How To Halve The Contents Of Your Backpack

“What advice can you give me about cutting down the contents of my backpack?”

That’s the question that my wife, Nicky and I, are often asked by those about to go travelling. Nicky and I first met in Latin America on a round-the-world trip so we are old hands on the backpacking scene. We know the crippling shame and crippled spine that you can endure as you realize you’ve over-packed your backpack compared with other travelers.

Today, running our own business in classic, sustainable bags and outdoor gear from our Lake District home in Great Britain, we’re also trying to live a life free of too much clutter. In fact, our business is named after a local legend, a man named Millican Dalton, who gave up life as an accountant in London in the early 1900’s and opted for a simple life in the mountains where we now live.

Dave The Rucksack

© Millican – Dave The Rucksack

Setting up as a one-man travel guide in the Lakes and its peaks, Millican pared down his lifestyle until he was living in a local cave! Known as a local eccentric, he guided visitors around the dales and fells, taking them climbing, often only accepting cigarettes as payment!

He also made his own rucksacks from discarded materials that he found, and was a specialist in re-cycling used items in inventive ways. So what better person to invoke as we gather our thoughts on how to reduce the contents of your backpack?

Here then are our top tips to save you space and make for more trouble-free travels. Let’s start with clothes.

  • Take as few as possible. You can pick up cheap local gear where you’re travelling. It will get you in the spirit of your host country and probably be better suited to the climate than what you can bring from home.
  • Treat yourself to some silk underwear. It’s lightweight, warm (especially long johns) if nights are chilly, and folds down to virtually nothing.
  • Pack lightweight clothes that dry quickly. Wet clothes go musty and smell if stuck in your backpack on a long journey. And look for clothes that double up in use – for example, shorts with zipped trouser extensions.
  • If travelling through different climate zones, think about sending heavier clothes on ahead. If you’re going to hot, steamy Asia followed by Latin America, it may be worth sending clothes on rather than carrying them around for weeks unused. If your journey’s in the opposite direction, post heavy stuff home as you finish using it. Or, even better, have a sale to fellow backpackers to build up cash for your remaining travels.
  • If you really want to cut down your backpack and go lightweight, wear one set of clothes and only carry one remaining set, plus washing powder. You can wash clothes in hostels and, provided that you’re in a hot climate, be assured of them drying quickly.
  • Also try to limit shoes to two pairs. We’d suggest a heavier pair to be worn when travelling through airports and on journeys, and sandals with strong grip soles for other times. You can also pick up flip flops anywhere that you go.
Sandals for sale at a waterside stall at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

© goyo80

  • Travel towels are smaller and more lightweight than domestic ones. But you could also use a sarong as a towel. They’re light, wash and dry like a dream, and can double use as scarves, wraps for the beach, seat covers, or for covering your head and shoulders if you’re a woman visiting a temple.
  • Finally, roll everything as you pack it. It makes a huge difference space-wise.
  • Pack different clothing items in different coloured or textured bags – for example, one for socks, one for T-shirts. It helps when you’re rummaging through your rucksack to find things. It can also be a blessing when you’re in cheap digs without electricity or when there’s a local power cuts!

What about other recommendations for economizing on possessions and saving space?

Only set off with the smallest bottles of toiletries that you can find – just to get started. If you’re travelling to poorer countries, corner shops sell shampoo, soap and conditioner in small sachets as the locals can’t generally afford large bottles.

The same goes for washing powder. Best to buy a sachet – or washing soap – when you need it. It makes more sense than endlessly carting a whole box around. Alternatively, again think about doubling up the use of things – Lush produce a shampoo bar that can also be used as body soap and will wash clothes into the bargain.

India - Colours of India - Popularity of  single-serving packaging

© mckaysavage

Even if you’re a book-lover like us, be tough with yourself. You should only ever need two reading books (one if you can cope with running out on a long journey). Ditch them at hostels as you go. There are usually book swap shelves in hostels so it’s easy to stock up again. And you may well come across enterprising local stalls in tourist areas selling novels and sometimes travel guides from different countries.

It’s tempting to carry a library of travel books but, believe us, don’t. Better to have a good read of them before leaving on your travels and only carry the best one. Or take photocopies of key pages, or – if you’re really feeling ruthless – rip the pages and take them with you.

Finally, on this front, please, please, please think carefully about being a techno-traveller and carrying a laptop. We know the attraction of being able to maintain your blog, send e-mails, and download your digital photos. However, there are plenty of Internet cafes where you can do these things. A laptop is a worrying thing to carry from the point of view of potential theft.

In our view, better to leave it at home and just carry a simple Moleskine notebook and pen for recording your travels. This has been the way of seasoned travelers for decades. There’s nothing like a hand-written record of your ascent of Machu Picchu. It also means that you’re more likely to keep your eyes open to the sights around you. So many travelers now seem to spend their downtime hunched over a laptop and furiously tapping away.

Besides, on the criminal front, you have two choices. To always carry your backpack – a real drag. Or to leave it unattended at your hostel – in which case you really don’t want to worry about any valuables left inside. A money belt takes care of everything that you need from moment to moment. Our advice would be to leave all other valuables, jewellery and electronics at home. They’re a bait for thieves and can make you stick out as a prime target.

Finally, contrary to this advice on economizing on what you carry, there are some things that we personally wouldn’t travel without:

  • A small length of elastic washing line or string. Great for your laundry.
  • A head torch. Invaluable for long train journeys at night or landing up in the countryside after dark without an electric light in sight.
  • Spare prescription glasses and a copy of your prescription. No point losing your glasses and not being able to enjoy the sights.
  • Spare loo roll for the numerous times when you find there’s none in a hostel or on a train.
  • And, to add to the laundry essentials, a universal sink plug. I mean, what is it with hostels and plug-less sinks? Do some travellers think it’s helpful carrying off hostel plugs when they leave?
  • A lightweight sleeping bag made from a bed sheet folded in two and sewn together is really handy. Some of the bedding in hostels can be a bit dubious, so it’s often better to sleep in your own sheet, even under their heavier bedding. Your own sheet will be easier to wash and dry than a standard sleeping bag, if not as warm in a cold climate.
Honeymoon 227

© Lauras512

  • Finally, it’s up to you but rehydration salts can be a lifesaver. Or get your doctor to prescribe some antibiotics for diarrhea and protect them securely. There will be a time when they are the most valuable item you’re carrying!

Well, we hope that’s been useful. Millican Dalton, our local hero, once said to a journalist:

“My only luxury is coffee for which I pay 2s 2d a pound. I sleep on a bed of bracken and need only my plaid and an eiderdown to keep me warm”

For us, the joy of backpacking is simplicity. So do yourself a favor and travel light. It will save you trouble in hot climates and increase your sense of resiliency and enterprise. And there’s always your community of fellow-backpackers if you’re really stuck for something that they can provide.

Maybe we’ll see you out travelling. Or you can follow our own adventures at Millican. We’d love to welcome you there.

70 Comments

  1. Brian on November 28, 2009 at 10:48 am

    All great tips. As we are more connected via social media, blogging and Skype, laptops are not going away. I know I carry mine because it is more reliable than the Internet cafes I have been to. Slow, virus ridden machines are frustrating & dangerous to your passwords and data. I know I can trust my own machine.

    Many places you still have to pay for Internet access via cafes and those fees can add up. Free Wi-Fi in many hostels, restaurants and bars makes it cost effective.

    I know the next time out I would get a lighter netbook and try to use that. My shoulder bag with my laptop and accessories was 14lbs!

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm

      Netbook is a must for anyone wanting to travel with a computer.

  2. Brian on November 28, 2009 at 11:48 am

    All great tips. As we are more connected via social media, blogging and Skype, laptops are not going away. I know I carry mine because it is more reliable than the Internet cafes I have been to. Slow, virus ridden machines are frustrating & dangerous to your passwords and data. I know I can trust my own machine.

    Many places you still have to pay for Internet access via cafes and those fees can add up. Free Wi-Fi in many hostels, restaurants and bars makes it cost effective.

    I know the next time out I would get a lighter netbook and try to use that. My shoulder bag with my laptop and accessories was 14lbs!

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 4:49 pm

      Netbook is a must for anyone wanting to travel with a computer.

  3. Australians Backpacking Europe on November 29, 2009 at 12:43 am

    Thanks for some well thought out advice Jorin. We are going backpacking for the first time next year and it’s great to have info like this available to us.

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 3:34 pm

      Good luck and have fun on your trip!

  4. Australians Backpacking Europe on November 29, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Thanks for some well thought out advice Jorin. We are going backpacking for the first time next year and it’s great to have info like this available to us.

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 4:34 pm

      Good luck and have fun on your trip!

  5. Outdoor Backpack on November 29, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Great informational article jorrit,

    It’s always helpful to take a look at how an experienced backpacker does things.
    Keep up the great work!
    Cheers,

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 7:33 am

      I’m always looking forward to the next post

  6. Outdoor Backpack on November 29, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Great informational article jorrit,

    It’s always helpful to take a look at how an experienced backpacker does things.
    Keep up the great work!
    Cheers,

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

      I’m always looking forward to the next post

  7. Legal Nomads on November 29, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Great tips here, though like Brian I disagree with the laptop advice . Not only is it safer from an online banking perspective and potential virus perspective, but it has proven a great way to take notes on my travels, upload pictures, share information with others and save some money on internet access. WiFi is more and more prevalent worldwide and I’ve found myself using my own laptop more often than not.

    On the weight side: I’ve got an eee PC 901 – comes it at 0.8kg, including battery. I get 6 hours per battery charge and it’s got a stable-state drive so I can drop it and never really worry. The best part: I bought it in Singapore for $200, so if it gets stolen it really is not the end of the world.

    Finally, I would add that bringing your own syringes might be helpful. I bought mine in Chile and was very happy to have them when the hospital in Port Elizabeth refused to use non-recycled syringes when I needed a blood test. They’re lightweight and I keep them in my first aid kit.

    -Jodi

    • Michael on November 29, 2009 at 7:36 pm

      I think it has a lot to do with some people spending too much time on the computer instead of exploring.

      • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 7:33 am

        its a hard habit to break

  8. Legal Nomads on November 29, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Great tips here, though like Brian I disagree with the laptop advice . Not only is it safer from an online banking perspective and potential virus perspective, but it has proven a great way to take notes on my travels, upload pictures, share information with others and save some money on internet access. WiFi is more and more prevalent worldwide and I’ve found myself using my own laptop more often than not.

    On the weight side: I’ve got an eee PC 901 – comes it at 0.8kg, including battery. I get 6 hours per battery charge and it’s got a stable-state drive so I can drop it and never really worry. The best part: I bought it in Singapore for $200, so if it gets stolen it really is not the end of the world.

    Finally, I would add that bringing your own syringes might be helpful. I bought mine in Chile and was very happy to have them when the hospital in Port Elizabeth refused to use non-recycled syringes when I needed a blood test. They’re lightweight and I keep them in my first aid kit.

    -Jodi

    • Michael on November 29, 2009 at 8:36 pm

      I think it has a lot to do with some people spending too much time on the computer instead of exploring.

      • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

        its a hard habit to break

  9. Sophie on November 29, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Good tips! Almost everything can be bought (and cheaper than at home for many of us). Head lamp is an excellent idea. I’d add a sarong or similar. can be used as clothing, towel, sheet, cover… very universal.

    Happy travels,
    @SophieR

  10. Sophie on November 29, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Good tips! Almost everything can be bought (and cheaper than at home for many of us). Head lamp is an excellent idea. I’d add a sarong or similar. can be used as clothing, towel, sheet, cover… very universal.

    Happy travels,
    @SophieR

  11. Sophie on November 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Good tips! Almost everything can be bought (and cheaper than at home for many of us). Head lamp is an excellent idea. I’d add a sarong or similar. can be used as clothing, towel, sheet, cover… very universal.

    Happy travels,
    @SophieR

  12. Sophie on November 29, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Good tips! Almost everything can be bought (and cheaper than at home for many of us). Head lamp is an excellent idea. I’d add a sarong or similar. can be used as clothing, towel, sheet, cover… very universal.

    Happy travels,
    @SophieR

  13. Michael on November 29, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Great advice! I have nothing that i left with 7 months ago besides the backpack itself. I found most of what i had was not needed and could easily buy along the way if i did.

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 7:32 am

      Yep, I’ve also changed my vacation habits…I pack almost the same way when i go on vacation…I can’t believe what I used to go through before…INSANE

  14. Michael on November 29, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Great advice! I have nothing that i left with 7 months ago besides the backpack itself. I found most of what i had was not needed and could easily buy along the way if i did.

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 8:32 am

      Yep, I’ve also changed my vacation habits…I pack almost the same way when i go on vacation…I can’t believe what I used to go through before…INSANE

  15. adventurerob on December 2, 2009 at 6:08 am

    Nice tips, I really don’t think it’s necessary to bring bed sheets though, same goes for Sleeping bag, I carried a sleeping back for months and didn’t use it once.

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      I suppose it depends on the type a travel someone does.

  16. adventurerob on December 2, 2009 at 7:08 am

    Nice tips, I really don’t think it’s necessary to bring bed sheets though, same goes for Sleeping bag, I carried a sleeping back for months and didn’t use it once.

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 5:27 pm

      I suppose it depends on the type a travel someone does.

  17. AirTreks Nico on December 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I would agree up to a point. With regards to the computer, I’m siding with Legal Nomads in that it’s not so much of a burden to take a little netbook. The value of having one far outweighs the danger of losing it. I’ve taken my ASUS on several trips and am now attached. I feel I’m a good judge for how much time I’m spending on it, really only using it for emails, making reservations and storing pictures. Things that a paper notebook just can’t do.

    I do like the advice for just about everything else. The shoes included. So many shoes! But how do you get along with 2 sets of clothes? I take 4. Maybe I’m just a fashion victim.

    • Legal Nomads on December 2, 2009 at 4:04 pm

      Hi Nico – Just a note re the eeePC (or, as I call it, the WeePC): I just bought a 32gb SDHC card and moved most of my stuff over to it, and the computer is running much faster now! Maybe yours will too if you try the same? The SD card was on sale post-Turkey day.

      (And, uh, also have more than 2 sets of clothes….though since I’m only 5ft tall they DO compress pretty well).

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 4:40 pm

      I hardly have many clothes lol. I do travel with a eeePC and feel that it’s very important to make sure I limit my usage while traveling. I bought it for cheap and also make online backups of my pictures. If it gets lost, stolen, or broken – I won’t mind as much.

      • Jodi E. on July 3, 2010 at 9:39 am

        I love that I commented on this 7 months ago and then finally met you this weekend at TBEX. Also? Compression sacks. They’re where it’s at. I’d never fit my stuff in my backpack without them.

        • Michael on July 3, 2010 at 11:46 am

          It was nice meeting you as well! I’ll try to make it down on Tuesday. 🙂

  18. AirTreks Nico on December 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    I would agree up to a point. With regards to the computer, I’m siding with Legal Nomads in that it’s not so much of a burden to take a little netbook. The value of having one far outweighs the danger of losing it. I’ve taken my ASUS on several trips and am now attached. I feel I’m a good judge for how much time I’m spending on it, really only using it for emails, making reservations and storing pictures. Things that a paper notebook just can’t do.

    I do like the advice for just about everything else. The shoes included. So many shoes! But how do you get along with 2 sets of clothes? I take 4. Maybe I’m just a fashion victim.

    • Legal Nomads on December 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm

      Hi Nico – Just a note re the eeePC (or, as I call it, the WeePC): I just bought a 32gb SDHC card and moved most of my stuff over to it, and the computer is running much faster now! Maybe yours will too if you try the same? The SD card was on sale post-Turkey day.

      (And, uh, also have more than 2 sets of clothes….though since I’m only 5ft tall they DO compress pretty well).

    • Michael on December 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm

      I hardly have many clothes lol. I do travel with a eeePC and feel that it’s very important to make sure I limit my usage while traveling. I bought it for cheap and also make online backups of my pictures. If it gets lost, stolen, or broken – I won’t mind as much.

      • Jodi E. on July 3, 2010 at 10:39 am

        I love that I commented on this 7 months ago and then finally met you this weekend at TBEX. Also? Compression sacks. They’re where it’s at. I’d never fit my stuff in my backpack without them.

        • Michael on July 3, 2010 at 12:46 pm

          It was nice meeting you as well! I’ll try to make it down on Tuesday. 🙂

  19. Alex on February 3, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Halve, not ‘half’.

  20. Alex on February 3, 2010 at 1:22 am

    Halve, not ‘half’.

  21. suegooch on February 27, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Love the look of the Dan backpack but I’d baulk at paying £140 for cotton!

  22. suegooch on February 27, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Love the look of the Dan backpack but I’d baulk at paying £140 for cotton!

  23. carla brown on April 8, 2010 at 5:05 am

    i will be revmoving all those next time….having a less…amount is definately a good kick start..

  24. carla brown on April 8, 2010 at 6:05 am

    i will be revmoving all those next time….having a less…amount is definately a good kick start..

  25. johnbaranowski on April 8, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Great article ! I am a bit older than you and I concentrate on all ultra light equipment and I cut the luxuary items. I am in the process of moving and after that I plan to make all my equipment. The one size fits all is good for production but bad for the not so average guy. Most equipment centers on the younger hikers. Keep publishing your articles. Thanks

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 7:29 am

      John, you have a great point, however, what exactly do you recommend? How different are the items for an older crowd, or is there? (im not talking about Depends 🙂

      • johnbaranowski on April 10, 2010 at 6:20 pm

        Some active older people (50+) especially ones that have been envolved in competative sports tend to lose cartilage in the knees and we have to compensate for this by going as ultra ultra light as possible. I lost most of my knee cartilage running ultra marathons and cross country bikcycle racing. I was supposed to have double knee replacement 15 years ago but started taking glucosamine and chrondrotin and turned to backpacking and I haven’t turned back since. So my point is that if you are older you may have to do things just a little different than so young wipper snappers. Check out my blog at christianhiker.blogspot.com

  26. johnbaranowski on April 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Great article ! I am a bit older than you and I concentrate on all ultra light equipment and I cut the luxuary items. I am in the process of moving and after that I plan to make all my equipment. The one size fits all is good for production but bad for the not so average guy. Most equipment centers on the younger hikers. Keep publishing your articles. Thanks

    • luisaTieso on April 10, 2010 at 8:29 am

      John, you have a great point, however, what exactly do you recommend? How different are the items for an older crowd, or is there? (im not talking about Depends 🙂

      • johnbaranowski on April 10, 2010 at 7:20 pm

        Some active older people (50+) especially ones that have been envolved in competative sports tend to lose cartilage in the knees and we have to compensate for this by going as ultra ultra light as possible. I lost most of my knee cartilage running ultra marathons and cross country bikcycle racing. I was supposed to have double knee replacement 15 years ago but started taking glucosamine and chrondrotin and turned to backpacking and I haven’t turned back since. So my point is that if you are older you may have to do things just a little different than so young wipper snappers. Check out my blog at christianhiker.blogspot.com

  27. bedding crib on May 9, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    good trip, proper for traveller like me!!
    Thank

  28. bedding crib on May 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    good trip, proper for traveller like me!!
    Thank

  29. GRRRL TRAVELER on September 7, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Nice article! One can never downsize enough! I am always revise & revising my art of downsizing a travel pack.

  30. GRRRL TRAVELER on September 7, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Nice article! One can never downsize enough! I am always revise & revising my art of downsizing a travel pack.

  31. Kevin on October 26, 2010 at 12:43 am

    This may seem petty, but it makes a big diff. Instead of packing Detergent Powder or even Liquid. Try a small container of “Woolite”. It’s mild & rinses out well, where as a full blown soap will leave residue. Powder’s a mess and you have to disolve it. This all applies if you have to wash by hand.

  32. Kevin on October 26, 2010 at 1:43 am

    This may seem petty, but it makes a big diff. Instead of packing Detergent Powder or even Liquid. Try a small container of “Woolite”. It’s mild & rinses out well, where as a full blown soap will leave residue. Powder’s a mess and you have to disolve it. This all applies if you have to wash by hand.

  33. Vang Vieng on November 22, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Travelling through Asia in January 2010 I met a guy who had gone the whole hog and left hsi rucksack at home. He had a tiny shoulder bag with essentials like underwear, toothbrush and swimming shorts and that was it!!!! He said it was great to be able to move around so freely without carrying stuff he didn’t need and because it was Asia it was always easy and cheap to buy things as he needed them.
    Ben

  34. Vang Vieng on November 22, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Travelling through Asia in January 2010 I met a guy who had gone the whole hog and left hsi rucksack at home. He had a tiny shoulder bag with essentials like underwear, toothbrush and swimming shorts and that was it!!!! He said it was great to be able to move around so freely without carrying stuff he didn’t need and because it was Asia it was always easy and cheap to buy things as he needed them.
    Ben

  35. Viliam Jhon on December 6, 2010 at 12:24 am

    i would agree up your point. i am want also go north America. its trip have many adventure place

  36. Viliam Jhon on December 6, 2010 at 1:24 am

    i would agree up your point. i am want also go north America. its trip have many adventure place

  37. LatinHostelGuide on January 30, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    Interesting article. I am surprised that as a travel blogger you can make it without carrying a laptop. It’s definitely a concern, and you almost had me thinking about leaving mine this time around. Almost… 😉 Cheers. Thanks for the info!!

  38. LatinHostelGuide on January 31, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Interesting article. I am surprised that as a travel blogger you can make it without carrying a laptop. It’s definitely a concern, and you almost had me thinking about leaving mine this time around. Almost… 😉 Cheers. Thanks for the info!!

  39. Elle on March 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Nice tips! I would add a sarong to the list for females as well. It can be used as a cover up, a bandana, bed sheet, light towel or used to wrap fragile items…like the lap top I would probably take on a longer trip 😉

  40. Elle on March 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Nice tips! I would add a sarong to the list for females as well. It can be used as a cover up, a bandana, bed sheet, light towel or used to wrap fragile items…like the lap top I would probably take on a longer trip 😉

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