Let’s Go: Packing Tips

The first and foremost thing to keep in mind when packing is that you can get just about everything you need on the road. Which translates to: don’t worry about forgetting anything. That said, I offer up some other tips to keep in mind.

1. Pack Only What You Can Carry
[singlepic=1102,150,,,right]Say goodbye to your wheelie suitcase and business suits – you’re a backpacker now! Which means you’ll be carrying all of your worldly possessions on your back. You’re living on the go – at a moments notice you can sling that backpack on and be off. And it’s extremely useful if you need to navigate through crowds or running late to catch your next flight.

So you will want to only pack what you can carry. One way of limiting what you bring is to get a smaller backpack. If you get the biggest possible backpack available, chances are you will be tempted to pack it full right away. If you are limited in size, you will be forced to really evaluate what you are bringing. Plus, you’ll want to leave room for all the incredible cultural items you’ll want to buy!

In addition, airlines are now charging for overweight bags. This is especially true for smaller, internal flights. That’s just another added expense that you won’t want chipping away at your budget.

When packing it’s extremely useful to lay out everything you plan to bring. By visually seeing everything together, you can step back and evaluate what you truly need. The general formula is to take out half of what you originally planned.

2. Dress in Layers and Neutral Colors
No matter where you travel, chances are you will face multiple climates – even in the same day! So dressing in layers is a great way to be prepared for any moment. It’s also smart to layer and wear your bulkiest items when you’re flying.

[singlepic=1105,200,,,left]Dressing in neutral colors also allows you to mix and match multiple items in your limited wardrobe.

One of the most difficult things new backpackers experience up front is the clothing issue, or lack there of. But keep in mind that as you will be living on the move, chances are most people won’t know that you are wearing the same things every other day. And more than likely, so are they!

I personally find it refreshing not to worry about what I’m going to wear. Depending on the situation for that day, I most likely only have one or two options of what to wear. So it’s one less thing to decide!

3. Evaluate What’s Most Important To You
[singlepic=1103,200,,,right]I have to admit that my daypack for the most part generally weighs twice as much as my backpack when I’m traveling. And that’s because I’m a photographer and can’t travel without my various cameras and lenses. For me, that extra weight is worth it. Not everyone needs to carry that much equipment, especially with the compact sizes of digital cameras these days.

But perhaps there is something else important to you that you can’t leave home without. If you’re an avid diver, you may want to bring your equipment. Michael and I knew we’d be doing a lot of snorkeling on our break, so we packed our own masks as rentals tend to be pretty beat up.

A fervent runner? You’ll want your running sneakers for sure. Or maybe you are going to do a lot of hiking and want to bring your walking sticks.

What you pack doesn’t always have to be limited to your activities. I’m always amazed when I meet other backpackers and they have on full makeup and jewelry. Even though those items may take up a minimal amount of space, they are not important enough for me to take on the road.

4. Keep Toiletries Light
Toiletry items can easily become the heaviest part of your backpack, so it’s best to try and keep the weight and bulk to a minimum. One way to do this is to only pack what you need for the immediate weeks. Most items like shampoo, soap and toothpaste can easily be picked up on the road, so starting off with smaller sizes is a great idea. Plus, if you pack a large shampoo bottle, the bulk of it will still take up more space even as you use it up.

[singlepic=1106,125,,,left]Michael and I actually discovered a great item from Lush, an all-natural cosmetics company. They have bath soaps that can be used for both hair and body. At first we were a bit doubtful that they would work, but they quickly proved both useful and compact!

There are some items of your toiletry bag that you may find it bit more difficult to find overseas. If you wear contacts, you may want to bring extra lens solution as that may not always be available. And for women, I found it extremely difficult to find feminine hygiene products in other countries – especially tampons. Unless you are comfortable with OB-type products, you will want to pack extra tampons.

In addition to any travel medications you might be on (such as malaria pills) perhaps you have a regular prescription for something. You will want to make sure you have enough of it to get through the trip. It is very important that you bring your doctor’s prescription with you as well.
Another item that will take up a lot of space in your backpack is a traditional bath towel. Instead, use an ultra light towel! They are small, lightweight, soak up water in an instant, and dry super fast. And if you are worried about a towel for the beach, use a sarong! Again, these are small and lightweight and can even be used as a wrap if you find yourself using a communal bathroom.

5. Use Stuff Sacks for Separating Gear
Over my many years of backpacking, I’ve seen countless number of travelers with “exploding” backpacks – while digging through their bags looking for a particular item, everything is removed and thrown about. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you are on a train or on your way out.

[singlepic=1101,125,,,left]I’ve been able to keep my backpack and items in order by separating them in individual stuff sacks. If I need a new t-shirt, I know which sack to open. And even if it’s placed at the bottom of my pack, I only have to remove two or three items to get to it. Same thing goes for bottoms, toiletries, socks/underwear, and miscellaneous items like sarongs, bathing suits, and Swiss Army knives.

A key to packing in stuff sacks is to roll your items – this saves space and keeps items somewhat wrinkle free.

Cubes also make it easier to repack. It won’t take long for you to figure out the best configuration for items in your backpack and will soon become an automatic function for you.

6. Pack For the Immediate
If you plan to be in various climates during your extended travel, pack for your most immediate. Warm climate destinations obviously require lighter clothing than cold weather destinations so you won’t want to be lugging around down coats and boots while in the tropics.

And I hate to sound like a broken record but you can always pick up these necessary items when you get to your destination. When I found myself in Nepal having packed for the heat of Southeast Asia (see Letting Go: Preparedness entry) I was able to pick up the necessary hiking clothes in Kathmandu. And when I was done with that part of my trip and heading to a warmer climate, I was able to donate my warm clothing to the porters and sherpas who so greatly helped us.

7. Be Culturally Sensitive
[singlepic=1104,150,,,right]It’s important to keep in mind the cultures that you are traveling to – after all you are a guest in their country and you should be respectful. Sure Thailand is hot, but they are a very conservative country in the way that they dress. You won’t see many Thai people in skimpy tops and shorts. You can certainly dress this way, but be prepared to attract unwanted attention and don’t expect to enter Wats (temples). Make sure you have a top that covers your shoulders and long pants or a skirt below the knees (for women).

While volunteering in India, Sherry decided to dress like the locals and had a salwar kameez made. By doing so she showed respect to the community she was living and working in. An added bonus – she didn’t have to pack as many clothes before going! 

Other Quick Tips

  • Don’t bring dry cleaning
  • Dry-fit clothes are great items as they breathe, dry fast, and don’t wrinkle
  • Fabric softener in your pack is a great way to freshen up your wardrobe
  • Are you a runner? Sherry finds that deodorant balls are great for keeping her sneakers from smelling up her pack

We Don’t Leave Home Without:

  • Extra passport photos (you never know when you’ll need them for visas)
  • iPod (great for listening to travel podcasts and keeps you company on long road trips)
  • Water bottle (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!)
  • Straps and carabiners (great for strapping/attaching extra things to your pack)
  • Leatherman or Swiss Army knife (make sure to pack in your checked bag
  • Dry bags (great for keeping valuables such as cameras and computers safe when on or near the water)
  • Plastic bags (great for separating items in your pack, especially wet items)
  • Headlamp (see Our Favorite Gear entry)
  • Sleep sheet (you can always trust your own bedding)
  • Visor/Baseball cap (keeps the sun off your face)
  • Knit cap and scarf/wrap (even in the warmest of climates it can get chilly)
  • Journal (you’ll regret in the future not documenting this incredible passage in your life)
  • Camera (no explanation needed)
  • Photos and/or postcards from home (a great way to share your culture and life with the people you encounter)

Shop the Briefcase to Backpack Store for our favorite travel gear:

Other comments

One Comment on "Let’s Go: Packing Tips"

  1. volunteer abroad | Volunteer Life on Fri, 19th Jun 2009 6:53 pm 

    […] environment, the culture where you’re in, the length of your time away from home and so forth. Briefcase to Backpack, offers a pretty complete guide to where to think of when going away. The blog is mainly based on […]

Career Break Guide Table of Contents

Meet Plan Go