The Art of Packing a Backpack

Have you ever packed your bags in a hurry and then left home with an awful feeling of having left something behind? If not, are you the kind of person who packs an extra pair of nail clippers in case you misplace the first? Either ways, packing a backpack is more art than science. Haphazard packing is easy to ignore over a weekend trip but over a month long vacation, it could literally drive you insane.

I distinctly remember franticly scrambling around on the eve of several holidays debating whether shower gel was necessary (it’s a valid concern) only to forget my toothbrush in the process. I have also gone through ‘let’s pack everything but the kitchen sink’ phases that ended up with me carrying the world on my shoulders, praying fervently every morning for my holiday (and pain) to end.

Over the years I’ve attempted to transform my backpack packing ritual into a distinct process that makes it a bit more difficult to mess up.


Secretly hoping that Lady Luck will shine on your backpack, allowing it to miraculously overcome the trials of cheap travel unscathed would be naïve. The reality is…shit happens.

Make peace with the following assumptions and you’ll be well on your way to having a better holiday.

  • Your bag will be mistreated
  • Your bag will get wet
  • You will have to carry your backpack for 2 hours straight

Ground Rules

Plan for the worst and hope for the best. In order to ensure that your backpack survives the atrocities committed against it, a few counter measures at the outset are crucial.

Use dry bags for everything – Your clothes, documents and electronics should be safely tucked away in dry bags (or storm bags) so that come rain or any water related mishaps short of the great flood, they’ll survive.

Pack compact heavy items first – Packing compact items first at the bottom of your backpack ensuring that the load is close to your spine. This greatly helps while carrying around your backpack. Softer items on the outside will ensure that the heavy items don’t have any wiggle room.

When in doubt, leave it out – Given that you’re going to have to lug this backpack around for days on end, it would be wise to pack light. Throw away the heavy duty sleeping bag, boots, aftershave and all unnecessary creature comforts. As for expensive stuff, ask yourself – will you cry if you lose it?

Buy as you go – Shampoo, shower gel, deodorant, etc. are inexpensive items that are capable of causing huge disasters if let loose in your backpack. One strategy to avoid this is to pack none and buy these items once you get to your destination. Give yourself a pat on the back since you’re also being a nice guy / gal and supporting the local economy.

Never pack to capacity – Dirty laundry has the uncanny knack of expanding when repacked into your backpack. Additionally, souvenirs that seem weightless and miniscule when purchased eventually gang up and fight for precious backpack real estate. Packing your bag to 80% capacity gives you plenty of room to improvise as you roll.

The Stuff

Your stuff should fit into the following 4 categories.

1. Clothes

Warm weather packing should never require more than 5 pairs of t-shirts, shorts and underwear. Cold weather can be slightly trickier. Dressing in layers will help you get away with fewer heavy warm clothes. Irrespective of where you go, packing more than 1 pair of jeans is indefensible – they’re heavy, bulky and painful to wash.

2. Shoes

For most purposes, 2 pairs of shoes should suffice. One nice pair that can be worn to dinner and a pair of floaters. Although boots do feel good, unless you’re planning to do some hiking, stay away from them like the plague. My latest favorite in the shoe section is a versatile pair of Vibram Five Fingers that can be used for running, hiking and are probably lighter than your thongs (Aussie slang for flip-flops…what were you thinking?).

3. Toiletries & First-Aid

Most of the stuff required here is pretty straightforward. Just stay away from heavy and dangerous glass-bottled colognes and you’ll be fine. Try and keep the hypochondriac in you in check while packing a first aid kit. Even better, buy one from the nearest pharmacy.

4. Electronics

Electronics have the capability of making life a lot easier. However, it still is a crime to pack an electric shaver. Don’t miss a trick here. A Kindle can inexpensively and effectively replace bulky books forever. I never leave home without it. Add to that a smart phone, pocket camera, pen-drive and you’re pretty much done. If you’re a DSLR person, you’ve got no choice but to silently endure. As for the age-old laptop dilemma, you’re going to have to take a personal call on that one.

Other than sunglasses, I can’t for the life of me think of anything else that doesn’t fit into the top 4 categories. If you do find something, do let me know what it is. And I hope you’ve got a damned good reason for taking it along.

Packing Technique

The biggest mistake you could make while packing a backpack is by rushing to fill all your stuff into the bag. Resist the urge to dump everything into your bag. Lay out your junk out on the floor beside your bag first. Is there anything missing or unnecessary here?

Packing a Backpack

Now, bring out dry bags (or even simple plastic bags) and pack your stuff into modules. This helps with packing, unpacking and keeping things organized.

Packing a Backpack

Loading the packs into the bag is a piece of cake and will take less than a minute.

Packing a Backpack

And with that….we’re off to see the World!

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4 Comments on “The Art of Packing a Backpack

  1. Just to be a pedant with the four categories question – money and passport? Surely you need those too?!

    • SJ – Sorry to disappoint, but money and passport are to be left out of the backpack and in your pocket at all times 🙂

  2. I will tell you what the bitch is – packing for a business trip on the sidelines of which you plan to do some backpacking. There is almost no right way to do it.

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