Decide what you are going to take – this may vary depending on the conditions you are likely to encounter, how long you are going for and the area you are going to be walking in. You will need to balance various things but the most important thing should always be safety. What will you need to take that will keep you safe. The next thing is weight. You will want to keep the weight down to a minimum which means taking lighter kit and only taking what you need. Don’t take anything extra. Of course, you may want some luxuries to keep you happy but remember that you will be carrying it every step of the way and by the end of the day you will feel every last gram of weight. You may like to make a list so that you know what you take with you. This will save you a great deal of time in the long run.
Collect all your kit together and lay it out before packing. This is the point you may notice that you are intending to take too much with you and you can cut something out. In particular think about the food. If you are going to eat three meals of pasta you only need three portions not a whole bag of the stuff (a portion of dried pasta is about 60g or half a cup, by the way, although you may want big portions if you eat a lot when you walk). If you are going to eat three biscuits every evening with your hot chocolate then for three days that would be nine biscuits, not a whole packet. If you want three cups of hot chocolate then you measure out three portions, not take the whole jar. Hopefully you get the idea.
Organise your kit. I use stuff sacks for this job – the water proof ones. You will discover that your rucksack is not completely waterproof so everything needs protecting (especially what you sleep in). You can use one large bag (I use a rubble sack if I’m doing it this way but dedicated liner bags are available or a simple black bin bag – but these are prone to tearing so carry spares) or several small ones. The advantage of a big bag is everything just gets stuffed in and is relatively easy to find again (although small items do tend to disappear and need digging out) and the advantage of smaller bags are that they are more organised and remain protected if you have to empty things out – as well as helping you keep track of the small bits. The disadvantage of the smaller bags is that it is easy to forget which small bag you put something in and then you end up opening several before you find what you are looking for – I speak from experience. Despite this I still personally prefer the smaller bags. Those of you wanting to go ultralight may prefer one big bag to save a few grams. I have seen people putting their trust in a rucksack cover and although they are good they can leave gaps (you won’t notice until it is too late because your bag is behind you) or get damaged and are no use if you have to take the cover off to get something out – they may help a little but are not a good solution.
Anyway, organise your kit carefully into collections of things you will need together and in order. So you want your cooking stuff to be together, your clothes organised by day (this helps protect the fresh clothes you don’t yet need). On this subject you need to take a bag for your dirty clothes so they don’t soil any clean ones – I have also found that they can develop quite a strong smell over time but maybe I’m just a smelly person.
Pack the heavy items nearest to your back and towards the bottom. This is not an exact science because life isn’t that easy but try to keep the heavier items closer to your back to help you keep your balance. It is my experience that it doesn’t really matter if they are at the top or the bottom as far as pain on your shoulders goes – you have to carry the weight wherever it is – but lower is always better for balance. Being a tall person I have always envied the shorter amongst us on the hills as they seem to keep their balance an awful lot better than I do. Of course they envy my long legs so at least we are even.
The lighter items go where there is room.
You need to think about when you will need stuff and pack accordingly. For instance when you stop for camp you will take most of the stuff out anyway so the cooking stuff and sleeping bag etc can go deeper in the pack (often sleeping bags get put in the bottom section of a rucksack – so much so that you will sometimes here this part described as the sleeping bag pocket).
If it rains you want to get to your waterproofs quickly so they need to be right at the top. Likewise food for the daytime needs to be easy to get at – near the top or in a pocket – whereas food for the camp can go lower. Pockets are the best place for the little bits and pieces and if you have a top pocket this is a good place for snacks etc. Some rucksacks have pockets on the hip belt and these are also good for small snacks but make sure you use these for things you will need during the day. Of course there is no hard and fast rule about where anything goes and so you make your own choices but think about convenience for you.
Tent – these need to be easily accessible when you stop because it may well be raining and you want to get your tent up to protect everything else – no good if you have to empty your bag to find it or get it out.
Water needs to be easy to get at. Please be aware that bottles can leak and sometimes tops are not put back correctly. If you put your water bottle inside your pack you may find it has leaked over everything. I would recommend buying dedicated hiking water bottles. Basic models are very cheap to buy and will save you hassle in the long run. The kind of battles water is sold in, or reusing drinks bottles is not recommended – I understand that if doing 10 Tors you will fail scrutineering if you don’t have proper water bottles. Water is best in an outside pocket or stuck in one of the outside elasticated pockets (not always easy though).
Water bladders – usually there is a small pocket sewn into the inside and maybe a hole for the tube to pass through (although this can come out through the lid. On your straps there will be a loop you can use to poke the tube through and there are then various attachments you can buy to clip the end away tidy.
The danger of open pockets – Also be careful when you open the pockets of your rucksack because things can easily fall out. Don’t try and open any pockets right be a stream or river because something might fall out and in the river. A girl drowned on Dartmoor from just such an accident.
The outside of the pack is not a good place for hanging anything, in my experience, because it invariable falls off or gets caught on something. If you must attach something make sure it is very secure and keep an eye open in case it falls off. I have known people lose a waterproof or map this way. Your pack is behind you and you are unlikely to see anything fall.
Litter – please be careful to remove all litter and keep it safe in your pack. Don’t let it fall out of pockets unnoticed.
Mind the gap – try to make sure that you fill all the small gaps with stuff otherwise when you pick up the pack, or even worse while you are walking, stuff will move which might lead to loss of balance or uneven distribution. I always give my pack a bit of a gentle shake when I pack it to make sure everything is nicely settled. You may also have compression straps on your rucksack and it is definitely worth using these if you have them. They will pull the bag in around the load and make it more secure and help to keep the weight against your back.
Keep things even – try to keep your pack balanced. Don’t put everything heavy on one side otherwise the pack will pull on one of your shoulders and be very uncomfortable. You can probably feel this problem when you put the pack on and if you do then stop and sort it out. This is important to protect your back. I have an old sports injury to my back which means I am sensitive to this but if you are young and still growing it is very important not to strain your back with uneven loading as it could lead to permanent damage. It is very easy to create this problem if you stick your water into a pocket last thing before you set off.
A note about trouser pockets – I used to have some trousers with a handy map pocket on the side but not now. Be careful with anything you put in a pocket because when you sit on the ground things can fall out. I always zip up the pocket where my car keys are or put the keys in my pack somewhere safe.