Planning and executing your first backpacking adventure can be exhilarating and daunting all at once. Picking the trail you want to explore, the time of year, the itinerary, the travel plans — man what a rush! But then, suddenly it’s the night before, and you’re sitting on your living room floor at 3 a.m. staring and a heap of equipment and food.
You may be wondering, how in the heck will I get all of this into one little backpack?! You could always just cram it like a stuff sack and hope it fits, or you can take a more intentional approach to save space. Aside from a handful of core essentials, what you carry on your back and the gear that’s inside varies depending on the person and the objective.
However, there are a few cardinal rules that apply to having a well-packed and balanced backpack and avoiding an infuriating game of Tetris. My first step is to make sure all my equipment is in working order. Before my first trip of the season, I will give everything a once-over to make sure there are no issues that could cause a headache out in the field.
The Bennett family continues to crush the CDT — 2021!
There’s really no wrong way to pack a backpack, but having a system goes a long way. Taking the time to put a method to the madness will result in a more enjoyable, and arguably, more comfortable first multi-day outing into the woods. Once you develop a solid packing plan, you might start to find this portion of your trip enjoyable, and find your own creative way to stash your stuff.
Below, I’ll lay out my favorite packing methods that I picked up from a few years living in the White Mountains of NEMO’s home state of New Hampshire. Feel free to pick and choose what works for you, and customize this packing plan to fit your own backpacking trip needs and gear.
When I started guiding, I was, to be frank, a hot mess. I had gear strapped all over me, I packed things I would NEVER use, and I just overall didn’t have a clue. Luckily, I make friends quickly and a coworker helped lead me in the right direction. She taught me the brick-and-mortar method of packing and that is what I will be sharing with you today.
A well-compressed sleeping bag makes a great foundation in your backpack.
No matter how you decided to pack your bag, I recommend following these rules:
- Bulky and heavy things should be closest to your back.
- Put the things you don’t need often at the bottom and the things you might need quickly at the top for easy access.
- Food above fuel, always. You don’t want a leaky water bottle ruining all your food for a trip.
- Pack your layers in reverse order to how you will put them on, making it easier to pull out only what you need. This trick is especially useful in the winter.
- Pack your bag the same way every time until it becomes muscle memory.
- Line the inside of your pack with a trash bag. This keeps your dry stuff dry — even in the heaviest downpours. Pro tip: stick your dirty socks OUTSIDE the trash bag but inside your pack.
Now that we’ve got the rules out of the way, let's have some fun.
To pack using the brick-and-mortar method, we want to treat our gear like we are laying the foundation for that cabin in the woods you’ve always wanted. Our larger, bulky items are our bricks, and anything stuffable is our mortar. The mortar could be your extra clothes, your layers, or your tent. By filling all the available space you’re ensuring that your pack is both balanced and condensed to the smallest packed size possible.
Laying every piece of gear out helps to organize your packing process, and gives one last look to ensure nothing is left behind.
First thing’s, first — lay out all of your gear. This will give you an idea of what needs to go where, and will give you a chance to make sure you’re not forgetting something crucial.
Now, follow these tips:
- Loosen all of your backpack's compression straps to ensure you have the maximum amount of space available to you.
- Your first brick of bulky stuff should always be your sleeping bag. I compress mine and fill the loose space around it with my extra clothing and my sleeping bag liner if I’m packing one.
- After you have a solid base, in goes your cookware, fuel, and backpacking stove against the “spine of the bag”. Around the pots and fuel, I like to stuff my tent body and fly (like mortar). On this layer, I will put my water filter next to my fuel.
- Next are my sleeping pad and tent poles. I’ll slide the poles vertically all the way to the bottom and against the side, and do the same with my sleeping pad on the other side. The center, vertical pocket on the pack exterior is good for these items as well.
- Now that the fuel is in, I’m comfortable putting my food in the pack. I like to use dehydrated backpacking meals, so I’ll layer them like shingles. For snacks, I keep them all in a handy stuff sack that I can just pull out and munch on. This goes right on top of the shingles.
- The last layer of the main compartment is my layers. I bring a puffy, fleece, rain shell, and pants, but your list is all your own. Puffy is at the bottom, then my fleece, with my raingear on top — just in case.
- If your pack has extra accessory pouches, this is where I will put my "bits and trinkets" (as a coworker once called them). Lip balm and an extra snack or two go in my hipbelt pockets. My headlamp, hat, gloves, toiletries, and sunglasses go into the brain of my pack.
The author enjoys some time in the Swedish backcountry with his well-balanced backpack.
And there it is folks, a packed backpack. Go ahead and cinch down all your straps and take in your good work. This guide is meant as a starting point, please customize it however you like to fit your needs and gear.
Let us know how it goes, or if you have any other pointers to share by emailing Journey@nemoequipment.com or shoot us a message on our social media pages.
Travis Gagliano is a Dealer Services Representative at NEMO and loves to fly fish, backpack, and explore new landscapes.