A poorly loaded backpack can put a serious strain on your adventure in the backcountry. Here’s how to pack a hiking backpack with efficiency, convenience and comfort in mind.

There’s a scene early in the 2014 film, Wild, where Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon’s character) prepares her pack before setting out on her three-month, 1,100-mile-long solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With little outdoors experience, she makes a big mistake: She overpacks — so much she can hardly stand, let alone walk, with the pack holstered to her back.

About 100 miles into her journey, a fellow camper helps her strategically “prune” her bulging pack of unnecessary items. The backpack — which earns the nickname “Monster” from fellow PCT thru-hikers — has etched deep, dark bruises on her shoulders, back and stomach.

“Overpacking is just as bad as under packing,” said Becki Rupp of Colorado-based Trailblazer Wellness and a Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner.

She should know because it’s exactly the kind of thing she teaches. As an avid hiker with a background in search and rescue, a certified health coach and a personal trainer, she specializes in helping people get physically and mentally prepared to make the most of their next adventure trip – whether they’re hiking Kilimanjaro or a section of the Inca Trail.

“Carrying all that extra weight drains your energy and you just can’t go as far or enjoy it as much,” she added. “It’s about finding a delicate balance.”

How do you ensure you’re packing the gear you need — not too much and not too little — prior to taking to the trail? And how to pack a backpacking pack? It may not seem particularly important, but strategic packing makes all the difference in terms of being comfortable — and safe — on the trail.

Research and Match Your Gear

Rupp actually creates a master list of all the gear she might need. Then, based on the research she’s done around the weather and terrain of the area she’s headed, she crosses items off she won’t need.

A few examples of what she takes into account:

  • What will the range of temperatures be (how much will the temp drop when the sun goes down)? This informs the number of extra layers she brings, plus the kind of tent (three-season versus a four-season tent).
  • How about the possibility of precipitation? While Rupp always packs a rain jacket (even if no rain in the forecast), she’ll also pack rain pants or her gaiters if expecting rain.
  • Will the terrain be rolling with big climbs and descents or relatively flat? How about the distance and weight of the load she’ll be carrying? This indicates whether she needs hiking poles or not.

“Doing your research and packing accordingly is important — especially as any extra room you have can be put toward bringing a couple creature comforts, like a thicker sleeping pad,” Rupp said. “Every ounce really does count.”

[Related Reading: Pro Tips for Hiking Safety]

And if you’re going to have a hiking partner, remember to confer with them about bringing items that can be shared between the two of you. “There are certain pieces of equipment — like kitchen equipment or a first aid kit — that you can share, so you won’t need duplicates as long as you’re planning to stick together the entire time.”

Consider a Packing System

Harding Bush, Global Rescue’s operations manager, always stresses pre-planning and being organized whenever you’re headed into the backcountry. Which is why he, personally, loves a good packing system.

“Before filling my rucksack or backpack with items, I use stuff sacks to separate and organize — I put underwear in one, toiletries in another, food in another. And every sack is waterproof,” he said. “You don’t want a bag of electronics or your first aid kit getting moisture damage.”

If you’re tight on space, compression stuff sacks can help reduce the bulk of clothing or sleeping bags.

How to Pack a Hiking Backpack

When it comes to actually packing your backpack, it’s all about two things: comfort, meaning your gear must be packed well, so it doesn’t interfere with your center of gravity or randomly poke you in the back; and convenience, so you can get the gear you need easily, without having to empty everything out.

Think of your backpack as divided into four zones — bottom, middle front, middle back and top (see diagram below) — and store accordingly to these rules:

  • Bottom (1): Medium-weight gear and the items you need the least access to while out on the trail, like your sleeping bag or pad, pillow and camp clothes.
  • Middle Back (2): Heaviest items (cookware, stove, tent, hydration reservoir) close to your back for a stable center of gravity.
  • Middle Front (3): Lighter gear: first aid kit, towel, other light-weight clothes.
  • Top (4): Smallest and lightest items — like snacks, your lighter, extra layers — you’ll need easy access to.

How-to-pack-a-backpack-diagram web

“The gear you need the most often needs to be most accessible. The items you don’t need as much — say your sleeping bag, which you only pull out once a day — can be down at the bottom of your pack,” Bush said. “But, if hiking in an environment where you know there’s going to be a temperature drop, you’re going to want your warming layer — your down layer or your wool hat — to be very accessible.” The same goes for snacks and water since it’s important to keep your energy up.

And don’t let those little hip pockets go unused if you have them on your pack.

“I keep my lip balm, sunscreen and toilet paper in there, so I don’t even have to take my pack off to get to them,” Rupp said.

Hiking Hydration

It may seem obvious, but Rupp is keen to underscore the importance of water. “Water is life,” she said. “And you’re getting nowhere without it. Carry enough with you — not just your pack’s hydration bladder, but extra bottles if you’re in an area where water is scarce. And always have ways to treat or access more.”

[Related Reading: Filter or Purify? How To Treat Water]

Note she says “ways.” She means carrying multiple water treatment options, like the bottles with a built-in filter, pump-style filters and even purification tablets.

“When it comes to water, you need to make sure you have a plan b and c,” Rupp said.