How to Pack a Backpack Like a Pro Athlete

by David Miller Jul 18, 2012
Learning to pack well allows travel to unfold more freely. Matador Ambassadors share their tricks.

LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE, packing is a progression. The more you practice the better you get. For those of us who grew up camping and backpacking, knowing how to pack a backpack is almost taken for granted. And yet, in a conversation recently with the crew at Gregory, we found that “how do you pack a backpack?” is one of the most common questions they’re hit with.

I put this question to our Ambassadors, who are constantly traveling, and — as pro athletes, filmmakers, and photographers — typically have to pack more gear than average. For example, Katie Lambert (pictured above), has a rope, a double rack of cams, 10 quickdraws, seven slings, two liters of water, food, coats, gloves, shoes, harness, chalk bag, sleeping pad, and a small sleeping bag, all packed into her Sage 45.

Here’s what we came up with.


Several Ambassadors mentioned “staging” as a fundamental part of their packing process. As opposed to just going through your closet and packing gear piece by piece as you find it, staging is getting everything laid out and organized beforehand. It might be an extra step up front, but it makes the packing process more efficient, and helps to ensure you’re not leaving anything behind. Here’s Cody Forest Doucette’s process:

Cody Forest Doucette’s gear in “exploded” stage.

    1. “Explosion stage”

    This entails me taking over the entire living room and spreading all manner of gear, clothes, and equipment across the floor.

    2. “Meditative stage”

    I sit in the corner, stare at the piles of stuff on the floor and think very hard about where I’m going, how long I will be there, and what I hope to accomplish. After sufficient meditation and at least one beer, I begin…

    3. “Consolidation stage”

    During consolidation I open up the bags I plan on bringing with me (backpack, carry-on sized roller bag, plus a ski or surfboard bag) and begin packing soft stuff like clothes and outerwear. I then move to my camera equipment (which always provides a challenge as I rarely bring the entire kit; it’s just too heavy and valuable to carry around for weeks on end in harsh conditions) and electronics. After the clothes and camera gear is locked and loaded, I finish up the consolidation process by packing all the recreational paraphernalia: a good book, magazines, cribbage board, playing cards, and dice.

    4. “Idiot check”

    I double-check that I have all the little things that are easy to forget and damn near impossible to get while on the road — for example, chargers for all manner of electronic equipment, extra batteries, passport, Gold Bond. After that I’m pretty much ready to go and I enter the “lets get the f*** out of dodge” stage.

Checklists and clothing rolls

Matador Ambassador and U photography program director Colby Brown takes staging one step further by using checklists: “I start off by making a checklist of all the gear I might use on a trip; however, before I actually start packing, I try to wiggle that down by at least 1/4th in size. Now it becomes a game of sheer organization and skill in what I call ‘packing tetris.'”

Colby also notes: “I roll all my clothes, forcing them to have a smaller footprint inside my bag of choice, in this case a Gregory Stash 65L. This means that all shirts, pants and even underwear is rolled like a cigar.” Check his example below:

Small bags and ziplocks

While packing big items — clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad — is pretty straightforward, little items — everything from stoves to utensils — tend to shift around in your pack and end up buried when you need them. The key for keeping things organized is to use stuff sacks, ziplocks, and drybags.

Colby makes sure small pieces such as batteries and chargers “are organized into ziplock bags, which helps to keep random wires and accessories from having a free for all while in transit.”

Over the years I’ve found small mesh stuffsacks (here’s an example from REI) incredibly useful. You can put toiletries in them; you can wash socks or underwear and then put them in there to dry (hanging the bag on your pack) during the day as you’re hiking.

Some newer-school packs such as my current Savant 38 actually have water-resistant roll-down top compartments, but there’s still no replacing the old-school drybag (SealLine and OR are both solid brands) for ensuring key pieces — such as your sleeping bag — stay dry. You might also consider small drybags for making sure you always have dry emergency layers of polypro, polartec, etc.

Packing order

While thru-hiking the AT in wintertime, the constant cold and wet conditions forced me to get daily packing routines down to a science. I found that with a little prep the night before, I could leave just the right space in the bottom of my pack (then a Lowe Contour IV) for my sleeping bag, and in the top for my stove kit.

Accessibility is a function of packing order. Whatever you’re planning on accessing regularly, put in last. Photo of author’s pack by Laura Bernhein.

What this meant was that I could essentially wake up, cook breakfast, and even get dressed without ever having to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. The very last thing I’d do each morning was pack my bag, put on frozen boots (with tongues carefully stretched out the night before), and immediately begin hiking so as not to lose warmth.

For climbers, backcountry skiers / snowboarders, and mountaineers who must be able to get at the right pieces of gear before hands get too cold, the stakes are even higher for packing in the right order. Although the level of intensity might be lower in your adventures, this can still help you visualize: What pieces of gear will you need to access immediately? What pieces will you want to grab all at once when you get to camp each night?

For simple travel packing, Colby likes to put “shoes in, one on top of the other, at the end of the bag. This usually helps to keep them out of the way. I tend to put all medication, med kits and tripods in last, finding just the right spot to keep them all safe.”

Final review & tips

Packing “rule” # 54: you don’t have to fit it all in one pack. Matador Ambassador Ben Ditto with his backcountry “ski tour” setup.

One final note: Your ultimate teacher will always be experience itself and the terrain / conditions involved. Each different kind of trip forces you to re-examine your packing style.

For example, when I took my first surf trips to Central America, I still packed as if I were backpacking through Southern Appalachia, with all my pointlessly “protective” 4-season outerwear and ultra-lightweight backpacking equipment. A couple months of camping on beaches and cooking over fires and I jettisoned my backpacking stove and cookware for a $5 loop-handled cookpot I could hang over coals and cook enough beans and rice to get me through the next swell.

You’ll find that the longer you spend out in the field, the tighter your pack (and similarly, your camps) will get. That being said, here’s a quick review and final few tips to make packing easier and travel / backcountry time more comfortable:

  • “Stage” your gear first before packing.
  • Consider using a gear / packing checklist.
  • When in doubt, take less gear; nothing kills the flow like an overstuffed, difficult to manage pack.
  • If packing for extended travels, consider taking additional bags such as roller or duffel bags that you can leave with nonessential gear in storage or a hostel bodega. Keep the backpack you’ll be using in the field as light as possible.
  • Don’t just throw in a few bandaids and ibuprofen; carefully assemble a lightweight but comprehensive and self-contained first aid kit.
  • Roll clothing to maximize space.
  • Use ziplocks, dry-bags, and stuff sacks to keep gear dry and organized.
  • Use outer compartments (and/or mesh stuffsacks attached to pack) for wet gear.
  • Experiment with ways of packing your sleeping bag so you can access / re-pack without having to empty the entire backpack.

How do you like to pack your backpack? What tips have you learned? Please share them with us!

This post was sponsored by our friends at Gregory, whose gear is helping stoke the Matador Ambassadors.

Discover Matador