Packing for overnight hiking involves more than worrying about weight and space. You need to protect fragile gear, ensure certain items are easily accessible and distribute everything in a back-friendly manner. But how do you pack the tent? Does everything have to go inside the backpack?
How to pack a tent in a backpack in five easy steps:
- Place Tent Inside An Internal Frame Backpack
- Decide If You Want Poles Inside Or Out
- Roll Up Tent And Rain fly
- Put Tent At Bottom Of Backpack’s Core Zone
- Strap Poles With Compression Strap If Needed
Table of Contents
1. Place Tent Inside An Internal Frame Backpack
A tent, rain fly, and footprint (tarp) should go inside an internal frame backpack. Many mistakenly believe that since these are outdoor items, accustomed to being thrashed by the elements, it’s fine to have them outside the bag.
However, a pitched tent does not suffer the same abuse as a backpack. When hiking, your pack gets bumped, snagged, and rubbed by sticks, thorns, and rocks. A well-pitched tent won’t experience this type of friction.
Nor is a tent and rain fly able to keep water out when rolled up as it would if pitched. Thus, having it on the outside risks water getting into the inner side of your equipment.
Yes, boomers grew up carrying their tents outside the external frames. But these backpacks generally have a place between the frame, under the bag, that offers the tent some protection.
2. Decide If You Want Your Poles Inside Or Out
In a full-size hiking backpack, you have the option of packing your poles inside or outside the bag.
The Pros Of Packing Poles Inside The Bag:
- The poles can’t accidentally fall off and be lost
- Saves pockets and outside pack space for items you need to access quickly
The Pros Of Packing Poles Inside The Bag:
- Uses up valuable inside space
- Potentially puncture something
- Might be longer than your bag
Official advice is to keep them inside the bag, often packing vertically at the “spine,” so they won’t be bent or dig into the shoulders.
Some roll up the poles up in their sleeve inside the tent. However, many worry about punctures, and some poles are longer than the tent stuff sack. In addition, when splitting a tent between two backpackers, keeping the poles separate from the main tent makes it easier to split the weight.
However, despite official advice, most hikers admit to strapping their poles on the outside of their backpacks. One poll revealed as many as 80% of backpackers keep their poles outside their bags.
3. Pack Tent, Rain Fly, Poles, And Stakes Into Their Bags
Lay all the tent equipment out and put it into its correct sleeves or stuff sacks. Some tents put the rain fly and footprint in the same bag. If splitting between two hikers, keep the rain fly and footprint separate to help share the weight.
How To Fold Tent For Its Stuff Sack
To pack the tent into its sack:
- Spread it out on the ground
- Fold in extending corners or flaps until you’ve created a square or rectangle
- Fold tent in half
- Continue to fold until your tent’s width is less than the stuff sack’s
- If including rain fly, place on top, at the same width
- If including poles, line them up at the foot of the tent as you would a hotdog in its bun
- Get on hands and knees and roll as tightly as possible
- Squeeze the air out as your roll
- Place in bag
4. Place Tent At Bottom Of Backpack’s Core Zone
A tent goes at the bottom of your backpack’s core zone before adding clunkier items such as a camp stove food/bear canister, which can be cushioned between the spare clothing.
The Bottom Zone Of The Backpack
It is a myth that the heaviest items should be in the bottom zone. Light, bulky items create a cushion, like shock absorption, for the rest of the pack. In addition, you don’t want hard, heavy items pressing into your lower back.
Thus, the bottom layer should be reserved for softer items you won’t need during the hike:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Night clothing
- Camp shoes not used for water crossings
The Top Zone Of The Backpack
The top zone should contain items often required for the trail. Examples include:
- First-aid kit
- Puffy jacket
- Rain jacket
- Toilet paper
- Water filter
- Braces or PT tape
The External Pockets Of The Backpack
Packs often have external side compartments and a small “lid” pocket. Some will have a back pocket, but this is sometimes the water reservoir. In addition, some belts have pockets and water bottle holders. The belt or shoulder is the best place to keep your bear spray.
These outer pockets are best for items you might need during the hike. Examples include:
- Bug spray
- GPS (Might work in areas phone will not)
- Compass (yes, even if you have a phone)
- Epi-pen (you don’t want to dig in the first aid for this)
- ID, insurance info, health/allergy info
- Map (always carry a paper copy, as phones can be damaged)
- Chronic meds used during the day
- Rain cover
- Lip balm
The External Straps Of The Backpack
The eternal straps are handy to hang shoes for river crossing or when you want your trekking poles out of your hands. However, try to keep the times to a minimum. The more you hang, the more stuff there is to snag or throw your body out of idea hiking posture.
Examples of items to strap to the pack:
- Foam sleeping pad
- Ice Axe
- Tent poles
- Water crossing shoes
Bear spray shouldn’t be on a side or rear strap. It is too awkward to reach in an emergency.
5. Strap Poles If Required
If you are putting the poles on the outside, the two best options are:
- Using an external pocket
- Strapping with compression straps
Some people just use the webbing, but this raises the risk of them coming loose and falling off without you noticing.
Packing A Tent In An Ultralight Backpack
Many ultralight backpackers forgo a tent and just use a rain fly, which is packed in the bottom zone. But if you are using an ultralight tent, see if you can pack it with the rain fly and stick it as close to the bottom zone as possible with the sleeping bag.
Rather than stuffing the sleeping pad, consider using it to create a frame for the ultralight backpack, as most are frameless. This will help the pack’s weight distribution and keep items in their zone without bulges.
Turn the sleeping pad on its side, and curve it in as if making a puppet stage. Then you slide it in, the back facing outwards, sides pointing towards your back. Once in place, put your sleeping bag on the bottom, framed by the pad.
Poles almost always go on the outside of an ultralight backpack. If they are proper tent poles, secure them with a compression strap. If your tent uses trekking poles for its main support, these are supposed to be in your hands while hiking, so they don’t require packing.
Where Does The Tent Go In An External Frame Backpack?
The tent should be strapped to the bottom of an external frame backpack. It keeps the hiker in the correct posture, won’t strain their back, and provides the best protection for the tent. Putting the tent up high or in the compression straps creates poor hiking posture and increases the risk of the tent getting snagged.
Where Does The Foam Sleeping Pad Go In Backpack?
Large sleeping pads such as the ones made of foam do not always fit inside a backpack. Instead, you can wrap it around the outside of the tent in an external frame and then strap it to the bottom.
An internal frame is a tricker, but ideally, you want to try to attack it to the bottom. However, placing it on top can upset weight distribution and negatively impact your posture.
Can I Strap My Rain Fly To A Backpack?
Some hikers do strap the rain fly to a backpack. The reasoning is that the rain fly can get wet, so it doesn’t matter if its stuff sack leaks. However, anything strapped to the outside has a higher risk of being snagged, damaged, or lost. But it is an option if internal packing space is limited.
Can I Loose Pack My Tent In My Backpack?
Loose packing a tent is a common weight-saving hack for ultralight backpackers. You still need to roll it as tightly as possible. Take extra care when packing around the camp kit and stove. Also, tent poles should be carried outside the backpack when carrying a tent without its stuff sack.
Is It Lighter To Pack A Hammock Than A Tent?
Hammocks sound lighter than tents, but the full kit usually weighs twice as much as an ultralight tent. A big part of this is due to the straps and carabiners for the hammock, rain fly, and netting. The other problem is needing an under quilt or sleeping pad to prevent bum chill.
If packing space is limited, consider camping with only the rain fly or using a bivy sack.