Packing a Backpack: Lessons After the First Two Weeks
Everyone’s idea of backpacking is different. Some people travel super light with only a 20 litre pack to live out of. Others do the glam packing and take as many outfits/luxuries as possible with them. Then there are people like me, who intend to travel the world for as long as possible making money from dev projects and photography. This makes my priority list very different to the average backpacker. Also, being female, a lot of the advice blog posts just didn’t cover things I need to know. Packing my bag took a lot of planning and trial and error.
My top priority when packing was my tech. I am currently lugging around a 15” MacBook and a DSLR with three lenses (including a big telephoto lens for wildlife). All bulky and heavy, but unless I splurge all my savings on a 13” laptop and lovely prime lenses, all of that is coming with me.
In order to determine what else I could/should pack, I made a list with the following categories and forced myself to really think about what I needed:
- Essential, need immediately
- Essential, need in the near future
- Non-essential, nice to have immediately
- Non-essential, may need at some point
When working out how to categorise items into the list, I took into account the following:
- Weight. First and foremost – everything’s going on my back after all.
- Bulk. Something might be light but if it takes up half my bag, it’s not coming with me
- How easily can I find/replace this item at various destinations? Remember to factor in the relevant cost, currency conversion rates as well as the availability.
Once I’d worked out my initial list, it was time to pick a bag. I knew I would need ~ 30 litres at least for a day bag to contain my laptop, camera and whatever I am likely to need on a day out doing photography or coding in a cafe. I wanted to make sure that my day bag was big enough to hold all my valuables so that it’s not a problem to take them with me if staying in any dubious hostels.
Next up was the big bag; the one that I’ll carry as little as possible but that will need to go on my back when migrating between accommodation. I figured that since my tech takes 30L, it’s probably fair to allow another 30L for medicines/clothes/shoes. That really is not a lot of space!
The bags that I ended up with both came from a store called Mountain Warehouse. I was very lucky that they have a small discount outlet near my parents’ house in the UK and both bags were an amazing 50% off. Perfect when you’re on a tight budget!
I’m carrying a 30L dedicated day bag. It has a perfectly sized main section for my camera gear, a separate zipped compartment for a water pack (or a laptop) and a couple of smaller sections which are ideal for miscellaneous items. It also has elasticated compression straps/cords so I can make it as small as possible when not full. These are also handy for holding jackets etc.
The goal for this bag was to fill only 30L of it with clothes etc and keep the top half free so that I can fit my day bag inside it. That gave me a target bag size of 60L. I ended up purchasing the Traveller 60+20L bag from Mountain Warehouse. This bag has numerous features which are perfect for me. Firstly, the 60L compartment fits everything I need and sits comfortably on my back. Secondly, the detachable 20L day pack is handy if I’m staying somewhere I don’t mind leaving my laptop/camera as it’s smaller and easier to carry.
So What’s In The Bag?
With bags purchased, it was time for a test run! Before leaving the UK I wanted time to try packing my bag a couple of times at least to test it out. I’m glad I did. My strict packing list was far too much for the bag. Even with toiletries decanted into small bottles and clothes vacuum packed into two tiny bags, I still had too much. Something (or many things) had to go. I went through a process of packing/unpacking and re-addressing my three criteria for items.
For example, did I really need my bikini? Well, it’s approaching winter and hostels don’t often have pools. I wouldn’t be using it any time soon and besides, I need a new one. Discarded!
Did I need my sleeping bag? When you’re likely to be staying in places of varying hygiene levels, you need something to sleep in. I already had a super compact travel sleeping bag I’d taken backpacking around Europe, but with my 60L size limit, it was far too big/heavy. After consulting the Internet, I went and purchased a silk sleeping bag liner to use instead. These are fairly pricey but have two main benefits over the sleeping bag: it’s tiny in comparison and weighs hardly anything. Progress!
Next up was the clothing. I had already been fairly strict with my clothing allowance, but still more had to go. I took out a spare pair of skinny jeans (fairly small but heavy) and an assortment of strappy tops and underwear. I figure I can wash things as I go, and if I really can’t cope with the frequent laundry I can cheaply replace these.
Toiletries is something else to consider removing if you’re low on space. In our case, the hotel we were travelling to provided shower gel and shampoo, so I took those out of my bag.
Once I’d removed these things, everything fit ok in the bag. It’s snug, but it works!
Test Run In San Francisco
The last two weeks in San Francisco have given me a good chance to test my packing theory and fix any major issues before we head to New Zealand. And boy, have there been issues!
Firstly, my beautiful Super Dry coat turned out to be far from super, or dry. Despite waterproofing it with some good spray before we left, I got well and truly soaked during a downpour here. I needed to buy a new coat here in SF but I’m glad I did. I am trying to layer as much as possible and not take bulky items, so this provided a chance to get a light, compact, waterproof layer. The coat I picked came from The North Face. It’s super lightweight, flattering and comes with a lifetime guarantee. Perfect.
I’ve also bought some replacement underwear/tops. When you’re hand washing items on a daily basis, you really start to appreciate fast drying fabrics and those which stay fresher for longer. Merino wool is my new best friend. It somehow keeps you warm, but not too warm, and cool, but not cold. It breathes and dries very quickly. I had brought a Tog24 Merino Wool jumper as my only warm layer (we’re staying temperate/warm weather for now), but since arriving here I’ve decided to get two pairs of Icebreaker merino wool socks and two of their vest tops. None of these were cheap by any means, but they are honestly the most comfortable clothing items I’ve owned since…maybe ever. If you’re not rushed for time, a friend of mine advised you can find some great merino wool a lot cheaper on Ebay etc, just be wary of the fakes.
Something we’ve also stocked up on here in SF is medicines. There are some items I like to get here which are more expensive or near impossible to find in the UK (such as naproxen). We’ve also got through some items (paracetamol) much faster than expected so we’ve re-stocked those. Most medicines we should be able to find in New Zealand easily enough, so a basic first aid kit with essentials should suffice for now.
My Unexpected Top 5 Items
When I packed my bag, I knew there were some items I would use a lot (tech!) and some that would be essential but used later (like the silk sleeping bag liner). There have, however been some stand-out items which have become my unexpected essentials:
- My spork! I love my spork! I wasn’t sure I needed it but I’ve used it nearly every day, for making coffee, or eating leftover American food in a box for breakfast. It’s small and lightweight and is now firmly on my essentials list.
- Duck Tape. Chris suggested we get a small roll to repair things but we didn’t find a small enough one in the UK. Then today when packing, one of his vacuum bags split. I’ve managed to find a small roll in our local Wallgreens and we’ll make sure we always have some to make emergency repairs
- Merino wool. Comfortable, quick drying, stays fresh for longer. Essential for a backpacker’s wardrobe.
- Rubber bands. I threw a handful of these in my bag since they weigh so little. I’ve used them to tie up food packets and organise cables. I also used some to wrap the zips on my camera bag to stop them jingling when I walked. Very versatile and minimal size/space impact.
- Compact folding hairbrush. As I travel, I am becoming less bothered by the everyday vanity of normal life. Time spent doing hair and makeup is time spent not taking photos! My makeup selection is the smallest it’s been in 15 years and my hair products are simply a compact hair brush and some hair bands. When you’re carrying around a heavy bag with limited space, you realise that beauty products really aren’t that important 🙂 Folding hair brushes are ideal because they are tiny and the bristles collapse inward meaning they’re not catching on things. It’s also got a built in mirror.
5 Quick Packing Tips
I’m still very much a beginner at this, but here are my key learnings so far:
- Vacuum bags. Nothing can compact your clothes into a tight space like these. They’ll also help keep your clothes safe and dry. An absolute essential item. We’ve even popped a couple of tumble dryer sheets in ours to help keep our clothes smelling nice.
- Pack things you don’t mind ditching or losing. It’s all well and good trying on your bag in the comfort of home, but when you’re jet lagged and have to carry it on public transport, you’ll soon wish you’d left lots of it behind. I packed older items that I knew I wouldn’t mind leaving/swapping in the future and have already discarded a few.
- Take a sim tool and/or lightweight multi-tool. Swapping sim cards for local sims can get tiresome without the proper tool and a little pair of scissors is super useful. We’ve used ours a lot in the last few weeks.
- Pack one nice item you feel good in. It might seem silly, but after wearing hiking trousers and scruffy tops all the time, the ability to wear something nice can make you feel great. I’ve packed a lightweight wool dress which I can wear during the day too. I also have a very lightweight linen shirt which can dress-up some jeans and also covers my shoulders/tattoo should I go anywhere that doesn’t like those. I may well end up ditching these later, but for now, I’m keeping them.
- Bring something special from home. If you’re travelling for a long time, having something to remind you of home can make you feel more comfortable and also help you sleep better. Perhaps it’s your own pillow case, a few photos, or a cuddly toy? For me, it’s a little stuffed cow called Guybrush. I hadn’t packed him as I didn’t think there was room, but Chris surprised me with him last week. Some small home comforts count for a lot when you’re away for a long time.
In all honesty, I don’t think there really is a conclusion to this! Bags and what goes in them are a very personal thing and everyone has different needs. For me, I’m trying to keep the contents of my bag fairly fluid. I’m happy to discard some items to help keep the weight down and will most likely change my mind as to what’s important as I travel.
In the future, I’d love to be able to change my laptop and lenses for more compact/lightweight options, but that’s expensive and my budget is limited. Here’s hoping someone buys some photo prints so I can down-size things before I start looking like the junk lady from Labyrinth!
Cat Burton is a photographer inspired by the wild nature of Scotland. Passionate about animals, conservation and the environment, she's happiest when exploring the wilderness with her camera. From her studio in Perthshire, Scotland, she shares a daily photograph of adventures around the Scottish countryside. From landscapes and wildlife, to farm animals and lone trees. You can follow her adventures around Scotland here. From time to time she creates fine art photography which has been exhibited across the UK and is available as fine art prints here.