How to Pack Like a Pro

Gear Check

Climbers prepare for an 8-day winter mountaineering trip on Mount Rainier

Pack Like a Pro, Not Like an Advertisement

Place a large cup on a table. Fill it with stones. Then, fill the empty spaces with pea gravel. Next, pour sand into it. Only after that last step can the cup be considered full- this retelling of a grade-school lesson offers a key correction to the ill-advised practice of “modular” packing.

Your climbing backpack is ideally the opposite of, say, a pro-photographer’s camera case- rather than rigid compartments designed to fit each item, your pack is a soft, round cylinder.

When climbers pack their bags for travel into the mountains, we follow three basic principles in a simple acronym: ABC. While packing quickly & efficiently takes significant practice, following these principles will help guide you in preparing for a trip:


The first principle is that your gear needs to be Accessible. First, I make a few piles based on immediacy of need, so I’m sure gear is appropriately accessible when I start to pack.

  1. Gear worn out of the parking lot
    hat, gloves, pants, underwear, shirt, glacier glasses, socks, climbing boots – and lunch food!
  2. Nutrition!
    two water bottles, extra breakfast for the drive, and snacks to get me to camp
  3. Sharps or outside-pack items
    crampons, trekking poles, ice axe, foam pad
  4. Gear I might realistically need before camp (adjust based on the conditions!)
    windshirt or hardshells, heavyweight gloves, warm hat
  5. Gear I won’t need until camp
    stove, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, dinner food, sci-fi novel (key!)

**Pro-tip- once you’re packing your bag, use the “squid” method to keep various clothing layers accessible- shove most of a hardshell jacket into a small void in your bag, while hanging onto one sleeve that will stick out above the rest of your gear. Need your shell due to sudden rain? Simply yank it out by the arm! This allows you to keep a huge number of layers accessible, which can be necessary in cold, damp, or changing conditions.**


The second principle is that your gear needs to be Balanced when it is packed.

As you begin to pack into your bag, slot items from Pile #5 carefully into your bag, using the grade-school lesson we started with to fill every nook and cranny. Start with heavier items to keep the load towards your hips and back, being careful to use hard-sided and soft items to pad the backpanel where it will rest against your back- and make sure to distribute the weight equally side-to side.

I frequently pick up my bag with both hands on the left and right sides, and heft it up and down. If it feels heavier on one side, I’ll reconfigure it.

Note that putting too much heavy gear towards the top or outside of the pack will cause the pack to sway more as you walk, which can be not only uncomfortable, but dangerous if you’re heading into steeper terrain.

**Pro-tip- make a mistake? Go back and fix it, even if it’s 11:00pm and you’re tired. I can tell you from many bad days that ignoring a packing error- such as leaving a sharp object jutting into your pack’s backpanel- will not have been worth the extra 30 minutes of sleep!


Lastly, your gear needs to be Compressed.

This is where I can advise that in packing, you use perhaps one compression stuff sack, and perhaps one other stuff sack for small accessories like your toothbrush! Beyond those items though, compression in your backpack is going to come from thoughtful packing- using hard & soft items together to fill the space exactly- and lastly from using your pack’s compression straps appropriately.

Once your gear is fully inside your pack, close it up. Firmly cinch down any compression strap on the sides & from the lid of your pack, evenly cinching things down. Yarding on your straps until the buckles nearly break is unnecessary- but applying good firm force is useful in further tightening up the load you’ll carry.

Final Thoughts on Packing

Packing is an art form- and takes patience, careful forethought, and practice.

You may find that using this method makes you feel unorganized- but careful forethought means you’ll be carrying an efficient pack that is stuffed to allow you immediate access to the things you need, while being trim & compressed for comfortable carriage on any kind of terrain. Don’t hesitate to practice this several times before your first few mountaineering trips.

Lastly, the gear you are filling your pack with matters just as much as how well you pack it! Don’t forget the Top 10 Gear Misconceptions.


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