Bushwalking: How to Pack Efficiently

Bluff bushwalk

When packing for bushwalking, stuff sacks, dry bags and packing cells can come in handy.

Have you ever tried a backpack on in in-store, with weight in it, only to get to the trailhead and find that something doesn’t feel quite right? Your carried weight is the same as what you tried instore, but the pack isn’t carrying well. If you’ve been in this situation, your gear might be packed in a way that doesn’t take advantage of the pack’s design.

How to distribute weight in your bushwalking pack

The basics

The weight of a properly packed rucksack should predominantly be felt on your hips. Your shoulder straps shouldn’t be miles above your shoulders, rather the shoulder straps should trace around your shoulders comfortably without pressure.

Where to put the heaviest items

The majority of weight in your pack should be against your back. Consider holding a glass of water as you normally do in front of you. Now imagine holding the same glass of water with an outstretched arm. In the latter example, the glass feels heavier. The same is true when you’ve got heavy equipment pushed towards the outside of your pack. When packed like this, it will feel as if your rucksack is almost pulling you backwards. Following this concept, try to avoid loading equipment on the outside of your pack if possible.

Why you should use the pack's compression straps

In addition to keeping the weight against your back, the pack needs to be compressed using your pack’s tensioning straps. If your gear shifts around, not only will your pack's centre mass shift, but also you’ll be exerting more energy as the weight will lag as you walk.

David Cobbler 2013

Bogong staff member David on a Cobbler trip in 2013.

Organised vs Intuitive Packing

Most packing styles exist on a spectrum between neatly storing everything in its individual stuff sack to stuffing items more chaotically without stuffsacks. There are arguments for and against both styles.

The organised approach takes longer, but makes it easier to find certain items quickly when you're on your hike. However, due to the fixed size of stuff sacks, there will be small, unused cavities of space throughout your pack.

By comparison, the intuitive approach enables you to fill the pack more efficiently, by occupying more space. However, the intuitive approach makes it harder to find certain items and segregate wet/muddy items.

I would put myself somewhere in the middle of these two categories. Below, I’ve broken down how I pack to achieve efficient weight distribution while gaining the benefits a hybrid organised–intuitive approach.

How Mitch packs his rucksack: The Hybrid Approach

First of all, to set the scene, I use a traditional canvas pack with a main single compartment and a brain.

  • Before I start packing, I’ll undo any tensioning straps to see how much space I’m working with.

  • With my pack standing vertically, I line my pack with a pack liner. I use a pack liner that’s at least 1.5 times the litreage and scale size of my pack. This means that once filled, there won’t be any dead space around it.

  • When using an inflatable sleeping mat, rather than roll it I fold it to the shape of the bottom of my pack and place it at the bottom of the pack liner giving it a bit of structure.

  • Afterwards, I stuff my spare clothes into my sleeping bag then stuff this into the pack liner loosely.

  • Next, I stuff my shelter – for this example, that's my tarp, bivvy and groundsheet – loosely into the pack liner.

    Once certain items get wetted out, they’ll be evicted from the pack liner. I find that storing these fabric items loosely in the bottom of the pack fills space efficiently and provides a ‘floor’ for heavier items.

  • At this point, I compress the pack liner down to get as much air out as possible and then seal it up. Visually, about a third to half of my pack is now filled.

  • For the next step in packing, I’m aiming to get weight centred in the pack and against my back. Therefore, even though it sounds odd, I’ll lay the pack flat with the shoulder straps on the ground.

  • The heaviest single item in my pack is the food bag. Stored in a dry bag and flattened out in a rectangular shape, I place this above my ‘floor’, flat against the back of the pack.

  • From here I pad around the food bag with bigger items that I get out throughout the day: things like my rain jacket, rain pants, puffy and stove. Once these items have filled out the space around the food bag, I push it all further into the pack, occupying even more dead space.

  • Compressing this section down creates a second floor. On top of this, I store my large Exped Zip Pack (that has all of my small items, including a fire kit and first aid kit).

  • The pack is now filled. I tie off the main compartment with its drawcord closure.

  • In the brain, I pack my most-used items, such as map, compass, snacks. When packing the brain, make sure you fill it before tensioning it to the main pack. Once it's tensioned down, you lose a lot of internal volume.

  • Almost done! Once you’ve tensioned down the brain, you can move on to the side straps. Now the pack should still be laying with shoulder straps on the ground. If you tension the side straps when it's standing, gravity will be working against you. By laying the pack down, you can tension down as much weight as possible towards your back. Key beta: when my pack is packed to the gills, at this point I physically lay or sit on the pack while tensioning down the side straps.

Outside my pack:
As I mentioned earlier, its best to try and keep gear on the outside of your pack to a minimum. There are some necessary exceptions. I always have my water bottle and fuel bottle outside my pack, in the bottle pockets. Also, awkwardly shaped items such as foam mats or snowshoes will have to live on the outside.


Using these steps, my pack feels like a natural extension of my body rather than feeling like I have the world on my shoulders. Having the weight compressed and close to my back enables me to walk longer without fatigue and scramble without fear of tipping on sketchy foot placements.

It might seem daunting having so many steps to follow, but for me this is a learnt rhythm that actually makes it much easier and quicker to pack up and get going. Also, I’ve found that if you start packing in a considered way, you’ll potentially be able to size down to a slightly smaller pack.

The way you pack is as specific as a passed down family recipe. Once you find a method that increases your efficiency and comfort, it will likely enhance your experience of bushwalking overall.

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