belt pockets, etc- I don’t own those any longer :)

    My first aid kit, electronics, toiletries, fire kit, etc go into a small dry sack and is located in the top of the pack (in a zippered portion of the pack).  Two dry bags- one for quilt/bag, one for clothing not worn- the quilt/bag dry bag goes into the very bottom, the rolled inflatable pad on top of it, shelter on top of it- I can usually wiggle the cook kit within those layers, the food bag (which is often the bulkiest item on multi-day trips) is near the top and at the tippy top- clothing dry bag to access insulated layers if need during stops.

    My food bag gets reorganized every morning- snacks in outer pockets, that days lunch at the top, that night’s supper underneath, next day’s breakfast under it- everything else under.

    Breaking camp I like to get water boiling; open the valve of sleeping bag and lay down on it to get almost all of the air out, stuff the quilt/bag in it’s dry sack; roll the pad and put those two items in the pack.  Water is usually done at that point and I eat breakfast/drink coffee.  Take shelter down and put in pack; then the now cool cook kit, reorganize food bag and in; strip my clothing down to hiking wear and put remaining clothing in it’s dry bag.  It goes relatively quick, practice makes perfect! :)

    Caroline K
    BPL Member


    Hello all, Time between hikes usually means I forget my “systems” or groups of things. It takes a lot of time to get good and quick at this so you can be ready for a hike within 3-4 hours or less in-order to make it happen. Please see photos and spread sheet ( which may seem over the top) but has helped me get ready to go faster and remember how I stay organized on the trail. Thanks and take care all! CarolineSpreadsheet and packing groups

    Caroline K
    BPL Member



    Mina Loomis
    BPL Member


    Locale: Central Texas

    Re: layering food in bear canister.  That would work if you have each meal and portion separately bagged. But it does not work when you have at least some items that are used for multiple meals.  For example, that jar of peanut butter, or that summer sausage and block of cheese that will last for 3 lunches, or that bag of refried bean powder or hummus powder, or that sack of granola and nido for multiple breakfasts.  Anything like that, and you’ll be excavating that bear can every day anyway.  Doesn’t take long.  Nothing much to complain about.

    Re:  clothing in a dry bag at *top* of pack.  Totally agree.  I don’t have any duplicate items except socks and underpants.  No separate camp or sleeping clothes.  Base layers, mid layers, wind layers, any or all of it might be needed during the day if a storm blows in or the temperature drops a lot.  I don’t want to have to dig into the protected guts of my pack in a sudden storm, to get out base layers or my jacket.  Learned that by experience on the Colorado Trail.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Using the typical roll top type UL pack, I’ve been more into west coast “summertime” backpacking which does not have a typical rainy monsoon season like the neighboring “4 corners plus” states have.  So I’ve been packing my rain shell (the 4.8 oz [U.K.] Montane 777 3-layer) at the bottom of my pack.  Then the typical down quilt on the bottom and heavier shelter and food on top.  I’ve been using an old silnylon orange zip pocket for my mini-Bic, SAK, mini-compass, etc.. inside the pack but may tie it to the outer pocket on longer trips, similar to what Matt does.  I already put hygiene, water filter/dirty bag, and tent stake bag back there .. all while leaving a little slack if I need to dry something back there.

    Bought a well known synthetic puffer last fall, and have sort of struggled getting back into trips with not so pleasant weather (end of summer rainy cascades, mid fall 4-corners where winter may rush in if the jetstream “wimps” out, bringing bad weather to the Sunbelt).  Been thinking of a thicker, yet stretchy “front” pocket to keep puffer and more serious rain jacket (probably my westcomb eVent) handy.  Then there’s the fleece..

    At a certain point bringing a lidded backpack in the 60L range makes sense (lid for storm layers).  Then snow mobility footwear add on need to be considered potentially going into snow (have broken snow going up above Tucson AZ mid-winter or Santa Fe NM late spring sometimes .. other times were bone dry).  It’s always something ..

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    Mike M – Interesting that you can actually do chores while heating water. My water boils in 2 minutes, so no time to do anything; preparing coffee/breakfast is the only task at that time.

    Mina – I cannot imagine not having extra layers packed. I have been too close to hypothermia when  it’s raining/sleeting/snowing for days on end with no break, and then the wind sets in. Not having a dry set of clothing for nighttime seems like madness. Where I go there is no bailout point. Your climate may vary!

    I did a short snowshoe hike yesterday in deep fresh snow – over the hips in places without snowshoes. By the end I was soaking wet, even at minus 25F, and glad I had an extra hat, neck gaiter, gloves to finish out the hike. People say remove a layer so you don’t sweat, but then I’d freeze. I can sweat while in motion wearing only a single layer, and that’s just not enough at minus 25F with the wind blowing.

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    Decades ago I began to have “A place for everything and everything in its place.” habit. THAT is why I am willing to add the few extra ounces of two side pockets to my Osprey EXOS 3 season pack. It continues the “side pocket arrangement” I had with my earlier packs.

    Same goes for the main compartment. Proper layering.

    LEFT POCKET-> 1st aid, water treatment kit, toiletries kit

    RIGHT POCKET->Stove & fuel, kitchen utensil(s), potty kit (TP and hand sanitizer)

    LID->rain parka, gallon Zip Loc bag of “lunches” food

    P.S. When pack designers began making hydration pockets next to the back I was happy to buy a new pack with that feature to move my water bag from the lid to that pocket which provided much better weight placement.

    And after having a Dana Designs “Wet Rib’ front pouch I got used to its convenance in front so later I got a lighter Seek Outside silnylon wet rib for my EXOSpack. It holds map and compass, snacks, bug juice, etc., etc. (Like old mountain men, it’s my “Possible Sack” – if I have it then it’s possible it’s in that pouch.


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