...and the art, science and panic of packing it
Fri 5 Feb 10
It's 3.27 am. You've packed and repacked. Your first flight of a 12-month Round-the-World trip leaves in barely 5 hours, and you glance from the backpack and daysack, both bursting at the seams, to the large pile of still unpacked items on your bed and start to despair: How the **** am I going to fit all of that in?
Your flatmate walks in, tiredly rubbing his eyes and asking what the problem is. You say in desperate tones "it doesn't all fit". He looks at your bags, the pile of stuff still left, and says "But are you sure you need all that? After all, I'm sure they do have rice in India. On your bed alone are more clothes than you own. Oh, and can we possibly convince you to leave that kitchen sink? I think we might have more need for it than you will...."
In a way, the old adage of 'lay out everything you think you will need, then take half the clothes and twice the money' still holds true, although in practical terms, it doesn't work: If you actually had double the money to spend, you would probably have planned a very different trip.
Despite what many people will try to tell you, there are no right or wrong ways to pack: only what works well for you. Some people can travel with a tiny daysack or just a briefcase, whilst others prefer a 100l rucksack with bits hanging off, plus a large daysack. It is a case of discovering what you are comfortable with, in the great trade off between weight/space and stuff.
CHOOSING A PACK
The right bag can be a lifesaver. The wrong one can literally destroy your trip. Most people start by choosing a size, and then seeing what fits their budget. To me, a bag is a major investment. Everybody's body is different, and finding one that is comfortable for you is crucial. Does it fit nicely on the back? Do the straps adjust in a good way for you? When the bag is heavy (and thus hanging on you differently to when just full), will it rub somewhere? Does the waist strap fit snuggly, or dangle around your hips?
Then you have to consider the type of bag and its features: Do you want a top loading backpack, or a panel loader with a zip all the way around the front? (Editor's note: Panel loaders are the best for urban backpacking, no two ways about it) Do you want a bag with a frame (generally heavier but more comfortable), a coolmesh back (very comfortable, but bulkier and often with a curved interior which is awkward for packing) or a normal back? Or do you even need a rucksack– might a dufflebag, shoulder bag, carry on, or suitcase fit your needs better? Every option has it's own benefits, but also disadvantages.
And then there are pockets and straps. Lots of pockets can be a great idea, but only if they are the right size for what you personally want to put in them. And lots of pockets and straps also mean more opportunities for pickpockets.
Unless you are going to be doing some extreme trekking, camping, or wilderness work, and need to be carrying several days worth of provisions, I would generally suggest that you never use a bag larger than 65l, and ideally, a smaller one. 50-55l is a good size for the average traveler, allowing plenty of space and flexibility whilst not being overly large. If you are only traveling for a few weeks, or will mostly be in hot climates (a tour of South East Asia, for example), then a bag of 35-40l should be more than sufficient.
When I first started traveling, I used a 65l plus a 20l daysack. That rapidly changed. Now, my normal bag is a 26l pack, which is almost perfect for my needs and is a faithful friend, but I also have a 32l pack for when I need to carry a bit extra (i.e. sleeping bag and laptop). But, 15 years later, I am still searching for the perfect bag.
TESTING YOUR PACK
NEVER buy the first pack you see, and if at all possible, never buy a pack in a hurry. The chances are you will regret it later. Instead, try to visit several shops and try different bags. If you can get friendly with the staff, sometimes you will be allowed to return a bag and swap it for a different one if it doesn't quite fulfill your needs.
NEVER buy a pack without trying it on, and trying it on when it is (a) jammed full so you can see how the shape distorts/works with your body, and (b) without some good weight in it. Most good outdoor/camping stores are happy to oblige and help you with this. If they are not, go somewhere else.
Walk around the shop a bit with it full/heavy, trying to weave through the aisles in the store. Do you keep knocking things? Are you off balance? If possible, walk up and down stairs a couple of times. Lift the pack over your head and at an angle (simulating putting it onto an overhead rack on a bus or train). If you are able to try out a bag for longer and can return it, the best trial is at rush hour in your own city or town: Walk with a heavy/stuffed bag through the busiest business/shopping district to see how you cope. Walk up a long hill, and a downhill. Get on and off a few packed buses, trams or trains. Sit with the bag on your lap for 20 minutes to see how you feel. Climb 4 or 5 flights of stairs (hostels rarely have lifts). If any one of those fills you with dread, you either need to reconsider your choice of bag, or the amount of stuff you pack, or, most likely, both.
And when you have chosen and bought your pack, then comes the hardest part. What do you put in it?
WHAT TO PACK
I have a good friend who I have traveled with several times over the years. We have a running joke over the fact that his daysack is bigger than my bag, whilst in addition he carries an enormous 85l pack. But he has never once complained about it, and genuinely does not mind carrying so much.The funniest thing is, despite the fact he normally has about 100l more stuff than me, he still asks me to borrow things much more often than I ask him.
There is no such thing as a 'must pack' item, beyond the obvious passport/ticket/money and a change of clothing. There are obviously certain items that more people carry/recommend, and some which few take. But at the end of the day the choice comes down to you, your requirements, and your style of travel. And in general terms, you can only learn that by traveling and seeing what you are missing/need, or what you carry and don't ever use. As a vague point of reference, my packing list appears later on in this article.
There is no such thing as a 'must pack' item
WHAT NOT TO PACK
There are very few things that you should NEVER pack. Radioactive material comes to mind, Illegal drugs as well, and baby animals another, although I can be persuaded on the latter in the right circumstances. Apart from that, it is pretty much down to you and the type of trip that you are taking.
I would never take jeans on any long term travel – however, if you are planning on being away for 12 months whilst living somewhere for 9 of them (for example, a WHV to Australia), then taking jeans may make a lot more sense. I would never take camping equipment unless I was fairly sure that I was going to be using it at least 50% of the time, as it is heavy and bulky to carry. Taking specialist gear such as ski suits or climbing harnesses are often only worth it if they will be used extensively: They can generally be hired/borrowed if you are just going to use them occasionally.
Where you are going and what you are doing are also, obviously, critical: Suncream and several bikinis are pretty much required for a few weeks sitting on beaches in Thailand, but not nearly so useful if you are going to see the Northern Lights where you will probably be glad of thermal underwear. If your trip is encompassing such disparate conditions consider either donating/chucking stuff when you leave one area (e.g. the cold one) and then buying cheap local when you get to the next (the hot one) instead of carrying everything the whole way when it will only be used for a short period.
Basically, take stuff that you know you will need, and not stuff 'just in case'. Some people's bags are 80% full of just-in-case stuff. My general rule is that if I am not going to use something at least once every 2-3 weeks for the whole trip, then it is probably not worth taking: pretty much my only exceptions to this are a small first aid kit and an emergency bankcard or two.
Also, be wary of things with the word 'travel' attached to them. There is a whole industry based around selling 'travel' accessories and goodies, but whilst many are useful, the truth is many are just more expensive versions of normal items, or less useful than everyday items.
And finally, it also depends on your personality and style: I never – never – carry or wear a raincoat or waterproof of any description. But then, I grew up in a rainy area and am both used to and have no problem with getting wet. For me, this is an acceptable trade-off, but some other people look at me aghast for even considering such a thing.
TO DAYSACK OR NOT
The general consensus amongst travelers is that you need to take a daysack. And a good daysack can be excellent, though all too often people seem to end up using it as overspill for their main pack. But do you actually even need one? And really, how much stuff do you need to carry on a day-to-day basis or for day trips?
Generally, a camera, suncream, toilet paper or tissues (you only make the mistake of not carrying them once), water, and maybe some food is all that you will regularly need. You might want to take a guidebook, and in some places with greater temperature variations you may wish to take a rain jacket or poncho, or an extra layer, but even then you are not looking at much stuff.
To my mind, your daysack and all its contents should be able to fit into your main pack, so that when you don't need it, you only have to carry one bag. My two favoured options are a canvas sports bag and a very lightweight/foldable rucksack, which though not the cheapest is lightweight, durable and small enough to fit in a pocket when not in use.
Personally, my daysack generally gets used more when I am in transit – my main bag is on the roof of a bus, for example, where I can't access it. When wandering cities, I often carry it only in a pocket and use it to put shopping in. Other people always carry a daysack with lots of things in it – I used to as well - and, as with everything else, it is entirely your choice.
HOW TO PACK
It might sound strange, but in many ways how you pack is even more crucial than what you pack. I generally travel with a fairly small pack in comparison to most, but I make sure that I maximise the space available. I have often found it odd: If I pack properly, all of my kit fits in nicely and even leaves a small amount of extra space. But if I don't pack it well, I can end up with a jammed full pack – and with half of my kit still on the floor.
In practical terms, that means that I basically end up repacking my bag every day. If I don't start and work bottom up, it won't all fit, and I accept that I will spend a couple of minutes a day repacking as part of my routine. All space needs to be filled. Over the years, I have probably spent hours rearranging the same kit different ways into my bag until I have discovered how it fits in the optimum way in terms of space, weight distribution and accessibility to things I am more likely to need: All small gaps, holes, nooks and crannies filled in one way or another.
Though it might sound a bit odd, don't try to be too organised: It might be great to have all your socks together, but separately they may fill lots of small gaps in your bag and thus save you space.
Packing cubes can be useful, but add weight, bulk and cost, and are harder to pack around.
Use Ziplock bags or small net bag to keep your stuff together. They need to be see through to work effectively.
Roll your clothes; don't fold them, and don't roll them all together. This prevents creasing, and smaller rolls and items are easier to maximise space with.
BIG PACKING TIP
In all my years, I am not sure I have ever seen a single traveler who left with a bag that was not bursting at the seams. You think “I only need 50l of stuff, so if I buy a 60l bag, I will have plenty of space for souvenirs”. The idea is good, but, sadly, it just doesn't work like that. You will set off with a full bag regardless. To avoid that, I recommend putting an old pillow/blanket/jersey/plastic box or something in the bottom of your pack. Something with weight is even better (fill the box with sand). Then, pack as normal over the top of it and at your first stop (even at the airport before you fly), take out the filler and chuck it away or donate it. You then have a lighter bag (if you put in weight) plus spare space in your bag for souvenirs, last minute panic buys, or simply to make your bag easier to pack and carry.
Take it or leave it - luxuries?
Every traveler takes a few things that aren't really necessary or logical. But it is those items that tend to make a difference. The small luxuries or reminders of home that you permit yourself can make or break a trip, and so I would strongly suggest that you don't let your ruthless desire to save space and/or weight overrule sentimentality or comfort in every case.
If you are somebody that always wears jeans, it might be that you should take one pair. If you are a girl who loves going out and dressing up, a pair of heels may be essential. And if you are somebody from a close knit family or get homesick, you might want to take a small album of photos or messages with you.
Personally, I always carry a pair of speakers, a Welsh flag, and a small stuffed Elk named Clive, none of which would be in everybody's list.
I went through my kit and bag in detail the other day, and after counting realised that I had money and/or cards in no fewer than 15 different places across my person and bag. Whilst I admit that is a bit excessive, I would always suggest that you keep at least 2 stashes (both of cash, USD or Euro, and at least one card) hidden in your backpack. I am not going to tell you any of my secret places as you should work out your own and not tell anybody. Why? Because sooner or later word gets out and what was a clever idea becomes useless – witness all the people who go into their moneybelts for every little purchase, which has rendered them useless as a way to conceal money. Every thief, mugger, or pickpocket of any skill knows that a backpacker will have a moneybelt, and if I wear a moneybelt these days, it is as a decoy only.
if I wear a moneybelt these days, it is as a decoy only
My packing list
Finally, just to give some indication/suggestion of what you might like to pack, below is my packing list. It is not a definitive list as such; rather a list of stuff that I almost always carry. It evolves over time as I remove less useful items or replace them with newer multi-purpose or smaller/lighter alternatives. It also varies slightly for shorter or longer trips, and if I know I will be mostly in very hot/cold/windy places. This list has done me for 2 trips of over a year in varying seasons and numerous smaller trips. It includes what I am wearing and everything that will be on me, and all fits nicely into a 26l NorthFace pack.
Hiking/Trail shoes, sandals; 2 pairs of trousers (of the zip off variety, so they are also shorts), 1 pair extra shorts (optional, depending on where I'm going), 5 t-shirts (mostly quick drying ones), 1 long sleeved t-shirt, fleece, 4 pairs socks (less if I expect to be mostly in sandals), 5 pairs underwear, 3/4 handkerchiefs, pyjamas (which for me, is a pair of shorts), rope (which I have used as a belt for years), baseball cap, buff (recent replacement for my woolly head warmer). * NOTE – I can't swim, which is why I don't take any swim wear. I sometimes also have a large flag/chitenge/sarong, which can be used for many different things.
Toothbrush/paste, razor and blades, shower gel (small bottle), deodorant (small), comb, nail-clippers, basic first aid kit including a few paracetamol and Imodium, lemsip (flu remedy), throat sweets, assorted plasters and a knee bandage (I have a very dodgy knee), suncream, mozzie repelant, hand sanitiser or wet-wipes, 2 packs of tissues, half – or less - roll of toilet paper.
Silk sheet sleeping bag, enamel mug, durable plastic cutlery, Swiss Army knife (always on my person), 2 or 3 cigarette lighters, 1 box matches, travel towel (x2 – one is very small), blow up pillow, water bottle.
Camera, phone, MP3 player (and chargers), plug adapter, solar power charger, spare earphones (I have bad luck traveling with earphones), wind-up torch, battery/plug-less speakers for MP3 player, 2x USB stick, USB cable, 2-ish DVDs (either blank or with photo backups burned onto them – I also send a copy back home).
Passport, money belt (in bag), copies of passport/insurance et al., tickets, diary, keys (if needed), wallet, money (normally local currency in 2 or 3 places plus emergency/reserves of USD, Euro, GBP and sometimes another currency), and credit cards (kept in different places). Some leaflets/notes/printouts/photocopies from a guidebook.
Daysack (which fits in my main sack), small roll of duct tape (or duct tape rolled around a pen to save space), journal, small notebook, address book, 3 or 4 pens, highlighter, small post it notes, selotape, glue stick, elasticbands, safety pins, ziplock bags, 2x carrier bags, watch (though I never wear it), 2 or 3 books which get swapped whenever finished/possible (this occasionally includes a guidebook), small pocket atlas, small Welsh flag, Clive (my stuffed Elk), a few cycling toe straps (for tying things onto my backpack if required), 3x small numeric padlocks, chewing gum, mints, a few tea bags/instant coffee sachets.
- On my most recent trip (15 months, including 9 backpacking around Africa) I have used a 32l bag, which in addition to the above included my sleeping bag, an extra long-sleeved t-shirt and my Asus EEE laptop, plus charger and external HDD.
- Except for one set of clothes/footwear that I will be wearing, whilst the other footwear and waterbottle go in the outside pockets of the bag, and the fleece in the front bungee if not being worn.
Yes, that sounds a lot. But remember that it all fits into a fairly average sized daysack.
IT'S NOT MY FAULT.
Hmmm. Needs more rope.
Don't forget to check out another great source of information: Travellerspoint's Packing List.
If you have other tips and tricks for your fellow travellers, then join us in educating travellers worldwide. To get started, send our editors an email at unravelled [at] travellerspoint [dot] com. Let them know a bit about yourself, and maybe include some writing samples and ideas for entries. They will review your submission and, if you fit the bill, they will welcome you to the team.