It seems most of us have a tendency to overpack regardless of where we are going and how long we will be gone for. I know I’ve been guilty of overpacking for most of my life: Packing for the start of a new semester at college? Overpacked. Week-long trip visiting an out-of-town friend? Overpacked. Two-day business trip? Overpacked. Weekend at your weird Aunt Bertha’s place? Overpacked. I always end up kicking myself when I only use half of what I packed…and then repeat the same mistake the next trip I take. Normally, overpacking is relatively benign since the only downside is having to lug around extra weight during your trip. However, if you’re backpacking for any length of time, you should put some serious thought into what you bring. Your backpack becomes your mobile home. Pack only what you need, and try to do without everything else. It may sound a bit minimalistic, but you’ll be thankful you downsized when you’re shouldering a tolerable pack weight around a new city or trail. Here are some tips to help lighten your load:
Choose a Smaller Pack
You’ll want to fill your backpack to the brim, regardless of its size. Whether it’s a 65-liter pack or a 40-liter pack, you’re mindset will likely be the same. Because you’ll be tempted to make use of available space, do yourself a favor and use a smaller pack. That way, you are limited by the capacity of your backpack. It’s hard to be disciplined and efficient when we’re packing, so there’s no shame in letting the constraints of your backpack hold you accountable.
Which Backpack to Choose?
While there are many great backpacks out there, I’m a big fan of the Osprey Farpoint 40 travel backpack. High-quality, relatively simple, and carry-on compatible (on most airlines), this backpack is a wonderful choice for travelers. It has two main compartments, with a third compartment for smaller items. The primary compartment is spacious and great for clothes and bigger items, while the secondary compartment has a laptop sleeve and room for additional belongings. Additionally, the zippers on the backpack can be locked together (important for security while traveling) as well.
Travel Packs Versus Camping Packs
I was among the lightest packers that I met on my trip, so you can certainly get by with a much bigger backpack. I just think it’s inconvenient to carry around unneeded weight and too many things unless you really need to. Also, please note the difference between a travel backpack and a camping backpack. The latter is top-loading – which means it’s hard to access belongings at the bottom of your bag – and typically has straps on the exterior for sleeping bags, tents, etc. In contrast, travel packs (like the Osprey Farpoint 40) are front-loading, which means you’ll have easy access to most of your belongings from the main zipper. Both styles are effective and designed for different purposes. If you’re spending a lot of time camping, I would recommend a more traditional, top-loading backpack. If you’re traveling and staying at hostels, airbnbs, etc., travel backpacks are slightly more convenient (easier to pack and unpack). With that being said, camping backpacks most certainly work for traveling as well.
Consider the Climate
Packing light becomes substantially more difficult when you’re planning for more than one climate. Perhaps you’re going to be tanning on a beach in Cyprus one week and then traveling north to the Swiss Alps the next week. You probably wouldn’t want to do any mountaineering in your bathing suit… Try packing essential clothing that you can’t do without, and then buy secondhand clothes or gear once you arrive at your destination. If you don’t like that idea, you can use a bigger pack and bring more clothes with you. But as I mentioned earlier, there are downsides to overpacking.
Packing for Mexico and Central America was fairly easy because the climate is tropical and humid in most places. Shorts and t-shirts don’t take up very much space. Nonetheless, I did have to pack warmer clothes when I hiked to high peaks in Central and South America. I layered up and either bought affordable clothes (like an Alpaca sweater at a local Peruvian market), or rented a jacket.
Is this a Necessity or a Luxury?
This is a highly subjective question, but one that you should ruminate on while you are packing. A lot of what you think you “need” is probably something that you can do without, or can buy once you arrive at your destination. Most countries have much of what you will need at pharmacies, supermarkets, clothing stores, etc. It may not be exactly what you are used to, but it usually gets the job done. However, I would recommend bringing your own prescription medications, rather than relying on pharmacies abroad. Clothes, toiletries, prescriptions, and passports are among the necessities.
Aim Small, Miss Small
If you make a concerted effort to pack lightly, you can do so without too much difficulty. You’ll most likely find yourself wondering why you overpacked on your trip anyway. “Wow, I thought I packed light, but I didn’t really need this and that…” Aim to pack lightly and you won’t overpack too badly. Maybe you’ll even have extra space…
Leave Extra Space
This one is really difficult, especially with a smaller backpack. Nevertheless, you’ll want to have a little bit of extra space to bring home gifts for friends and family. You can send gifts home by mail, but this can be rather difficult and inconvenient in certain countries. I paid a hefty price to send a box home from Costa Rica, and I think the package is lost…(still sitting, waiting, wishing that it might arrive someday). If you don’t have any extra space for trinkets, another option is getting rid of some of your other belongings. Maybe there’s a tattered shirt that you no longer need. Downsizing isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to free up space.
Use Packing Cubes
Clothes will most likely consume the bulk of your backpack space. I highly recommend packing cubes to help organize and consolidate your garments. Better yet, roll your clothes before placing them in the cubes, as this has proven to be an efficient packing method for me. You’d be surprised at how well this works!
When All Else Fails, Employ the Dreaded Frontpack
You’ve tried all of the above strategies for packing light and you still need extra space. Don’t be discouraged, there is another way… Take a collapsible daypack for reinforcements. Lightweight and durable, this daypack can fold into a small pouch when not in use, and hold up to 20 liters when you need it. This should give you ample space to carry what you need. With a big backpack on your back and a daypack on your front, you’ll have the confidence to take on any adventure that comes your way – in style.
But in all seriousness, definitely bring a daypack because you won’t want to take your primary pack everywhere you go. A 20-liter daypack is helpful to have while exploring a city, going on a day hike, or simply for a bit of extra space.