Are you thinking about taking a trip around the world this summer? Or a month-long stay in South America, backpacking across countries? Maybe you’re just going to stay with relatives in Iowa for a couple months and don’t want to bring the kitchen sink along. Any of those scenarios may be times when you need to start living out of a backpack. That means everything that you bring from home has to fit in one backpack. If you’re flying, you are further restricted in how much everything can weigh and what you can bring.
I actually enjoyed living out of a backpack during my ten months in Central America. During my first five months, I spent most of the time in 2 different locations in Honduras, but I also had to make a visa-renewal trip to Belize. I visited my family around Christmas and had surgery to fix the collarbone I’d just broken at the beach, and then changed out some of the clothes that were getting worn out after months of scrubbing them on a concrete pila. Same backpack, most of the same stuff, and I was on a plane to Nicaragua, then a bus back and forth from Nicaragua to Costa Rica and back up to Honduras. During that time of traveling, I refined my list of what I really needed. Here is my packing list.
What to Pack
A quick note: Pack according to the culture you’ll be living within. If your sleeveless shirt will offend someone in your new country, leave it with friends.
(depending on whether you will have the ability to wash clothing/if it’s rainy season in the country where you’ll be) If you’re going to have a washer-dryer the whole time, this could be reduced to just 2-3 shirts. Choose wrinkle-free shirts that go with everything else you’re bringing. Also, try to choose shirts that aren’t so casual you can’t dress them up a little if needed. (One exception: I always wore a dark T-shirt with advertisements on it for traveling. It was obviously a free T-shirt and I looked appropriately poor and non-theft-target when wearing it.)
2 pairs of jeans
One of my pairs I wore on the plane. The other was a very light material, since I needed to pack everything tightly and not go over the weight limit. You could exchange one pair of jeans for a lighter canvas/khaki pair of pants. Alternatively, find skirts with pockets if you’re a woman going to a country where pants are not an option for women.
2 skirts (for girls–optional)
I was going to a place where we’d need to wear skirts during the church services. I also wanted to have skirts so I could look a little nicer some days when I was teaching my adult classes. If you’re just on a backpacking trip, these could be left at home. (Depending on the culture.)
3-4 pairs of socks
Make sure at least one of your pairs of socks is a warm one. Even hot countries often have locations where it gets cold at night. Also, look for moisture-wicking socks.
You know how much you’ll need. 🙂
light clothing for sleeping (optional)
It’s very convenient to have some light shorts and a shirt just for sleeping, especially if you don’t have easy access to a washing machine.
In Central America, all I needed was a light cardigan and a very light jacket. I wore the jacket on the plane so it didn’t add weight and bulk to my backpack. (I tied it around my waist in the hot airports once we landed.) If you’re traveling in cold countries, you may have to add a hat, scarf, and gloves along with a warmer coat. It’s much harder to pack light for cold climates!
Wear them on the plane. They’re usually too bulky for your backpack. I chose barefoot tennis shoes by Merrill. (No toe divisions, because UGLY!) 🙂 They were pricy, but VERY light for the times when I did need to carry them instead of wear them.
Not only are they convenient for wearing in warmer climates, you can wear them in the shower when you aren’t comfortable with your bathroom’s cleanliness.
It destroys the purpose of hiding money if thieves know where every single traveler keeps his/her money, but I recommend using something to hide your extra trip money. Keep just a few dollars in your wallet that you pull out to pay for bus fare, etc. If you will have access to ATMs, bring a debit or credit card that works in other countries (and let the company know you’ll be using it outside your home country). Hide that card and any extra cash. Here are a few options:
*Security Belt (looks like a normal belt, but has spots inside for hiding cash)
*Undercover Passport Holder (good place for keeping travel documents, ID, cash, and debit card)
*Leg Wallet (can work really well, depending on how it fits your leg)
I recommend hiding money and ID in several different places if you can, just in case one of your hiding places is found. Keep your best hiding place for your passport.
On one of my flights, I just checked my backpack so I could carry a large container of shampoo, full-size toothpaste tube, etc. (The flight had free checked luggage.) Costa Rica is an expensive place to buy items like those. However, you can use your own judgement about how much to bring of these things. Here are a few important things I recommend having along.
toothbrush with at least a small tube of toothpaste
light, quick-dry towel
Please wear deodorant when traveling, for the sake of your fellow travelers!
if you’re female–women’s hygiene products
hairbrush or comb
Here is a link to a set of bottles you can keep shampoo and other liquids in and still stay within carry-on regulations. Refill as needed during stops in your travels.
a bar of soap
Note about laundry: If you’re like me, you might be worried about stains that accumulate during a journey. I brought a small bottle of stain remover. You could also try a bar of detergent/stain remover like this one from Purex.
Light Raincoat or small travel umbrella (my favorite is just an umbrella, although there were times I wished I had a raincoat)
Padlock/retractable cable lock (if you’re staying in any hostels)
I got a ten-dollar digital watch at Walmart. I needed it not only to keep me on time for planes, buses, etc., but as an alarm.
For me, packing cubes were a necessity. I am a somewhat organized person, and the cubes kept me from going crazy. Socks and underwear were in one small one, along with my sleepwear. Most of my clothes were in another cube. Hygiene essentials, towel, etc. were in the third. An additional benefit of the packing cubes is that when you roll up your clothing and pack it into the cubes, you can then zip the cubes closed. That squeezes out a lot of air and compresses your clothing into a smaller, more manageable size.
I managed to get a lot more in my backpack, because I had this large one from ebags. Warning: check the dimensions if you want to use your backpack as carry-on luggage. The one I just mentioned from ebags works as carry-on if you don’t have the expansion zipper unzipped.
I even brought my personal laptop (I made sure it never showed in public) because I needed it for lesson planning and other teaching-related tasks. I also brought a camera, a mini Spanish dictionary, a small journal, and my Bible. Those things fit in my purse. Why a Spanish dictionary instead of a dictionary app? So I wouldn’t have to show technology that would tempt thieves while I was studying Spanish on the long bus trips.
Living out of a backpack is hard work, but can be so freeing. You suddenly realize you don’t really need that closet full of clothes. Six months of life requires very little more than six days, except in food and toiletries. I am not really a minimalist (love my kitchen tools, people!), but I hate being a materialist. So an experience in minimalism was actually a relief. “Hey! I don’t need so much stuff!” Which means…I don’t need to make very much money to stay alive! 🙂
One Last Tip
Do a practice pack if you’re going to be flying with this backpack! Fold, roll, smush and zip. Then weigh and measure the final size of your backpack. You don’t want to be told you have to check your bag when you’ve done this much work to keep everything to a carry-on size.
Fellow backpackers–what have you found is an absolute necessity for your travels? What could you live without?