“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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.