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Packing a Mountaineering Backpack

Properly packing a backpack is essential for a pleasurable experience in the backcountry. Below you will find the suggestions from the guides of Northwest Alpine Guides and Mountain Gurus, and a step-by-step list of how to pack your mountaineering backpack for your initial walk to camp. From weight distribution to keeping necessary items dry and having easy access to snacks and rain layers, packing your backpack is the first step to a successful mountaineering experience!

The ABC’s of packing a backpack:

  • A stands for Accessibility, having access to things you need as you go down the trail and things that you won’t need until camp or after can be more buried in the pack.
  • B is for bulk, make sure the heavier and bigger things like a sleeping bag, pots, tents etc. are lower down in your pack. Since your center of gravity is near your hips, it’s more comfortable to carry heavier items lower in the pack.
  • C stands for comfort, make sure you don’t have anything poking you in the back, too much weight near your head, or one side heavier than the other that will make you uncomfortable.

Here are the steps Northwest Alpine Guides recommends following to pack you backpack for an efficient and comfortable walk into camp:

1. Line your entire backpack with a big trash bag or contractor bag to keep everything dry in case of rain. This also allows you to stuff items into your pack without stuff sacks to capitalize on room.

2. Put your sleeping bag and inflatable sleeping pad into the bottom of your backpack. If bringing a personal tent take it out of the stuff sack and stuff the tent in the liner bag to try and fill up empty spaces.

3. On top of your sleep system and tent, stuff bulky items into your pack that you won’t need until camp such as: your parka, base layers, soft shell, hat, gloves, buff, harness, carabiners, cord, cutlery, toiletries, and extra food (dinners and breakfasts).

4. Once all extra items that you don’t need until camp are packed into the main pocket and inside the liner bag you can pull the draw strings closed on the main pocket.

5. Either in the brain of the pack, or if your pack has an additional front pocket, stuff in your: rain gear, medical kit, sunscreen, Chapstick, Wag Bags, sunglasses, headlamp, and some snacks for the trail. It’s important to have easy access to these items in case you need to use any of them as you are hiking.

6. Now it’s time to add items to the outside of our pack. Fill your water bottles (2 one-liter water bottles) and put them into the water bottle holders on each side of your pack. If your pack doesn’t have water bottle holders, you can stuff one on each side of the main pocket outside of the liner bag.

7. If your pack includes an outer crampon pouch or straps that’s the best place to put your crampons. If not, the best place to put crampons is between the top of the main pocket and the brain of your pack and securing the buckles tightly so the crampons can’t slip out.

8. Your ice axe is best strapped to the outside of the pack passing it through a loop in the bottom and folding the ice axe back up onto itself to then strap the shaft of the ice axe to an upper strap (see video for example). The head of the ice axe should always be on the bottom of your pack and faced inward to avoid hitting anyone or anything as you’re walking.

9. Your helmet can be strapped into a buckle on the back of your backpack or if you didn’t put your crampons between the top of the main pocket and the brain of the pack then you can also put your helmet there. As for your foam sleeping pad, attach it to the two straps found under the bottom of your pack. Both items will be on the outside of your pack so make sure to tighten the straps as much as possible, so the gear doesn’t move as you hike.

10. The only two items left should be your trekking poles and your mountaineering boots. If you don’t want to wear/use these items on the hike in, you can attach both to your pack using the side straps on either side above your water bottle holders.

Additional considerations:

  • Make sure to bring at least a 65-liter backpack to ensure that everything fits.
  • Even though the forecast might not call for rain we recommend always bringing a liner bag and personal rain gear since the weather in the mountains is unpredictable and can change very quickly.
  • We may ask you to help bring group gear such as tents, pots, fuel, or food etc. so if you don’t know how to pack any of the additional items make sure to ask your guide and they will help you comfortably add the items to your pack.

Making sure that your backpack is well packed ensures safety and comfort in the backcountry. Having easy access to important items and keeping your gear dry helps to ensure you have the best experience possible while out in the mountains!