Packing Light: A How-To Guide For Backpackers

I read once that the art of packing light ultimately comes down to one thing:

Fear.

The items in your backpack, the items you choose to bring around with you, represent your particular fears—say fear of discomfort, fear of being robbed or attacked, fear of injury or sickness—to name a few.

Let’s take this to the extreme: imagine an individual traveling with only the clothes on his or her back. No backpack or gear, no money, map, food, or even a water bottle—nothing. One could argue that this person is essentially fearless. None of the innate fears that compel most of us to carry these items are present in this person. They travel with nothing.

It’s easy now to take this example to the opposite extreme and imagine a person hunched forward, supporting a bulging backpack stuffed with remedies for every imaginable horror that could befall them.

Most of us, however, fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. In general, less experienced travelers will lean towards overpacking (which is understandable and expected), while more experienced ones will lean towards packing less.

But why is this so?

As one’s travel experience increases, fears are inevitably faced and overcome. When this happens, the desire to hide from fear in a blanket of security and “stuff”, the need to carry a solution for every potential problem, simply dissolves. And the traveler’s mightiest weapon becomes their resourcefulness.

(Being that traveling is a problem solver’s game, half the fun of it comes from navigating the obstacles hurled at you anyways.)

But all this aside, whether you’re an experienced traveler or a first-timer preparing for your trip, this guide will help you take steps to lighten your pack, and ultimately enjoy your travels more.

backpacking travel and packing light

Steps for packing light

Step 1: Force yourself to bring less by buying a smaller backpack.

We tend to fill up the space we have with stuff—it’s true in homes and apartments, and it will be the same for your backpack. It’s best to limit your carrying capacity right from the start.

Look to get a backpack in the 30-45 liter range. They’re carry-on friendly, and can fit all of your essentials. If not, you’re probably bringing too much.

Step 2: Do a preliminary pack of your backpack as if you were leaving for your trip.

Now put it on, strap it to your hips, and go for a 30 minute walk. Because when you’re traveling through airports or walking to your hostel, guess what? It’ll be there on your back. Better to know what you’re getting into beforehand.

Step 3: Reassess and discard.

Take everything out of your backpack and now reevaluate what is worth that extra weight and space.

Ask yourself why you’re taking each item.

If you can’t answer the “why”, or if you begin with “what if…”, the likelihood of you actually using the item is low. Best that you leave it behind.

Some commonly packed “what if..” items:

  • Extra pair of pants
  • Sleeping bag liner
  • Water filter (unless you plan to do extensive hiking, camping, trekking)
  • Any extra toiletries (doubles of anything—specifically staple items like toothpaste, body wash, shampoo, lotions, etc.)

If you’re concerned about getting rid of something that you think you might need, know that you’ll probably be able to replace it in most places you visit.

Step 4 – Toiletries. 

Carry-on friendly for everything. If I can’t find a carry-on size for a particular item I have at home, like face wash for example, I transfer some from a big bottle into one of these Humangear GoToobs. I always carry a couple of them.

Step 5 – Clothing. 

Ditch the cotton. It’s hard to get around this one. If you’re serious about packing light, you need to consider other fabrics.

Invest instead in merino wool clothing (shirts, socks, underwear) and synthetics (for underwear).

When choosing what clothes to bring, every piece should be functional and versatile. Quick-drying, moisture-wicking, temperature regulating, wrinkle-resistant, and cross compatible with your other clothes (so you have more outfits). If you can combine two pieces into one, do it. For example, exercise shorts can also be used as swim trunks; instead of just a windbreaker, get a waterproof windbreaker.

The Nature of Three

Three shirts. Three pairs of underwear. Three pairs of socks. Three bottoms (pants, shorts, exercise shorts/swim trunks). You can travel with this set-up indefinitely. I’ve traveled with two shirts before, but I prefer three.

Wear one, store one, wash and dry one.

tips for packing light merino wool

Why go lightweight?

Carry-on all of your gear when flying. This simplifies your airport experience immensely, saving you money, time, and stress. No checked baggage lines, no baggage carousel—just peace of mind and your pack with you at all times.

Easier to get around. Maybe you arrive at your destination early in the day and it’s too early to check into your accommodation. Having a small, light pack grants you more freedom to roam the streets and not be limited by the weight and bulkiness of your bag.

Decreased stress on your back and shoulders. Why add stress to your body? Traveling is stressful enough sometimes.

Repacking your bag is simpler. When you bring a 60L backpack that’s packed full with gear and clothes, it’s a chore to repack your bag and meticulously arrange everything so it all fits. Eliminate that hassle by bringing half the stuff.

It changes you. When you travel light, when you realize how little you actually need to live and travel, it alters your whole mindset. (Travel itself does this, but by challenging yourself to bring only the essential, the shift can be more profound).

jatiluwih rice terraces fields in bali
Exploring Bali’s rice fields

Tips for packing light

Carry a collapsible daypack inside your main backpack

I love only having to worry about my one bag when traveling. If there’s ever a problem with carrying my main bag onto a flight, I can simply unfurl my daypack, transfer a few items to it, and then check my main pack without hassle.

Bring items with multiple uses

A travel towel—in addition to its intended use—can serve as a picnic blanket, sleep blanket, pillow, portable changing room, and a privacy curtain to hang from a bunk bed. Another item, for example, that shares these abilities is a sarong (although probably a poor towel), which women often use as a cover when more modest dress is required for visiting temples and religious sites.

Wear it or hang it

If you’re traveling with bulkier clothing items such as jackets or boots, wear them while you travel to save space in your backpack. Or tie them to the outside of your bag. I do this a lot with my hiking shoes.

Two pairs of shoes

A pair of walking or hiking shoes, and a nice casual shoe for evenings out. Whether you pack flip-flops or not is your call. They’re small enough so they’re not a significant space and weight sacrifice if packed, but if you’re traveling in Southeast Asia, you can buy a pair for a few dollars nearly anywhere.

Soap is soap

When it comes to washing clothes, any soap will do in a pinch.

But I always try to bring a ziploc bag of powdered detergent or a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s to use for laundry. Don’t stress if you don’t have this though. I’ve used shampoo I found in a shower to wash my clothes before, and it got the job done.

Go digital

Maps, guide books, books, even a camera—all of these can now be reduced to nothing more than storage space on your phone.

Packing cubes

An ingenious travel hack. Takes organization of your backpack to a new level. One or two is all you need. I like this double-sided one from Eagle Creek—one side for clean clothes, one side for dirty (until you have a chance to wash them).

eagle creek packing cube for packing light
Eagle Creek Pack-It Clean Dirty Cube

Gear List – Only The Essentials

The following items are what I take on extended trips around Southeast Asia, and would suffice for most backpacking situations. The gear I bring changes slightly depending on what I plan to do on that particular trip, but generally it consists of what’s listed below.

For a more detailed look at my gear, check out what’s in my bag.

  • Backpack – 30-40 liters
  • Packable daypack (15-20 liters)
  • Passport, important documents
  • Travel wallet
  • Laptop
  • Compact camera (phone or mirrorless)
  • One large packing cube
  • One small packing cube
  • Three merino wool t-shirts
  • Pair of pants
  • Pair of convertible hiking pants/shorts
  • Three pairs of underwear
  • Three pairs of merino wool socks
  • Pair of shorts
  • Pair of swim trunks
  • A belt
  • Travel towel
  • A lightweight windproof/waterproof jacket
  • Pack raincover
  • Poncho
  • Trail runners – any light, comfy hiking/walking shoes
  • Sneakers or flip flops
  • Wide-brim collapsible sun hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Headlamp
  • Carry-on friendly sunblock
  • Eye mask
  • Earplugs
  • Journal
  • Pen
  • Book
  • Headphones
  • Universal outlet adapter
  • External HD
  • Phone charger
  • Mini LED flashlight
  • Carabiner clip
  • Water bottle
  • Small homemade first-aid kit
  • Toiletry kit

Optional add-ons for camping and trekking adventures:

  • Lightweight down jacket (for high elevation camping)
  • Paracord
  • Powerbank
  • Stuff sacks or compression bags

packing light for backpacking

Review and improve

Every trip provides an opportunity to review what gear is useful and worth the space, and which items aren’t worth their weight. While unpacking after returning home from a trip, take a few minutes to evaluate this.

Ultimately, it’s important to seek out the arrangement that suits you best. But don’t get too bogged down trying to create a “perfect” packing list. As you travel more, your tastes and preferences may change, and you’ll probably seek to upgrade your gear in some way or another. The whole point of travel is for the experiences, and packing light is about enhancing those experiences as much as possible.

So good luck, and safe travels!

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How do you travel? In what ways do you pack light? Leave your tips in the comments below.

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