The ABC’s of Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the first outdoor activities our Explorers tackle in the Explore Austin program. While it may seem simple – put on your pack and hit the trail – you may be surprised to learn there’s a science behind filling the perfect backpack. Our expert trip leaders teach our Explorers the ABC’s of backpacking, and now you can learn the basics, as well.

When packing, think about your stuff and ask yourself these questions: What will I need today? What don’t I need?
You can make your life easier by placing the items you need in an easy to reach location. Items like a raincoat, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and snacks should live at the top of your pack, or in a separate, convenient pocket. Items like pajamas, dirty clothes and a sleeping bag should be packed at the bottom. You won’t need these items until the evening; plus, you won’t have to dig through your dirty clothes for that raincoat in a downpour.

Balancing a pack is important. Imagine having 30 lbs in your pack. Where would you want that weight? All on one side, at the top or at the bottom? The correct answer is all of the above. The weight of your gear should be distributed so that your pack is an extension of your body. The key is placing heavy items in the middle of the pack, closest to your own back. Imagine the area above your hips and below your shoulder blades; that is where you want your heaviest items. If you have too much weight toward the top, you will be top-heavy, and your shoulders will hurt more.

Keep your gear tight and compressed in your bag. If you have straps, tighten them down. This keep everything in a nice, neat, manageable bundle. Your center of gravity will thank you for the extra effort to keep things compact.

Every space in your pack should be utilized. If you see a small deformity, a little hole of space, fill that hole. Stuff some socks in there, maybe even a shirt or two. This is not the time to fold nicely; stuff it all and make sure all that space is used. Space is limited and we want to be efficient.

We know – in the movies the hikers always have stuff hanging off their packs. It looks so cool and totally rugged! But, according to the experts, you want to make sure to pack all your gear inside your pack. That Nalgene strapped to the outside will fall off and that wet towel tied on might not make the trip. If you are packing smart, then every piece of gear has a purpose and loosing that piece of gear will create problems.

If you are traveling with food and fuel (like a canister of propane for a camp stove), make sure the fuel is packed below the food. Why? If that fuel leaks and gravity takes it down into some food, that awesome dinner you were looking forward to all day is no good to eat. This is also a good rule for items like shampoo and sunscreen.

There you have it! The ABC’s of Backpacking! While these rules are a good place to start, there are many ways to pack and everyone should develop their own systems. Play around. Practice packing. Take many trips. If you have any tried-and-true tips, drop a comment and share your expertise with us!