Traveling With Only a Backpack: The Ultimate Minimalist Mode
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Let’s face it, unless you’re a dedicated minimalist, you over-pack. Realistically, most of us only need a fraction of the stuff we typically take on a trip. If you’re traveling with only a backpack, it’s especially critical to be mindful of the weight and mass of what you pack, so you can focus on the journey instead of the baggage. But how do you go about it?
For many, the term “backpacker” evokes images of hairy, un-bathed young folks wearing the same underwear for three weeks, eating bugs and carrying all of their belongings in a massive backpack. I’m here to tell you, it’s not that bad! In fact, it’s more about compromise than loss. You can travel in style AND be clean without dragging tons of luggage with you. Let me share some essential backpacking tips to help you prepare.
The Right Backpack - Traveling With Only a Backpack
In the world of backpacking, your pack is essentially your home. Stuffing everything you need for a trip into a single, relatively small bag sounds scary, but it’s possible and even liberating. Think of it, you only have what you really need. Instead of stumbling into a new foreign town late in the afternoon, rolling a train of luggage toward your hotel before you can relax and enjoy your destination, you can stroll the streets, enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and casually make your way, carrying only a backpack.
Now, you have many options in backpacks and what you ultimately decide has to make sense for your needs, budget, and travel style. But rather than give you an exhaustive list of designs, sizes, uses, and price points (I’ll save that for a later post), I will offer some general advice and a few suggestions for my favorite options.
One of the first items to consider is size. Backpack volume, or the available area inside the pack, is generally specified in liters. They come in just about any size you want from a few liters up to more than 100. Each size has a different purpose, but there is a sweet spot for minimalist backpacking. I like to stay in the 30-45 liter range. It affords an adequate amount of space and a smaller bag forces you to pack less. Plus, most options in this range still fit within the acceptable carry-on size, yet afford lots of room for your stuff; especially since you’re traveling with only a backpack.
My general go-to pack for travel and hiking is the Osprey Kestrel 38. I’ve taken this thing everywhere. It’s seen 16 countries, all four hemispheres, three continents, and the peaks of several mountains. It just continues to perform. This is the pack that helped me make the switch to minimalist travel. The Osprey Kyte 36 is the women-specific version and it’s just as capable. Best of all, Osprey packs have an unconditional lifetime warranty.
Access - How Do You Get Into it?
Access is the next thing to consider. Many packs are what are called top loaders, meaning you load and unload everything from the top lid of the bag. If you carefully consider and pack, leaving often-needed items toward the top, this style likely will work fine for you. Otherwise, you will need to empty everything out of the pack to find what you need. I find I often prefer a top loader, especially if it has some external pockets. However, outer pockets can pose a security concern when in crowded places, so don’t carry anything of value in them. You could run the risk of your load being lightened without you knowing. Top loading packs also tend to be slimmer and more comfortable, designed for long distance hiking. They work equally as well in crowded streets and transit stations. Both Osprey packs fit in this category.
The other style is a front loading pack. These function more like conventional luggage where you unzip a large flap on the front of the pack, giving you full access to the interior. They tend to be a bit wider and have a more rectangular shape. However, they may not include some of the comfort features of the other style. They also tend to be a bit heavier. But, if you’re not planning to carry it for hours on end and you want a more luggage-like experience, this type of pack may be the better choice for you. If it is, check out the Timbuk2 Wander Pack. It has a ton of comfort and convenience features typically not found on these types of bags. It’s like having a backpack, carry-on and a laptop bag all rolled into one.
Watch Your Weight
Weight is another concern when traveling with only a backpack; which is actually twofold. First, the pack has to support the amount of weight you plan to carry. I typically aim for under 25 lbs when I travel (unless I’m also carrying camping gear), which might be at the high end for some. If you can whittle your kit down to 15-20 lbs, even better. The best approach is to gather all the effects you plan to pack and weigh them. This will give you a good idea of how much weight your pack must support. Next, you need to consider the weight of the pack itself. This can range widely from under two to over six pounds. That might not sound like a lot, but an extra four pounds feels a lot heavier the longer you carry it.
Durability = Built to Last
Finally, you must consider durability. This pack has to survive the normal rigors of travel (scuffs, scrapes, snags, mishandling, etc.) while keeping your belongings secure and organized. The best options use high-quality materials and craftsmanship. Look for durable nylon fabrics, beefy zippers, heavy-duty stitching, and reinforced corners. Most reputable backpack manufacturers back their product with a reasonable guarantee and some (as seen in the above suggestions) even offer a lifetime warranty.
Traveling with only a Backpack: Absolute Essentials
While I’m a big believer in “when in doubt, leave it out,” there are certain things you should never forgo. These are absolute necessities; most may be common sense, but I’ll include them for thoroughness.
Travel Documents and ID - Don't Leave Home Without Them
For starters, never forget your travel documents and identification. You already know you should have your passport/photo ID with you. You may also know to keep copies of your ID in various secure locations, including with your companions, in case the originals are ever lost. However, many folks forget to make copies of their travel itineraries, transportation tickets, and/or hotel reservations. We’ve come to rely on our wireless devices to manage our documentation, but you never know if you’ll have data service. And somehow, that mysterious battery drain happens at the most inopportune times, so it’s a good idea to have a paper copy just in case.
Medications - Because Everybody's Got Some
The next important items are your prescription medications. In many cases, you can find general pain relievers and such at your destination, but filling prescriptions may prove difficult away from home. Always stash medications in a safe and secure place in your pack. If you leave your bag for any reason, it’s a good idea to have an extra container to keep a few days’ supply with you at all times, in case you are delayed getting back to your pack for any reason. If you’re traveling abroad, carry your medications in the original containers with your name on them, and your original prescription whenever possible. That reduces suspicion of drug trafficking. As always, check on the local regulations in advance and be prepared. You can find more information about transporting medications in this article.
Money and Credit Cards - Gotta Have 'em
Finally, you should always have currency and a credit card or two. Money can get you out of most binds when traveling. Credit cards are great, because most give you a better exchange rate than currency exchanges; but there is no substitute for local cash. You know everyone will accept it and it may help you negotiate a better price.
Clothing is one of the easiest things to over-pack. And when traveling with only a backpack, you have to be careful. All the “what-ifs” creep in as you toss wardrobe into your bag. But don’t fall into that trap! Bring versatile choices, expect to wash on the go, plan to layer and give some consideration to the materials.
Wash on the Go
Plan to wash frequently instead of carrying multiples of every clothing item. As a general rule, have one set of clothes on your body, and one more set in reserve. Wear one set until it’s dirty, then sink-wash it while you wear the other fresh set. Dr. Bronner’s multipurpose soap is great for washing clothes or anything else (more on this in the Toiletries section); and with a universal sink stopper and elastic clothesline, you can easily and quickly do laundry on the go.
Of course, you will need a few additional clothing items. Bring a warm outer layer and a thin rain shell that can go over the top. Most likely, your primary shoes will be hiking boots, but be sure to pack lightweight camp or casual shoes as well that you can wear at the end of the day to give your feet a break. A hat is also a great way to keep your head cool and the sun off your face. A snapback hat is super convenient because you can easily attach it to the outside of your pack when you’re not wearing it. If the location warrants, a swimsuit might also be necessary. Store it in a Ziploc bag in case you have to pack it up while it’s still wet; you don’t want to soak all of your other gear.
I'm a Materials Girl (or Guy)
Also consider the materials of the clothing you’re packing. Cotton is a backpacker’s enemy! It holds moisture and is a breeding ground for bacteria and odors. Instead, choose wool or synthetic options. You’ll want wicking, fast-dry base layers, and wool or synthetic fleece outer layers. Wool socks keep your feet dry and help prevent blisters; and when they get wet, they’ll retain heat. Loose-fitting lightweight synthetic pants or shorts allow for airflow and keep you comfortable even when you’re walking long distances.
This is an obvious one, but it does merit some discussion. Visit any drug store or supermarket these days and you’ll see a growing number of options for travel toiletries. However, your toiletry kit can take up a lot of precious space in your backpack if you pack a separate bottle for every conceivable soap. Instead, consider a highly concentrated multipurpose soap like Dr. Bronner’s, which can be used to wash your hands, face, body, hair, clothes, and dishes! It’s organic and biodegradable, so it’s good for you and the earth.
Don’t forget other personal care items such as glasses or contacts, sunscreen, lip balm, a travel-sized comb or brush, a small stick of deodorant, a collapsible travel toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste, a small quick-drying camp towel, a small travel pack of toilet paper, and some wet wipes.
Think less is more. You won’t be entering any beauty pageants while backpacking, you just need to be clean enough to stay healthy and comfortable. If you don’t have a water source, wet wipe “baths” are surprisingly refreshing and can keep you smelling relatively fresh.
Water, Water Everywhere...
A water bottle with a filter keeps you hydrated and gives you peace of mind about the purity of the water you’re drinking. I bring my LifeStraw Go two-stage filter water bottle with me everywhere, and it has been a major lifesaver in places where the water quality is questionable. The two-stage filter removes over 99.9% of waterborne bacteria, protozoan parasites, and microplastics.
Depending on your itinerary and where you plan to sleep, you might need additional equipment like camping gear. Finding a balance between comfort, price, and weight is critical here – there’s usually an inverse correlation between weight and price for specialized backpacking camping items. See our article Build a High Quality Adventure Gear List for more on this.
Food and Cooking - Ya Gotta Eat
If you don’t plan to eat at restaurants for every meal, you’ll also need to carry food and a cooking system. Dried fruit and nuts are great energy-filled snacks that are also lightweight and easily packable. You can also buy or make your own dehydrated meals that can be reconstituted into delicious hot food on the go, with just water and a Jetboil stove system. We really like the Flash camp stove system right now. A final, and often overlooked option, is military MREs. They’re relatively inexpensive and they come in a wide variety of options. I’ve found a few I really like and you can even field strip them to reduce the weight considerably.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of everything you’ll need for a successful backpacking trip, I hope to give you an idea of where to start and some things to think about as you consider this minimalist way to travel. Happy trails!