How To Pack A Lightweight Backpack

With lightweight backpacks the way you organize your gear affects comfort as much as what you carry. There are many ways to pack a backpack. Here’s how I pack my ULA Backpack:

(Click the image to see full size)

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My Backpack: Ultralight Adventure Equipment Conduit (CDT)

In The Main Pack Body:

In The External Mesh Pocket:

In The Side Pockets:

In The Hip Belt Pockets:

Attached To Pack Strap:

Tips For Packing Your Backpack Comfortably

Organize your gear into logical groups and stuff sacks. When small items are packed loosely they tend to poke you in wierd ways, shift position as you hike and get lost quickly in camp.

Put your sleeping bag on the bottom. This provides a soft cushion for your other gear to ride on top of. It works like a shock absorber to reduce the impact on your shoulders and hips.

Pack large heavy items horizontally across the whole width of the pack so the weight is equally distributed. Put the heaviest items (such as food) closest to your center of gravity (middle of your back).

Carry water bottles in the side pockets (one on each side). If you use a hydration bladder carry it in your pack’s hydration sleeve or lay it horizontally across the middle of the pack.

If your shelter has poles pack them separately in a side pocket secured with a compression strap. Stuff the tent body loose into the bottom of your pack or in the external mesh pocket.

Keep items you’ll use often during the day (such as snacks, maps, camera) where you can grab them without taking off your pack, like in hip-belt pockets or side pockets.

Keep spare clothes near the top of your pack where you can get to them throughout the day without unpacking other gear.

Don’t leave areas of empty space in your pack. Fill nooks and crannies to give the pack structure and prevent gear from shifting as you walk. Use compression straps to cinch everything down tightly. Your fully loaded pack should not sag, lean or bend.

42 Responses to “How To Pack A Lightweight Backpack”

  1. Roger Reply

    What,if any,changes to this packing arangement have you made since you changed to the lightheart tent and the exped synmat ?

      • Roger(tramp)A Reply

        Just saw that.. Tks. Why the switch from the solong 6 ? how about doing a comparison review of one vs the other.
        I took your list and patterened my gear around that list and it is awesome. im sure there are lots of us out here that do the same. you cant change gear, no matter how little, and not tell us all why ! :) have a super day, my friend, and be safe.

        • @Roger: I used the Solong 6 for three years and liked it a lot. My only real complaint is that the peak of the tent was in the middle (and I prefer it to be at the head). I had a few problems with condensation dripping onto my face and feet since the head and foot of the tent were not very tall there. I got the Big Agnes more out of curiosity than necessity. These last few years I have been watching the weight of traditional free-standing shelters coming down and since it was only a couple ounces more I figured I’d give it a shot. I’ll update this post after I’ve been able to use it more.

  2. T Osborne Reply

    Hi Erik; how do you attach your hiking poles to the ULA CDT?

  3. Brian Reply

    Your site is so awesome! So much invaluable advice , tips, and resources. Thanks so much Erik the Black!

  4. Chris Reply

    Why the switch from Exped to Thermarest? I am 6’3″ around 190#. I currently carry a much heavier Thermarest at 2 lb. 6 oz. with 2.5″ thickness. I would like to go lighter but I also don’t want to go back to something only an inch thick.

    • @Chris: I switched from a 3/4 length Thermarest Prolite 3 (which I believe weighed around 11 ounces) to a full-length Exped Synmat 7 (16 oz). The Exped is more comfy and worth a few extra ounces I think.

    • DougB Reply

      I replaced a self inflating thermarest about that weight. I was looking at replcing it with the Thermarest NeoAir XLite. When trying it out at REI, I discovered that it makes a crinkling sound when I moved around on it.

      I ended up with the REI Flash. It’s quiet, just 1 pound, and rolls up into a relatively small package. Plus it was cheaper and only an ounce heavier than the Thermarest.

      With an R-value of 3.2, you’ll need an extra foam if you sleep on snow, but for regular ground it should be OK. So far I think it’s comfortable, but only have 2 nights on it at this point.

      • @DougB: That’s the same reason I went with the Exped (didn’t like the crinklyness of the NeoAir.)

  5. Evan Reply

    Erik, wondering if you have done any hiking in Utah?

    • @Even: I have done some day hiking in Utah like in Zion Nat Park but haven’t done any long hikes there yet.

  6. Richard Reply

    What do you think of the New Balance 461 cross country running shoe? it is super lite and the sole is made for rough surfaces. Durability well(?), I wear them daily for walking ( i do alot of that) climbing, work and they keep my foot firmly put. But I will check out the Merrell you recomend(sp)

    • @Richard: I’ve worn New Balances before. Not that particular model though. New Balances used to be pretty popular among thru-hikers. I don’t see them that often anymore now that there are more shoes built specifically for trail use. The New Balances are pretty good shoes, though they don’t last as long as some trail shoes. I got about 400 miles out of mine.

  7. Richard Reply

    Was wondering if you ever teach studip’s like me the extremely fine art of long distance backpacking/suvival in the wild. including food/clothing/training/-I got the rest cover and warmth ok.

  8. Richard Reply

    could you please tell me which ( in your opinion) are the lightest and best shoes for long distance hikes!

    • @Richard: My favorite hiking shoes and the ones that I have worn for the last six years are Merrell Moab Ventilators. They are not the lightest shoes out there, but are very comfortable, breathable and durable (will last 900 miles before needing to be replaced). They are available in low and mid ankle heights and wide and normal widths.

  9. Adam Reply

    Thanks for the swift reply Erik. I have been copying your set up. If your using the aquafina bottles, what do you use to purify?

  10. Adam Reply

    I do not see your platypus bladder on here. On your video you show your pad folded up instead of along the back. Which do you use now?

    • @Adam: My inflatable sleeping pad gets folded up and stuck in the back of the pack against my back. I carry 1-liter Aquafina bottles and sometimes Platypus bladders. If I need less than 2 liters of water I’ll just bring the bottles. Then if I need more capacity I’ll add a 2.4 liter Platypus.

  11. Patrick Reply

    What size is the granite gear zippsack? Planning JMT in 2012. Have bear canister used before so may be redundant to use both. Zippsack seems to make packing easier though. I use REI Flash 65 pack and getting canister inside isn’t easy/possible; too tigh. Thoughts/advise??



    • @Patrick: The zipsack I use for my food bag is the largest size, which they call “Medium”. It’s big enough to hold 6+ days of food and the zipper makes it easy to root around inside and find what you need without dumping it out. Unfortunately, these sacks are becoming harder to find on the internet. Even the Granite Gear site only has the smaller sizes available. I fear that Granite Gear may be discontinuing them. But you can still get them at

  12. RJ Lewis Reply

    Just a note, UrSack makes 2 bags now- one for bear protection at 8 oz or so total (without liner), and a rodent bag, which is much lighter at a whole 2 oz, but protects you from various rodents and other sharp toothed animals. I do have a regular bearcan for the JMT and the like. But truthfully, if I can get away with it, I use my Ursack or the rodent one because they are so much easier to use and I’ve never lost my food to critters using them. Lots of miles on those bags!!!
    I also use a Conduit, but I go down a size for summer hiking, as the Conduit is never full. Thanks for all the terrific tips I see on here- from everyone! It’s helped me get my own packweight down to around the 10 lb barrier- less than 10lbs for summer.

  13. Silver Reply

    I love my Ursack ( On my AT SoBo bears were rarely an issue but I still carried the ursack (a little extra wight but a very convenient compromise). Never had to hang a bear bag – just tie it to anything away from camp. On several occasions I watched various rodents (shelter mice included) try to gnaw their way in. Didn’t even leave a mark.

  14. Forest Arnold Reply

    Good ideas in your discussion of how to pack an ultralight backpack. I have been using a Golite Jam backpack for the last 6 years and feel like I need one size larger. I am 6’6″ and have a long torso. Any suggestions on backpacks besides getting the next size up from Golite. Thanks.

    • @Forest Arnold: I have a similar problem with my ULA Conduit. I’m long in the torso and I think back when I bought this pack several years ago they only offered one size (they have three torso sizes now). I tend to carry it low on my back so that the waist belt lines up with my waist, which means the shoulder straps are pretty long (like in this picture). It’s not too uncomfortable, but when this pack finally wears out I do plan on getting the correct size for my torso. Six years is a pretty good run for a pack. If your Golite is still in good condition maybe you can sell it on Ebay and get the version that fits you better.

  15. Shoeless Joe Reply

    Great post. Looked in vain for just such a diagram before my last trip. Glad to have one now!

  16. Wolfman Reply

    Mr. Redwood, They Do!

    It’s called an external frame pack! :) Yea I know not even close to UL.

    But in reality, most of the time if I am carrying a bear canister it just gets stuffed in the pack as close to center as I can get it. They also make great chairs.

  17. Steve McAllister Reply

    Hey Erik,

    I was looking at your diagram and noticed that it was almost identical to how I pack and then I noticed that we both use the ULA Conduit:-)
    Anyway, I fit my Bear Canister(BearVault 350) in the same space as you show for the food bag. It may be considered a small canister, but if I pack high density dehydrated food, I can fit 6 days(10 lbs) of food in there.

  18. MrRedwood Reply

    During several of the trips I made where bear bagging was okay, I found it took more time than I wanted to track down a tree that had a decent branch for hanging (conifers aren’t so good at that), and I’m tempted to start bringing a canister even when it isn’t required, just for the convenience. I suppose that means I’m not much of a UL hiker :-)

    That’s why I was intrigued by the new Granite Gear pack. I’d like to see someone try to design a pack that tries to use a Bearikade as part of the frame, without wasting fabric to cover it.

  19. Smiley Reply

    Hi Erik

    Looks good I will have to try this with my Pack. What size is the pack that you did this with?

    • @Smiley: This is for my ULA Conduit. I don’t have the specs on hand but I believe the main pack is about 2000ci, not including the outside pockets and extension collar. It’s about torso size.

  20. MrRedwood Reply

    Doesn’t account for a bear canister.

    Granite Gear just introduced a pack designed around canister; interesting idea, although I think it still needs some work. has a slideshow —

    • @Mr. Redwood: I rarely use a bear canister, but if I can’t avoid it (such as on the JMT) I just strap it to the top and move some gear (like tarp and groundsheet) from the outside pocket inside to take up the extra space.

      • J Walker Reply

        When carrying your bear canister, is it full of food when strapped up top? Does this mess up your pack balance with so much weight up top?

        • @J Walker: Yes it is full of food. It does not affect the balance of the pack much. My pack is short so even with the bear canister it is below the level of my head.


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