Packing is perhaps the most perplexing part of preparing for a trip. You are essentially choosing the items necessary for your future short-term survival and distilling them into one bag. How you pack defines your traveling lifestyle, and it is a process that can always use improvements. From the time I drug my wheel-less giant suitcase alone around Bilbao when I was barely in high school to the time I had to two-man carry my body sized duffel bag around the rough Tenderloin area of San Francisco, I have learned some things. If traveling is all about experiences, don’t make bad experiences by the way you pack before you even leave home. This blog will provide packing tips and tricks so that your travel experiences will not be obscured by your body-sized duffel bag.
Unless you have a serious injury or disability, I strongly suggest packing into a backpack, not a suitcase. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get your things into ONE bag. This does not mean that you have a large backpack on your back and a small daypack hanging off your belly like a koala bear. When you are on the move, your daypack and everything in it should pack into your one backpack. When you purchase your backpack, or if you already have one, this is your self-imposed limit. If you buy an 85 liter pack thinking that you will only use part of it, you’re wrong. If there is space, you will eventually fill it, or your stuff will enlarge itself to fill the space.
My bag of choice is a 38 liter Osprey ski pack, yes ski pack. I use a ski pack, even in the tropics, because the back unzips completely so I can remove contents from the bottom of the pack without disturbing the top contents. It also has a brain that has an enlarging zipper (for a helmet), but this is useful if I need to carry something more than usual, like a bag of food for the train.
You will end up walking, running, and sometimes sightseeing with your luggage—even if you don’t intend to. Basically, the one bag is essential for mobility, and mobility is essential for your enjoyment. If you really need to test this, pack up your bag and go walk around your town as a tourist would. Try getting on public transportation, try squeezing into coffee shops, try putting your bag on your lap in the metro or at your feet in a crowded bar. One bag is also important for safety—it’s easier to keep your eyes on, less likely to get stolen or lost, and you can slip into a crowd without pinpointing yourself as a target.
The way you pack will save you time and money, but more importantly, it defines you as a traveler. You don’t want to be marked as a tourist by your luggage and you want to be able to change locations with ease. Locals will respect you more as a visitor if you are not dragging sixty-pounds of non-essential crap through their downtown. Your chances of making a new friend or not being conned by your taxi driver increase greatly if you are mobile and not bogged down with your luggage.
For example, imagine these two scenarios:
A. You arrive to a foreign airport at night. You make your way to the luggage carousel to collect your big suitcase. Once your suitcase arrives you have to rent a cart to carry the suitcase, your backpack from the plane, your donut pillow and your computer case. You head outside with the cart and hail a taxi. It is very late now because the time between getting off the plane, collecting luggage at the carousel and renting the cart took an hour. The metro has closed for the night, or their hours have decreased to one train an hour because it is late. You go outside to hail a taxi. The taxi driver charges more money for arrivals after midnight and he expects a tip for helping you load everything into the trunk. You now are separated from your luggage—it is in the trunk and you are in the backseat. You now just have to hope that he is an honest driver and will take you to your hostel and you can get your luggage out of the trunk without him driving away.
B. You arrive to a foreign airport at night. You grab your backpack from your feet on the plane, get off, and catch the next-to-last train into the city for the night. You arrive downtown near your hostel with enough time to check in to your hostel before midnight when check-in closes. You still have time to get a beer and maybe even a bite to eat if you want. The luggage bogged-down version of you is just now hailing a taxi—hopefully their hostel has 24-hour check-in!
The first step to packing your backpack is to determine what kind of trip you are packing for. Pack the same for a 3-month trip as you would a two-week trip and do laundry about every two-weeks. Consider the weather you are packing for; cold and wintery will have you packing a lightweight down jacket, while a tropical trip will have you packing the bug net. Look at photos of people who live in the places you are visiting—what are they wearing? Invest in a few items that will ultimately make your life easier and more enjoyable on the road. The first and most important of these items are packing cubes, or small lightweight bags. Eagle Creek and Sea to Summit make nice ones. I found a hodgepodge of them on sale at a used outdoor store. You can also use sleeping bag sleeves, down jacket bags, climbing shoe mesh bags or anything of the like.
The key to packing light is having the right gear. That’s the cold hard truth that most packing blogs will only allude to. Accumulating the right gear can be a pricey process, and it has taken me years of investing in gear to get a 3-month trip down to a 38 Liter pack. That doesn’t mean that you can’t pack light if you don’t have the right gear, and it doesn’t mean that you should jump up and go spend hundreds of dollars on travel gear—all it means is that you will eventually find your balance, and in doing so, you will probably upgrade to wool shirts, silk weight underwear, essential layering pieces, and top of the line down products. See my gear blog for essentials that I recommend splurging on:
What's in my bag?
Packing for: S.E. Asia
Trip duration: 4 wks
climate: Hot, humid, wet
medical concerns?: malaria
Environment: Ocean, Tropics
Read on and I will walk you through how I packed my bag for S.E. Asia taking the above conditions in consideration.
Lay everything you are considering bringing out in front of you. Carefully consider each item and its importance to your life for the period of time you will be traveling. Remember, you can buy most anything anywhere. Don't pack as if all the stores in the world just went out of business.
Clothes and Shoes
Tightly roll your clothes and pack them into your packing cubes, sacs or mesh bags. I put my tops in one bag, my bottoms and dresses in another, and so on.
Pictured above are all the clothes and shoes I packed for 4 wks in S.E. Asia:
2 merino wool Icebreaker T-shirts
1 merino tank top, 1 cotton Patagonia tank top
1 stretchy Patagonia yoga top
1 Columbia quick dry short skirt, 1 Kavu knee length cotton skirt
1 Patagonia halter dress
1 pair Patagonia shorts, 1 Patagonia capri, 1 stretchy pants
3 SmartWool ankle socks (I ended up bringing 4 pairs)
2 Patagonia swimsuits
1 pair Chaco flip flops - these have a thick sole that is good for walking
1 pair New Balance running shoes - I normally bring hiking shoes, but these will dry fast after the tropic storms come through
13 pairs underwear, 1 Patagonia sports bra, 1 regular bra
1 trash compactor bag to use inside my backpack as a water proof liner if it is really pouring
1 empty dirty laundry sack
1 Outdoor Research rain coat
1 Patagonia R-1 fleece
1 SmartWool longsleeve shirt
1 small day pack - I brought my waterproof daypack even though it does not pack as small as other ones, I think it will be worth it
Nalgene bottles are the only ones I have found that do not leak in your bag. I repack all my face wash, hair products lotion, and sunscreen into them. They come in many sizes, the ones pictured here are 2 oz. so I can carry my bag on the plane. Avoid checking your bag if at all possible. Because malaria and travelers diarrhea is an issue in S.E Asia, I packed Malarone and Ciproflaxin, as well as strong insect repellant lotion and imodium. I also packed mascara and a small deodorant (not pictured here) and a quart size plastic bag to put the liquids and gels into for the plane (not pictured here). I packed all the medicines into the separate black first aid sac pictured below. Everything else fit into the green eagle creek dob kit bag. Other items you might consider packing that I did not: hair brush, other medicines or vitamins specific to you, hard shaving cream (men) or feminine products (women).
Camera, case, SD cards, battery charger, extra battery, lens cap, cleaning cloth
Headlamp and extra batteries
Mini Ipad, charger and SD card Ipad connector cord - The mini Ipad has been an indispensable tool to schedule trains, book flights, use skype as a phone and find couchsurfing. We did not used to take anything like this, but that was a time when internet cafes had computers available for use.
Notebook - very important, you have to have a place to keep a budget, write down people you meet, etc...
Lock - many hostels will expect you to bring your own for their lockers.
Nalgene water bottle and SteriPEN - the SteriPEN is very important in developing countries where you can't drink the tap water.
Small purse or wallet with a zippered change pocket, passport, proof of vaccination card.
Guidebook, reading book - you can always ditch the books when you are finished with them.
Not pictured here: An old flip phone that has SIM card capabilities, 1 credit card, 1 ATM card, ipad case, 4AA Lithium ion batteries for the SteriPEN, 1 carabiner, small roll of duct tape, some P-cord.
The finished product:
The mobile, light weight, happy traveler ready for anything -->
I hope this blog helps reveal some of the mystery behind packing one small, lightweight bag. For more specific information on gear, see the Gear I Love page. Packing for a ski trip is ten times more complexing than any trip I have taken. Keep your eyes open for a ski trip packing blog coming this winter. Happy adventuring!
If you like this blog, please feel free to 'like' and 'share' it below. If you have further resources, tips, or tricks regarding packing for travel, please comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas as well!
Please Note that the gear listed here are my own personal recommendations from gear that I own. I am not affiliated or supported by any of these companies.
-- Esmé Cadiente