Patrick McKearly is not above regrouping on the trail. Ten minutes from the trailhead, he’ll stop, dump out the entire contents of his pack, sit down, and completely reload it. Even after backpacking for a dozen years and helping hundreds of trip participants load their own gear, AMC’s education department logistics manager says getting it right still requires trial and error. McKearly offers these backpack-packing ABCs so you can hike with ease—free from pinched shoulders, aching hips, and that constant yearning for the next rest stop.
A IS FOR ACCESSIBLE Avoid standing in a downpour while digging for your Gore-tex by making sure vital items are easy to retrieve from your pack. “Keep the things you need handy,” says McKearly. “You want to get at your raincoat, water, sunscreen, and snacks.”
B IS FOR BALANCED Have you ever struggled with a pack that keeps listing to one side while you hike? “Keep it balanced right to left with the heavier stuff closer to your spine,” says McKearly. “If it’s not, you’ll be fighting gravity all day long.” And fighting a backache even longer.
C IS FOR COMPACT Don’t waste a centimeter of space in your pack. Before you start packing, loosen all the compression straps, then after you shove everything in (ignore your mother’s advice and stuff—don’t fold—your clothes), pull them as tight as you can—with the goal of “avoiding pockets and voids,” says McKearly. “Don’t worry about keeping it neat—nothing will fit.”
S IS FOR STREAMLINED If you’re one of those hikers with the stray Teva strapped on the back of your pack or the sleeping pad strung on top, you’re not doing yourself any favors. When you find an item you forgot to pack, take a minute to stuff it in your pack, don’t just tie it on. With persuasion, you can fit it all in, says McKearly. And because you’ll be better balanced and not snagging trees, you’ll move a lot more efficiently with your gear inside your pack.
Here are a few more specific recommendations McKearly’s learned along the way. Note that these tips are for internal-frame pack users.
NEED WHAT YOU HAVE Keep it light, but make sure you bring enough layers to stay warm. Don’t carry anything you’re not going to wear a lot. McKearly admits he’s not the lightweight disciple who drills holes in his toothbrush. “But for a weekend, you don’t need a change of clothes each day.” And be smart: you may soon regret the ounces you’ve shed by eliminating the headlamp or first-aid kit.
FOLLOW THE PACKING ORDER Get the bulky stuff in first, stuffing the sleeping bag at the bottom, then filling in those holes with socks and smaller items—including your food: “I’m not into being too gentle with food,” advises McKearly. “It tastes the same if it’s mashed or whole.”
MORE THOUGHTS FOR FOOD Store your meals in plastic containers or durable Ziploc freezer bags to keep leaking to a minimum. Stash the current day’s food close to the top. Reassessing your food is the easiest way to reduce pack weight: Are you really going to eat that entire two-pound jar of peanut butter? McKearly’s number one caveat is to keep food and fuel far from each other. (Always pack fuel near the bottom or in a side pocket.)
WALK ON WATER Keep water bottles very accessible, or use a pack that can accommodate a hydration bladder and tube. While many hikers hook the bladder on the outside of their pack for ease, that can also lead to “sloshing and puncturing,” says McKearly.