Packing a Backpack

Backpacker looking at mountains with full pack

Avoid Overpacking Your Backpack!


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

So you are looking at a 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. It’s one of those things that just gets easier and faster with experience. No matter how much you read about packing, you’re still going to have some trial and error.

Don’t wait until the night before to start packing. And most importantly, don’t add last-minute “what if” items; those are usually the things that you don’t need! Backpacks have a tendency to gain weight during the nervous night before a big trip.

Stage Everything First

Unless the zombies are battering down your door, no need to grab the 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.

Make several passes at this. Pack once, feel the weight, then dump everything out and eliminate some items.

Remember: when packing light is concerned, the big items are usually not always the problem. The problem often hides in the collective weight of many small items that seem insignificant.

Your Backpack Will be Mistreated!

At some point, your backpack will end up having a short, violent affair with a luggage handler.

I have seen locals stand on travelers’ backpacks 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.
  • Don’t fill travel bottles to full capacity. Give them some room for pressure changes.

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 quickly during a storm.
  • Your pack will probably get wet on speedboats when going to islands.

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 bad idea. When you set out, your backpack should be no more than 75 percent full. You will most definitely end up carrying gifts, buying cheap objects along the way, etc. A backpack always grows. Your dirty laundry will take up 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!

You are going to be packing and unpacking very often. Make the puzzle as easy as possible.

Be Smart With Space

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

Paper and packaging are heavy — get rid of them.

Pack Large, Heavy 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 nearer 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 or pissed off.

Bus, train, and transportation stations are often just on the edge of town. You can save a lot of money by simply walking into town. Also, you will be walking around looking for hostels and accommodation. If your pack is heavy, you are more likely to just go with an overpriced place because it is convenient.

You may have to wear your pack while standing in a long queue, maybe in the hot sun or rain. When you are finished packing, it should feel like a natural extension of your body. Weight should be distributed and balanced so that you forget the pack is even there!

  • The pads should rest on your hipbones. Weight should be on your lower torso, not pulling harshly on your shoulders.
  • 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 Technique

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?

For starters, choose a minimum of two survival-oriented items and eliminate them immediately. Seriously, you won’t use a fraction of that stuff.

  • 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 it.
  • You will not need many distractions or gadgets while on the road. Just take what you need to live. Let someone else provide the deck of cards or travel chess set.
  • You can always buy stuff locally if you forgot something.
  • Batteries are heavy; don’t carry extra. Just buy replacements when yours die.

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. Anything you bring will be exposed to the elements, mistreatment, and possibly broken or stolen.

Do not bring a lot of clothing. Although debatable by some who travel solely to chase the opposite sex, fashion is less of an issue on the road than it is at home. You can wash laundry regularly, either yourself or in cheap laundromats. If you feel that you do not have enough to wear, buy some local garb for cheap.

  • Think “wear one, wash one.” You really only need a minimal amount of clothing to survive.
  • Bring clothing that is versatile (e.g., swimsuits that can double as another pair of shorts, etc).

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.
  • Emergency cash in U.S. dollars hidden somewhere not so obvious. What about putting it into a fake toiletry item? Battery compartment? Get creative!
  • 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
  • Emergency contact information card in case you get hurt

Backpack Packing List

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

Packing isn’t a chore for backpacking travelers…it’s exciting. Enjoy!

Go to Step 10: Before Leaving Home

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