Learn This: Pack Smarter

Put everything in its right place for efficient movement

Put everything in its right place for efficient movement.When I see that guy on the trail with a tent, banjo, puppy, and pony keg swaying from carabiners, I’m just left wondering why. Why do so many of our otherwise reasonable mountain buddies want so badly to strap their kit to the outside of their sad, under-utilized packs instead of just putting it all inside? First is the matter of style. I’m not talking about what kind of jacket you’re wearing; I’m talking about whether you’re the guy making it look easy or making it look ugly. Here’s another way to look at it: You wouldn’t strap a banana to the outside of your grocery bag, would you? Then why do you clip water bottles and cams to the outside of your backpack? Bags are meant to be filled, and we should all strive to put our gear inside our packs. Not only will you win those style points, but your pack will carry better because the load will be properly distributed on the frame and not sway. If all of your things are inside, they won’t get in the way, fall off, get snagged, or get wet. Take a look at the pros: Steve House didn’t summit the Slovak Direct on Denali with a Nalgene swinging from a biner on his pack. Here’s how to pack for success.

Choose the right pack
There is no single tool for every job, but you can find one pack that will work for most of your trips. The pack that I take to the Himalaya is often the same pack I take to Alaska or the Cascades. You want something that’s big enough to carry everything for the climb, yet small enough that it won’t get in your way on-route. My favorite is a model that expands to 50 liters, cinches down to 30, and weighs 2.5 pounds. It’s light and versatile. I have a quiver of bigger and smaller packs, but this is the one I use most.

Sort your gear
Try dividing things into a few categories before you load them. The first group is the little stuff you might need in a hurry, like a headlamp, food, and water. That’s going in the lid for easy access. The rest of your gear is going to fit into one of two categories—things that can change their shape (such as a jacket), and things that can’t (like a pot or water bottle). These subsequently fall into two additional categories: light and heavy.

Arrange by weight
To keep your pack’s weight in line with your center of gravity, it’s better to pack rigid, dense items (rack, cooking gear) in the center of your pack near your back, especially with high-volume packs. Then position lighter items near the top and outer layers of the pack.

Kill dead space
Empty spaces are the enemy of a tightly loaded, well-balanced pack. Take a soft, light item, like a sleeping bag or a puffy jacket, and load that in the bottom of your pack. Now place a hard, heavy item on top of that, and then stuff another soft item, like a tent fly, around that. Some guys like to house everything inside of stuff sacks, and then load the sacks. I consider stuff sacks the enemy—they turn soft objects into rigid ones and create unnecessary dead spaces. The more things you have that are malleable the better. Use them to fill the spaces between the few things that just won’t play nice. And don’t be afraid to truly cram—your rack and Anasazis will be just fine, and your pack will ride better for it.

Exceptions to the rule
As I’ve said many times already, getting everything in your pack is ideal—but as with anything in life, there are exceptions. Ice tools and crampons almost always ride outside. And sometimes it works to place your rope and helmet out there, too. If the rope doesn’t fit, make a mountaineer’s coil and just put it over the top of the pack. If you can’t get your brain bucket to fit, try taking out a couple things, stuff them inside the helmet, and try again. If you have other items that just won’t fit, you might need a bigger pack—or just make your partner carry the beer.

Chris Wright is an AMGA-certified rock and alpine guide based in Bend, Oregon, where he splits his time between his three obsessions: climbing, skiing, and eating.



Previous Comments

I think this might be an american thing. I don't see why its a problem to have stuff tied to the outside... you certainly don't see the steve houses of the world climbing the rupal face with gear strapped to the outside of their packs, yes. But that's because they're already on the climb. In the Himalaya, there's a long, long way between the road head and the climb, and if you're a bum climber who can't afford a porter (or is ethically against using porters) then there is no way you're going to fit climbing gear, boots, food, stoves, origami kit and the complete works of shakespeare into your pack. Unless its a 80 litre pack. And if it is, trust me, you're going to hate it once you leave basecamp behind. Plus, with enough sling, nothing moves on the outside :)

Karn - 01/24/2015 10:52:54

I stuff my helmet into the top of my sleeping bag stuff sack and cram it into the bottom part of the pack - works great!

Serena - 09/16/2014 7:51:54

I like to coil my rope and drape it under the lid and use the lid straps and compression straps down the side to keep the load tight and compact. This also prevents the rope from swinging about as I scramble easy stuff and knocking me off balance. Water is tough: Until it gets pretty cold, I do a hydration bladder with an insulated hose (being careful to blow the water back into the reservoir so it doesn't freeze in the mouthpiece or line). Once it gets super cold even this doesn't work so I put a carefully sealed nalgene in the top of my pack (not great because it's heavy and high in the pack), and I store it upside down so that the bottom of the bottle freezes first if it will and I can drink still from the unfrozen portion. The downsides of my system are that it discourages me from hydrating enough and if I'm also carrying the rope, it's usually in the way of quick water access. But at least I still have water to drink at breaks. I definitely hydrate a lot better with a bladder than a bottle.

Alex Gauthier - 09/15/2014 3:45:31

I am all for packing efficiently for a safer climb, but some guides take this too far and insist on an absolutely perfect pack all the time. It can get tedious fast.

Junk Show - 09/15/2014 7:25:37

I use a hydration pack inside my pack but close to my body. But even then it sometimes freezes! I agree with this article. Axes, walking poles, crampons, skid lid and rope on the outside. Everything else inside. Even my GPS (as the batteries don't last long in minus freezing temps) Just my two bobs worth ;P

Mark Waterfield - 09/15/2014 6:25:48

Arranging weight in the centre of your pack is brilliant for males but if you're a woman you need to put the weight at the bottom. This is so the weight is distributed through the hips as women's packs (and bodies) are designed that way.

Jess - 09/15/2014 2:29:50

i can hang rope as seen in the photo of the article on my BD speed 55 because it has a nylon rope synch just at the top just behind the haul loop. but anyone can secure there rope in this same way to their packs haul loop

travis - 09/14/2014 9:02:45

Thanks for this logical explanation. I use to do the same. I've got a 1L Nalgene bottle for the water as well, but also noticed the Camelbags from others. What's your experience with that?

Maurice - 05/25/2014 10:24:07

Jus saw the articles on flipboard, very interesting,i've never been climbing, always wanted to try it, thinking, I'd be good at it . going to have to, get back to u on that one. Have a pleasant, fun,& safe weekend.

jan wajda - 05/25/2014 6:09:17

One might argue about the water bottle inside the pack....during strenuous activity isn't it better to have hydration available constantly, not having to stop to take a drink (e.g. skinning)? Especially in winter where many prefer a bottle over a bladder?

Bill - 05/19/2014 5:08:16

My exception: a short to moderate approach to a long multi-pitch route on which I'd like to climb with a small pack. If you've got tall stuff nearby, then this exception can start to feel more like the general rule.

Brandon - 05/18/2014 12:02:30

@Andre valid question. As mentioned in the last paragraph, It's acceptable to carry your rope and helmet outside of the pack if they don't fit inside. Make a mountaineers coil out of the rope and put it over the top of the pack.

Climbing Staff - 05/16/2014 2:00:27

Are we saying that hanging your rope on your pack as illustrated is frowned upon or not logical? Everything else in this article makes sense but I'm confused about the illustration.

Andre - 05/16/2014 12:30:35

Yo, the bio's wrong--this guy is an IFMGA-AMGA certified guide in all three disciplines (ski, alpine, rock!)...the 93rd American to go thru all three disciplines, if memory serves. He's even more legit than his current bio!

Rob Coppolillo - 05/16/2014 11:36:04