The perfect pack

The Baltimore Sun

You've mapped out all your routes and bought all your supplies. You think you're properly prepared for an overnight hike in the great outdoors. Now, all that's left to do is pile everything in any old backpack and head out.


Not exactly. Although it may seem like a rather simple concept, choosing a backpack for a hike and loading it properly is as important as remembering all your supplies.

So before you hit the trails, taking some precautions and educating yourself will ultimately make the hike more enjoyable.

The first, most important aspect of preparation according to Chris Rohlfs, head of the Baltimore Hiking Meetup Group, is finding a pack that fits you and your needs. If it is your first time hiking, go to an outdoor supply store. There, Rohlfs says, someone who is experienced will help you choose a pack.

Those new to hiking who are being fitted for a pack might be surprised to find that larger backpacks have taken a new form. Backpacks with the large external cages have been replaced by those with internal support frames. These internal frame backpacks, according to Ashby Robertson, REI Outdoor School guide supervisor, give hikers a few advantages when compared to older, external frame packs.

Robertson says the internal frame pack will move and flex with hikers when they move, while the external frame pack is more rigid.

"Both types of packs serve their purpose, but I've known that you wear an internal pack and you carry an external pack," he says.

Another advantage to buying an internal pack is that it provides more storage space because of the placement of the sleeping bag. With externals, it's customary to hang the sleeping bag on the bottom of the bag because of its bulk. Hanging the sleeping bag on the bottom provides more space inside the external pack.

Now, sleeping bags can be tightly packed in stuff sacks and stored in the bottom of an internal frame backpack.

There are a number of reasons for putting the bag at the bottom. Mark Laidlaw, editor of, a hiking Web site, says it is best to put the sleeping bag in first not only because it is the last thing that you'll use during an overnight hike, but it also provides a good base to support heavier supplies.

After putting the sleeping bag at the bottom of the bag, separate your supplies first by weight, then by how frequently you will use them throughout the day. But before you load anything else in the pack, be sure to take a few things into consideration.

"When you're loading up the pack," Rohlfs says, "the important thing is to consider the center of gravity."

Heavy and dense objects should go as close to the spine as possible and between your shoulder blades. The idea behind this, Rohlfs says, is to prevent the pulling and straining effect that is caused by putting the heaviest objects in the bottom of your pack and away from your back. The farther that heavy objects are from the spine, he says, the more uncomfortable the pack will be.

Some of the heaviest objects you'll probably take on an overnight hike are cookware, a tent, food and extra water.

Andrew Bowers, manager of Bass Pro Shops in Hanover, says the tent will probably be the heaviest and most cumbersome piece of equipment, aside from water and cookware.

"To create balance and save space, separate the tent poles from the tent and tent fly," he says, "then store the poles vertically on either side of the bag while keeping the tent and fly in the center with the rest of the heavier objects."

While it's important to have a well-organized main compartment, it's equally important to store frequently used supplies in an easy-access pouch or pocket. This will prevent you from having to stop, remove the pack and sift through it.

Robertson says to keep supplies like insect repellent, snacks, a compass and spare water in an outside pouch.

"Keeping more than one bottle of water is especially important, in case a bottle is lost or broken," he says. "It's like keeping your eggs in separate baskets."

When planning a trouble-free hike or overnight camping trip, there's a lot riding on your shoulders - literally. But making an inventory for the essential backpack doesn't have to be a Herculean task. Here are some basics to make you a better trailblazer:

Backpacking essentials

WATER: According to Andrew Bowers, manager of Bass Pro Shops in Hanover, water should be stored in a series of bottles if you don't have a separate pack, like a CamelBak, that holds it. He says to keep one bottle in an easy-access pocket and the others in the main compartment close to the spine and between the shoulder blades, along with other heavy objects.

SLEEPING BAG: Mark Laidlaw, editor of, says, "It's best to put your sleeping bag in first, because that's the last thing you'll need at the end of the day." Plus, the sleeping bag will be packed tightly in its bag and provide a good base for the remaining supplies to rest on.

CLOTHING: Spare clothing will be the lightest and most flexible supplies in the pack. Some of it should be stored in the bottom of the pack or stuffed inside of pots and pans to save space. A jacket or hat can be stored in an easy-access pocket or in the top of the pack in case it needs to be used quickly. Always store clothing in a waterproof sack in case of inclement weather.

COOKING SUPPLIES (POTS AND PANS): A lot of modern outdoor cooking equipment is very light. But if your equipment is older and made of stainless steel, it can be one of your heaviest supplies. Pieces should be stored together inside a waterproof stuff sack.

BACKPACK: The backpack that most hikers use is an internal frame pack. This pack has more flexibility than older external frame packs. "Internal frame packs move with the body, making them more comfortable on a long hike and when you are constantly changing terrain," says REI Outdoor School guide supervisor Ashby Robertson.

FIRST-AID KIT: It's best to keep a first-aid kit in an easy-access compartment or near the top of the pack so it can be removed quickly.

COMPASS: You will probably use this frequently throughout an overnight hike, so keep it in an easy-access compartment.

HEADLAMP: In case you must hike after the sun sets, the headlamp will free up your hands and provide ample light when referencing the compass or passing through shrubbery. Keep it in a small, separate pocket or in a stuff sack by itself

FOOD: Robertson says to bring food that is high-calorie and lightweight and can be cooked easily by adding water. Food for meals should be stored together in a waterproof sack above the sleeping bag if it is light. If the food is canned, it should be packed near the top of the main compartment above the cooking supplies. Snacks should be stored in a stuff sack inside an easy-access pouch.

WATERPROOF STUFF SACKS: "Use some smaller stuff sacks to keep smaller items organized and not just floating around in the pack," says Laidlaw, of Stuff sacks come in different colors and sizes.

TENT: The tent can be packed in a number of ways. Bowers says the best way is to pack it in two components. The legs should be stored vertically along the left and right sides of the pack. The fabric and pegs should be packed directly between the shoulder blades. The tent will probably be the heaviest piece of equipment (5 pounds or so). Packing the tent in two parts allows easy access. Bowers says this will facilitate a fast setup in case of bad weather.

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