How to Pack Small for a Big-Ass Backpacking Trip
Backpack for long enough, and you slough every last gram of dead weight to become your most efficient, durable self. I did a lot of pre-trip Googling for what I’d need to last 17 months on the road, but in retrospect what I needed most was a stranger on the internet reaching through their computer and slapping like 5 pounds of junk out of my hands. In Bali I once had to walk 12 miles in the midday heat, in flip-flops, because I missed a bus. If I’d been carrying anything more, I’m not entirely sure what I would have done. Died, maybe.
So, yes, pack less. But then -- what the hell, when you’re blasting into the unknown? I started my trip in North America, but knew I’d also be packing for New Zealand (cold), sub-Saharan Africa (hot), Australia (humid), Europe (all of the above), and Southeast Asia (spiders). And you will encounter weirdness beyond what you can predict. I saw a gas station serve a full pancake breakfast and a busker play “The Final Countdown” on a full-sized harp. But across 30-plus countries, I never met a backpacker who regretted packing too light.
Here’s what to put in that backpack. You better love it all, or you will most definitely have time to loathe it.
The essentials for backpacking are actually essentials for life
What remains to lug are the absolute essentials. Much of it is travel-specific equipment that you probably don’t already have, but this isn’t a bridesmaids-dress situation where you need an expensive thing once only to never pick it up again. Good travel gear tends to just be better-designed, better-constructed versions of things you do use in your everyday life.
It’s been more than two years now since I got back from my trip, and I still use nearly everything I bought for it. And I don’t mean stuff I’ve gone on to re-purchase; I mean physically the same items I had with me while traveling, because top-quality shit lasts forever. Start planning early, and it’ll simply accumulate. I spent six months planning my trip before I actually left, and in that time I just phased in a lot of the Travel Stuff whenever I needed to buy new Regular Stuff, like socks.
Do this right and you can achieve a style of travel called flashpacking. The the internet has interpreted this to mean “affluence,” but you can do it on a budget. Bring only expensive and/or hard-to-find-on-the-road essentials; on the road, pick up -- and subsequently discard -- cheap/disposable things: extra socks, flip-flops, T-shirts, a beach towel, gloves, hats, bottles bigger than travel-size of anything, including sunscreen. This saves you a lot of weight and space, especially if you’re traveling between varied climates. Take a sort of Marie Kondo approach to your packing: Each time you’re about to put something in your bag, think of the destination where you plan to use it and ask yourself if the item is something you’ll be able to buy, cheaply, once you’re there. Yes? Then buy it there. Most of the stuff you reflexively pack for traveling you don’t actually need while you’re traveling. You only need it when you’ve arrived.
What's the best backpack?
Outside a nice camera, this is your biggest purchase, so make it deliberately. You’ll want a bag to comply with TSA carry-on dimensions; have waist-support straps and ideally a rain cover; have a pocket or strap that’ll hold your laptop in place; and sport external clips where you can hang bulky stuff like jackets and sleeping bags. It’s also enormously helpful to get a bag that opens horizontally, like a suitcase, as opposed to vertically, like what you stuff your sleeping bag into -- that way you can just butterfly everything wide open when you’re looking for something instead of having to take everything out, then repack, when you need something down at the bottom.
I went for a Minaal, a backpack which satisfies all these requirements and has the added benefit of being non-ugly. At $300ish, it pricey. However, it’s also literally the only piece of luggage I own, and since buying it more than three years ago I’ve never needed anything else. I use it any time I’m going somewhere for more than like a day. If I could, I’d crawl inside its neoprene busom and travel out of it like a turtle.
Add or subtract here depending on how much faith you have in your physical fitness and how much time you think you’ll spend actually carrying it, but you probably want your fully packed backpack weighing in at no more than 25 pounds. If you can get it down to 15, splendid, and if you get it down to less than 15 please explain in the comments how you did such a thing.
Prioritize technology and health
The first things to make room for in your backpack should be whatever tech you’ll need on your trip, which probably means a laptop or tablet, DSLR camera if you have one, outlet converter if you need one, phone, chargers, and any special equipment you might need for work. This is a good time to pick up a portable phone charger.
The other high priority is anything tailored to your specific needs as an individual that would be a hassle to pick up on the road, like antibiotics, malaria pills, or prescription medications (if you take something that you’re not allowed to receive more than a month’s supply of at a time, or without seeing your doctor in person every three months, ask your doc for a letter of medical necessity and then check local pharmacy policies around your meds).
How do I stay clean?
Backpacking is an inherently smelly affair, but it doesn’t have to be unlivable. One of the things that I bought for traveling and still use today are these tiny lil' atomizers -- you’re not going to want to pack a glass bottle of perfume or body spray (or cologne, for any fragile mens out there) so take five seconds to transfer some into one of these. If you’re going somewhere very hot, look for a rollerball deodorant; when I was in Australia, my regular stuff melted.
As per the whole flashpacking deal, you’re not going to be carrying a ton of liquids, but I beg of you please get a self-contained, waterproof toiletry kit for whatever you do bring. It is imperative that all your toothpaste and tiny shampoo bottle and even contact solution be quarantined. You can find a million cheap, adequate ones on Amazon; get a hanging one that unfolds and which fits comfortably within your backpack.
What shoes should I bring?
Again, don’t pack flip-flops -- the exception is if you’re going to mainly places where these would be your primary walking-around shoes, and it’s worth it for them to be comfier than a random $2 pair you’d buy on your way to the beach. Otherwise, you’re probably aiming to pack two pairs of shoes: one lighter pair that is your most comfortable, everyday, walk-a-lot-without-getting-blisters shoe, and another heavier pair for hikes, mud, hardcore shows, you do you. Don’t get suckered into buying a specialty hiking shoe because you need “proper footwear” for this trip; if you’re doing intense hiking, you probably already have a good pair, and if you’re not, then you’ll be fine with what you have. I hiked Machu Picchu in Timbs, and I made it 17 months around the world on a succession of three pairs of Keds, replacing each pair I was on only when they reached the point of truly falling apart -- like, broken-in-half falling apart, which is how I ended up without any for a few days there in Indonesia and why I was doing all that walking in flip-flops. You don’t have to take it quite that far. Just don’t spend money on heavy shoes you don’t need.
OK, do I need to pack a bulky jacket though?
Jackets are the shoes of your arms. If you are going someplace cold/snowy for most of your trip then yes, of course, you need a jacket built for very cold/snowy places. Otherwise, you’re going for an absolute maximum of two jackets: one light and one slightly heavier. Clip the bigger one outside your bag to save space. When you’re packing the lighter one into your bag, roll it up instead of folding it. (To get really into the weeds on the science of putting things into a bag, trust the military.) This goes for all clothing you’d otherwise fold -- it helps cut down on wrinkles, and also makes each item in your bag easier to identify when you’re rummaging.
Do I need special travel pants?
Under no circumstances are you to pack a second pair of jeans. Pack one pair of jeans. When the jeans rip, throw them out and then buy more. If you are resistant to this idea, ask yourself how long you’re comfortable wearing the same pair of jeans at home.
If you’re constitutionally incapable of going more than two or three days without washing them, then instead of packing more jeans pack one or two extra pairs of the real backpacking MVPs -- of which you need at least one pair -- yoga pants, or whatever athleisure-type equivalent fits your body/style/personality. Basically whatever long pants you’d wear to the gym. They’re eminently more comfortable than jeans, and they’re equally good for outdoor activities and lying around, things for which jeans are suboptimal. They’re also lighter, faster-drying, and more likely to be made of space-age stuff that doesn’t stink. On your trip these are your Regular Pants. Jeans are now Special Pants, to be worn when you’re out getting dinner or drinks.
How many shirts is too many?
It all depends on how comfortable you are wearing dirty ones. But I would say pick maybe three shirts that are comfy, light, and versatile in terms of tan lines and/or aesthetic (meaning you have options for hiking, sleeping, and looking presentable) -- you’ll use all three, and if you end up needing more later, you can buy them later. Unless you’re going to only warm places, you’ll also want one long-sleeved base layer, the temperature-regulating kind you get from activewear places like REI (as opposed to just a long-sleeved shirt). Generally speaking, avoid cotton; you want shit that dries fast and doesn’t smell. Which brings us to:
Travel socks and travel underwear
The next time you need to buy socks, buy a pair of Merino wool socks -- yes, they are more expensive than regular socks, but you don’t need more than two pairs max and they last much longer than whatever you’re wearing right now. They’ll also smell better and be more comfortable. I still use these, because they’re better-made and really do save you money in the long-run (these I have repurchased once or twice though; even miracle socks are still socks, they don’t last indefinitely if you’re wearing them all the time). Oh, this works for Merino-wool underwear, too. Get special underwear. You won’t be sorry.
You’ll want a second, smaller backpack (or purse, knapsack, something in that genre) for when you’re just out for the day and leaving most of your stuff in a hostel. You prooobably don’t need a water filtration bottle, but if you’re going somewhere, where you’re especially concerned then grab the Grayl to protect from bacteria and viruses. I bought mine for the seven weeks I was in Southeast Asia, and honestly I didn’t end up using it enough to justify the price. But if you have a sensitive stomach or will be outdoors a lot, you might find it a more vital purchase than I did.
A thing you probably do need, though, is a microfiber towel, for essentially the same reasons you want the athleisure pants and non-cotton undies. They’re light and compact, which is helpful for obvious reasons, and they’re fast-drying, which is crucial because you’re going to be in a lot of situations where you can’t air out your wet/dirty stuff and then it immediately gets all mildewy.
If you’re going on more of a road trip-style trip, you might check out one of a Scrubba, which is a sort of miniature washboard, but self-contained. This is another thing that I brought and didn’t really end up using, but if you know you’ll be mostly hand-washing your clothes you might find it more worthwhile.
So don’t worry about not having enough stuff. The rest of the world has stores, too. And if you must pack just one more thing for your own peace of mind, no one’s ever gone wrong with blister block.