Backpack Etiquette for Distance Hikers

Simply put, a backpacker is a hiker with a backpack. Eighty percent hiker. Twenty percent backpack. With the internet containing a gazillion articles and videos on how to trek, prep, use gear, eat, cook, and do everything in the distance-hiking world, I was shocked to find nothing on this question that once left me riddled: what do you do with the backpack?   

You wear it while you walk. Duh. But what about when you’re not walking? Do you leave it on the ground? For the most part, yes, but there is more to it than this. For example, when you stop at a store, do you bring the pack in, or leave it outside? And where do you put it at camp? Do you sleep with it in your tent? Should you sleep with it in your tent? Is there etiquette for breaks on trail? How do you approach this cumbersome yet vital entity? 

It’s not difficult, but neither is it obvious. Here’s what I can tell you.

What Do I Do With My Backpack When…

I Stop at a Store

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General Store and Restaurant at Kennedy Meadows North, CA

Never walk in a store with your pack on. This is a bad habit and something I did often in the beginning of my Appalachian Trail hike. Leaving your pack on is discourteous. You may hit displays, or worse, other customers. In outlet stores, place the pack in your cart while you shop to avoid this while still being able to keep watch of your precious rucksack.

This is not to say hikers should leave their packs outside of stores; I understand the risk this entails. Many places, however, especially in small towns, look out for hikers, and as I’ve argued to peers, I don’t think a hiker’s backpack is the most targeted grab for a layman. 

I’m at Camp

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Keep your pack out of the way. If you’ve chosen a camping spot, keep it there. If not, get it out of the way of other spots, unless you’re sure no one else will show up. If you’re tenting, keep it inside. This will prevent animals from inquiring. They may come to check the scene out in the night, but if they find no loose belongings upon their search, they’re less likely to stay and have a harmful impact on the camp and your inventory.

If you’re struggling to find space to put the pack within your tent, empty it and scatter the items where they fit, and remember, lowering your standards of comfort is part of the fun of thru-hiking.   

Be sure not to store food on the outside of your pack. This makes for a great opportunity for animal theft, especially if the pack is exposed when its owner is sleeping. Keep the items compact, even when setting up camp. Space is finite, and strewing your gear is a great way to leave your valuable possessions behind. 

And don’t forget to keep your pack away from fires or places fires can be made throughout the course of the night. Backpacks are inflammable, and useless when scorched. 

Resting on Trail

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Keep your pack off the trail, and keep the items compact. If you’re facing the trail and it is convenient to prop it there, be sure to move the pack when you stray. In essence, make sure hikers can get by. This may seem like common courtesy, but I’ve had to circumvent my fair share of backpacks on trail.   

I Have to Detour to Water

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I’ve left my pack stranded at junctions to water countless times. Hikers have reputed me as careless for this, but do you think someone’s going to steal your backpack in the middle of a wilderness trail? I think not. I think the shared goal is to carry as little as possible, and I think only one hiker in a thousand would contemplate carrying out an extra backpack with a bulk of unmarketable commodities.

I understand food is valuable. If you’re worried about it being stolen, take it out of the pack and bring it with you to the water. I often do this to combine my lunch with water collection. And if you’re so worried about your pack being stolen in the middle of the wilderness, bring it. You carry it most of the day anyhow.   

At a Hostel 

Etiquette for
Human Nature Hostel in Roxbury, ME. The owner, Ryan Holt, has a tent for hikers to store their backpacks while lodging.

It should be the MO for hikers to never bring a pack into a hostel, residence, or any place specifically catering to hikers without permission. Many hostels have roofed spaces for hikers to leave their packs, such as a mudroom or shed. Backpacks can be stinky and intrusive, but the chief reason you shouldn’t lug your pack into a residence unpermitted is the dirt it may carry. The few times I stayed in hotels on trail, I made a mess of dirt in the room.

When an organization dedicates themselves to hikers, the least you can do is ask before bringing your pack inside. If it is permitted, consider shaking the pack off first and furthermore opting to voluntarily leave your pack outside for the sake of cleanliness and aroma.      

I’m Riding into Town 

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Get ready to squeeze in. If you want a ride, you should be willing to throw that sucker atop your lap and enjoy a pleasant conversation with the pack snug in your face. Not all drivers will have room for everyone’s pack in the back. If you can put the pack in the back, however, do it. This may mitigate the smell (your pack will smell) for the driver. If you must stack backpacks, be sure to stack the heaviest on the bottom and the lightest on top.   

Do I Need to Wash My Pack?

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You don’t need to wash your pack on trail. I’ve never washed a backpack, on trail or off. Everyone on the trail is dirty, stinky, and when the weather is inclement, bedraggled. I don’t think cleaning your pack amid a hike is going to do much besides make it look cleaner than other packs for a day or two. 

Between thru-hikes? It might not be a bad idea. There are plenty of videos on how to do this on YouTube.   

Etiquette for

If your pack is an Osprey, a Zpacks, or a Hyperlite, bear this in mind: you will not be alone. These brands make up well over half the packs on trail. Consider fastening an accessory to the pack that will make it distinguishable. 

Is It Okay to Hang My Pack?

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Backpacks are designed to be hung, but their weight may not be apt for fixtures in buildings, particularly ones jutting from walls. Play it safe, and don’t hang your pack inside.    

Is it Okay to Leave My Pack With Someone Else?

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Asking someone to watch your pack may seem like a good idea, but consider what the favor entails. You are tethering them to the pack, and they must stay where they are or carry your pack in addition to theirs. For a quick trip into a store, this may be fine. For other scenarios, such as leaving it while you explore town, not so much. 

A backpacker without a backpack is but an unequipped wayfarer, and a backpack without a backpacker is but a lone rucksack. Happy Trails.    

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Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

4 thoughts on “Backpack Etiquette for Distance Hikers

  1. Great tips! You would hope you could leave the pack on the trail to grab water without someone stealing stuff. Jeez, such poor form and I would say – they’ll just set them up for some bad karma along the way!

  2. Nice article! It’s funny, the picture you used for the popular brand of backpacks section, is the pack I have.

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