Packing Tips For Backcountry Hikers — Backpacking Meal Plans, Packing Lists and Tips for Hikers and Casual Paddlers

Now that I’ve shared my backcountry meal plans and packing lists, it’s time to put it all together with these packing tips for backcountry hikers. You’ll need to know what’s in those posts to follow this one, so take a moment to read them if you haven’t already.

We're on our way to sharing our packing tips for backcountry hikers...
By Blackmb (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

So, once we get all our gear together, it’s time to organize it all so we’ll know where to find any given item, and so we’ll be able to get to it whenever we need it. We also need to consider how heavy our load will be.

Optimally, hikers should aim for a pack weight not exceeding 30 percent of their body weight. Marc and I have the advantage of hiking as a couple. If one of us is a little too heavy, we can rearrange things until it’s a bit more even for both of us.

Those who are hiking as part of any sized group can do the same with a lot of communal gear. There’s no point wanting “your own” of something if carrying it around is going to make you miserable!

So with these important issues in mind, it’s time to start sharing some packing tips.

#1: Home Storage

But before I move on to my packing tips for backcountry hikers, here’s a tip for storing your gear at home when it’s not in use.

We keep all of our gear already organized, all the time. It’s always ready to grab in handy travel bags. We just take out whatever we don’t need for the type of trip we’re taking. This makes packing simpler for three reasons, the first one the most obvious. It saves a lot of time when packing for a backcountry trip if the gear is ready to go. But it also saves a lot of time taking gear out instead of putting gear in. You don’t have to struggle with a decision if you’ve already made it.

So if you often find yourself wondering whether you should bring such-and-such heavy or superfluous item, make the call when you’re feeling strict about your backpacking gear needs. Once you’ve stored the item away from your go-to gear, you’ll forget about it since your task will no longer be to add things to your pack.

I’ve got a plastic bag full of spare items I used to pack along, simply because they were stored with everything else. It was force of habit to have them “just in case,” and easier to bring everything than to choose the items we really needed. Now that we’ve organized ourselves, nothing sits there waiting to be grabbed as an afterthought — it’s become part of our packing routine to remove extra gear based on trip type.

Another reason taking stuff out is better than putting it in is that it makes you focus on the task. Ask yourself, “What else can I take out?” instead of “What else can I put in?” People usually try to find more things to add to their lists, so which one would you rather be wondering about while you’re packing? But if you’ve sorted out your stuff beforehand, there shouldn’t be many extras left in the first place!

#2: Car Bag

There’s another tip I’d like to share about getting organized before I delve into more serious packing tips for backcountry hikers. It’s the car bag. I’ve come across a lot of people doing the second half of this suggestion, but I haven’t seen much about the first.

The car bag contains things you’ll need in the vehicle or immediately before or after your trek. This includes clean clothes, running shoes, and snacks to make the drive home more comfortable. But it also includes a few more important items.

If you’re driving for a while before getting to your trekking destination, you might not want to wear your hiking clothes and boots right away. If that’s the case, then pack all the hiking gear you’ll be wearing on your person in the car bag. You don’t want to have to rummage through your pack when you’re anxious to get started!

If you’re concerned about not leaving enough space for your hiking clothes in your backpack, don’t be. At no point will you be carrying the bag and not wearing the clothes, so it shouldn’t be allotted any space in your backpack.

Moreover, you can wear the same thing on the drive there as on the drive back if you’re really keen on keeping even the car bag down to a minimum.

The other things you’ll want to have ready in your car bag are your driver’s license, vehicle information, a credit card, and your health card. We have a tiny pouch we keep it all in. These things are kept together because you may need them on the drive and while picking up your hiking permit, but you’ll also need to put them in your backpack once you’re ready to set off. Our tiny pouch has a loop on the zipper, so we attach it to one of our backpack’s key clips along with the car keys.

Why do you need this? Well, arguably, you don’t. But if something happens to you out there, you’ll have your health card in case of injury and your identification in case of loss of consciousness or death, as well as access to some funds should the need arise.

#3: Organizational Gear

I’ve already mentioned one of our packing tips — that we use travel bags to organize our gear, and that we have a tiny pouch in which we keep our important documentation. We’ve got a lot more than that, though! It’s extremely useful to have all kinds of organizer bags and in different sizes.

What’s best is that you don’t actually have to spend a lot of money to get them. A lot of gear comes in its own stuff sack or organizer bag, but often it’s not convenient to pack certain items separately like that.

We’ve repurposed a lot of bags in just such a way. For example, each of our four microfiber towels came in its own zippered pouch, yet the biggest of them was large enough to fit them all. So we found other uses for the smaller three! One of which was, as mentioned above, storing our various cards.

I’ll go over the different types of organizer bags we use and explain what we do with them.

Stuff Sacks

  • We’ve got a large stuff sack that folds neatly into its own pocket, which we bought to stuff clothing into, or to hang food from a tree. We don’t use it for either, and we find it too big to be useful in organizing our backpacks. In fact, the only time we use it is for stuffing both our sleeping bags when we’re sleeping in the van, usually on blueberry picking trips. So our verdict: unless you’re hanging food from a tree branch, there’s no need for a large stuff sack on a backcountry hiking trip.
  • We’ve got a medium-sized mesh stuff sack that came with the foam pads we use to put between the canoe and the roof of our van. Since we leave the foam pads in the car during our treks, and since we still have the box to store them in at home, we use the stuff sack for Marc’s camp clothing.

Odourless Bags

  • We have three large odourless bags, which we use to store our food and the dog food.
  • We’ve also got three small odourless bags which we use to store our snacks, the dogs’ snacks, and our toiletries.

Plastic Freezer Bags For Organizing and Protecting Food and Gear

  • We also use whatever zippered baggies we come across since we need all kinds of sizes. For example, a small bag that once held tea now holds adhesive bandages, and another that once held a USB wire now holds spare boot laces.
  • Use as many as needed. The goal is to keep things easily accessible and tidy. So, the boot laces are in a tiny bag to themselves so that they don’t get jumbled up with other items in a larger travel bag. The adhesive bandages are kept in a bag separate from the gauze and antiseptic towelettes to make it easy to grab the item needed in a hurry (and in the case of the first aid kit, to avoid contaminating unused supplies).

Travel Bags

  • A medium-sized bag for toiletries
  • One larger bag for cooking gear
  • One medium-sized bag for camp gear
  • Two smaller bags (one for each of us) for easier access to hiking gear
  • A medium-sized bag for towels
  • One large bag for food
  • A smaller bag easily accessible for snacks, refilled each morning at camp
  • One larger bag for my clothes, which I use as a pillow
  • One medium-sized bag for the rest of Marc’s clothes, which he uses as a pillow
  • One small bag and one medium-sized bag for dirty laundry, packed in our clothing bags
  • We also have many other small bags which help us keep individual items organized, such as rain covers and bug vests that need to be kept handy but that would cause a messy jumble were they packed loose.
  • We use a small dry bag to carry out any wet items we want to store inside our packs.
  • I just wish we had a couple more medium-sized stuff sacks for our raincoats.


  • These are clearly a necessity! Even though they might go without saying, they’re so crucial they deserve to be mentioned. I’ve got the MEC Brio 65-litre and Marc’s got the North 49 Catalyst 75-litre.


We’ve got a few other types of containers that help us organize our gear when packing for a backcountry trip.

Hard Carrying Case For Eggs

  • We’ve got two of these, one for a dozen eggs, and the other for six eggs. We barely ever use the larger one.

Salt and Pepper Shaker For Salt and Pepper

  • We bought a camping salt and pepper shaker set, but even the tiny containers are too big for our needs. We pre-mix the salt and pepper and only use one half of the set.

Salt and Pepper Shaker For Toothy Tabs

  • The other half of the salt and pepper shaker set holds our Lush Toothy Tabs. Since we keep these with our toiletries and not with our food, this half of the shaker doesn’t have a lid (it should be the bottom of the first half). The toothy tabs barely crumble at all in the shaker, though, so it’s not a problem.

Now, I’ve heard the argument that stuff sacks and travel bags aren’t flexible enough in a backpack, meaning that a lot of empty space is left in the bag. This is true when the bags are stuffed very full, but so long as we leave some space in each, they’re flexible enough to wiggle into tight spots without shifting around during a hike. That is, except for the cooking gear bag, which is pretty inflexible. So is the food bag at first, but since its volume goes down every day, that changes rather quickly.

#4: Packing Camp Food

Next up on my list of packing tips is how to pack camp food. The first thing to do is take everything out of any bulky packaging (for example, the box the dog treats come in), and put it in resealable plastic freezer bags (we always wash and reuse ours). This is a huge space saver and helps reduce pack weight.

Also, measure out the exact quantities you’ll need on your trip. For instance, we measure the exact amount of oatmeal we’ll need every morning.

Do bring food rations for one extra day, just in case…

Pre-wash any fresh fruit and vegetables since otherwise you will have to use filtered or boiled water.

We organize all food in two large odourless bags before neatly storing it in a travel bag. The travel bag keeps all the food together, while the odourless bags help keep bears away.

#5: Packing Emergency Gear

One of the best packing tips is also one of the biggest ways we’ve reduced our pack weight: by bringing less emergency gear. We realized that we don’t, for example, need the entire first aid kit, just a couple of each item in it. And the same goes for the wilderness survival items. Did we really need a whole package of fire starter, or just one stick?

One way to cut down on emergency gear is to use small plastic baggies to stash a few of each item, leaving the big boxes and bags at home.

Another is to cut corners. Literally. Just like some ultralight backpackers will cut off the ends of long straps in an effort to save a few ounces, cutting off only the bits of emergency gear you need for your trip can make a big difference.

Try cutting down the length of rope and wire you bring. And try rerolling a length of duct tape around a small piece of cardboard. That’ll save a ton of weight!

And even, cut the rain cover out of the top pocket of your backpack so you can stash it wherever you want. Plus, if you leave it attached, then you can’t zip up the top pocket when you’re using the rain cover.

#6: Multipurpose Your Gear

These are a few simple but efficient packing tips. Oftentimes, you don’t need to bring something specifically made for a set purpose when a more general instrument will meet multiple needs. That’s why we have deep-dish plates — so we wouldn’t ever again need to pack bowls like we used to.

Likewise, washing and reusing resealable dehydrated meal envelopes works well to store leftovers — there’s no need to bring an empty container.

Evaluate your packing list and see what you can eliminate by multipurposing something else instead. Simple logic and creativity are all you need.

#7: Packing Your Backpack

Well, now to put it all in the backpack! A few factors to consider are weight distribution, balance, and accessibility.

I used to put the heaviest stuff on the bottom, forgetting how that drags all the weight down on the hips and shoulders. Oh no! That’s when we learned the importance of weight distribution.

But balance matters, too, and we just had to learn that the hard way. As it turns out, the closer heavier items are to your back, the more balance you’ll have.

Plus, stuff that’s hanging on the outside of a pack can get snagged on branches and get damaged. No good.

The following packing tips are what finally helped.

The best way to pack a backpack for a trek is to start by stuffing your sleeping bag into the bottom compartment. That’s right, stuff it. No need to bring a stuff sack for your sleeping bag, and no need to roll it up in the mornings. Stuffing your sleeping bag is actually said to be better for it than rolling it, as creases form when you roll a sleeping bag, which weakens the insulation.

Next, pack something light like clothing or your tent over the sleeping bag. Then try to stack heavier items like food and cooking gear close against your back, and mid-weight items towards the front of the bag. Don’t stack the heavy items too high, though. Just like putting them all on the bottom drags the pack down, stacking them too high makes the pack tippy.

Your stove fuel should be packed somewhere below your food, in an upright position. We wrap ours in a plastic bag as well, just in case.

Finally, finish packing the main compartment with something lighter, like your tent or clothing.

To keep your pack balanced, try packing all your gear inside your backpack and avoid as much as possible packing anything outside your pack.

In all likelihood, you won’t be able to avoid packing your sleeping pad on the outside of your bag, but you could try putting it above the main compartment, beneath the top flap.

If you’re buying new travel bags, you can get them colour-coded to help you organize your backpack. Otherwise, always try to pack your bag the same way. You’ll get accustomed to where stuff goes and soon won’t have to rummage around quite so much.

One of my favourite packing tips is also remembering to consider ease of access when packing your backpack. Items you’ll need while on the trail, such as snacks, bug vest, camera, rain cover etc., should be packed in external pockets. Emergency gear should also be easily accessible, including a flashlight, even if you don’t expect to hike in the dark.

#8: Adjusting Your Backpack

The last of the packing tips deals with adjusting your bag both while you’re packing it and while you’re wearing it. Your pack’s compression straps help keep everything in place inside the bag and on your body. There are usually compression straps at the very top of the main compartment, on the sides of the pack, and on the front of the bag. Before you start packing, make sure all your straps are loose. Once your pack is full and all zipped and clipped up, pull these as tight as reasonably possible to steady your load.

When putting on your backpack, make sure the hip belt sits over your hip bone.

Once you’ve got your backpack on, you’ll also want to tighten the hip belt and shoulder straps, as well as the stabilizer straps by the hips and shoulders.

Follow-Up Packing Tips for Backcountry Hikers

If you like these packing tips for backcountry hikers, then check out Packing Lists for Backcountry Hikers to download a free printable hiking, camping, and cooking gear packing checklist!

You can also get information on where to buy the products mentioned here by reading Backcountry Gear Shopping in Toronto.

There are more great backcountry packing tips in the rest of the Backpacking Meal Plans, Packing Lists, and Tips for Hikers and Casual Paddlers series. Tips for casual paddlers are featured in the last instalment.


4 Thoughts on “Packing Tips For Backcountry Hikers

  1. Bob:

    Well written, again, Julie.

    The most important sentence in your article is right at the beginning — Ask yourself, “What else can I take out?” instead of “What else can I put in?”

    Once you are past leaving out, instead of putting in, you are well on the way to weight control.

    Again, well done…

    1. Thanks, Bob! (smiley face).

  2. Janice Scott:

    Extremely helpful and very well summarized article! Great packing tips. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Janice! I’m glad to hear that you found these backcountry packing tips useful.