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How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip

Updated on March 28, 2013

Anyone who’s traveled knows what an immense pain it can be to carry luggage around. It's heavy, awkward, and in general just gets in the way. This is especially true if your trip isn’t something as simple as a family visit or a business trip, but instead a sightseeing or backpacking trip of some kind. If you're traveling on the cheap and covering a lot of distance, it's vital to pack light. You need to navigate subways, buses, trains, and roughing it on foot with a relative amount of ease. But, how do you fit two weeks’ (or even two months’) worth of clothes, toiletries, and other necessities into this backpack?

1. Clothes. Obviously, you can’t get very far without these. But, chances are you don’t actually need as many clothes as you think you do. Serious travelers can usually get away with one pair of pants, a pair of good walking shoes, a few shirts, and maybe a weeks’ worth of underwear. Depending on the weather, you may need a good coat or jacket, too. Some of you may look at this list and think, “Are you nuts? One pair of pants? Gross!” Okay, I’ll allow you two if you really need them. But the truth is, if the goal of your trip is to cover lots of ground with very little baggage and to see the world, you probably don’t need a wide variety of clothes. You just need yourself and enough coverage to prevent you from being arrested for indecent exposure. And many hostels or hotels now offer laundry, knowing their travelers don’t have many changes of clothes. Here’s a sample packing list:

a. Two pairs of pants (one to pack, one to wear)

b. Three or four shirts (you can probably wear each twice before washing, unless you’re doing some serious hiking)

c. One lightweight jacket (to wear)

d. One pair comfy walking shoes (to wear)

e. Three or four pairs of socks (again, you can re-wear these—no one’s going to insist on smelling your feet)

f. Seven pairs of underwear

g. (If needed) a winter coat, hat, and gloves

Excluding items you'll be wearing rather than packing, here's all you need to bring with you.
Excluding items you'll be wearing rather than packing, here's all you need to bring with you.

You’ll probably be wearing most of the above day-to-day, so all you’ll really be packing in your backpack is a pair of pants, a few shirts, and some socks and underwear. Not too much, is it? You’ll also save a lot of space by rolling your clothes instead of folding them; this will also help keep your clothes from wrinkling too much. Check it out:

You'll save a lot of space by rolling up your clothes before packing.
You'll save a lot of space by rolling up your clothes before packing.

2. Okay, now that we’ve fit all of our clothes into our backpack, let’s talk toiletries. Even if you’re comfortable going a day or two without showering, you’re going to want to clean up at least a few times a week. But there’s no reason to load down your bag with several bottles of shampoo, deodorant, soap, lotion, and whatever else you habitually use. Instead, try some of these strategies:

a. Buy a few 8 oz. bottles for your shampoo, conditioner, and lotion if you need it. Ever since TSA started enforcing its carry-on liquid laws, these have been available in almost every major grocery store across the U.S. Fill these and take them in place of your big bottles at home. If you use sparingly and wash your hair every few days instead of every day, you can probably stretch these a few weeks at least.

b. Use your shampoo as soap, as well. Use your conditioner as a double for shaving cream.

c. I’ll allow you deodorant, since you might not be washing every day.

d. As with clothes, drop the extras. You don’t need the weight added by cologne, scented body wash, or hair gel. Most of the people you’ll meet—especially in hostels—will probably be traveling in roughly the same style, so no one will mind if you don’t look like you walked out of a catalogue.

e. If you don’t want to pay for a towel at every hostel, invest in a small, ultra-absorbent, quick-dry towel and roll it up like your clothes. You can find one of these at your local outdoors or athletic store, or order one online.

Instead of lugging all of this around with you, put what you need into a few 8oz. bottles for easier travel.
Instead of lugging all of this around with you, put what you need into a few 8oz. bottles for easier travel.

3. The next important item on your list is probably money. I’ll tell you right away, this is not something you should be putting in your backpack! The chances of someone getting into your bag, or even stealing it, are pretty high when you’re traveling, so think smart. Invest in a money belt and carry a limited amount of cash on your person, along with your credit cards and passport. This will save space and—in the long run—a lot of anxiety.

4. Now we get to some of those controversial items, the ones that you can’t decide to either take or leave behind. Let’s take a look:

a. Your laptop. As someone who has spent a terrifying amount of time with her laptop (why, look, I’m using it right now!), I completely understand the desire to bring one with you. But as someone who has also lugged hers around a two-week backpacking trip, I can tell you it’s not worth it. It takes up space, adds a ton of weight, and doesn’t add much to your experience. Instead, use a cyber café, the computers in your hostel, or—if you’re lucky enough to have one with wireless—your phone.

b. Books. Maybe you’re an avid reader, or maybe you just have a travel guide or two that you think will be useful. If you can fit it in and don’t mind the extra weight, then great! But if not, think of finding another option. Do you have an e-reader? Smaller, lighter, and it can fit several books in one! You could also see if the travel guide you want comes in a pocket-sized version. Or, rely on the Internet and see if your hostel provides maps or booklets about the area when you arrive.

Got an e-reader? Take it along instead of real books to save space and weight.
Got an e-reader? Take it along instead of real books to save space and weight.

c. Miscellaneous items like your diary, jewelry, camera, ipod, etc. are all up to you. I will say that traveling with a small, handheld digital camera is generally preferable to a larger, fancier one that has to be carried separately. Generally, I advocate thinking about how likely it is you'll use what you're considering bringing along, as well as how much space it will take up, before you pack it.

5. Finally, let’s think about leaving some extra space. If you’re doing some world traveling, you’re going to want some souvenirs. It may be food, postcards, books, magnets, or various knick-knacks, but you’re going to want some. If your backpack is full to the brim when you leave, you’re going to have a hard time fitting in anything else. Try to leave a little room if you can so that you can add your souvenirs later on. This may also help you keep your spending in check. Every time you want to buy something, think of how much room you actually have in your backpack and if you want to carry it around for the next several days or weeks. You'll find it's a lot easier all of a sudden to save money!

Leave a little extra room in your backpack for souvenirs you purchase along the way.
Leave a little extra room in your backpack for souvenirs you purchase along the way.

Well, we’ve finished packing, and check out everything we’ve managed to fit—with room to spare! Now that you’re packed, all that’s left is to do is plan your trip. Safe travels!


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    • Saffron23 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for the comment! I'm glad this was helpful, and I hope you get the chance to head off to Europe soon.

    • cheapmoving profile image

      David Johnson 

      5 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Great hub! I've been wanting to do the Eurotrip backpacking adventure and this info will come in handy when I finally get around to doing it. Having one pair of pants isn't that big of a deal...just make sure not to stain them!


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