Once you force yourself to pack light, your life on the road becomes so much easier. You’ll be more mobile, more comfortable, and you’ll often save money too—because sticking to carry-on luggage avoids many surcharges on flights (especially with budget carriers).
I’ve met people who carry up to 90 pounds or 40 kg when they travel. This is crazy! They haul around their way-too-heavy backpack filled with things they’ll never need. They sweat, they curse, and finally swear they’ll never pack so much again. This is not a fun lesson to learn.
Nowadays I travel with a total weight of about 11 kg or 24 pounds (though it used to be less when I didn’t bring so many electronics for my blogging). It pays off hugely to pack well, and I recommend doing some test runs at home. Lay out all your gear on your bed or floor, think about every single item, and try to eliminate all the non-essential ones. Try packing and unpacking a few times to see how it feels. If you’re disciplined, you’ll be able to feel free like a bird instead of packed like a mule.
This post is mainly about packing for a backpacking or round-the-world trip, though many of the tips can be used equally for a shorter trip or holiday. You can find packing guides that are even more minimalist, though in a few areas I prefer to trade a bit of weight for increased convenience. Of course, every traveller is different, and the approach I’ll show in a minute is just one example.
Choosing the right bag
Before we talk about packing, it’s worth thinking about the bag you’ll use first…
The best way to avoid overpacking is to start with the right size bag. This will remove the temptation to keep adding more things, and forces you to prioritise.
I recommend getting a bag with a capacity of around 40 liters. You might need something a bit bigger if you plan to go camping, but if you’ll be staying in hotels or hostels a bag of this size should be absolutely fine. If you’re not sure what bag to get, check out my list of best backpacks.
A smaller bag is much easier to handle during transit. For instance, you can easily swing it onto the back of a tuk-tuk. You can tuck it under your seat in a bus, where it will be more secure and easier to access. And if you need to run to catch that last train, you won’t be as encumbered and might actually make it!
Backpacks have advantages over wheeled luggage as well, at least for general world travel. A suitcase is fine for a holiday in a fixed location or when staying only in modern urban environments, but it’s not so great for sandy beaches, cobblestone streets, or dirt roads. A backpack is also more malleable and easier to store than a hardshell suitcase.
Most backpacks of around 40L capacity will be accepted as carry-on luggage, though it depends on their exact dimensions, so be sure to check the specs.
I used to travel with a 45L backpack, though I now travel with an Osprey Farpoint 55. This backpack can be split into a 40L main bag and a 15L daypack. This is not exactly minimalist, but I needed just that bit of extra space for the many electronic devices I use for my travel blogging. I’d say 40L is sufficient for most travellers, and if your backpack is over 55- 60L or so it might be worth downsizing.
3 key packing rules
- Pack the must-haves, not the nice-to-haves
It’s easy to get into all kinds of “what if” scenarios in your head that will never happen. If it’s your first big trip, you might end up packing more and more things just because ‘more stuff’ feels somehow comforting and safe, even though it’ll just weigh you down. Try to be brave and pack less. Focus on the true essentials only.
- Don’t pack more than 1 week’s worth of clothing
It’s much easier to do laundry than to carry weeks worth of clothing. Pick some versatile favourites with a simple color palette so that you can easily mix-and-match.
- Bring versatile instead of special-case items
Focus on items that will be useful to you all the time, and think twice about anything you’ll use only on specific occasions. For example, equipment can often be borrowed or rented. If there’s a surprise situation on your trip, you can often find a cheap temporary fix instead of carrying something just-in-case for your entire trip.
Remember that there are shops all over the world, even in seemingly remote places! If you forget something, you can usually still buy it there.
Oh, one more good rule: try to keep about a third of your bag empty. This can serve as extra space for souvenirs or for clothes/items you might buy on the road. Plus not having it totally full makes loading and unloading easier.
So here’s how I pack…
Having covered some basic tips, let me show you exactly how I pack in a step-by-step way.
So… this is my main 40 liter backpack. I use this to store mainly clothes and toiletries. Let’s open it!
So here’s what’s inside. Firstly, I use packing cubes to keep my clothing organised. For a long time I just kept my stuff in plastic shopping bags, but I’m glad I saw the light and bought a 3 piece set of slim packing cubes by eBags. They cost only $15 and makes organising my clothes a lot easier.
I roll my clothes before putting them in the packing cubes. It’s better to roll clothes instead of folding as this is generally more space efficient.
The only clothing I don’t put in the packing cubes are my pants/trousers. I also keep my shoes in a separate plastic bag.
I usually take about 6 shirts or t-shirts with me, ones that I know I’ll be happy to wear regularly. I’ll take 3 pairs of pants/trousers; if I’m going to a tropical or summer destination, two of these will be shorts. I’ll also bring one sweater or hoodie and my swimming shorts.
Since I travel a lot in hot climates, I usually won’t bring nightwear. If it’s super hot I’ll just sleep in boxer shorts and a tank top. But if I’m going somewhere cold or temperate, I might add a pyjama or pair of jogging pants/trousers.
I usually bring 6 or 7 pairs of underwear. Some travellers advocate bringing as few as 3 (one to wear, one to wash, and one to dry), but I prefer having fresh underwear every day and only washing once a week.
I don’t bring more than 3 pairs of socks however. I recommend investing in some merino wool socks. Unlike cotton socks, you can wear them for several days without them getting stinky. Merino wool also provides warmth when it’s cold, keeps your feet cool when it’s hot, has the amazing ability to stay warm even when wet, and even dries much faster than cotton. (Gee whiz! Seriously though, merino wool is amazing…).
I typically travel with two pairs of footwear. In the tropics or in summer destinations, I’ll bring a pair of good walking shoes (mainly for nature hiking) and a pair of flip-flops (which I wear 80% of the time). In other climates I’ll bring one pair of walking shoes and one pair of casual shoes. I like canvas sneakers such as Converse All-Stars as they fold up easily and take up very little space. Girls can easily add a pair of flats, as well.
What about rainy or cold weather?
I most often travel in the tropics or in summer, so I don’t bother packing a jacket or rain coat. If you’re packing for cold or wet weather then this will add more weight, but not so much as you might at first assume. Your winter jacket, jumper, etc. will be on your body anyway, so won’t add to your luggage weight. For rain cover, just get a packable lightweight rain coat, as these can compress down to about the size of an apple. If you need to pack for multiple climates, consider bringing a compression bag for storing your winter items when you no longer need them.
This is my toiletries bag with toothbrush + toothpaste, sunscreen, anti mozzie spray, a small roller deodorant, and some matt clay for hair styling. Not pictured is my beard trimmer, which I bring only on longer trips.
Be sure to keep sprays and liquids under 100ml to conform with hand luggage regulations. Many products have smaller travel size versions.
Finally I have two soap containers, one with a soap bar and the other with a shampoo bar. Since they’re solids, they’ll always be accepted as carry-on. They’re also lighter and more compact than shower gel or shampoo bottles. I bought two soap containers in different colours so I can easily tell them apart.
A shampoo bar works exactly like a soap bar. Just rub it in water and you’ll get some lovely shampoo. 1 shampoo bar equals about 3 normal shampoo bottles, so it’ll last you for ages!
Inside the mesh compartment are just two more things.
Firstly a polyester laundry bag with a drawstring. This keeps stinky clothes nicely separated, and I like the world map printed on it too—it seems thematically appropriate.
Secondly I have a lightweight microfiber travel towel. These weigh at least 10 times less than the average cotton towel. Some people don’t like their velvety texture, though you are not supposed to actually rub this type of towel. After showering, use your hands to remove most of the water first, then just gently pat yourself dry. A travel towel is super absorbent so patting is typically all you need.
But why bring a towel at all? Well, I often stay in hostels where towels aren’t always provided. It’s also useful at the beach or on a hiking trip.
Microfiber travel towels dry faster than cotton ones. If it’s still wet when you’re packing up, you can just let it hang on the outside of your backpack for a bit, where it can quickly air out or dry in the sun. If your towel has a loop on it you can clip it to a carabiner.
That’s it for my main bag, though as I mentioned before I also travel with a smaller 15L daypack. Having a separate daypack gives me a bit more space and versatility. The Osprey Farpoint 55 backpack that I have is designed so that you can zip the two bags together or use them separately.
The daypack is where I mainly keep my electronics. Currently I have a GoPro with monopod in here, and a shoulder bag containing my Canon 550D DSLR with 15-85mm lens. I used to carry other lenses as well, but after a while I realised that I wasn’t using them enough, so it’s just one lens now. I’m saving up for a Sony A7 mirrorless camera, which will bring the weight down a bit.
If you’re not set on having a full-size camera, obviously get a compact camera or use your smartphone. This will save you at least 1kg or 2.2 lbs of packing weight. I normally carry the camera bag over my shoulder, though it will usually live inside the daypack when I’m in transit.
Let’s see what else is inside…
You’ll notice my Apple 13″ Macbook Air, shown here in a yellow protective case (hmm, it clashes quite badly with the inside colours of my backpack – eesh!). It’s a good idea to get a shell case for your laptop instead of a sleeve if you can, as this will protect it properly. I don’t mind using my laptop in a bus on bumpy roads for example, as it can happily bump against the side or armrest without causing any damage.
As a travel blogger it’s important for me to have a full-featured laptop, and the Macbook Air is one of the most lightweight options around. If you don’t need to do work on the road, go with a tablet or smartphone… or maybe none at all. I’m very much a digital nomad, but not everyone will want to bring so much gear. A trip abroad can even be a bit of an internet-free retreat…
I keep my passport, emergency money and bank cards, and misc. paperwork in this bag as well.
An LED headlamp comes in handy when you have to find your way through a dorm room at night, when there’s a power cut (which happens from time to time in developing countries), or when you’re hiking at night or on a caving adventure. A regular torch works too, but having a light strapped on your head means keeping both your hands free.
Buying a travel organiser changed my life profoundly, and I’m now a happier man. Seriously: I used to keep smaller items in different pockets, where they easily got lost. But no more! This travel organiser contains all my little knick-knacks, such as earplugs, condoms, basic first aid stuff and medicine, SD cards or USB sticks, a bandana, and various small cables. I also keep a wad of ziplock bags in there, for taking liquids through airport security or for food storage.
Not shown are my camera and laptop chargers along with a universal travel adaptor.
If I’m travelling in developing countries, I’ll also bring a small bottle of antibacterial gel, as toilets occasionally don’t have soap and it’s good to clean your hands before eating street food.
A few more handy items
There are a few more smaller items I want to tell you about. Two of these I consider essentials, namely the padlock and universal travel adaptor. The other little gadgets aren’t strictly essential, but they have made life on the road consistently easier for me.
First off, a number padlock is super handy. It’s useful for locking your bag up—you’ll need zippers with rings on them to do this. If you stay in hostels at all, a padlock immediately becomes a must-have, as in hostels you’re typically meant to store your bags in a locker using your own lock.
I also have a wire lock, which sometimes comes in handy for securing my daypack, for instance when I’m sleeping on a night bus. I don’t use it all that often, but sometimes it’s handy for preventing opportunistic theft.
I also have a universal travel adaptor with two USB ports. This thing is amazing as I never have to worry about all the different electrical plugs used around the world. It also lets me charge my laptop and two other devices via USB at the same time.
I tend to be in and around the water a lot when I travel and I often go on adventurous tours (like exploring river caves or waterfalls), which is why I now bring a water proof bag. It lets me to jump off a boat and swim to an island while still bringing my camera, for example. I also keep my dive log in there when I go scuba diving. It’s great for summer/tropical trips where you might be outdoors and around water a lot.
If you have many electronics with you, as I usually do, it can be great to bring a portable backup battery. I got annoyed with the multiple sets of spare batteries, chargers, and cables I have for everything, so I’ve been trying to simplify this by having just one universal backup battery. Now my GoPro, phone, and DSLR can all charge from this one battery. A cool bonus is that I can leave my phone to charge inside a hostel locker, instead of leaving it exposed somewhere.
Finally, while my current backpack already has an integrated daypack, when I still had my old 40L backpack I also packed a 15L foldable daysack. You can use this while sightseeing or hiking, and fold it back up when not in use. As you can see in the pictures below, they’re super compact. If you don’t need so many electronics on your trip, I recommend getting a 40L backpack with one of these foldable daysacks for when you need it, as this offers plenty of capacity.
But hang on, you’re a guy…!
Wait, does that matter? Well, girls on the backpacker trail have sometimes commented that I can only pack light because I’m a guy. I guess the implication is that I can go totally Bear Grylls and be a scuzzy dirtbag with only one t-shirt to wear (not actually true), while girls need a huge wardrobe.
I think this is silly as I’ve seen countless female travellers pack just as light. It’s totally possible, regardless of gender, to put together a functional and nice travel wardrobe and still keep things under 40L or so. As long as you can do the occasional laundry, you don’t have to compromise that much. And while it’s true that as a woman you’re maybe likely to bring a few more toiletries and other items, many women’s clothes are also smaller than men’s versions, so surely the total volume ultimately shouldn’t be all that different.
Of course, my packing example does come from a guy’s perspective. There are going to be some differences in the details and there are other examples by female travel bloggers, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the overall approach can work for anyone.
The full list of all my gear
I hope this post has been helpful! Below are links to all of the gear that I use, leading to your local version of Amazon (US, Canada, UK, Germany, etc.). If you do decide to buy something from Amazon feel free to use these links, as they earn me a small commission. This in turn helps me write more 3000+ word in-depth posts like this one, without putting any banner ads on the page.
Packing and organising
|Osprey Farpoint 55 backpack (I also recommend these other backpacks)|
|eBags slim packing bags 3 piece set|
|5L Water proof dry bag|
|Kikkerland Polyester travel-size laundry bag|
|20L lightweight packable daypack (I only bring this if I’m not bringing my Farpoint 15L)|
|ButterFox Universal Electronics & Accessories Travel Organizer|
|Waterproof Single Lens DSLR Camera Shoulder Bag|
|Small microfiber antibacterial travel towel|
|Number padlock (TSA approved)|
|Wire lock (for fixing my daypack to a pole or bar)|
|Survival safety whistle|
|LED Head Torch with multiple brightness levels & red setting|
|Universal Water Bottle Holder|
|Natural Handmade Shampoo Bar|
|Merino wool socks|
Tech and cameras
|13″ Macbook Air (see also my list of best travel laptops)|
|Topideal Crystal Hard Shell Case Cover for 13-inch MacBook Air|
|Universal Travel Adaptor with 2 USB ports|
|Panasonic RP-HJE120E-K Ear Canal Headphones (great sound, low price)|
|1TB portable hard drive|
|GoPro HERO4 Silver|
|Deyard ZG-634 GoPro Accessories Kit (includes monopod)|
|Wasabi GoPro Power Battery (2-Pack) with Dual Charger|
|Motorola Moto G (awesome travel phone – affordable and has 2 SIM slots)|
|Canon 550D / Rebel T2i (still going strong, but to be replaced with a Sony A7)|