How to Easily Pack a Tent in a Hiking Backpack

Going on a trip with your buddy but uncertain how to pack a large tent in your rather small backpack? Let's take a closer look at some of the ways to do it.

man standing on cliff wearing blue jacket and backpack

The crisp mountain air is calling us out to enjoy the fall colors and wake up with little bits of frost resting in the air. This is the best time to curl up in our warmest sleeping bag with nothing but the sounds of nature early in the morning as we enjoy the sweet solitude.

Backpacking has always been the great escape we need before packing all our gear away for the season and swapping out for winter equipment while dreaming of holiday snowball battles with friends and family. It is the ultimate expression of freedom. Being able to toss on a pack and go out into the great unknown is the best way to discover new nooks and crannies around your favorite natural haunts.

That whole process gets a bit cumbersome if you’ve never had the chance to properly back your gear before. The last thing you want is to add a bunch of weight to your backpack as you go vertical for a few hours. An unbalanced pack can lead to some uncomfortable situations and possibly even injury.

That is why I thought it would be a good idea to go over how to pack a tent in a backpack to ensure you get a balanced load as you adventure outdoors. I’ve included a bunch of suggestions that I’ve used since a kid and hope they’ll help you get outdoors and unplugged so you can recharge.

Why does packing a tent correctly matter?

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It’s not really about right or wrong, but more about safety and security. Your tent matters a great deal when you’re traveling outdoors for a few days. You never know when a storm may roll in or when your particular camping spot might have more bug life than you’d like.

The point is whether or not you choose to use a tent, having it ready and safe is imperative to your next trip.

A good hiking trip includes a lot of equipment like food, clothes, toiletries, survival gear, and endless amounts of freshwater that can weigh you down enough before throwing in a tent and sleeping bag. However, fatigue can set in if you’re not careful, and a simple rock in the path can lead to a rough exit full of endless limping and dangerous aftereffects.

There are many ways to pack your tent. Try out a few to see what works best for your body type, pack size, and journey length.

How should you pack your tent?

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The first concern should always be water. I always start by packing my tent inside a waterproof bag or stuff sack. This way, you can compress the overall size even further and protect your temporary home away from home from the elements.

Next, try and separate your poles from the fabric of your tent. This is going to depend on what kind of model you are using and the overall size. For me, I like to put the fabric part of the tent into the wet bag and then place it in the middle of my backpack against the inside. This way, it adds some extra cushioning for my back as I walk. The longer you’re on the trail, the more cushion you want!

For the poles, I like to strap them against the backpack’s exterior in a vertical orientation. I’ve tried horizontal many times before but always snag them on too many branches when going between trees.

You can go without the wet bag to conserve weight, but you run the risk of damaging your tent when it is jammed up against all the other items in your backpack. A misplaced can opener can mean permanent damage to the durable fabric of any tent.

The other good part of using a wet bag or stuff stack is when it does rain, now you have a place to pack your tent without soaking the rest of your gear. Of course, it always helps to shake out and dry your tent before putting back into its pack, but that extra barrier can mean the difference between clean, warm socks and wet soggy blisters.

Outside made a great video on how to pack a tent inside your backpack:

However, if you’re trying to make room for a 6-person tent, you might want to consider packing the tent on the outside of your backpack.

What about packing the tent on the outside?

The significant advantage to strapping your tent to the exterior of your backpack is that you’ll have more room on the inside for other essentials. More space means more food, warmth, and amenities that make the trip a little more comfortable.

The problem lies with damage. Having your tent on the outside of your backpack exposes it to the elements, passing tree branches, and accidental placements on sharp rocks. This is why wrapping it up in a stuff sack, or wet bag is a better alternative.

I personally like to strap it to the bottom of my backpack for added base weight and then place my poles on the outside vertically. I have a few friends that will back a tent at the top of their closed backpacks. They say it makes the trip easier but it always feels a bit tippy to me, like watching a Jeep take a corner to fat kind of tippy.

I’ve only seen one hiker use the vertical method of packing their tent to the outside of their backpack. That could be useful, but I get the impression you would have to lean forward slightly to compensate for the balance issue.

Packing into zones

A decent trick of the backpacking trade is to pack in zones depending on what you anticipate needing through the trip.

  • Bottom zone: medium-weight items like a sleeping bag, air mat, heavy clothes.
  • Back zone: heavy items like water, tent, cookware, food.
  • Front zone: lightest gear like towels, pillow, pullover.
  • Top zone: light equipment you frequently need like snacks, lights, rain jackets.

This is what most experts will suggest for a well-balanced backpack, and they leave plenty of room for you to try the exterior method as well.

Before you begin, lay out all your gear inside your house and try to eliminate anything you really don’t need so you can free up some weight. Then place them in zones and put them inside your pack.

It makes it a lot easier to learn how to pack a tent in a backpack! 🙂

Final thoughts

Learning how to pack a tent in your backpack has a lot to do with weight management and distribution. You want to keep your tent protected and dry without causing your balance to be funky as you make your way up and down the trail.

If you want to learn more about tent alternatives like camping with a hammock, I’ve written a great post about how to secure them to trees and other outcroppings. They offer a decent weight difference in your gear and a raised platform off the cold earth for when you sleep.

No matter what you decide works best for you, be sure to stay safe out there and remember to have a good time. We could all use a bit more peace and quiet from the tent camping in the great outdoors.