Why I Travel With a Smaller Bag

Backpackers often bring far too many things they don't really need. A smaller bag can help you prioritize

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 disciplined, 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 prioritise.

I travel with a 45L Lifeventure Dakar backpack (now an Osprey Farpoint 40). 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 for a few months or even longer-term? Then 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).

While most of my items fit in a 45L bag, I do often also carry a small daypack. I like having the versatility of an additional small bag. It lets you keep important items close by while your main backpack is in the luggage hold. It’s also easy to wear when you’re out and about and sightseeing.

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1 comment

  1. Andrea Kirkby Reply November 19, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    I managed three weeks’ hiking in Iceland with a day pack – it needed to get on to a low cost airline as carry-on. Both sleeping bag and one-man tent fitted fine.

    Main problem? Tent pegs – needed to buy them in Reykjavik and donate them at the end of my stay as they can’t be taken on board.

    I was grateful for the minimal packing when I hiked Laugavegur – I don’t know how people do it with big tents and camping stoves. It wasn’t so much the climbing, but crossing glacial rivers with any more kilos than you need on your back is just hellish.

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