There are a million ways to pack and organize your camping gear.
But one of the easiest ways to ensure you can find things easily on the trail is to organize everything into a “room” framework just like you do at home (ideally, by using a different storage bag for every “room”).
In other words, your “bedroom” will contain your sleeping bag, pillow, and the other stuff you’ll need to sleep at night, while the “kitchen” will contain your food, stove, utensils, fire-starting stuff and similar items.
Organizing your stuff this way also helps to side-step some organizational issues.
For example, does sunscreen go with your first aid kit or does it fit better in with your toiletries? If you group these (and other, similar items) in your “bathroom,” you don’t even have to worry about it. After all, that’s probably where you keep your sunscreen at home anyway.
We’ll break down each of the “rooms” you’ll need to pack below.
But unfortunately, this analogy isn’t perfect. There are a couple of exceptions to the “room” approach. We use a kind of “road trip” metaphor for these categories.
Don’t worry — it’ll all make sense once we get started, so let’s jump right in.
Your “Car” and “Glovebox”
For these first two sections, don’t think about the rooms-in-your-home approach. Instead, think of your hike to the campsite as a road trip.
The vast majority of your gear will be placed inside your pack, and you may also carry a few small, often-used items in your pockets or lashed to the outside of your pack.
So, your “car” essentially means your backpack. You’ll use it to carry all of your stuff from the actual car to your campsite and back. (You could think of the stuff inside your pockets and strapped to the outside of your pack as your “roof rack.”)
Aside from your pack (“car”), you’ll also need to have some logistic and navigational stuff close by. And typically, you’ll want to keep all of these things in their own, smaller bag.
We’ll call this your “glovebox.” It will contain the following types of items:
- Cell phone
- Car charger for cell phone and solar charger or extra battery
- Trail map
- Permits or licenses
- Wallet with ID, credit card and cash
- Personal information, ICE contact info, or any other important information
- Two-way radios or walkie talkies
Your “glovebox” bag will hold some pretty important stuff, so make sure you select one that’s waterproof, secure and easy-to-open in a hurry.
Keep your “glovebox” in one of the most easily accessed compartments of your backpack. The pocket on the top flap is likely the best place, as this pocket is usually easy to access and there aren’t a ton of other things that work particularly well here.
However, there are cases in which you won’t need this bag very much from the time you leave the car until you return. For example, you may only be hiking a mile or two on a well-marked trail, rendering most navigation equipment unnecessary. In such cases, you can stuff your glovebox deep into your pack’s interior.
When driving to or from the trailhead, it’s usually wise to just keep the “glovebox” in the front seat with you.
The “Hotel Room” (Tent & Related Gear)
This is the last non-room-in-your-house part of the metaphor, but we think this one makes pretty obvious sense.
We’ve talked about picking a tent and the associated gear before, but you’re basically talking about a tent, rainfly (if not included with your tent) and a ground cloth.
However, some campers like to bring things like camp chairs and other “furniture.” We’d also consider these part of your “hotel room.”
Most tents will come with a dedicated carrying case (typically just a long stuff sack). Just understand that tent bags rarely offer much wiggle room — you’ll have to really work to get your tent, rainfly and poles stuffed back inside that thing. So, you may want to consider upgrading your tent bag at some point.
Wrap your ground cloth around your tent bag or fold it flat and place it in the portion of your pack that’ll fit right up against your back. This will provide a skoosh more comfort, but it does mean you’ll have to do some digging to get it out if you suddenly need it (such as when confronted by a pop-up thunderstorm).
Your tent will be the largest thing in your backpack, so you won’t have a ton of places you can store it — it’ll normally just sit vertically inside the primary compartment of your pack.
If your tent bag is relatively flat, try to situate it so that it’ll sit right up against your back (or, right up against your ground cloth, which will rest against your back).
If your tent bag is round, just place it in the middle of your main compartment, and try to use other things to help make a flat surface to better rest against your back.
No matter how you situate your tent bag, try to stabilize it as much as possible as you fill in the gaps around it. This will help keep it from jostling with every step.
The Bedroom (Sleeping Bag & Associated Gear)
Your “bedroom” consists of your sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a pillow and a liner (if you want to use one). But unfortunately, it’s rarely easy to keep this stuff all together, in a single bag.
You will be able to cram your sleeping bag into the stuff sack it comes in (or, better yet, a compression bag that’ll help free up a bit more space).
In some cases, you’ll be able to fit this bag pretty neatly at the bottom of your bag — as close to the middle of your back as is possible, behind (away from your body) your tent.
But some bags are too large or packs too small for this to work.
In these cases, you’ll usually need to cinch your pack’s main compartment closed, place the sleeping bag on top of the primary compartment (outside the backpack), and then fold down the upper flap. You can then connect the straps to keep everything in place.
Just stuff your bag liner inside the same bag your sleeping bag is in. Do the same if you’re bringing along an inflatable pillow.
The best place to stash your sleeping pad will depend on the pad itself. Some deflate nicely, making it possible to fold them flat and place somewhere in your ground-cloth-tent sandwich next to your back.
But if it rolls up, you’ll only have two choices: Place it vertically in the main compartment, alongside your tent, or strap it to the outside of your pack — usually, in a horizontal orientation.
The Wardrobe (Clothing)
It’s pretty easy to organize, store and stash your “wardrobe.” You’re pretty much going to just put all of your clothes (*with three possible exceptions) in a single compression bag and toss that on top of your sleeping bag (which is riding in the primary compartment of your pack).
Maybe your specific pack has a compartment that’s ideal for your “wardrobe,” which is fine. Just be sure that it’s close to your back so it doesn’t swing to and fro.
*The three possible exceptions include:
- Your warm coat, in case you need to take it off or put it on. Accordingly, you’ll probably want to keep your coat tucked into your pack’s secondary pocket or — preferably — stuffed inside its own bag and clipped to your pack or belt.
- Your rain coat or poncho, which you’ll want to keep in a super-easy to access place. Think one of the small outer pockets of your backpack.
- Anything you’re trying to dry while hiking — just suspend wet garments from the back of your pack. Socks are undoubtedly the most common garment you’ll need to dry while hiking. Dry feet are happy feet and it’s incredibly important to keep your feet dry while hiking. No joke.
It’s also possible that you’ll want to keep incidental clothing — gloves, mittens, hats, bandanas and the like — in your pockets or convenient pack pockets. But that’s no big deal. Do whatever works.
The Kitchen (Fire & Cooking Gear)
Just like at home, you’ll keep a lot of stuff in the kitchen. This obviously includes things like food and cooking equipment, but it also includes water purification and storage gear. You’ll also want to keep your fire-starting supplies with your kitchen, because you’ll generally need fire when you’re cooking.
But, for safety reasons, it’s probably best to break this stuff up into four smaller pods (or, “kitchen cabinets,” if we’re going to continue with the metaphor).
Food goes in one bag, cooking tools go in another, water purification and storage containers get their own bag, and your camp stove and fuel should be placed in their own, separate bag too. These individual bags needn’t be particularly fancy — simple stuff sacks will suffice in most cases. You won’t really need to access this gear quickly, nor will you need to pad much of it very much (although you’ll want to take some care with your stove, fuel and water purifier).
Note that you can combine some of these smaller bags into a single, larger bag or compartment for convenience.
For example, there’s no reason you can’t keep your food bag and cooking tool bag together in a single sack or portion of your bag. Just remember that you’re going to want to suspend your bag above ground and outside of your tent when in bear country and plan accordingly.
You could also throw your water purifier and storage equipment in this same bag, but that may cause problems if your bear-proof hanging skills fail — the purifier could suffer damage, causing complications for the remainder of your trip.
Whether you keep your water gear with your cooking tools and food or not, you’ll want to keep your stove and — more importantly — fuel in a separate bag. And, as you’ve probably already surmised, you’ll want to keep your fire-starting stuff (matches, lighter or fire starter and emergency tinder) with your stove.
But here’s the thing: It isn’t always easy to store all your various kitchen “cabinets” together.
In an ideal situation, your bag will have a relatively large secondary compartment, located at the lower portion of your bag. This makes a great place to store your food and cooking tool bags, as they’re both kinda heavy. If the compartment is large enough, you can also stick your stove (and fire-starting supplies) and water purification gear here too.
But this will usually mean that compartment needs to be pretty big, so you may have to use the side pockets on your pack for these things. Just remember to keep things as evenly distributed as is possible (the gear in your left and right lateral pockets should weigh about the same thing).
The Garage (Flashlight, Tools & Other Logistical Stuff)
Your “garage” will be one of the cleanest and neatest “rooms” you pack. Just about everything in this gear category can go in a single, relatively small bag.
This includes everything from your multitool to your flattened roll of duct tape to your sewing kit.
Most of these items are relatively small (if heavy), and they aren’t usually very fragile. And generally, you’ll only need these things when you’re at camp or stopped for a reasonable length of time while hiking.
This means that a standard-issue stuff sack will suffice, but you may find it worthwhile to purchase a padded, zipper-style bag instead. The difference really comes down to your personal preference.
However there are a few tools and similar items that may not make sense to keep in your “garage.”
- Your flashlight, as you’ll want it in an easy-to-access place. Don’t wait to fish it out once the sun is seconds away from setting — just keep it in a convenient outer pocket of your pack or clothing. Or, use a cord or carabiner to clip it on somewhere.
- Axes, folding saws and shovels. These items are pretty big, so you may need to store them separately, inside the primary compartment of your pack or lashed to the outside. This is part of the reason it can be helpful to select a three-in-one tool that’ll perform the tasks these separate items will.
The Bathroom (First Aid, Toiletries, Etc.)
Just like at home, you’re going to keep your personal hygiene products and assorted toiletries in the same place you keep your first-aid supplies and medicines. You’ll likely want to separate these things into two separate bags, but keep them in the same pack compartment or a dedicated stuff sack.
Use a brightly colored bag for your first-aid kit, but you can use whatever you like for your toiletries (as long as it’s waterproof — you don’t want something leaking out into the rest of your pack).
There’s something to be said for storing your first-aid kit in a place that’s easy to access, but in practice, you’ll likely be stopping or camping whenever you need it. This leads many campers to pack their toiletries and first-aid kit deep inside the main compartment of their pack.
Alternatively, and if space permits, these things will also work well in the side pockets of your pack. But once again, be sure to distribute the weight in your pack evenly.
The “Living Room” (Hobby Gear & Entertainment)
Even the most dedicated nature-lover will generally want a bit of entertainment for camp. Don’t misunderstand: The songs of birds, fragrance of flowers, and colors of sunset are phenomenal, but most people hanging out in the forest for several days will want something to occupy their mind.
Some may enjoy books or music, others may like to get in a little fishing or do some nature-inspired sketching.
But no matter how you’d like to spend your time, you’ll ideally pack all of these things in a single stuff sack (your “living room”), which you can bury deep in the primary portion of your pack. After all, you’ll generally only be using these types of things when you’re hanging out at an established campsite.
There are some obvious exceptions to this. You may want to fish as you hike or snap photos as the opportunity arises, for example.
In such cases, you’ll simply have to find a way to keep these things stored, yet at the ready. It’s often relatively easy to strap travel-ready fishing poles to the outside of your pack, and you can carry a camera around your neck. Just try to store as much of the peripheral stuff (lenses, tackle, etc.) inside your “living room” bag.
Chances are, if you’re bringing along specialized hobby equipment, like photography gear, you’ll already have a good carrying case for it. Failing that, you already know the kinds of things you need to haul and protect your gear.
But if you’re just bringing along a box of pencils, your favorite paperback, or an MP3 player, any old waterproof stuff sack will do.
Obviously, there are dozens of different ways to pack your bag or approach backpacking organization in general. But this is a sensible approach, which most fledgling campers will find helpful, convenient and intuitive.
Nevertheless, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Let us know how you organize your camping gear and pack your pack in the comments below.