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How to Pack a Backpack for Your Gap Year

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Written by: Tom Griffiths

You’re finally there! You’ve looked at it, chosen it, played with it, smelt it, rolled in it, worn it around the house, in bed and out with the lads… now it’s time to pack it.
Packing your backpack is an art. We all do it differently and we all pick up tricks that help us do it efficiently. If you try to stuff everything in as fast as possible in the vain attempt that it may actually pack itself, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The following is a guide which is best used when you’re getting close to actually leaving. After all, how to pack a backpack is what backpacking is all about…

Packing Advice for Travelling

Stage one – Get everything out that you think you might have to take, and I mean absolutely everything. Get your hair straighteners, your laptop, your camera, your TV, all the clothes you own, all your toiletries, get absolutely everything you think you might take with you in one big room (ideally your room as to not piss off anyone else in the house), and then start arranging everything into piles, i.e. pants, socks, shorts, T-shirts; ‘have to takes’ (i.e. passport, first aid kit, steri kit, etc.); ‘would like to takes’ (jumper, big towel, inflatable neck pillow, girlfriend – yup, get her squatting up there on the top of one of the piles – for a bit of a giggle anyway!); ‘other’ (for all the other bits and pieces that you haven’t got a clue about); and then stare at everything you have to take.
For your information, it might help at this point to check out our packing list to really give you an idea of what you should be taking with you.
Stage two – Be cruel to be kind. Get rid of all those things that you put in the pile in the slightest hope that maybe the pile wouldn’t be too big and you could slip them in, such as slippers, dressing gown and girlfriend (apologise and offer flowers and chocolates). Hopefully your pile will have decreased somewhat. Convince yourself that it actually looks like a managable load. When you think you’re just about there then start to pack. When you realise that the bloody thing is full up and you only have a quarter of the things in there, kick it very hard, curse the fact that it’s all my fault and that I have obviously got it wrong about how to pack a backpack, give up on the idea of going off travelling and then break down in tears. How to pack a backpack can be a tricky affair.
How to pack a backpack
Stage three – Dry your eyes and re-read the bit above about not taking everything with you. Have a look at everything you have and have a go at another dummy pack. Take just one thing from each pile (assess which is the best T-shirt, pair of shorts, jeans, shoes, etc.) apart from ‘The Pant’ pile, where you can take maybe four or five for this stage of packing. By putting the very bare minimum from each pile into the bag, you’ll soon see how it grows. Assess the result. If you still have too much, you’re either doing something wrong or have bought your pack from the sparrow accessory shop! If there is still loads, you’ve got to be really severe with yourself as you have got to leave with a three quarters full backpack.
I’m not joking about this, I’m deadly serious. Aim for this. If it’s full, but not bursting at the seams, you’ll only regret it as you’ll have no room to collect all those bits of memorabilia that will appear here and there and that’ll make you sad (insert sad face here).
Stage four – The ‘final pack’. Now we’re getting into the final stages. Get your piles and make sure you have everything you think you’ll need. Give it one last go, and voila, you’ve just managed to pack your backpack.

Pack from the bottom up

Sleeping bag – This needs to go in a position where it can be accessed easily, i.e. every night! Usually there is a place in the bottom of your backpack which is accessible with a zip, where it can be stored (see diagram below). This bottom section of your pack is normally separated with a string drawn ‘false bottom’. You can either leave this open and have one big deep pack, or draw the string up and have a pack with two compartments. I always split my pack into two. This bottom section is where I keep my sleeping bag and the things I don’t usually need, i.e. jumpers, smart clothes, etc. They can be tucked away there and left until you need them. They also form a firm base at the bottom of the pack – a kind of false floor if you like that is closer to the surface, so that if you do need to find things, you don’t need to delve down really deep.
Really important tip – My dad taught me this one years ago – always pack to the corners! This is crucial here as you’ll be surprised how much extra space you’ll have if you get things squashed into the deep corners.
Pants and socks – Can either be put in a drawstring bag and so laid flat all the way across the pack (and so make another ‘layer’ or ‘ false floor’ – again see diagram below), which is a bit more organised so that you know where they are and don’t end up with a search harder than for The Holy Grail when you need a clean pair of ‘Y’s’! Or, as I normally do, use the pants and socks to fill in the cracks and empty gaps here and there. Imagine it’s the cement for the wall… and if you’ve seen my pants, that’s not hard to do.
Pack from the bottom up
T-shirts – These are best rolled. Think of a Swiss roll and attempt to make your T-shirt look like it. How do you do this? Easy:

  • Fold the arms in to make it look like a rectangle
  • Fold it in half across the middle and half again
  • You should then be left with a long, thin rectangle
  • Turn it around and then roll tightly from one end to the other

If you do this with all your T-shirts you’ll be left with loads of Swiss roll shape things that can be stuffed down the sides and into holes here and there that need filling.
When you come to use them they should be fairly crease free if rolled properly.
T-shirts can also be flat packed, again adding to the layered effect in the pack if you prefer this method. The only problem with doing this, if you give it a go, is that you’re left with annoying gaps at the side that can end up as wasted space.
A quick note at this point – You may think that I am being really ‘anally retentive’ and sad in the way I pack my bag and organise my things. Well… I’m not, so sod off with that thought. I soon learnt that to get in a habit with packing my backpack was a good idea. There were times when I’d spend what seemed like hours trying to find a particular T Shirt, sun cream, or annoying little things like a tiny tube of lip-salve. There have also been times when I was in a hurry and had to have my backpack packed and ‘be outta there’ faster than a weasel in a wind-tunnel – everything seems to happen in slow motion, you’re stuffing the thing faster and harder than an angry chef with the wrong sized turkey two hours before the Christmas meal!
At times like those, the bloody thing will never close and you eventually leave panting and sweating picking up the bits and pieces that fall out en route. ‘Been there, done that’. This is where the idea of making layers in your backpack comes into its own. If you take out the third layer down… when you come to put it back, you can simply put it on the top, or make it the new second layer down. Am I confusing you here, or do you know what I mean? With anything I say, try it and see how you get on. The idea is for you to have a go and find out what’s comfortable and best for you. And trust me, once you’ve nailed how to pack a backpack, you’ll nail it time and time again.

Diagram of how to pack a backpack

Packing the area behind your back

You’ll soon realise when you try the thing on that it’s important to pack the stuff that’s going to be directly behind your back correctly. If, when turned around for a side view, it has the ‘smooth’ consistency of a rocky volcanic beach and the sexy appeal of a barbed wire fence, making you wince at the thought of touching it, let alone putting your back against it, then think again. Bear in mind what I have said before about getting a pack with solid back supports as opposed to the trendy little numbers that can be turned into a holdall.

Finally, the top

Over the top of all of them, I put my towel and sarong. These cover over everything and help you to pull the drawstring on the top of the pack tight, without things poking out and getting caught. It also means that, if you get to a place and you know that your towel is still wet and minging, or that your sarong needs a damn good airing (as there is a rumour going around that you’re in fact carrying a dead sheep in your pack, hence the smell…) you can whip them out straight away.

The rolling and coiling technique

Imagine first thing in the morning after a particularly fibrous meal the night before! (or, slightly more tasteful, imagine putting a dead snake in your bag… alive ones are only for the harder readers out there!) This is an interesting technique that a couple of people I have met do to fill their pack.
Basically it works on the principal of creating a whole series of snake like things which you can coil into your bag. With everything from T-shirts to jeans, shorts, shirts and underwear – just roll them up to be long and thin and then coil them into your bag. If done properly it does cut down on creases.


Camera film – These can be put into freezer bags and so rolled into a long snake which can be put anywhere in your pack. The freezer bags will keep them dry, and, combined with the little plastic containers they are in, they will be nicely protected.
Travel saucepan – I always travel with one of these. In terms of packing it’s always dead useful to put small things in that maybe you’ll need to find in a hurry, things that need to stay dry, or other bits and pieces that can be easily damaged. Mine would contain my knifeforkandspoon set, my travel adapter (for plug sockets), Swiss army knife, matches / lighter, torch, small pots of curry and chilli powder and spare pair of pants (in case of dire emergency of course – have to be whipped out and exchanged with great speed!)
Make sure your backpack is comfortable

So, where are we up to at this point?

I have decided to take you through the whole packing thing, so that you can go through the stages and get a bit of an idea of what it’s going to be like. You may be reading this and thinking something along the lines of “well, I’ve got loads of time left, what do I care?”
Fair enough. However, when it comes to a week to go and you’re still flapping around trying to sort your pack out, give me a ring so I can have a bloody good laugh at you!


Packing your backpack is something that most people leave to the last minute. Why? Because that’s what you normally do when you go on holiday. It’s as traditional as a turkey and a fat man down your chimney at Christmas and a vomit inducing tie from Aunty Hilda on your birthday! The night before you leave you put together your underwear, a few clothes, sun creams, beach wear, evening wear, blah, blah, no worries… stuff it in a suitcase, and away you go. Occasionally you may forget your sunglasses, hat, or, you guessed it, favourite pair of pants… but it doesn’t matter, because you’re only away for a week or two.
Unfortunately you’re about to go off travelling for six weeks? Three months? Six months? 12 months? 18 months? Think about it. If you don’t take it, you’re going to have to buy it.

  • If you forget things that you really need, they’re going to have to be sent out to you. Do you know how long that takes? Do you know how annoying it is to have to wait in a place waiting for something to arrive?
  • If you take too much stuff, it’ll weigh you down, you won’t use it and you’ll probably end up sending it back. This will cost you money and you’ll have to rely on the hope that your favourite three jumpers, spare hair dryer, extra comfort deluxe ‘mountain goat’ trekking boots, portable sink and generator will have to make it safely though the world-wide postal system.

So, take a bit of time, use the packing list and make sure you go away with everything you need, keeping all the irrelevant stuff at home.
At this point, it’s also worth doing a dummy run in so far as filling the thing up and carrying it go. Once it’s full and feeling a bit heavy, put it on. So there you have it, that’s how to pack a backpack. Good luck.

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