How To Pack for Long-Term Backpack Travel

We’re not talking about a weeklong trip to the beach, in which you’re restricting yourself to a single checked bag because you’re trying to go “minimalist.” We’re not talking about moving abroad, where you cram everything into a giant suitcase to be exploded exactly once (when you arrive) and packed exactly once again (when you depart).

No, we’re talking about taking a backpack (and not one so big you could fit inside it), and figuring out how to live sustainably from it: packing and unpacking each day, traveling regularly and carrying everything, and not going completely mad in the process.

I’ve just finished packing for a three-month backpack stint, and thought I’d share the cardinal rules of life with one zipper.

Trust your backpack (and don’t worry — you don’t need a fancy, new one).

My mother always said: it’s not worth splurging on gear, so long as you trust your shoes and your backpack. That being said: you don’t need to splurge on the “perfect” backpack. So long as it’s sturdy (a broken strap is a real pain), comfortable (this will usually mean some form of hip straps), and generally the right size (for most, you’re going to need a bit more space than a school/work backpack), it will probably be fine. If you have a pack you’ve been using, which hasn’t failed you so far, just keep using it.

Pack less than you think you need. 

If you’re wondering whether you need it, you don’t. If you haven’t worn it recently and you’re wondering whether to bring it, don’t. If it seems vaguely inconvenient as you’re putting it into the bag, leave it out. There’s an old adage that says as long as you’ve got your wallet and your passport, you’re fine. I’d suggest also bringing at least a minimum of clothes and toiletries to support your existence on the road. That being said, you truly don’t need much more than that, and you’ll most likely manage with whatever you bring (and you can buy everything overseas, if you are genuinely missing something).

Remember: whatever you put in the backpack, your shoulders have to carry. Your body and soul will thank you for lessening your own burden.

Capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe, capsule wardrobe.

A capsule wardrobe is the idea that instead of packing individual outfits, you pack clothing items which can be mixed and interchanged, allowing you to create multiple outfits and looks from a limited number of pieces (hence, a wardrobe). In practice, this usually means solid colors, a coordinated color palette, multifunctional items, and a good bit of layering. Rule of thumb: any top should match any bottom.

Remember: laundry exists. Anticipate doing it.

Going to a more practical level: when living on the road, you will do laundry. There is no way you can pack an infinite clothing supply, so washing is inevitable. For most people, this will happen every 1-2 weeks, depending on your preferences (of both how much you like laundry, and how much you’re willing to pack). Depending on where you are in the world, options can range from full-service laundromats to a bucket for hand-washing. When packing for long-term travel, however, expect the unexpected and prepare yourself for at least some amount of handwashing (even if it’s just in hotel sinks).

So, pack things you can handwash and which can dry overnight. Thin fabrics are usually better (I’ve never been fussy enough to know the names of materials, but you can tell what will dry faster just by feeling and looking at it). If you’re headed to cold weather, layers aren’t just convenient and a good dress option: they’re easier to handwash and dry faster than thick sweaters and coats. That said, have a plan (ie. an empty plastic bag) in case some random sock or undergarment isn’t quite dry by morning, so that your whole bag isn’t soggy.

Packing cubes, bags, whatever: use them.

The key to not going insane with your luggage is avoiding the infamous “luggage explosion” every time you open your bag. The trick here is simple: pack your main bag full of little bags. Whether they’re bona-fida packing cubes, random cloth bags, plastic bags, fishing nets, whatever — organize your pack. That way, you can take everything out, pull out that shirt from the bottom, and re-pack everything again, without tearing your eyebrows out. And, you’ll be less likely to lose your socks and underwear.

If this is a new concept for you, I’d highly recommend packing the week before your trip starts, and forcing yourself to live entirely out of your suitcase for a week. Every evening, you can open it, and every morning, you have to pack everything up again and zip it before you start your day. You’ll quickly see the need for some in-pack organisation. 

Extra bonus points if a few of your “packing cubes” are smaller bags and purses, which can be great for extra flexibility on the road. Cloth tote bags are great for this.

Purposeful organization is everything.

Beyond just using packing cubes, there are some other things to consider when organising the bag you’ll be living out of. I like to keep my pajamas and toiletries right at the top of a bag, so if I get somewhere late at night, I can get cleaned up and dressed for bed without having to pull anything else out. Rainjacket and/or sweatshirt are other top picks for that easy-to-reach top space of the bag, in case the skies open up without warning. If you’re travelling with a laptop or tablet, be aware that’s going to need to be pulled out at every airport screening, so don’t bury it. Pack anything you’ll need to access during the day in an outside pocket, while things you generally don’t reach for (like a change of pants) can stay more towards the bottom. Have a day pack or a smaller “grab bag” of your essential and valuable items you can pull out of your main pack and keep with you, in case your bag needs to be checked at the airport or tied on top of a bus or otherwise separated from your person.

Don’t pack to the brim: life isn’t that simple.

It’s much easier to pack at home, over time, than it is at five o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar room which may or may not have good lighting and a flat surface. Assume your packing job on the road will be several degrees worse than your initial plan. So, leave space for those wrinkled clothes, and remember that you probably won’t want to fold your laundry. You’ll thank yourself for packing only 80-90% of the space in your backpack. Whether for souvenirs or your own eventually-expansive messiness, that space will fill.

At the end of it, your suitcase will only define your trip if it’s a pain. Most of the time, though, as long as you pack lightly and reasonably, you won’t even remember your luggage when you look back on the trip. Just follow these tips to keep yourself organised and collected, and enjoy life on the road!

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