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How to load a backpack so you don’t lose stuff along the trail

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published September 20, 2017

The time when my gear is the most organized is before the trip. After everything’s in my backpack, all bets are off. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

As I hiked through the brush, I extended my left hand behind me to make sure my bivouac sack was still strapped to the side of my pack.


I kept walking. I thought it was on my left side. Maybe I'd forgotten, and it was strapped to the right side instead.


That was when I stopped, unbuckled my backpack and heaved it on the ground. Maybe I moved it inside?

No, no, no.

There's a sinking feeling I get whenever I lose something on the trail. When that lost item is my lightweight shelter, that feeling is amplified by a magnitude of 10.

This happened on a traverse at Hatcher Pass I wrote about earlier this summer. I was planning on spending the night at a backcountry hut anyway — the bivy was my backup. But that didn't make the loss sting any less.

And that's why I have to take extra measures to secure items strapped to the outside of my pack. Otherwise, they're fair game for Mother Nature to claim.

Some people I know can get away with stuffing everything into their backpack without a second thought. They can rummage through it without risking the loss of anything.

Not so for yours truly. When I have to empty my pack to grab something essential, I've done something wrong. Plus, at that point, I'm more liable to lose a piece of gear. (I've learned to always scan any resting place before hiking onward after a break.)

So, here's my general strategy for packing a backpack in a Vicky-proof way: Bury what I won't need until later, keep heavier loads centered and toward the bottom, and make sure I have easy access to what I'll use along the way.

My sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping pad are the first to go in the pack. Compressed as much as possible, the bag serves as a nice, even base for the rest of my backpack's contents. I won't need either until later, after I've set up camp, so there's no need to keep them easily accessible. If there's space, I'll squeeze in other camp-only items, like down booties in winter.

My bear canister will go in next against the back panel, instead of being carried in one hand for miles. The middle of my pack is a good spot for water as well, though if I'm carrying Nalgene bottles, I'll have one higher up for easier access. I'll throw in my stove, fuel, cooking pot and water filter next. (If any of those fit in the bear can with the bulk of my food, all the better.) Most of my clothing, contained in a stuff sack, will fill in the gaps. If I'm carrying a tent or bivy, this is also probably the safest spot.

Whatever I may need sooner on my trip, I'll keep toward the top of my pack. That includes my map, snacks, some water, rain gear, headlamp, first-aid kit and sun protection. There's a zippered pocket in my pack's top compartment — the "brain" — where I might stash some of this, along with my inhaler and knife.

What do I carry on the outside of my pack? Nothing I don't mind losing, unless I've taken additional security measures. That bivy on my pack at Hatcher Pass would've benefited from a couple of extra straps. Sometimes I'll keep traction devices or rain gear in the stretchy mesh pocket on the back of my pack — they're pretty safe there. Otherwise, external pockets are reserved for dirty gaiters, camp sandals, empty cans and whatever trash I find along the trail.

If you're an experienced backpacker, you're probably already doing all of this to where it comes naturally. When a colleague asked for advice on how to pack a backpack without needing to empty its contents every time they wanted to retrieve something, I had to stop and mentally pack my own pack to describe the process.

But it's always worth a reminder to myself that I need to consider the weight, accessibility and security of my gear before I take that first step with my backpack on my shoulders.

Oh, and I did manage to recover that lost bivy, thanks to a sharp-eyed reader who happened to be on the Gold Mint Trail that day. His roommate had picked it up, and when he saw my column about the traverse, he posted a comment that led to a joyous reunion.

I still owe him and his roommate a round of beers for that moment of trail serendipity. Don't worry, Rian, I haven't forgotten.

As for a certain baseball cap lost on Mount Baldy in August, well … I'll keep looking for that one.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.