I was recently asked by a friend planning his first solo trip abroad how exactly a backpack works and why I prefer one to a suitcase. Personally a backpack makes life a lot easier when I travel, often solo, staying in dorms, guesthouses and other budget accommodation where I need to carry my things up and down many flights of stairs. I also take a lot of buses and trains with my bags when travelling across a country and sometimes need to walk long distances on rickety roads or gravel to reach accommodation that is not on the main street or accessible by road transportation. As such, it helps to have a backpack securely strapped on, with good back support of course and nothing more than an additional tiny day pack. To someone hovering on the backpack-suitcase border, it can be quite confusing as to how to pack all of their stuff into what seems like a tiny sack. Presenting to you, Backpacks 101- this tells you how to choose the right backpack, what you need to pack and how to do it effectively.
It’s very important to get the right backpack, something that is a perfect fit for your body, considering your frame, the length of your torso and even your gender. Yes, there are backpacks made for women and yes, they do fit us better. The size obviously depends on individual needs. I have two backpacks- a large one by Deuter (75L+15L) for trips that last three weeks or more and a small one by Lowe Alpine (65L) for shorter trips. Both are great brands for backpacks and have good back support making it easy to carry them for extended periods without strains on the neck, shoulders or back.
I highly recommend backpacks with an internal frame as they hold the pack closer to the body and are easier on the back. Also look for shoulder straps, straps across the chest and hips with good padding, these avoid rashes on the shoulders and make it easier to carry the weight around. A panel loading pack opens at the top with a drawstring or zip and down each side for easy access to the whole pack at any time and is definitely a better choice than a top loading one which only opens at the top. This is true unless it’s a small backpack and it doesn’t matter if you have to unpack the whole thing to reach something way deep down. It’s good to have a few pockets to stuff things that you need quick access to. A rain cover helps to protect the backpack from rain, dust and can also be used to stuff other pieces of small luggage in while travelling. I like to keep the heaviest items in the center of the backpack or the part that is closest to my back, the lightest items at the bottom and everything else at the top. This helps with maintaining stability and balance while walking with it.
Of course, what you need to pack depends mostly on where you’re going, the weather and kind of trip you’re planning to have (trekking, hiking, surfing, adventure trip, party town or cultural immersion) and the duration of your trip. Let’s get started with a general list of things and how to pack them.
Depending on the weather, culture and kind of trip, carry tops and bottoms that can be mixed and matched easily to create different looks. Apart from the obvious must haves like swim wear, be smart and carry at least one piece of warm clothing (a jacket, pullover or hoodie) even if you’re going someplace warm (you may need it on flights) and a scarf (to protect your head from the sun, cover your face when you doze off on a bus or for women to cover their head in a temple or mosque). Carry weather and culture appropriate clothing but remember for cold places, it always helps to carry layers that can be peeled off when required (indoors or while hiking). How do you know how much to carry? This depends on the number of days you’re going to be travelling for and the opportunities you’ll get to have your laundry done. Generally for week or ten day long trips, I pack enough clothes to not have to worry about having laundry done. For longer trips, I pack a maximum of ten tops (a mix of casual, sporty, elegant, trendy and the in-betweens), and five bottoms (skirts, jeans and trousers- again a mix of fabrics suitable for activities that range from hiking to yoga). Sometimes I also pack a few more dresses and lesser pants if it’s weather and culture appropriate. It makes sense to carry light, wrinkle free fabrics that won’t eat up all the space in your backpack and don’t need to be ironed at all.
How to pack: Clothes must be packed in the biggest section of the pack and not in any of the pockets. When it comes to fitting clothes in a backpack, I’m an advocate of roll rather than fold. This helps to stuff small items of clothing such as socks, scarves and gloves easily in narrow spaces.
In general it’s best to carry a pair each of easy walking, hiking and can-be-worn-somewhere-nice trendy shoes and flip-flops. If you’re going somewhere rainy, carry additional footwear to deal with that. If you’re a woman who likes her heels, there is always enough space in a backpack to accommodate a pair of neutral colored heels that go with everything.
How to pack:
I like to put each pair in a separate cloth or plastic bag and then in the bottom zipped section of my backpack (if I’m not carrying a sleeping bag). This keeps my footwear organized and separate from everything else. It also helps me to grab whatever footwear I need easily without having to open the whole thing. If that section is taken up by a sleeping bag, then the shoes go in along with the clothes.
Carry only what you really need and will not find where you’re going. Increasing the weight of your backpack by carrying things that are available everywhere easily is not a smart thing to do.
How to pack:
Get organized and pack all creams, gels and liquids in sealable plastic bags and into a waterproof zipper pouch.
I always carry the following items, whether I’m travelling to a city, village or on a trekking trip. Contrary to the belief that you only need these items if you’re going to be hiking or camping, they come in very handy every time.
- Flashlight- Given the number of power cuts that happen in cities, towns and villages in Asia, it’s no surprise that this is number one on my list.
- Mountain whistle- This can be used to attract attention or for help if you’re trekking solo and happen to be lost, are stuck somewhere or need some kind of medical help in areas where there may not be any network coverage. This can also be used by women as a safety tool if they find themselves in trouble in a dark alley.
- Headlamp- Especially useful if you’re going to be camping or trekking in the countryside or rural areas.
- Swiss army knife set- I once used this in a B&B unit at an unearthly hour to open a bathroom door that was locked shut somehow from the inside. Can be a real life saver.
- Travel adaptor.
- Medicines, sunscreen and insect repellent.
- Notebook and pen- if you like to make notes as you travel to help you remember the little details that can get all muddled up the longer you travel.
- Piece of rope- can come in handy at the most unexpected of times.
- Microfiber towel- Is thin, rolls up nice and compact in your pack and dries very quickly.
- Rain proof jacket and Sleeping bag-These should always go in the bottom compartment.
How to pack:
All of the above should be packed in pockets such as the one on the top or on either side for quick and easy access at any time.
5. Extra luggage pieces:
I like to carry a waterproof day pack by The North Face that I picked up in Vietnam which zips and rolls up into a compact ball when not in use and can be placed inside my backpack. I use this as a day pack, beach bag, overnight bag for one or two day trips when I can leave my big backpack behind in my hotel or hostel or an extra piece of luggage to put my shopping in when returning from a trip. Sometimes I also carry a soft bag that can be folded into a pouch the size of my palm when not in use. Opened up to its full capacity, it can easily pack in a good 8kgs.
This one depends on how attached you are to your gadgets and your need to remain connected. I have traveled both with and without my cell phone but always with a camera. I don’t own a Kindle (I am old fashioned and prefer hard copies of books) or an IPod and only carry my laptop occasionally.
How to pack:
Put all electronic items in a pocket on the inside, most backpacks have one on top that zips close. Make sure there are no liquids, creams or gels in the same pocket. It would be smart not to check in your backpack with all your gadgets. You’d rather put these in a carry on or day pack and take them with you. I bought this very cool pouch at the Melbourne International Airport to put your phone, IPod, digital camera, hard disks, USB sticks etc. and their chargers in, basically all of that in one place to keep you organized. However I would not use that in a country where pickpocketing or theft is common because that would make it easy for a thief to take everything just by grabbing that one pouch.
Finally, keep in mind that when it comes to a backpack, less is more. Carry items, clothing, and shoes etc. that have multiple uses rather than just a single one. Remember that the essence of the spirit of backpacking is to be free and unrestricted when you travel. Most of the things that you need or think you need at home will probably never make it out of your luggage when you travel. A person needs only so many clothes and so many shoes to travel, enjoy sights, food and cultures. Globalization has made it easy to find the brands you see at home almost everywhere else and if not, there are always decent substitutes. So don’t worry, get packing and go see the world!