Left: my friend’s 70+10L backpack. Right: my 45L backpack.
People are often surprised when they see the backpack that I have been travelling with for over a year. A question I often get is “where is your main bag?” as they think it must be my daypack. That’s because my backpack is about half the size of what many people travel with.
It’s great to travel light. In fact, ask any experienced traveller what they would have done differently in the beginning and invariably they tell you they wished they had packed less.
If you are new to backpacking or long-term travel, your instinct might be to pack a lot of things ‘just in case’… but more often than not, these are not things you really need.
While it’s possible to pack less by being very discipined, I personally find it much easier to start by using a smaller bag. Gone is the temptation of just dumping everything in; instead, you are forced to prioritize.
I travel with a 45L Lifeventure Dakar backpack. The brand is not important (as there are many different brands of high-quality travel gear) but what matters is the size.
Some backpackers travel with heavy 70, 80 or even 90 litre backpacks: these are so big they stick out above their heads. This type of bag became iconic as it’s what mountaineers and wilderness hikers use, and it’s what you see in all the ads by popular brands of outdoors equipment. But unless you plan to go camping (in which case you need some room for a tent and sleeping bag), you really won’t need that big a bag for regular travel.
If you have the choice, I recommend getting a bag with a capacity of around 40 litres. This can fit everything that the average person might need on the road.
There are many reasons why you should try to pack small and pack light:
- Much less stressful. Picture the scene: you are walking around a new place in sweltering heat with no sense of direction looking for a hostel. Or: you are running to the bus station to catch the last ride out of town. Do you want 30 kilos on your back? It’s at these times that you will love the increased mobility and comfort of a smaller bag.
- Harder to lose things. Bringing heaps of things with you? Chances are you will lose stuff more easily. By having a compact bag, it’s much easier to manage your essential belongings.
- Easier to get stuff out. Is that thing you need buried all the way at the bottom of your 80L bag? Have fun taking everything else out to get to it! A smaller bag usually means your items are more readily accessible.
- Easier to keep secure. A smaller bag is easier to keep in locker, easier to keep tucked under your seat in a bus or train, and easier to chain to something or cover with a security mesh.
- A big bag is heavy even without anything in it. A large camping/hiking bag with a strong harness can already weigh up to 3 or 4 kilograms just by itself.
- You won’t buy stuff you don’t need. A smaller bag reduces the temptation of buying too many souvenirs, clothes or other items that aren’t necessary. If you really want to buy something that won’t fit, you can always pack it up and mail it home.
While packing light might take some time and effort during your trip preparation, it will keep paying dividends throughout your journey.
Are you going to travel long-term? Travelling longer does not mean needing more things. If anything, it means you should pack less. For you, the comfort of a light bag will be far more important in the long run than for someone travelling for just two weeks (who perhaps won’t tire quite as quickly from hauling some big luggage around).
I should say that besides a 45L main bag I also carry a 20L daypack. I could fit everything in the 45L, but I like having the versatility of an additional small bag. As a travel blogger I also carry more electronics than most backpackers (camera, laptop, etc.) and I feel these are a little more secure when they are in my daypack that’s always close to me during transit while the main bag might be stowed away. Another advantage is that when I go trekking, I can leave the bulk of my stuff in the main bag in a locker at the hostel, and use the daypack for my camera, snacks, and so on during the hike. When I tell people about this second bag it sometimes feels like I’m watering down my message about packing light, but in practice about a third of my primary bag is empty so it’s really just a case of transferring items between bags depending on my travel situation. (By the way, some backpacks come with detachable daypack compartments which makes this easier.)
Packing light and packing smart can still be difficult, especially the part about knowing what is essential and what isn’t. For detailed advice on what to pack and what is better left at home, how to best pack it, what to look for when buying a backpack, and much much more, check out my in-depth book Travel the World Without Worries.
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