The key to a perfect backpacking experience is, yes, your backpack. Once you’re on the road, your backpack is basically your home. You want to hit the sweet spot between having best of what you might need, and keeping it well under 20 kilos. If you’re only gone for a weekend, I hope your bag is WELL under 20 kilos…
This is the most important decision you’ll make before leaving home. You basically have the choice between three different bag types: a duffle bag, a wheeled case, or a backpack. Here’s how we see them:
Duffle Bag - best for long weekends and spontaneous trips. They fit a lot of stuff, and can be a little more mobile than wheelie cases, i.e. getting on and off buses or trains. They won’t hold a lot of stuff, but it’ll fit what you need for shorter trips.
Wheeled Case - the convenient option. There are tons of sizes, and the hard shell protects your goodies from the elements. The wheels are great if you’re walking around the airport with your carry-on, but it’s a pain in the ass if you’re walking across the cobbled hills of Lisbon. We only opt for the wheelie if we’re not moving around, and staying mainly in hotels with elevators.
Internal Frame Backpack - the Ace of luggage. You’ll never be failed by your backpack, as long as you choose a well-made one. It’s by far the easiest to carry from place to place, and it has just enough space for all your things while preventing you from overpacking. Plus, external pockets help with organization. These big buddies are best for long-term, multi-destination trips. They’re very easy to move around with, but you do stand out in a crowd - so maybe not for the more glamorous trips you take.
Choosing a backpack
Try. It. On. We know it sounds silly, but a backpack fits like any clothing would - or more accurately, like a back brace would. The size doesn’t change to the capacity of the backpack. It refers to the internal frame. You need it to fit your torso the right way, or the weight won’t be distributed properly. That would make you miserable. Most backpacks come in XS, S, M, L, or even XL. Don’t guess your size either. I’m normally a M or L for tops, and my backpack is an XS, and distributes the weight like a dream. If you can’t make it to a gear store, have your mom take a tape measure to your spine.
Next you want to choose the volume of your pack. Backpacks are measured using liters. I always imagine backpack factories testing them with Ziploc bags filled with water.
20-35 liters is great for daypacks, but probably won’t be enough for full trips.
40-50 liters is on the smaller side of backpacks, but you can make it work for one-week trips.
55-75 liters is the ideal range for backpacking for multiple weeks (or months!)
80 liters and up is very big. These backpacks are mostly meant for carrying camping gear. Otherwise, backpacks of this size will quickly become too heavy to be convenient for long-term travel.
Luggage locks and cords
Deck of cards
Light source (we recommend either a headlamp or a solar powered lantern)
External battery pack
Universal outlet converter
Noise canceling headphones
GOOD earplugs and a sleep mask - it makes a big difference in a dorm room
A sharpie and a pen
Face sunscreen for everyday use
Reusable water bottle
A printed copy of your passport
A basic first aid kit
If you’re going to Asia, make sure you always have toilet paper or a pouch of tissues ON YOUR PERSON AT ALL TIMES.
An entire set of passport photos
Headphone jack splitter if you’re traveling with a buddy!
The Daunting Toiletries Bag
Everyone differs on this one. Some people like the collapsible hanging bags. Personally, I prefer to use a basic design chapter bag as my primary bathroom bag. I find them less bulky, and it forces me to be smart about what I bring. Herschel makes a great one, and it does a great job containing any accidental spillage. I put all my routine shower/sink items in it, and use a secondary cosmetic bag for my other products (makeup, lotion, hair oil, jewelry, hair bands, etc.)
Here are some tips on how to create the perfect toiletries bag:
Use a toothbrush cap. That thing will go everywhere with you, and you really wanna keep the germs off it.
Use a soap bar instead of shower gel. It’s less prone to leakage, it lasts longer, and it’s not as heavy.
If you’re not attached to a specific shower routine, try using conditioning shampoo bars! One bar takes up much less space than two bottles of spill-able gel. Lush makes great products if you need somewhere to start looking.
Traveling with a friend? Share products, share the load!
If you get your period, consider creating a “time of the month” pouch. If that means tampons, menstrual cup, painkillers, pads, Thinx underwear, or whatever you need - make sure you can access it easily when you need to. Check out our “Travel Like A Girl” post for more good ideas about how to prep for your red week on the road.
How To Organize And Optimize
Time to revolutionize your packing routine. If you separate your clothes into neat packages, you will find it so much easier to unpack and repack when moving from hostel to hostel. You will also love how easy it is to A.) find exactly what you’re looking for, and B.) keep track of every article of clothing to avoid losing things. Opt for smaller cubes, otherwise it may get difficult to arrange your cubes efficiently.
Don’t forget to pack an empty cube for when your dirty laundry accumulates! Separate those smelly socks. And pick up a shoe bag while you’re at it. They’re usually made of a more durable material that keeps dirt, mud, or dampness from spreading to the rest of your backpack.
How to Pack a Backpack
Many travelers overlook this crucial detail. If you pack your bag right, it’ll be easier to carry and easier to pull things out of.
Top pocket - things you need to access quickly (raincoat, pack cover, headlamp/lantern, first aid kit).
Top of the main pack - lighter objects, toiletries (so they don’t get crushed), sleep clothes, underwear, laundry bag, towel if you bring one (it can also pack between the main pocket of the backpack and the top “brain”).
Middle of the pack - Keep your heaviest, and most guarded items (extra camera gear, souvenirs, electronics), in the middle right against your back! Surround them with cushioning - a.k.a. your clothing!
Bottom of the pack - shoes, bulky gear (jackets, thicker clothing, etc), things you don’t need to access as often, and camping gear if you have it.
External pockets - miscellaneous things you don’t want to go digging for (flip flops, deck of cards, sharpie, multi-tool, hat and gloves, etc.). Don’t put any liquids or electronics in outside pockets, they’re prone to being squished and battered on the outside of your bag.
Hip belt - luggage locks and luggage scale. Chapstick.
The Day Pack
A.K.A. front-of-body backpack. THIS IS WHERE YOUR IMPORTANT THINGS SHOULD GO! If you travel with a laptop, iPad, camera, prescription medicine, expensive sunglasses, a wallet, or anything else expensive or important - keep it in your little backpack. It will also be your one-and-only when you have to put your pack in checked cargo, under a bus, on the upper shelves of a train, or in a the luggage closet of your hostel.
When you get to a hostel, empty your expensive/important items into your allocated storage locker (always make sure they have personal lockers before booking a hostel). Use a personal lock if possible. Now you can use your day pack for adventuring around during the day!
If you HAVE to leave your daypack somewhere - or there are no storage lockers in your room - use your luggage cord to wrap around your backpack and through the straps/top handle, and secure it around a bedpost or unmovable object. It’s not ideal, but most of the time, thieves are just looking for easy targets.
Picking a Purse
This is going to be one of those “old reliable” kind of purses. Stay away from flashy, flimsy, or bulky ones. An ideal purse has these elements:
Sturdy strap that goes across your body.
Has a zipper that fully closes - bonus points if you can secure it by looping a wire-shut lock to the zipper and the strap!
Neutral color that matches all your outfits - black, grey, or tan. Not white- it will get very dirty.
Made of a soft enough material for it to pack well in your backpack when it’s empty.
Fits your essentials: PKW (phone, keys, wallet), chapstick, and maybe your taser for going out at night.
If you’re planning on using your purse during the day instead of a day pack, you may want to opt for a bigger bag. Try to avoid bags that are big and don’t close well. They’re basically beacons for thieves.
Traveling with a bulky DSLR camera can make your bag decision difficult. Lucky for you, we have the perfect recommendation. The epic and chic Lo & Sons Claremont bag is ideal for carrying your camera comfortably. Plus, the extra space can be used for your essentials (PKW), or an additional lens if you’d rather.
Tips & Tricks
ALWAYS buy your checked baggage before going to the airport. Budget airlines will hit you with a massive fine if you wait until the check-in desk. Pay attention to the weight requirements, because they will never miss an opportunity to charge you. If you’re planning to take a carry-on, make sure it fits both the dimension AND weight requirements. Most airlines only allow 10kg of carry-on weight, including your “personal item.” Some won’t even give you a carry-on in the first place.
Items that should never be in your carry on: Swiss army knives, tasers, nail clippers, guns, aerosol cans (spray deodorant, dry shampoo, hairspray, etc…), lighters, or any liquids/pastes over 100mL (3.4 liquid ounces). Chug your water bottle before security.
ALWAYS cover your backpack with a cover before you check it for a flight, put it under a bus, or even toss it in the trunk of a cab. There are mysterious substances in this world, and you do NOT want them getting all over your backpack.
Try to leave at least a quarter of your bag empty. You’ll likely be picking up souvenirs as you go, so you need to anticipate fitting them in your bag. If you run out of room halfway through your trip, consider sending a package home.
Bring a collapsable reuseable bag. If you plan to cook in hostel kitchens, you’ll need something to keep your groceries in.
Use a passport cover. Stash extra passport-sized photos and a $100 bill in the back cover for emergency “Visa On Arrival” situations.
The rules are different if you’re hiking and camping! There’s a lot to be said for backpacking with extra gear. Check out our post on packing for adventure for more info!
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