Lessons From Backpacking: 5 Tips For Packing Light

Once upon a time, weary of my nine-to-five desk job, I decided I wanted to backpack around South America. So I asked for a leave of absence from work, booked a plane ticket, and started doing research. Before I knew it, I was so far down the rabbit hole of backpacker culture I was on R.E.I.’s website bookmarking mosquito netting and travel sporks.

In reality, I wouldn’t be hoofing it through the jungle of Brazil with my multi-use titanium cook pot hanging off the back of my pack. No, I was simply going to spend four weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, taking an English-language teaching certification course, and two short weeks traveling across the continent to Santiago, Chile, to fly back home.

Hardly a true backpacking trip.

My South American adventure ended up hovering somewhere between backpacking and more mainstream travel, but I did learn some valuable lessons from backpacker culture that translate well to any type of travel — most importantly, that when you travel, you don’t need much, and the things you do need should fit in a backpack.

On the backpack itself

Backpacking packs are meant for you to be able to carry lots of stuff comfortably and efficiently. The buckles and cinch straps are designed to ease the weight; you would be surprised at how light 25 pounds can feel when it’s on your back in a appropriately fitted, correctly worn backpack. When purchasing one, go to a bricks-and-mortar retailer and ask an expert to fit you. It’s essential, and worth the time.

In most brands, a 48L is the largest you can go and still be under most airlines’ carry-on size restrictions. I’ve also found this to be the most useful and versatile size. You can pack less and cinch it down for a quick weekend trip, or use the bag’s full capacity for a seven-day vacation. The longest I’ve packed for in my 48L is nine nights, ten days. I had one smaller day bag in addition, and I carried everything on the plane.

The main perks of carrying a backpack instead of regular wheeled luggage are threefold:


With your luggage on you, you take up less space. You don’t need to get a luggage cart, ask for help, or make more than one trip. A backpack is so incredibly fantastic to have when hiking through airports, train stations, public transportation, or busy downtowns. You don’t need to find ramps, part crowds like the Red Sea, or grow a third arm to carry things. You don’t risk leaving anything behind when standing in line. Your hands are completely free when buying tickets or ordering food. You’re like a turtle — everything is with you, on your back, connected to you at all times.

No waiting at baggage claim or for lost luggage.

The plane lands. You slide your backpack out of the overhead compartment and prance out of the airport — and straight off to your adventure. You always have everything you packed with you on your person, and you don’t have to worry about the airline losing or breaking your stuff.

You are ready for anything. 

Plans change? Rental car smaller than you thought? Opportunity to catch a ride with a truck driver into the Scottish Highlands, but only if you can fit in the passenger seat? No problem. You and your manageable backpack are ready.

5 packing tips from backpackers

1. Pack less.

I’m serious. I know you hear it over and over and over and think, “Well, if I just put in one more shirt, it won’t be a big deal.” And maybe it won’t. But when “one more” turns into “one more and one more and one more,” things have gotten out of hand, and you’re going to feel it when you get off your overnight flight, having gotten about 47 minutes of sleep total, and start scouring town for a hostel, all of your earthly belongings on your back. How do you feel about that “one more” shirt now?

But it’s more than the weight issue. The truth is, you don’t need twelve shirts. You just don’t. What will happen is, you’ll discover the shirts that work the best, and you’ll keep wearing those, ignoring the other ones you brought “just in case” and “to change things up.” Then you will be pissed that you have to carry around all that extra shit, and you will become bitter toward your clothing. Trust me; I speak from experience.

2. Roll your clothes.

Roll all of your clothes up before packing them. This will keep wrinkles out and maximize space. You can also roll up outfits together so when you dress in the morning, you can just pull out one roll and go.

Mesh drawstring bags rock.
Mesh drawstring bags rock.

3. Mesh drawstring bags are the bomb.

They’re better than Ziplocks because you don’t have to worry about getting all of the air out (and they’re not slippery as hell like Ziplocks). They’re as big or as small as you need them to be, you can see through them to what’s inside, and they keep your clothes organized. Big win. Packing in mesh bags transforms your clothes from careful piles you must keep straight into malleable packing cubes you can stuff wherever they fit to save room. Your clothes won’t wrinkle because you’ve rolled them.

4. Keep things that go together, together.

The mesh bags take care of your clothes, and a hanging toiletries bag takes care of everything for the bathroom. This will make dressing and packing easier for you because you’ll only need to pull two units out of your bag, and you’ll have everything you need to shower and get ready completely.

Toiletries: Don't do this.
Toiletries: Don’t do this.

Likely as a result of trying to bring too much to South America, I ended up putting things where they would fit in my backpack. That’s all fine and good when you finish packing and think, “Ha! It all fit! I am awesome!” But you start to see the error of your ways when you’re the only one in your hostel dorm up at 6:30 in the morning for your early flight, and you want to take a shower, but your razor is in a different zip pouch than your shampoo, which is in a different place than your deodorant, which is in a different place than your toothbrush. You do not want to be the person zipping and unzipping bags at this hour, when the rest of your roommates have just finished a night of partying approximately one hour before.

Don’t do this (on the right), because trust me, all these little bags look the same at 6:30 a.m., especially when your brain is fuzzy from vino.

5. Get creative on the road.

I found that Nalgene bottles make great storage vessels for breakables. In South America, I bought a bunch of earrings and trinkets for my friends back home, and I kept stuffing them all in my second water bottle so they wouldn’t get broken in my backpack. It worked like a charm!

One classic backpacking rule that’s too hardcore

There is one major rule from backpacking that doesn’t translate quite as well to more traditional forms of travel, and that’s the rule of three: “Wear one, wash one, one extra.”

This is, as it suggests, the idea that you should only bring three of everything (three shirts, three pairs of pants, socks, and underwear). One you will wear. One you will be washing. One will be extra (if you tear something or lose one). This doesn’t always work for more traditional types of travel because…

…it requires you to “do laundry” every night.

…it requires you to bring only clothes made of quick-drying fabrics.

…it cramps your style (seriously).

See Also
a woman looking at her reflection on a rear view mirror

My suggestions instead, for the less intense traveler

Bring layers, and pieces that can be used in multiple ways. For example:

Bring a tank top that you can wear by itself on a warm day, then on a colder day, wear it as an undershirt under a sweater — it won’t matter if it’s wrinkly or slightly less than fresh because it will be under something else.

Bring one pair of jeans or pants you know you can wear three days in a row without any deterioration in appearance.

Bring leggings: tiny, versatile, and re-wearable.

Bring a dress: Wear it as a dress one day, then put a sweater over it and wear it as a skirt another day.

Bring a scarf: When you wear the same top for a second day, put the scarf on, and it will change the outfit.

If you’re staying with family or friends on a longer trip, ask to use their washing machine once during your visit. On your own? Use a laundromat (you should only have one load), and spend the hour or two studying the map, making phone calls and reservations, or planning your next move. (You could even ask the person behind the desk for local restaurant recommendations.) Voila! Suddenly you have a bag of clean and fresh clothes, effectively having doubled what you packed.

A note on toiletries

For god’s sake, don’t bring full-sized toiletries. Hint: You will need less than you think you need. Try an experiment when you’re not traveling: Take a full-size bottle of shampoo, contact solution, or whatever. Draw a line where the liquid comes to. Use the product for three days. Draw another line. That’s how much you need for a weekend trip. Don’t bring more than that. Bigger bottles, even if they’re not full, take up space and add weight. Buy a set of three-ounce plastic bottles, and pack a travel kit of all your liquids. Then you’ll be ready to simply pull it out the next time you leave for a weekend away.

And remember, unless you’re going to the Sahara Desert, or somewhere equally remote, you can buy most things you need anywhere. I only brought one small bottle of hand sanitizer to South America, and I ended up buying two more on the road. I was trying to shake my tendency to be a germophobe, but dude, places are dirty. In the airport in Panama, I saw a toddler pick up a dead cockroach off the floor and show it to her mom. What the mother f*ck? Sanitize me, please.

A note on shoes

You don’t need six pairs of shoes. At most, you need three, and ideally, take two: One nicer pair, and one pair that’s comfortable or more activity-oriented. Choose wisely. Depending on your destination, the third pair might be rubber flip flops or something equally utilitarian (and small and lightweight). There’s another plus, too: Bringing fewer shoes makes choosing clothes easier.

I’ve found these guidelines work great for trips up to two weeks. Longer than that, and you might find yourself in true backpacker territory. (Quick, get your silk, insect-repellant sleep sack!)

Now then.

When you’ve selected everything and put it in your backpack, close the top, and cinch the straps (ALL the straps) like they taught you at the store. Then marvel at your efficiency and genius. You will be so happy to have this tiny backpack with you instead of a 40-pound suitcase on wheels once you’re on the road.

Read more about what worked (and didn’t work) for me in South America here.

View Comments (3)
  • you can also buy extra shirts flip flops and toiletries when you arrive at your location, so you save space when packing. donate or leave them somewhere before you return home.

  • I would love to read more about your South America travels via the links at the bottom of this article, but your WordPress page is private and I was unable to. Boo, because I’m planning a solo trip to Nicaragua and would love to know what has worked and not worked for you.

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