Have you made the hard decision to take off for a long trip? Are you counting the seconds to when you hop on the plane? I hope that you will have the most amazing time!
But for that to be the case, you’ll have to think about practicality: figuring out what you will need on the trip and starting to source for them will make your trip easier and more enjoyable. I have to tell you that many of the things you decide to bring with you may prove to be unnecessary.
Having just returned from a 6-month trip myself, where I also consulted many other long-term travelers, I wanted to share some useful advice on how to reduce the size of your bag, increase the use of your belongings, and start packing smarter.
We’re all unique, with different needs, but I believe that some of these principles will still help you enjoy your trip, and teach you a few things that you might even have an impact on your life once you get back.
Here are the 7 golden rules that I learned during my trip.
- Lighter lifting = easier life.
The available sizes of bags today stretch up to the sky. Although it’s tempting to literally pack your wardrobe, think about how you will need to lug it over 2 kilometres while trying to find a place to stay for the night.
Don’t worry, you will be surprised how little you actually need on the trip, so reduce everything to the minimum. You don’t want to make your own life miserable, nor do you want you to limit your own mobility.
If you think that you can buy a big bag but leave space for things bought on the way, ask yourself if you really have the discipline to not fill your bag at the start – I’ve yet to see this strategy work.
For reference, I took a 45 litre bag, which was large enough in size but still manageable in weight.
2. Bring a change of clothes for 5-7 days, regardless of the trip length.
This is true for those items that you won’t wear more than once in a row. This is roughly the average length of time in which you could easily get them washed in almost any country, so you won’t need to carry any more than this.
In terms of items that you can wear multiple times without washing – like long pants and fleece jackets – one item is enough. Just make sure you can wear something on the day when it’s in the laundry.
3. Quality beats quantity.
I found that it’s much better to buy special-purpose trekking shoes and travel clothes that you can use all the time, and wash over and over again. These will last longer, be more comfortable, dry quicker, and be better for your wallet. Many people decide to take old t-shirts and sneakers from their wardrobe and throw them away when these grow too old. Then they buy another similar quality item on the way.
In the long run this might be neither a cheaper nor more comfortable solution. There’s nothing worse than having a pair of sneakers that kill your feet on the Great Wall when the next village is a 4-hour walk away, and you can’t appreciate the beauty because you’re in pain!
Personally, I’ve worn trekking shoes and merino wool clothes on my travel which are more comfy, dry quicker, absorb moisture and last longer. I use these even in my everyday life. Plan in advance and get them before leaving, as some apparel (for instance, proper hiking shoes) are not sold at every street market.
4. Be inventive: Aspire for multi-purpose use.
To the greatest extent possible, find the clothes and products that can be used for more than one purpose, so that you can reduce the volume of your luggage. There are soaps that you can use for cleaning your face, showering and washing. A good sarong is a great beach towel, blanket and skirt for visiting temples and other places of worship. The best jacket is a layer of warmth, as well as protection against rain and wind, so you will only need one.
5. All your clothes should work with each other.
You probably need to get used to the idea that you won’t dictate the newest fashion trends on your travels, as you won’t have the variety of clothes for that. This does not mean, however, that you have to feel terrible about your appearance.
Here are a few tips: Don’t take anything that you will only be able to wear with particular items and which look silly with the rest of your travel wardrobe.It’s better if you can combine everything in different ways, as you will get bored about your limited selection very quickly, . Also, take a couple of small items with you that will make you feel better about yourself, like a nice dress that you can wear when you go out, or some make-up. I guess guys have one less thing to worry about.
6. Plan ahead: The least expected item will often have the most use.
I did not expect my travel pack organisers to become my best friends throughout the trip, but they did. These are practical little zipper bags placed inside your backpack, to keep your things organised and separated by categories from each other, allowing you to easily find anything when you need to.
Surprisingly, you can also get a lot more into an organiser than if you put your clothes straight into your backpack or in plastic bags, as they require you to fold your clothes differently, which will reduce their total volume. They also allow easy separation of your clean and dirty items, which will help when you carry your socks after an intense 5-day hike before you wash them. Don’t try to put those into a plastic bag.
Some other items that proved enormously useful were:
- body lotion: Especially if you’re going to a sunny place. You often only get whitening creams, which might be counter to your goal of getting a tan.
- carabiners: Which you can use to fix items to the outside of your bag, or to fix bags if broken.
- convertible pants: One pair served me for spring, summer and the rainy season over 3 continents. They dry within a couple of hours and can be washed by hand in minutes
- a pair of thicker tights: to be worn under the pants. These will save you from getting frozen in cooler places.
- day pack: for shorter trips and bus travels, when you need your valuables with you while your backpack is at the bottom of the bus.
- international electricity adaptor: transforming any plug into any other end – invaluable
- fleece jumper: the best insulation for hiking and cold nights.
- camping cutlery: I thought these would be unnecessary but in fact I used them numerous times.
7. Capturing the moment is essential.
You will see and experience so much that your brain will struggle to process it all. The only way for you to remember as much of it as possible will be to take plenty of pictures, shoot short movies if you’d like and take notes about your impressions that you can look at later on.
Therefore, plan this ahead, and take the right devices that you’re comfortable using. Additionally, take a supply of additional batteries and maybe a little notebook for your thoughts. It would be a shame if you failed to take a picture of the most beautiful place you’ve visited but barely remember the details a few years later, just because your camera battery died.
The Unexpected Positives of Smart Packing
Learning a few useful practices about managing your belongings on the way can also have some positive impacts on your life once you return from the trip.
- After the completion of my trip I got back my normal wardrobe again and I was by shocked how many clothes I have, and how many of these I barely use! This happened despite having carefully sorted them out before I left for the journey.Sure, you need a greater selection of clothes during your everyday working life than as a backpacker, but I was still surprised to realise how much fewer belongings you can live with in your normal life once you stop accumulating items that you don’t need. My measure of importance has changed.
- As preparation for the trip (and on the trip itself), I learned to control the shopping-loving beast living inside me – and probably in many of us – which sometimes used to get a little crazy.Before leaving there was no point in shopping, as I could not take anything more than what was necessary for the journey (hence don’t get a bigger bag than you need). And on the way itself I could not buy things – apart from a few small souvenirs – as I would not have been able to carry them around the world on my back.
- I expected that once the trip was over, I would look forward to getting a few new items, but to my surprise the opposite happened. Now I feel that, also for the above-mentioned reasons, I actually don’t want to collect unnecessary belongings and would rather spend money on experiences than on objects.It sounds funny to say that travelling helps you save money, but what we can say for sure is that it can teach you to live a more valuable life.
- I learnt that some of these tips also work for shorter holidays, so as to avoid desperately pulling large suitcases on the sandy beach, as we’ve seen all too many times. You learn that it’s enough to take much less – only what you really need – which saves the time and effort to get ready for your holiday.
- Along the way I changed location and accommodation minimum every 2-3 days, so I have mastered the art of packing quickly and keeping my things tidy.If you do not want to lose your things on the way and waste lots of time you need to keep yourself organised (hence the aforementioned pack organiser, which was a massive help).I was satisfied to notice that I kept this habit even after I returned to normal life. I’m much quicker to get ready, my environment is way more organised, and I simply maintain the order instead of waiting for the chaos to form before doing emergency tidying.
Hopefully you will also experience some of these long-term benefits, and add them to your own list of reasons on why a long trip is a truly life-changing experience.
Editor’s note: Our contributor has provided the comprehensive packing list that helped her to prepare for her 6 month journey. Download it here.