Packing your backpack is a follow up to last weeks discussion on how to choose, fit, and adjust a backpack to meet your needs.
You now have chosen a backpack and you are ready to embark on a journey. What do you put into the backpack and how much do you put in, where do you put it and why do you put it where you do? These are the next key questions you want answered to be assured that you will have a great experience and that you are prepared for an adventure. These same principles apply to the day hike because all of the above attributes are our desires for every trip. We want to be comfortable, not painful; safe not short sighted, and prepared not to miss any opportunity to engage in the providential adventures offered on each trip out.
In addition to how and why to pack what you pack, we will discuss the care and feeding of your backpack, storing it, and waterproofing. I will also discuss hydration, though it is not directly a part of the backpack question; it is an optional item that can be included in your backpack selection and packing preparation.
Last, but by far not the least, I want to impart the concern of weight. The lighter the gear and supplies the lighter the pack, the lighter the pack the lighter the shoes/boots required. The issues of balance in difficult terrain goes down and the stamina goes up and so does the experience of freedom. The process of going light is developed individually by evaluating your gear and supplies after each trek. First, always include the 11 essentials. This is your safety net. Then make two piles of your gear and supplies. One pile for those items you used and one for those you just carried around. Decide if you really need all of the items in pile two and discard what you can. When your next buying season comes around evaluate what you can replace that is lighter and more efficient. Over time you will discover two things. The first is you will develop a list of gear and supplies that are essential to you and likely must be on every adventure. The second is that you will discover you can become quite creative in meeting your needs and going lighter. A lighter backpack makes hiking a ton more fun.
PACKING YOUR PACK
Loading an External-Frame Pack. The major consideration in loading a pack is how best to distribute the weight.
There are two basic principles: for trail hiking over flat ground, the weight of the pack should be high and relatively close to the body. The heavier items should sit between your shoulder blades. For consistently steep or rough terrain, carry the weight lower to give you better balance and avoid falls from having a higher center of gravity. In this case, heavier things should be placed more toward the middle of your back. To achieve either arrangement, load the heavier, bulky items into the large top compartment in the position where you want most of the weight. Then fill this and the remaining compartments with lighter items. Tents and tarps can be lashed to the extender bars at the top of the pack and sleeping bags can usually be lashed to the frame at the bottom of the pack. In either case, the horizontal weight distribution should be balanced so that the left side of the pack is in balance with the right. A woman’s center of gravity is generally lower than a man’s. So, for women, the heavier items should be placed close to the body but lower in the pack, as in the case for rough terrain, described above. Packs designed especially for women take this into account by lowering the pack bag on the frame. Load these packs as described above and then lash sleeping bags and tents or tarps to the extender bars at the top and bottom of the pack.
Loading an Internal-Frame Pack. The key thing to remember is that you can’t fight the basic laws of physics. Try and keep the heavyweight as close to your body as possible.
The further the weight moves from your body the heavier it feels and the more difficult it is to control. For easy, level hiking, a high center of gravity is best. To achieve this, load bulky, light gear (e.g. your sleeping bag) low in the pack and stack heavier gear on top of it. For steeper terrain, a lower center of gravity is best because it lessens the chance of falls from a top-heavy pack. In this case, place heavier items a little lower in the pack and closer to your back than normal. Women may prefer this arrangement under all circumstances.
A well-loaded pack is as skinny as possible. A skinny pack is easier to carry and control. Use every compression strap and pull it as tightly as possible. A poorly loaded pack will cause you to spend far more energy and endure unnecessary pain.
Develop a color-coded packing system. There is nothing more frustrating than having to go through your whole pack to find the gear you need.
I suggest you use colored stuff sacks. Red is for an emergency. Pack your medical kit and survival kit in red bags and mark them on the outside. Put clothes into another color, food into a separate color, etc. This not only identifies your contents but it helps fill all the voids and avoids content shifting.
- Develop a pocket strategy. My day hiking backpack, for example, has about 8 pockets. I carry the same gear in the same pockets all the time. Within the pockets are stuff sacks where practical. So my navigation gear is always in X pocket, my snacks, my camera, etc. Most often the priority is based on a need-strategy so, for example, in my case, I have my camera in my most accessible pocket.
- The horizontal weight distribution should be balanced so that the left side of the pack is in balance with the right side.
- Avoid hanging things all over the outside of your pack—no one wants to listen to you clank and clang your way down the trail; also, all that junk can snag branches. If you find yourself having to tie things on all the time, either your pack is too small or you are carrying too much (or both). This is also a direct violation of the principle of stealth. Being present but not manifest.
- For protection from rain, line your sleeping bag stuff sack and main pack compartments with plastic garbage bags. They also work as emergency shelters.
- Fuel bottles should be placed below any food items or in pockets on the outside of your pack.
HOW MUCH WEIGHT?
How much weight you should carry depends on your size, weight, and physical condition. It also depends on your need and hiking strategy.
The general rule for a multi day backpacking trip is to carry no more than 15 to 25 percent of your body weight. On longer expeditions or trips with more gear (such as winter camping), this figure may go up. The bottom line is, don’t carry more than you need or more than you can handle. Many a hiker has blown out knees, ankles, or backs by hauling more weight than they could handle. Here are some things to do to make your trip as comfortable as possible:
TIPS…Before you hit the trail
- Try on your loaded pack at home before you leave and, if possible, do a mini hike to evaluate. An hour climbing through some brush and up a hill or two will tell you a lot about your pack weight.
- Fiddle with the pack and adjust it at home (you probably won’t take the time to do this at the trailhead while your friends are waiting).
- Weigh your pack and compare that to your body weight. Figure out the percent of your body weight that you are carrying. Is it too much?
- Take a good look at what you are bringing. Prune out the nonessentials.
- Look and see what other people are carrying and how the whole group can share the load in a way that makes sense for each member, given size, weight, physical condition, and experience.
- Checking Your Pack Before a Trip:
- Take a look at the shoulder straps, hip belt, and other compression and load-carrying straps. Check all buckles, zippers and seams.
- Check the pack itself for rips or tears.
- If the pack is an external frame pack with a pack bag mounted onto the frame, check the attachment pins (typically clevis pins and split rings).
CARE AND FEEDING YOUR BACKPACK
With this in mind, when the season is over, place your pack in the tub with warm water and some scent free laundry detergent and let it soak for a while. Rinse it and hang it upside down so it can air dry. This is the perfect time to inspect the pack for any loose strap or signs of problems. DO NOT PLACE YOUR PACK IN THE WASHING MACHINE OR THE DRYER.
STORING YOUR PACK
After each time the pack is used, turn it upside down and shake out all the crumbs and other remnants of all things edible. During a long cold winter, mice will smell those little morsels. (FYI, we only have one documented case were a mouse has unzipped the pack to enter.)
WATERPROOFING YOUR BACKPACK
Your pack, unless it is made of rubber, is stitched together. Normally off the shelf a backpack will have the seams and zippers sealed and taped, and reasonably waterproof. Reasonably waterproof means, in most cases, that they can withstand rain for 1 to 3 hours and then things start getting wet. If you have an older pack, you’re in trouble likely within a half hour. The reason is that your seams are made of threads and threads act like small wicks which absorb water and eventually soak through and, guess what, you have wet gear, clothes and food. The plastic bag liner I mentioned earlier will assist to keep things dry and the stuff bags, if water repellent, will also be a good line of defense against moisture. But tramping along on a multiday trip with a wet bag is just asking for trouble; extra weight and dirt sticking to everything. So, each season as you pull your backpack out in preparation of that year’s adventures, spray it, spray your stuff bags, and anything else that needs it (like boots and clothing, tents and hats) with a nonchemical waterproof spray. The key here is to get a waterproof spray that smells like dirt! If you don’t do the dirt smell you’re going to have a tough time being present but not manifest if you smell like daisies. I am not here discounting your first line of defense, which is to put on your waterproof cover that most modern internal frame packs have built in. The trouble in relying solely on the cover is that it can be a pain to work with when you need to access your gear or while taking a rest break and forgetting to put it back on or putting your pack down on soaked ground. The opportunities for forgetting to adequately protect your sponge, which is what an unprotected non-waterproofed backpack becomes, is not worth the potential impact on your trek. You may need to recoat your backpack during the year if you are using it a lot, especially under wet conditions. A dry pack interior is a bit like dry clothes, for then everything works better.
Dehydration is one of the most preventable backcountry problems but also one of the most ignored. Do not allow yourself any excuse to keep you from proper hydration and proper hydration properly.
Failure to stay hydrated can lead to serious and even life-threatening problems including heat-related illnesses, hypothermia, hyponatremia, and death. Stay Hydrated. So what does that mean? We will get into an extensive discussion about hydration in another venue but as related to picking a backpack a good standard is 10 to 12 ounces of water every 1/2 hour. But taking it properly means you don’t just stop every half hour and drink down 12 ounces of water and then press on. You will feel crummy and it is not meeting the bodies need. You really want to be consistently taking in water with the goal of consuming the allotted quantity of water every half hour. The most efficient means of doing this is to use a water bladder. Consider getting a backpack that has a bladder compartment built into your backpack. Not only is it accessible for constant use but also moving back to one of our key principles of discovery hiking and that of being present but not manifest, water bottles are noisy particularly when half empty along with being inconvenient. Remember our pocket strategy! See if you can find a pocket that allows you to conveniently, and without lots of movement including taking your pack off, access your water every 10 minutes without undue noise and distraction.
The ultimate goal of adventure hiking is to have your equipment be a facilitator of discovery, not a deterrent.
You want that pack to fit comfortably both on the trail or in the backcountry where there is no man made trail and you are laying on your stomach watching porcupines (baby porcupines) enjoying their morning munch.
I hope to meet you on the trails of adventure.
With Hiking Stick in Hand,