I love to travel light, pack efficiently, and avoid as many checked-bag fees as possible! Packing can always be a difficult task, because its a constant struggle to bring items that are both functional and fashionable. I always try to look somewhat presentable when travelling, but every article of clothing adds to the bulk of my luggage. In this post, my brother and I reflect on our travel experiences and share our packing process to help you maximize your backpacking efficiency.
My brother, Jack Hyer, is a very experienced traveller. He has been to 28+ countries and is an expert on travel budgeting, packing, and planning. This is a blog post that he wrote a few years ago to help backpackers pack for their summer travel. I used a lot of his material and incorporated my own insight on how to pack for your trip, enjoy!
The process of packing is more critical thinking than actual packing. Understanding the weather you may experience, what activities you will and potentially might do and having a very well fitted backpack are all factors that can enhance or tarnish your trip. I always loved packing for trips two weeks before departure because I was so excited, and while thinking about all the things I would be doing I repacked and exchanged the things I would take three times over. Unfortunately, in all the excitement I sometimes got overly optimistic, like how sunny South East Asia would be or how little I would be walking around on foot in Tanzania. Sometimes I would find myself in a Thai thunderstorm without a simple umbrella or in Greece with only one towel to lay on the beach, shower in and use as an improve blanket. Hopefully, this run down guide will help you pack lighter, more comfortably and more efficiently.
There are five simple steps to packing efficiently.
- Identify weather and activities you’ll do, pack accordingly
- List everything you want to bring, now narrow it down to things that have multiple purposes or can be acquired abroad
- Get a backpack that fits well, has compartments and can hold more than enough stuff
- Separate your things into frequently used, money, important, and extra junk you don’t really need
- Eliminate unnecessary items and pack essentials into your sack
Step 1: Think about what you’ll be doing
This is a pretty straightforward question. If you’re going to spend your whole trip touring museums and famous landmarks in European capitals, you probably just need to have some clothes, comfortable sneakers, and a good camera. If you plan on hiking the foothills of the Himalayas, you might need some more hardcore equipment. Think of the activities you will be doing, but also imagine potential activities you might be doing. You never know what you’ll do on a trip and often will be given the opportunity to spontaneously deviate from your plan (which is way more fun). When I went to Europe and the Middle-East in 2011, I planned on looking like a bum most of the way. I didn’t pack a single pair of nice pants or decent shirt. I was pretty proud of myself thinking I had thought it all the way through, but on my second to last day of my trip in London, I got invited to a yacht party and was grossly underdressed. It was funny, but there were some powerful people there that I wish I had made a better impression on. Secondly, when visiting some Islamic holy sites in the middle east, I did not know that I was required to cover my legs and dress far more conservatively, the Blue Mosque does not accept tank-tops and travel shorts with flip flops.
Second to the actual activities you’ll be doing, what is the environment you will encounter? If you are seeing South-East Asia in July, it goin’ rain, if you’re going in May, it will be hot as hell but slightly dry and much clearer skies. Look up the year round weather of your trip here. This site should give you the basic run down of what to expect. Sometimes, it may surprise you. I went to sub-saharan Africa in mid-summer and thought it would be unbearably hot, it was actually blue skies, low 70’s (20’s C) and occasional drizzles to keep the dust down. Of course, if you want to pack ultra-light, and I mean smaller than a typical school backpack, you can always buy the clothes you need during your trip. This, however, can backfire when you need an umbrella and find yourself on the Champs Elysees where every Umbrella is handcrafted from Louis Vutton.
Step 2: Build a list of “essentials”
Now that you have a general idea of what you’ll need, narrow it down to only the bare minimums. Seriously, bare minimums. Of course, if you are willing to carry around a 60 pound backpack of equipment every single day, then skip this section, but I personally like to pack as light as possible to make traveling as convenient and possible (not to mention keeping my packs “carry-on” size). For my beach/hiking trip to Peru, here is the total list of what I want to bring:
- 55 Gallon travel backpack
- Hiking shoes
- Walking shoes
- Swim suit
- Waterproof jacket
- 1 nice shirt
- 4 averaage shirts
- 1 pair of nice pants
- 1 pair average pants
- 3 pairs shorts
- 1 swim suit
- 2 towels
- Body wash
- Money pack (I know dorky, but gives me peace of mind)
- Folder for documents
- 7 pair underwear
- 7 pair socks
- 1 water bottle
- 1 pair sunglasses
- Sleeping sack (like a sleeping back, but more compressed)
- Comforting mat
That’s a pretty good list. I would be fairly covered, but honestly I don’t need half of those things. Here is a list of what I must have:
- 55 Gallon travel backpack
- Second, small day pack
- 1 pair trail shoes (lighter than hiking, rougher than gym shoes)
- 1 medium, water proof jacket
- 1 pair nice pants
- 1 nice shirt
- 1 pair cut off pants (pants that zip off leggings into shorts, again dorky I know)
- 2 pairs shorts (one of them gym shorts so it doubles as a swimsuit)
- 3 shirts, preferably Ex-officio (these only need rinsing to be washed, I can, and probably will buy, more shirts abroad)
- Shampoo/bodywash power mix (even more condensed than liquid form)
- 1 quick-dry towel, large
- 4 pairs Ex-officio underwear (expensive, but again quick to clean)
- 5 pairs socks (ill probably wear flip-flops more than I plan too)
- Toothbrush, small travel sized toothpaste OR baking soda.
- Belt (my weight fluctuates when I travel, usually downwardly)
That list shrank considerably from two things. First, I traded in my regular clothes for specialized travel clothes. These are sometimes a little pricey, but it’s a worthwhile investment since you can use them again and again every time you travel. I also added in a daypack. I don’t need to lug my entire sack of travel shit everywhere I go. Many hostels allow you to lock up valuables, so this will make day trips or overnight trips much easier. Secondly, and more importantly, I condensed items. I don’t need shampoo and a bottle of body wash. I can easily find a combination of the two at wal-mart of something. Better yet, look for the power form. A travel buddy of mine introduced me to it and honestly, it stings like hell when you use it, but after your body feels like a million baby angels are messaging your body.
Step 3: Select something to pack your things in
This is a pretty important factor. I almost guarantee you will come home with more stuff than you left with, so over-estimate the size of backpack you’ll need. Most travel backpacks range from 45 gallon to 70 gallon capacity. A 45 gallon is slightly larger than the typical school backpack, a 70 gallon is what Sherpa’s use to carry overweight American yuppies in to the top of Everest. If you already have a traveling backpack, go ahead and skip to step 4.
Everyone is different, which is why I can’t recommend any single backpack or even backpack brand, but I can help you select a backpack. The three factors you need to look at are size, fit and features. Look at your list of “essentials” and estimate how much capacity you need in a backpack. I would roughly double the volume to be safe. If you can fit everything into the size of a medium school backpack (25 gallons) get a 50 gallon travel backpack. The capacity of your backpack isn’t of paramount importance as long as you have enough of it. This is because most, if not all, travel backpacks can be compressed. You’ll notice that on any backpack there is an inexplicably large number of straps and buckles. Most of these are actually used to compress you backpack. That’s how I get my 60 gallon backpack to “shrink-wrap” around my 30 gallons of stuff. When your buying one new at a store or even at a garage sale, ask the vender to help you compress it.
Secondly, make sure the backpack fits and is comfortable. I can’t stress the comfortable enough. The backpack’s weight should rest almost entirely on your hips with the shoulder straps there just to keep it close to your spine. Try on your backpack and buckle the waist section. Now tighten or loosen the straps until the backpack is slightly pushing up on your pack. The goal is to minimize the pressure on your shoulders. Try jumping around, bending over and twisting your body with it on. If this everything stays in place, and your lower back isn’t getting rubbed or scratched then the fit is probably good.
Lastly, check out the features of your backpack. In addition to being compressible, look for unique features like a pullout rain jacket or compartmentalization. Compartmentalization separate’s the volume of your backpack into multiple sections allowing organizing your equipment far easier and making it easier to find what you need in a hurry. My backpack has a compartment in the bottom almost exclusively for dirty clothes and a second slit for folders, documents and important papers. Another feature of your backpack is how you actually open your backpack. This is actually more important than one may realize, but think to yourself, how would I get something out of the bottom of my backpack. The bottom of your backpack is one of the most logical places to put the most important items on your trip, like a laptop, camera or passport, but it also sucks when you’re trying to get it out. Most backpacks have 1 of the three most common ways to open a backpack. One is a top string tied opening. This is much like how a loaf of bread is packed into a bag at a supermarket. There is one way in and one way out. Its very secure, but it’s a total bitch to get things out of the bottom. The second slightly more expensive and more common type is a bottom zipper and a top string tied opening. This backpack will have the same top opening, but will also have a compartment on the bottom that is able to unzip allowing you to access things directly in the bottom of your sack. The third type, and what I believe to be the most convenient, is a full zipper backpack. This backpack has a zipper that opens up the backpack like peeling a banana. The zipper goes all the way from the bottom over the top and down the next side. This makes opening your backpack super convenient as you can access anything with ease.
Step 4: Categorizing
All of your items fall into 3 different categories: money, frequent use, highly important, expendable. Lets start with expendable. Expendable items are anything that won’t leave you screwed if you lost it, are not hard to replace, and of are little value. This is basically all your clothes, shoes and sleeping equipment. This will take up the bulk of your items and likely only be needed once per day. Unless you are prone to random explosive diarrhea, you can put these in the bottom of your bag where it is difficult to access.
Frequent use items are things you will use more than once a day. These are things like personal grooming products, sunglasses, a water bottle and so forth. Grooming products can be put at the very top of your bag. If someone is trying to reach into your back and steal something, you will have the last laugh when all they got away with was a box of tampons and your underused dental floss. I would recommend consolidating all these items into a baggy so that they are all taken out together when grooming in the morning or at night. Your waterbottle and sunglasses can be strung on the outside of you backpack, unless you’re bringing expensive shades where you can slip a glasses case into an extra water bottle compartment.
Highly important items are the things you absolutely cannot lose, but don’t need to access frequently. This includes your passport, vaccination reports, copies of other forms of ID, flight itineraries and so forth. First of all, get a photocopy of all your paper work. Put the original copies all in a folder in the least accessible part of your bag. For me, that is the envelope section that rests upon my back. Now take the copies of everything and put them somewhere OTHER than your backpack. Ok, I know its dorky, but trust me on this one, put them on a money pack. A money pack is like a fanny pack but far more secure and flat. It is usually unnoticeable and goes under your belt/shorts. No one can see it, but if you lose your bag, you will be so glad you have everything right there.
Money. Money is only, and just barely, slightly less important than your paperwork. If you lose your passport in Jordan and need to get to Israel, start learning Arabic. If you lose your wallet, you can at least prove to someone who you are and get access to help. First, take out the cash you will need on a daily basis, maybe $40 in the local currency, and put this in your wallet/purse. This is also doubles as an agent to help you hold yourself accountable with your money. If your wallet is always empty at the end of the day, you may be going over budget. Now, take a second amount of money as your “emergency” fund. This should be enough for 4 days of traveling should you lose everything else. You can put this in a secure place in your backpack, which you will likely leave at the hostel. If you are mugged (which would be incredibly unlikely) then you will know you will be ok for a while until your family or friends can transfer money over. As for credit/debit cards, these should be put in a money pack so they are always on you, if you are too cool for a money pack then just put it in a secure place in your backpack.
Step 5: Jamming it all up in there (think clean thoughts)
Now that you have everything organized and ready you can finally physically put your items into your sack. If you are bringing a secondary small day pack (highly recommended) put your frequently used/valuable items in there and off you go!
Thank you for reading our post. If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts that you would like our take on, comment below. Stay updated by following on social media:
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Written by Jack Hyer and Jeff Hyer