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Gear Guy

Should a backpack be bottom or top heavy?

When it comes to packing a backpack, I get lots of varying answers. What's correct, the weight at the top of the pack or at the bottom? Kristen San Diego, California

A: Depends on the backpack. For internal-frame packs, the load becomes part of the suspension system, so the important thing is to pack it tightly. I usually fill the bottom of such a pack with a sleeping bag and other soft items that I am not apt to need during the day. Above that goes the heavy stuff—climbing hardware, cookware, food, things like that. In the upper part, I pack stuff I'm likely to need: lunch, jacket, first-aid kit, and so on. Small items go in the side or top pockets. On rough terrain, where a low center of gravity is important, it might be wise to put heavy things on the bottom.

For external-frame packs, heavy things go high and as close to your back as possible. Picture a line running from the pack through your hips—you want the bulk of the load to be centered on that line, so the pack's frame can direct it to your hips. Otherwise the load may pull back at your shoulders, which results in poor balance as well as discomfort.

You'll want to experiment some with your particular gear set to see what works best. It's not possible to pack things perfectly—most outdoor gear has an odd shape and doesn't lend itself to scientific packing. Keep the load close to your back, and tightly packed so it can't swing around, and you'll be fine.

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