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How to Load Your Backpack for a Backcountry Hunt

This is the how, where, and why of loading a backpack for a backcountry hunt.

loading backpack for hunting(Photo/Josh Kirchner)
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Backpack hunting has grown immensely in popularity over the last 5 years or so. With all of that growth, questions arise. It’s only natural. Many of these questions surround gear, with many asking what gear to buy. A question that isn’t focused on too much, but deserves an equal amount of attention, though, is how to get all of that gear inside of your backpack — and more specifically, where to put it and why.

It’s not a game of just shoving everything anywhere where it will fit. Just like hunting itself, there is a process — a method to the madness, if you will. How you go about doing this matters. Where things go in the pack matters. We’re going to cover all of this.

Before I dive into everything, realize that there is more than one way to skin a cat. What I lay out below are my personal methods and why I’ve arrived at them.

How to Load Your Backpack for a Backcountry Hunt

The How

backpacking gear
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

For starters, I think it’s extremely beneficial to have some sort of gear checklist or spreadsheet that you can refer to — a list of all of the gear you need so nothing is forgotten back home. Once I have that, I like to lay everything out on the floor from that list in an organized fashion. Don’t just make a pile, because we need to be able to see everything. This lets me know that every piece of gear is accounted for.

Start with all of the compression straps loose. That sounds pretty elementary, but it will rob you of space when not paid attention to. It makes loading up the pack much easier without the added constriction being applied by the straps.

I also like to open all of the zippers so I can see the inside of the backpack as it lays. Of course, bag design will dictate whether you can do this, but if I can I will. Take out any items already in the pack, too. You don’t want that stuff getting in the way.

loading pack
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

Next, if you’re a water bladder user, now is the time to fill it up and load it in your pack. Filling up a water bladder inside of a fully loaded backpack is, for lack of a better term, a pain in the butt. Once that’s all done, now it’s time to start loading up your gear.

The Where

Most backpacks have a layout right along the lines of a large main pocket in the center with a full-length side pocket on either side of it. We want to load the main pocket of the pack first, and then work out from there. This is where all of our bulkiest items will go, so we don’t want the interference of loaded side pockets getting in the way.

Main Pocket

main pocket
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

The very first item I put down in the bottom of the bag is my sleeping pad. For years I would put the sleeping bag there, but the pad seems to naturally fit so much better in that space. After that, I’ll cram any extra socks or underwear I may or may not be bringing around the pad. Then I’ll load my sleeping bag down on top of that loose. Having it loose, outside of a stuff sack, allows me to fill up much more dead space in the backpack. The sleeping bag conforms to the inside of the backpack like this.

On top of the bag will go my stove, tent, and food. And I’ll follow that up with any extra clothing. The clothing gets stuffed every which way, taking up any dead space in the backpack. Lastly, my water filter and toiletries will rest on top.

Side Pockets

backpack side pockets
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

I reserve my side pockets for things like tent stakes, tent poles, a spotting scope, a food hanging system, a power bank, etc. These are all heavier items, and some miscellaneous items, that I don’t necessarily need quick access to. I’ll also ride a tripod on the outside of those side pockets using the compression straps.


My lid is for things I want quick access to — things like my daily food bag, inReach device, or leukotape. I’ll also throw in a beanie and some spare batteries.

The Why

pack weight distribution
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

There is a why behind everything I’ve laid out above. It comes down to two things: weight distribution and efficiency.

You want to load the lightest items first, followed by the heaviest, and then back to lighter items, because you want the heaviest pieces closest to your back. This is how the pack will ride the best. Heavy items that are too low will put undue pressure on your lower back and try to sag. Too high, and you’ll have more pressure coming down on your shoulders.

The items I put on the side I load in a manner to balance themselves out. This is where you can have a lopsided backpack effect. For instance, I wouldn’t put a tripod and spotting scope on the same side of the pack. You want one on either end so the weight between the two is distributed properly.

garmin inreach
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

And throughout all of this, keep in mind what you might want quick access to. You don’t need quick access to your sleeping bag, which is why it can be in the bottom of the bag. Your water filter, though? That’s why mine is always on top. Same for my inReach, toiletries, and jacket.

Things to Keep in Mind

argali country pack
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

A natural tendency with backpacks is to opt for more space (cubic inches), and that’s fine as long as you’re mindful. More times than not when there is extra space to be filled, folks find a way to fill it. More space doesn’t need to mean more gear. Remember, you’re planning to come out heavy. You don’t need to go in heavy, too.

Next, and I can’t stress this enough, learn how to put on a backpack and make sure your pack fits you. The performance of the pack will suffer greatly if either of these is not accounted for. This usually follows with someone selling their perfectly capable backpack and spending more money on a different one, only to put on that one the wrong way as well. Educate yourself and set yourself up for success.

Additional Thoughts

Backpack hunting is a wild ride, to say the least. And it’s for a damn good reason that more folks are seeking the solitude of the backcountry for their hunting adventures. It’s therapeutic. It’s the ultimate hunting experience.

backpack hunting
(Photo/Josh Kirchner)

Enthusiasm aside, backpack hunting is a lot of moving pieces all working together. How you go about loading up your backpack is an intricate one of them. So, pay it mind. The more of those pieces you can align in unison, the better experience you’ll have.

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