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TRAVEL is a magazine by and for a community of people severely bitten by the travel bug. A place where travel and adventure fanatics can either come read other travelers' experiences, find inspiration for future trips or simply share their own interesting personal accounts.

Packing your backpack like a pro - the ultimate guide for beginners

by Neda Brasanac
by Neda Brasanac

I know it, you know it, we’ve all been there – packing for your backpacking adventure can be a nightmare, especially if you’re a beginner.

How the hell are you supposed to stuff all your necessities for three/six/twelve months into just one backpack?!

And while you’re delaying your packing with a secret hope that it will magically pack itself eventually, time is running out and the D day (P day?) has come. You have to face your piles of clothes and god knows what else you optimistically prepared, and realize you won’t be able to bring even the half of that.

Wipe your tears my darling, comforting thing is – you won’t need all of it. Seriously.

I needed two years to master the ancient skill of packing efficiently. You should consider yourself lucky, as you’ll learn all of it here and now, avoiding all mistakes I made along the way.

So let’s face that mess in your room, organize it and make efficient backpack packing a piece of cake.

Make the most out of the space you have

1. Choose your clothes wisely

Okay, I’m assuming you prepared everything you want to take with you.

It’s too much. I don’t have to see it; I know it. It’s an unavoidable mistake.

And it’s probably too many clothes.

You should bear in mind you will definitively wash your clothes on your trip. Many, many times. And no, you won’t meet the queen, put that dress away.

Pick a few clothing pieces that:

  • are quick-dry cotton
  • can be easily combined in different outfits
  • handle wrinkles well
  • are appropriate for the culture and climate you are going at

2. Packing space formula

For effective packing, clothes shouldn’t take up more than 1/3 of your backpack. The remaining space is reserved for the rest of your gear, but you should always leave ¼ of your backpack empty. You will need that space for all that memorable items you’ll stumble upon along the road that you’ll want to take with you.

by Neda Brasanac
by Neda Brasanac

3. Rolls, not folds

When packing your clothes, roll it, not fold. Please. I can’t stress this enough.

Rolling will save you so much space because it compresses your clothes instead of lying loosely with annoying gaps on the side when you pack it folded. And wasted, empty space is definitively not something you want right now.

Besides space, rolling your clothes will save you a lot of hassle during your trip; you'll be able to find that exact shirt with a crazy print you want to wear today without making a mess and accidentally unfolding other clothes.

You’ll also prevent wrinkles this way, or at least keep them to a minimum.

Bonus tip: if you master military roll, you’ll save space AND impress (potential) friends with this rare skill. Win-win!

4. Corners and gaps are your secret friends

You’ll be surprised how much clothes you can stuff into deep corners. And into shoes. And into any other item which uses is to be filled with stuff, such as a saucepan or a bowl or a hat. When packing, their only use is to contain your socks and underwear.

Imagine it to be like Tetris. Stupid empty spaces in Tetris are useless and annoying – the same goes for your backpack.

Underwear and socks love those spaces, so squash them there and forget about them. Well, not literally of course; don't make other peoples' lives harder, please.

Saving your back and your sanity – what goes where?

5. Weight distribution

This is important. You want to make running to that train as easy as possible.

Don’t make your backpack feeling heavier than necessary. If you put your heaviest items on the bottom of your backpack, it will pull it down and put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, pulling them down too.

It’s a pretty simple formula: your heaviest gear should be placed in the middle of your backpack, closer to your spine. Approximately, you should put the heaviest gear a little below your shoulder blades. This will take a lot of pressure from your shoulders to your hips, which are the stronger part of your body, so it will be easier to carry your heavy backpack around.

As for the rest of your gear, medium weight items should be placed toward the outside portion of the backpack and closer to the top.

Lightweight items go to the bottom.

6. Sleeping bag

Speaking of lightweight items you will bring with you, your sleeping bag comes first to mind. You should pack it in the bottom of your backpack, but where you can easily access it – that’s why the majority of backpacks have a separate compartment on the bottom with a zip.

There is the option to leave this compartment open and make a “deeper backpack” that way, but please, for the sake of your sanity, don’t do this. If you do, it will be so hard to access and organize stuff once you’re on a road; not to mention taking out your sleeping bag every night and packing it again every morning with the rest of your gear. It will just be chaos. I’m sure you’re a reasonable person.

So, leave that bottom compartment separate from the rest of your backpack and store your sleeping bag there.

Also, you can pack items you will rarely use here, as well as shoes.

(source: http://trakke.co.uk/how-to-pack-a-backpack/) — by Neda Brasanac
(source: http://trakke.co.uk/how-to-pack-a-backpack/) — by Neda Brasanac

7. Backpack’s back on your back (try saying it three times, fast)

When I mentioned packing heavier items closer to your spine, I didn’t just mean to shove anything there. Remember – that side of the backpack will go directly on your back, so make it smooth and don’t pack anything bulky or pointy on that side.

A jag sticking from the side you should put your back against is scary to look at; not to mention actually trying to wear it.

Bonus tip: get a backpack with solid back support. Your back will be thankful.

8. Essentials on top

Essentials that need to be accessed at any time and will be used frequently should be packed on top or in front/side pockets. That's no-brainer, right?

For some orientation, those would be rainwear, a big, fast drying towel, anti-insect spray, snacks, toilet rolls and tissues, and other things according to your preferences and habits.

9. Attaching gear

Try to avoid attaching your gear externally. This can slow you down, can feel awkward and you have to be extra careful.

However, I'm aware sometimes this is necessary due to lack of space or the size and shape of some of your gear, such as a tent, trekking poles, sleeping pad etc.

If you must attach your gear externally, you can put it horizontally on top or the bottom of your backpack, or on the sides.

If you attach items horizontally, just have in mind above-mentioned rule – put the heaviest items higher.

If you attach them to the sides, it's important to evenly distribute the weight, to avoid stability issues.

by Neda Brasanac
by Neda Brasanac

Alright, how you feel now? Less like a dummy? Less scared? More prepared to face that packing-your-backpack-for-a-long-trip challenge?

You’re on a good way to master this skill and save yourself from stress. You’re welcome. Good luck and happy travels!

This article was originally published on @nedabrasanac