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Posted by Tim on May 29, 2007
TTT#2: Concerning Small Backpacks

Note: Travel Tip Tuesday posts are more travel resource than travel blog. They will generally contain advice and specific tips and recommendations we came up with during our trip. While these posts are more firmly geared towards those readers who may be contemplating or planning a trip of their own, we hope they will not be uninteresting to everyone else. And we promise to pepper them vigorously with little anecdotes and tidbits from our travels to keep you coming back for more!

There is not one piece of equipment more integral to the backpacker than the eponymous backpack itself. Given this fact, it seemed only right to ruminate briefly on what makes a good backpack, a well-packed backpack, and a backpack likely to confer happiness onto its wearer. These thoughts are arranged here in no particular order, and although they are written as tongue-in-cheek commandments, remember that your mileage may vary.

That being said, and without further ado, I present Five Hedgehog Commandments About Small Backpacks...

Commandment #1 – Um, Get a Small Backpack

In our pre-trip research we uncovered a telling pattern: everyone seemed to complain that they carried too much stuff around with them, and no one seemed to complain that they carried too little. With that in mind, we specifically bought smaller-sized backpacks – Jessica's in particular was smaller than the daybags of many of the other travelers we met. Going with smaller bags forced us to be more disciplined about what we carried with us, and in hindsight it was one of our best early decisions.

Having nice small bags meant we could walk further with our packs on. It meant we could stick them under our seats on buses rather than having to toss them up onto the roof. Most of all, though, it really felt good. We'd glow whenever another traveler commented admiringly on how small our packs were. You will too.

So don't buy that 6,000 cubic inch monster. Don't sentence yourself to spending your trip with 25+ kilos of crap you don't need strapped to your back.

The two of us came in at less than 5,000 cubic inches combined, and our packs never weighed more than 8–10 kilos each. How? See commandments #2 through #5...

(If you're planning on camping and need to carry sleeping bags and a tent and whatnot, then this doesn't apply to you quite as much. But read on nevertheless, or you'll hurt my feelings.)

Commandment #2 – Thou Shalt Not Covet More Cubic Inches

If you have a 2,000 cubic inch bag, you'll wish you had 2,500. If only you just had 2,500 cubic inches, you'll think, you'd be able to take everything you need. But if you have a 5,000 cubic inch bag, you'll be just certain that you can't possibly get by on less than 6,000.

You will always want just a bit more room than you have. But the inverse of that is even more important: you will always fill your backpack, and be sure that you need everything you have in there.

The more room in your bag, the more stuff you'll bring you don't need. Which brings us to...

Commandment #3 – You Don

But now you're looking at your packing list, and you're worrying you've made a mistake. How on earth are you going to fit it all?

The answer is simple: you aren't.

I can't help but chuckle when I look back over our initial packing list. If we'd packed every single thing on that list, we'd have filled five backpacks. But since obviously that wasn't an option, we had to whittle it down to just what we could fit (see commandment #2).

Take the bare minimum of clothes. Scrutinize every little gadget and gizmo you've convinced yourself you can't travel without, and make sure it'll pull its own weight. Keep an eye out for these potential problem areas:

  • Books, magazines, notebooks: These are the worst offenders. I guarantee you you'll be able to cut deeply into what you're bringing here.
  • Water purifier: I know, this part is sacrilige. But I have to tell you, some of the money I wish most I could have back is the $130 we plunked down for our MSR MIOX purifier. Oh, sure, it's pretty, and small (about the size of a magic marker), but we virtually never used it. Bottled water is everywhere, and is incredibly cheap in most of the world. (And the parts of the world where it's expensive are without fail the same parts where you can drink tap water without worrying.) If you're going camping or mountain climbing, then this tip isn't for you. But otherwise, as far off the beaten path as you're planning on getting, I bet you'll be surprised to find you can still buy a liter of BonAgua for a quarter...
  • Shoes: This one will kill you if you're not careful. You aren't going to need more than maybe just a pair of sneakers and a pair of sandals. Really. I know, you don't believe me. You're planning on dancing the night away and so must take at least one pair each of low- and high-heeled shoes. Go right ahead. You'll be mailing them back home in a month.
  • Clothes: I can't tell you how much clothing you'll need to bring. I can only tell you that the answer is somewhere between 5% and 40% of what you feel is the absolute minimum you can afford to bring. After our first purge (see commandment #5) a month in to the trip, I was left with two pairs of pants (that zipped into shorts), three shirts, a swimsuit, three pairs each of socks and underwear, and that was it. The pants lasted me the whole trip (thank you REI!), while the shirts would wear out every couple of months and be replaced by new ones (see commandment #4).

Now, these cuts are going to be painful. They were for us. And you don't need to be too religious about it. We did, after all, travel the world with a large stuffed pig.

But do try and whittle your packing down as much as possible. Especially given that...

Commandment #4 – You

You don't need to take enough toothpaste to last you a year. The same goes for malaria pills, and bugspray, and T-shirts. They do, in fact, have pharmacies and department stores in Peru and Thailand. (This was a concept we kept losing track of.)

This commandment has two purposes. The first is to remind you that you don't need to buy a full-year (or however long your trip is) supply of anything before stepping onto your first plane ride. Just bring along one tube of toothpaste. When you run low, buy another one. I don't care where you are in the world, you'll come across a tube of toothpaste for sale somewhere.

The other purpose of this commandment is that a lot of this stuff will be cheaper if you buy it on the road. This is especially true of medications. In most of the places we traveled, everything we needed was available over the counter and cost a fraction of what it had cost in the US. On our next trip, we'll probably buy all of our initial stock of travel meds once we reach our first destination... it'll save us a fortune. (And again, buying your doxycycline as you go is far preferable to carrying ten bottles of the stuff around.)

Note: For most medications, you'll be able to find a generic or another brand if you can't find exactly what you're looking for. These are usually identical to what you're used to, but with different inactive ingredients. For any medication you've been taking daily for a long time (ie, birth control), you may not want to chance the side effects that could come from switching brands. In this case, you may want to consider leaving half of it or so with someone at home, and having them mail it to you along the way.

Commandment #5 – Purge, Purge, Purge

However much you whittle your stuff down, you'll still probably start off with more stuff than you need. I recommend monthly purges.

Every four weeks or so, sit down and go through everything you're carrying with you. Set aside every single thing you haven't used in the past month. You'll be surprised how big that pile is.

Now, start going through this purge-pile. For each item ask yourself, "Do I really need this?" Be brutal. You spent a lot of money on that electronic pocket translator, but you've never once pulled it out. The idea of catching your own fish with that little line-and-hook kit is romantic, but you always seem to buy something at a food cart instead. You swear the very next place you're going is the one where you're going out dancing in your dress shoes.

Purge 'em. Send them home, sell them, give them to someone else. Be ruthless.

(Not too ruthless, mind you. Just because you haven't needed those anti-diarrheals yet doesn't mean you shouldn't hang on to them. Tread carefully when purging your medical kit. Just remember that you probably don't need to carry around 12 doses of Cipro. See commandment #4.)

In Summary

When backpacking, you're going to be carrying your whole world around on your back.

It just doesn't need to feel like it.

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May 29, 2007 at 1:04pm
I Am Number 1 !
Hi Guys, you rock!
Tim the hedgehog
May 29, 2007 at 1:05pm
Wow. You commented less than thirty seconds after this post first went public. I am agog. :)
May 29, 2007 at 2:21pm
I learned nearly all of this on a 10 day motorcycle trip from Seattle to Mt Rushmore and back. I think most people forget you can 1) wash (sic) along the way, and 2) buy more toothpaste (etc) on the road.

In hindsight, I would have bought a camera that only requires a charger cord, and not batteries that needed replacing– those AREN'T easy to find all the time, and not light to pack.

Glad to see another post– I was just thinking about you guys last night. Wondering if wedding plans are in the works yet?

May 29, 2007 at 5:24pm
i should apply these rules to our state park camping trips :)
May 30, 2007 at 6:23am
The hedgehogs' bag got heavier over time with the dirt accumulated on Senor Pig, the unwashed stuffed animal :D
May 30, 2007 at 1:41pm
An update! At long last, my obsessive site checking has paid off!

I usually haul an over-stuffed duffle bag down to my parents for mere overnight trips. World-traveler material, I am plainly not.

June 2, 2007 at 8:28am
I felt something was missing from my life. Ahhh… vicarious fulfillment!
July 11, 2007 at 9:13am
I missed this entry before, but these are very good packing tips even if you're just taking an ordinary vacation. :)
July 13, 2007 at 4:41am
I just returned from Peru, and went there for 3 weeks with a small backpack. OMG it is so good to travel without checked baggage…

Even after this trip, I identified a few items in my bag that I could have done without: swimming shorts (it was winter…), second pair of shoes, and the Lonely Planet guidebook…

December 8, 2009 at 1:47pm
Couldn't agree more, with one exception: water purifier.

I hate the bottled water industry with the fire of a thousand suns. I think there is already far too much plastic in the world, and purchasing 2-3 bottles of water every day for a year certainly doesn't help.

I'll be traveling with two Nalgenes and a Steripen. Less environmental impact = happy traveler!

December 14, 2009 at 8:58pm
I'm with Nico on this one. Yes, clean water is readily available, but I've been saddened on my travels by huge amounts of plastic trash littering up would-be breathtaking views. If we're gonna see the world, we should do our part to make sure it's worth seeing later on.
Also, I'd like to brag here that I hoofed it for 4 months from Guatemala to Costa Rica and back up to the Yucatan with nothing more than a regular old Jansport book bag!I had some undies, a change of clothes, a raincoat, swim suit, a hoodie, Converse All Stars, and toiletries. I felt so free!
December 15, 2009 at 9:02am

Also, I'd like to brag here that I hoofed it for 4 months from Guatemala to Costa Rica and back up to the Yucatan with nothing more than a regular old Jansport book bag!

Congrats! :) Isn't it an amazing feeling? On our trips since we've been home we've taken to just bringing our little black bags with us (they're about the size of the Africa Lonely Planet book)…and it's been fun to see the customs officials always give us a double-take. "Where is your luggage? Wait, that's your luggage?!" And you are totally right – it is incredibly freeing, isn't it? :)

Tim and I definitely hear what you and Nico are saying about bottled water, that's part of the reason he wrote the caveat at the beginning of the water purifier section ("I know, this part is sacrilege") and it's also why he mentioned the post is in part meant tongue and cheek. There are always going to be certain things that some travelers find indispensable and that others do without. We rarely will suggest that one way is the way for everyone. It really comes down to what each individual traveler feels is best for them/their travels and how – in some cases like recently with water purifiers – those choices might fit in with their general approach to life, like being environmentally aware.

(Not to mention, times definitely change! When we were on our RTW trip in 2005-06, not as many travelers were focused on water purifiers as an environmental choice: instead they seemed to be just another way of saving money on the road and/or being able to hike without lugging tons of water. Neither of those things – saving a few pennies on water or going for days on end for long hikes – were concerns of ours during our trip.)

For our part, we're green conscious at home and we do our best when we're away from home (though I've seen some folks online argue that any domestic/international travel isn't a green decision either given huge airplanes, etc, etc)…but we still use bottled water when we travel internationally. That said, we also still have our little water purifier and it is awfully tiny (and would fit perfectly in the "pen" section of my black bag!). So we'll have to see what our next travels bring. :)

May 27, 2011 at 12:47pm
I just discovered your blog through the lonely planet thorn tree forum. The title of it made me laugh out loud and I had to click on it.

I get inspired every time I read about someone packing light… then I look at my pile of stuff to bring and get discouraged. Maybe I don't need two different kinds of water purifiers…

June 16, 2011 at 2:49pm
Hey L! Thanks so much for dropping by! :)

Tim and I will be the first to admit that we enjoy packing super light, but that it might not be for everyone. I mean, after all, we did travel with a giant toy pig! So if two water purifiers brings you joy, then I say go for it. It's all about what makes each of us happy (and helps us feel most comfortable) when we hit the road. :)

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