How to Properly Load a Pack

May 22, 2014 by | 2 Comments

Properly loading a pack can mean the difference between a leisurely stroll or grueling hike. One piece of gear in the wrong spot will dig into your body, damage your gear, or even throw you off-balance and cause injuries.

A properly loaded pack offers several advantages, such as:

  • Comfort
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Increased capacity
  • Ease of access
  • Reduced noise

I prefer a pack with several pockets, both inside and outside, but I always like to include a few extra bags to organize my gear inside my pack, including waterproof bags for clothing.

You should start by placing bulky, heavy items such as a tent or sleeping bag in the base of your pack. A lower center of gravity makes your pack easier and more comfortable to carry, but more importantly, it helps you maintain your balance. This is critical because a single fall can cause a debilitating injury.

Items that you may need to use infrequently should be loaded next. This could include a cookset, a waterproof bag of spare clothes, or extra ammunition; things that are heavy or bulky but you may only need a few times each day.

Next is equipment and supplies that you might need at any time, such as food, fire starting gear, or a flashlight. By the time you get to this, your pack will probably be nearly full. I pack my hygiene gear and first aid kit at this level as well.

Once your essentials are in your pack, you’ll likely have a fair amount of space consisting of small crevices. Gear like tarps, space blankets, or 550 cord fit nicely into these odd spaces and can help to stabilize your entire pack by reducing wiggle room between items.

The gear needed in your pack will vary based on geography; for example, folks in the north may need a heavy sleeping bag or snow boots while people in the south, like me, can get away with packing much lighter.

Level one:

  • Cookset and stove

Level two

Level three

  • Hygiene gear
  • First aid kit
  • Fire starting kit

Nooks and crannies

  • Tarp
  • Mylar space blanket
  • 40′ of 550 cord
  • 3–liter CamelBak hydration system
  • Extra ammo/magazines
  • Fishing/trapping kit

Pouch in top flap

  • Quick snacks (jerky, dried fruit, protein bars)
  • Flashlight/LED headlamp
  • Leatherman tool
  • Whistle

Side pockets

I’ve shared what has worked for me, both in the Marine Corps and the civilian world; look at this all as a starting point or a set of guidelines and not “rules” because you’ll have to tailor your exact packing plan to your needs and gear. In most cases, you should pack in order of weight/size, then in order of how often you’ll need a particular item. You’ll likely go through some trial and error—what seems logical while packing may turn out inefficient, cumbersome, or uncomfortable once you’re actually in the field with your pack on, so do a few test hikes before a real emergency comes up.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

Was this info helpful? Share it with your friends!


  • Alexandra says:

    I was better at this kind of thing when I was a kid. I lived 20 years in the woods and hope I don’t have to do it again, but I am per paring for martial law, my plan is to run to the woods, no FEMA camps for me.

    • johnny108 says:

      Cache spare firing and extractor pins, cleaning kits- if not complete bolt assemblies, for every weapon you carry. Not to mention 1,000 rounds per cache site.

      Random places, random depths in PVC pipe chambers, with desiccant packs, parts soaked in cosmoline, or Wd-40,ammo packed to exclude oxygen. Don’t forget your antibiotic creams, bandages, splints and band-aids. You may not make it to the woods in one piece.

Share Your Thoughts...

Leave a Reply: