Packing a Backpack

Packing a backpack

Packing for a Backpacking Trip:

So you are looking at a packing puzzle. All the stuff you have purchased or want to take is staged on the floor around your backpack and you are wondering how it is all going to fit in there.

Packing a backpack is more of a dark art than a science, and sometimes it takes several passes before you get it right.

Do not assume that the first time you pack is the correct way. Only experience will tell.

Don’t wait until the night before to start packing — and don’t add last-minute items, those are usually the things that you don’t need!

“Even the elephant carries but a small trunk on his journeys.” – Henry David Thoreau

Check out our Backpacking Packing List for some ideas.

Stage Everything First

Unless the zombies are battering down your door, don’t grab your backpack and start stuffing things inside! Stage everything that you might want to take on the floor in an open area around your backpack. This will give you an opportunity to eyeball what you will be carrying, commit it to memory, and eliminate anything not absolutely necessary for your backpacking trip.

Assume That Your Backpack Will be Very Mistreated!

I have seen people stand on someone else’s backpack to reach the luggage rack on top of a bus. Your bag will be thrown from the top of buses and trucks, rained on, slept and sat on (hopefully by you), and abused like never before. Fragile items need to be packed with the most protection possible.

  • Liquids and electronics should always be inside of waterproof bags.

Assume That Your Backpack Will Get Wet.

Anything of value including books and electronics should be in reusable plastic bags. Waterproof covers for backpacks are nice to have, but sometimes they leak or you don’t have time to put it on. If a monsoon storm pops up while your pack is sitting in the luggage hold of a bus or boat, it is going to get wet!

  • Stick a large garbage bag into one of the outside pockets on your backpack so you can at least try to cover it during a storm.

Pack in Modular Kits

You do not want to have to dig through a giant rucksack looking for a tiny sewing kit. Organize objects in the way that you know you will need them and then put them inside smaller bags and containers. Preferably the smaller bags will be very soft instead of rigid or shaped, water resistant, and pliable so that you can cram them into your pack.

Never, Ever, Ever, Pack to Capacity!

Packing a backpack to its full capacity is a disaster in progress.  When you set out, your backpack should be no more than 75% full. You will most definitely end up carrying gifts, buying cheap objects along the way, etc, and your pack will always grow. Your dirty laundry will take up way more room than nicely rolled and folded clothing. When you run out of travel-sized toiletries, you may end up having to buy the full-sized equivalents.

Leave yourself some room — it will make packing the bag before each move much easier!

No Wasted Space

Real estate inside your rucksack is expensive!  Make use of every space possible.  Stuff things inside shoes, remove items from their store packaging, whatever it takes to pack the most efficiently.

Pack Larger and Heavier Objects First

Heavy objects such as shoes and books should be as low in the backpack as possible and as close to your back as possible so that they do not pull the backpack away from you. Pack larger items first, then stuff the empty spaces around them with smaller bags and misc objects so that no room is wasted.

Keep in mind how often you will want to access certain things. For instance, your sleep sheet or bedding can go in the bottom of your backpack because you will only need it once a day.

Your Pack Should be Comfortable

You should be able to wear your pack and walk around for at least two hours without getting sore.

You can save a lot of money by simply walking from bus and train stations that are usually on the edge of town, rather than taking transportation. You may have to wear your pack while standing in a long queue, maybe in the hot sun (or the rain). When you are finished packing, it should feel like a natural extension of your body, secure, and weight balanced so that you can move and walk like you normally would.

  • Your backpack should never be taller than you. You should be able to look at the ceiling without hitting your head!
  • Do the “jump test” to see if anything wobbles or rattles inside.

The One-Bag” Theory

Lots of travelers carry a large rucksack on their back and a smaller daybag on the front. If you travel light enough, you can put the daybag down inside of your rucksack so that you only have one backpack to strap on when walking places. Otherwise, you will have to wear the smaller bag on your front, making you look like a pregnant marsupial of sorts. You will be a very happy person if you only have to carry one bag, and other travelers will drool in jealousy!

The alternative is to travel with a small enough backpack (45 liters or less) that can be used as your day bag as well. If you can pack light enough, you can save money by carrying your bag onto flights rather than checking it and paying the luggage fees.

What to Bring?

When you are looking at loads of potential travel gear and goodies, hopefully all neatly staged on the floor next to your backpack, you will have quite a mental struggle about what to take and what to leave at home.

  • Don’t “what if” yourself into carrying a lot of useless survival gear. Unless you’re going on an expedition in Papua, you probably won’t need that stuff.
  • You will not need many distractions or gadgets while on the road. Just take what you need to live.
  • You can always buy stuff locally if you forgot something.

Remember the golden rule for packing a backpack: When in doubt, leave it out!

Unless you are going trekking in Antarctica, you will be able to buy most of what you need to survive on the road at each destination. If you are traveling in developing countries, you will probably find what you need cheaper and may help a struggling economy out as well!

Do not bring anything priceless or irreplaceable. Leave that watch your grandfather gave you behind. Anything you bring will be exposed to the elements, mistreatment, and possibly broken or stolen.

Do not bring a lot of clothing. Fashion is less of an issue on the road than it is at home. You can wash laundry regularly in the sink or pay to have it done. If you feel that you do not have enough to wear, buy some local garb for cheap!

  • Think “wear one, wash one”.  Technically, you really only need two or three outfits to wear if you do laundry often.

Backpack Security

Never pack valuable things in the outer pockets of a backpack. It is very difficult to feel a deft hand reaching inside while you walk down the street or stand on a crowded train platform.

Aside from your regular packing list, you will want to include the following misc items hidden inside your large rucksack somewhere:

  • Copies of your credit cards and passport, in case you are mugged or lose your money belt.
  • Copy of your travel insurance info.
  • Emergency cash in US dollars hidden somewhere not so obvious.
  • Card with your contact info and emergency contacts at home in case something happens. You can laminate the card yourself with some regular box tape and put it somewhere obvious on your bag (i.e., tape it to a luggage tag).

Beyond the Backpack

Some useful things you will want to carry in your money belt or daybag in case your rucksack is stowed or not handy:

  • One anti-diarrhea pill
  • One motion sickness pill
  • Couple of passport photos (for getting visas at border crossings)
  • Travel insurance contact information
  • Photocopy of passport for yourself
  • Copies of your passport to use for motorbike rentals, etc
  • Emergency contact information card in case you get hurt

Backpack Packing List

Use our handy backpacking packing list as a good source for ideas, then add or remove items customized for your trip. Everyone travels differently; use the list to get your creative packing energy flowing!

Go to Step 10: Before Leaving Home


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