While the answer to the question how to pack your backpack depends on your use case, there are still some basic rules that always apply. Do yourself the favor and learn a few basic rules and make your life a lot more easy.

As you learned in our guide to backpacks there are different kinds of backpacks which have differences in their layout and their features. Nonetheless the following rules apply to all of them.

There are lots of guides about how to pack a hiking backpack but as a user of tactical gear (and you are, right?) you have a few extra options I want to shed some light on.

Balance comfort vs. convenience when packing your backpack

Trying to find a balance between comfort and convenience when packing your backpack is not just for the casual hiker. Even when you need to carry a backpack for work or in hostile environments both factors are important. Read “comfort” as “being able to manuever more securely” and “keeping your energy up for when you need it”. And read “convenience” as “fast access to essential gear”.

Finding the right balance is essential to packing your backpack exactly to your needs.

Comfort a.k.a. safe steps and less strain

Besides the carrying system there’s one other thing that will help with carrying a backpack and that’s correct weight distribution. Basically you want the backpack to be an extension of your body so its center of gravity should be close to your center of gravity. Read on to learn how to achieve that.

One basic rule “the heavier an item, the closer to your back”. This rule is the reason why all hydration systems are inserted close to the backplate of the backpack. So, items like water bottles, canteens, cooking gear, batteries, extra ammunition etc. should go close to your back. Best at a height between your shoulder blades and your kidneys. Also make sure that when packing your backpack you keep heavy items centered by padding them with lighter ones. You will definitely feel if you have heavy water bottles just on one side of your backpack.

The lightest items should go to a point farthest away from your center of gravity. Close to the front, to the top or the bottom. On the outside secured with MOLLE or straps there should be mostly small or very light items. Sleeping bag, sleeping mat on the outside, thick but light clothing top or bottom.

Everything mid-weight should then fit between the heavy and the light stuff. Think of lighter rations, a poncho and spare clothing.

Convenience a.k.a. fast access

When you’re done splitting your gear into heavy, mid-weight and light, go for the next category. The better access you need to a specific piece of kit the closer have it to a point of access. “Better access” can mean anything from “I don’t want to search for my poncho in case it starts raining” to “I need really fast access to a medic kit if one of my comrades is wounded”.

What’s easy to access depends on the build of your backpack. If you have a top-loader, than have stuff you need fast and often on the top. If you have a front loader it should be enough to have it close to the zipper.

Most backpacks have extra pockets and you should make use of them. Use the pocket in the lid of a top loader for things you really expect to be using. Like snacks, navigation gear or spare batteries for your flashlight.

Since we are talking about tactical gear there are more options when packing your backpack. Most important PALS/MOLLE webbing. You can place items into special pouches and mount them on the outside. Some pieces of gear even come with sheaths that are made to be connected to these loops. We have a whole category of posts about MOLLE/PALS. But read on for some tips focussing on backpacks with these convenient loops.

Pack your backpack with organization / admin space

If you’re just hiking for leisure, one big sack might be enough. Just make sure you keep the balance between comfort and convenience when packing your backpack and you are good to go. But if you’re living out of your bag for a prolonged time or you need to work from that bag, spilling all the contents on the search for a valuable item is not an option.

This is where admin space comes into play. Admin space means pockets and panels with loops and flaps to store small items. Having admin space on your backpack is always a tradeoff because they add extra weight to the pack no matter whether you use it or not.

Smaller EDC packs usually have built in organization. Weight is not so much an issue with them and you usually need some organization. On bigger backpacks you can add pouches for more organization. Especially so called “admin pouches” will give you loads of organizational options. They are usually made to be carried on the front of a plate carrier but why not use them on a backpack?

Tactical backpacks often come with MOLLE/PALS and/or velcro on the inside as well. This way you can stuff lose items into the pack but you still have your dedicated places for items you regularly use. Just make sure you don’t block access to essential items by packing too hard.

Don’t forget, you can even organize loose items inside when packing your backpack. There are several solution for that:

  • Compression sacks help with compressing items like clothing. Many are even waterproof so you can protect them even when your backpack is soaking wet. Or you can keep wet clothes from touching your dry gear.
  • Packing cubes or mesh pockets are leightweight alternatives. Usually you can see the inside through a window or mark them on the outside.
  • Using regular pouches adds weight to your setup. But they have the huge benefit that you can choose between putting them in the pack and sticking them to the outside via MOLLE when you need that extra space.

Special pockets

Aside from the main compartment there might be extra pockets on your backpack that leave you wondering what to do with them.

If you have a big front pocket (a.k.a. kangaroo pocket) or a beaver tail, you can use it for bulky stuff that should not get into contact with the rest of of your gear. While a beaver tail is often used for carrying a helmet, you can use it like a front pocket. Put in wet rain gear or or a used tarp. Personally I don’t like the idea of stuffing wet items back into compression sacks. So I carry them on the outside so they can dry at least a bit.

Water bottle pockets. While they seem to be obvious what to use them for, you might reconsider. They are usually on the sides of your pack so heavy items will greatly influence your balance. If you have two equal bottles and drink from both, you won’t have a downside. But if that’s not the case there are other potential uses when packing your backpack. Think again storing a poncho. Or a pouch that has roughly the size of a bottle. You can also use them when foraging because they usually come with a drainage grommet and have a wide opening.

Pockets on the hip belt are mostly for stuff you need regularly and want to have access to without putting your pack down. Think (redundant) navigation, snacks, chewing gum etc. Many tactical backpacks have MOLLE/PALS straps on the hip belt so you can set them up like you want. Just keep in mind that big pouches might hinder your arms movement when hiking. And what ever is in there will be lost when you have to get rid of your backpack. So don’t put anything essential in there.


There are two kinds of straps on most backpacks. Compression straps and straps for extra gear.

Compression straps help with keeping your backpack controlled while having it riding on your back. Loosen them up while packing and then tighten them before putting the pack up. They make a big difference when moving. Tip: Check if the stuff in your backpack is still evenly distributed after you tightened the straps.

Then there are straps for extra items. If you don’t need them, roll them up and secure them so they don’t get into your way. You can use web-dominators, or double sided velcro if your pack doesn’t come with something to roll them up anyway. If you don’t have anything like that at hand, you can set the straps to about half their length using the buckles as a makeshift solution.

Use the external straps for bulky and compressible items like sleeping bags, woobies or tarps. If you don’t want to interrupt the camo of your backpack, wrap stuff into a compression sack, a tarp or poncho of matching colors. Remember, when you can’t get a secure fit with the straps because the item is too short or not compressible enough, dummy cord it to your backpack. You might get a bit off balance when the item gets loose but you won’t loose it completely.

Especially on bigger packs the side straps double as being usable for both cases. Just tighten them good, no matter if you put anything under them or not.

MOLLE straps work perfectly to add extra straps if you need them. Just get 2.54cm (1 inch) or smaller straps and route them through MOLLE loops.

How I pack my backpack

If you read some posts from me, you know already that I love to experiment and change my setup often. So the following will not be true for every day but you will often find my backpack set up similar to the following.

I have my EDC pouch and my first tier first aid kit which don’t go in my backpack. They are essential in my eyes so I keep them in the cargo pockets of my pants.

I usually have some water with me. On longer hikes it’s usually a Source hydration bladder and a Nalgene bottle or a water purification filter. But even on short trips of an hour or so I usually have some water with me. Bladders go in the designated pocket. A Nalgene bottle usually is in the pack, close to my spine. If I’m out for work, I usually replace the bladder with a notebook – both fit the same pockets, usually and both a relatively heavy.

When I do an overnighter, I take a bigger backpack that has a dedicated sleeping bag pocket on the bottom. I use it, surprise, for a sleeping bag. A sleeping pad usually goes under the bottom of the bag – secured with straps.

Even if I don’t plan to stay outside for long, I usually toss in a Swagman Roll. Where I live the weather is usually quite unstable and I like to be prepared. It always goes as low in the pack as possible.

A poncho always goes in the top part of the main compartment. I love the versatility of a poncho so I usually even carry one when weather forecast says there won’t be rain.

I always have a second tier first aid kit with me when I’m carrying a backpack. This usually goes to the outside, connected via MOLLE. If I want to really pack lightly I put it into the pack to the top right next to the poncho. A tourniquet always goes to the outside of the pack. I’m using a prototype of Perunikas own Tourniquet holder.

Other items that are small/light and I might need frequently or fast go into dedicated places as well. Think of a bigger flashlight and a multitool. Depending on the model of the pack they either go into dedicated pockets on the inside, an admin pouch or their own pouches on the outside.

Electronics, like a power bank, cables and chargers, go into a loose pouch. I try to place them close to the water because especially the power bank tends to be quite heavy.

Extra clothing is the padding between all the other items. When it’s raining I either use a rain cover for the backpack or take it under my poncho. Most of the time I’m not using waterproof compression sacks. When I’m on multi day trips I use compression sacks to separate dirty laundry from clean stuff. That works not only on field trips but also on business trips.