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 packThere 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 gearTry 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 weightTo 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 spaceEmpty 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 ruleAs 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.