What’s in a backpack? Who cares, just get a small one!

10 Apr

The best advice I can give to anyone starting a long-term travel is to go for a tiny backpack. And I mean tiny. My brother laughed when he saw mine. “That is smaller than my gym bag!”

But, contrary to my brother, I wasn't going to carry mine for twenty minutes. I was going to carry mine for months.

Here I am with my backpack in Phnom Penh.

And here they are, half crushed under 75 litre backpacks, barely able to move. And, I admit, there I was as well - casting pitying looks and taking a photo in all my smugness.

Size matters

If you are currently planning and dreaming, you are inevitably googling what backpack to bring. A myriad of blogs will give you long lists of criteria you should check. But as long as your backpack – that is if you are a girl – are designed for women, the material is somewhat water-resistant and it has some useful outside pockets, you're good to go. The only question remaining though is whether you will be able to carry it.

As someone who has previously lugged around a 50 litre backpack, I can confidently say that a smaller backpack is the way to go. I have yet to meet a traveller – be it in Europe, South America or Asia – who wish their backpack was larger. The reality, is of course, you do not need much.

Our smug 28 litre backpacks invariably attract envy. Half apologetic, fellow travellers will look at their 75 litre backpacks and say they simply didn't know…it is their first time travelling…they didn't know bed linens were always provided…yes, they could probably chuck away half their stuff…and if they were to do it again, they would choose smaller backpacks.

Why a smaller backpack is a better backpack

Comfort: Given today's 40C in Chiang Mai, I am going to start with the obvious. When you buy your backpack, picture yourself wearing it in a sauna – walking around – for an hour. Then go for the smaller one. A larger backpack also means that you will sweat more as you carry it around, thus you need more clothes, and there you have your vicious circle. And those red lines on top of your shoulders after carrying your backpack around? A 7 kilo, 28 litre backpack will not give you those.

Cost and time: A small backpack will fit overhead on planes, which saves you both money and time. On buses, a small backpack will fit under the seat in front of you. That leaves one less backpack underneath the bus for someone to pilfer through or one less massive backpack on top of your lap for the journey. A small backpack will also enable you to use all means of local transport. As an example, in Vietnam a minibus with no luggage compartment will often take you from your hostel to the bus station. Large backpacks simply won't fit.

Safety: In my opinion, the largest benefit is safety. With a seven kilo backpack, you can easily walk away from situations where you are at unease or feel unsafe. Also, you do not create the situations in the first place. When I travelled with a 50 litre backpack, I would invariably have to agree with another traveller that one would watch the backpacks while the other would go off to check hotels for availability or whatever it was that we needed to figure out.

So, what can you fit?

If you are currently in the planning phase, you are most likely also googling what to have in your backpack. Over Christmas, when I was deep into these online packing lists, Kay, my Thai sister-in-law shook her head. “Why do you buy stuff here? Just buy it all in Thailand!”.

She was right. If I could travel back in time, I would set out with two sets of clothes and buy the rest in Asia. It is bound to be cheaper and it will also be fitted to the climate. Once there, also keep in mind that you can have your laundry done for a dollar a kilo or do it for free yourself whenever needed.

Still not convinced? Ok. To give you an idea of what a 28 litre rucksack may fit, here is a rough overview of what I carry around. (I also use the standard packing trick of rolling each item and placing them into categorised bags)

  • One long-sleeved sweater, four vests, four t-shirts
  • Two pairs of trousers (one to make me feel normal, one lightweight to wear in temples during the day)
  • One city shorts and one sports shorts
  • Two bikinis, lots of underwear
  • One sarong / beach towel / dress / skirt / pillow / scarf
  • One cotton dress
  • Microfiber travel towel
  • Emergency kit (staples are antiseptic wipes, band aids, immodium, antihistamines and malaria tablets)
  • Toiletries and make-up
  • Trainers (which fit in the rucksack's outside pocket)
  • Ipad mini with keyboard, Kindle (packs 269 books!), camera and cables
  • Silk cushion cover, a small flashlight, padlock
  • I also have a small triangular shoulder bag for valuables that I can carry in front of me. This also doubles as my daypack. (I always smile when I see my large backpack being used as a daypack by other travellers).

Of course, we are largely sticking to a warm climate. If you travel around the world, you will need to carry around also warmer, and inevitably bulkier, clothes. But, even if you intend to travel through different climates you will undoubtedly stay in one region and thus one climate for a longer period of time. Most likely you can easily turn around or update your wardrobe whenever you reach a new region and new weather conditions. There really is no need to lug around the fleece jackets you bought in Peru when you reach Laos.

And as Kay reminded me, “A t-shirt costs one dollar in the market in Thailand. Just buy as you go. If it's worn out, you replace it. And if you get sick of it, you chuck it away and get a new one”.


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2 Responses to “What’s in a backpack? Who cares, just get a small one!”

  1. Forest Parks 10. Apr, 2013 at 10:13 #

    I carry my whole life in 23kg…. Ideally I would find a base and leave most stuff there and travel as you do when off on warmer trips. Sadly being nomadic I don’t have a base right now!

    I think people should take note from you though, especially when backpacking for just a few months.

  2. Alissa 17. Apr, 2013 at 05:33 #

    So true! I have a 40L backpack/rolling suitcase that I picked because the daypack has a laptop pocket, and I think I could have gone even smaller. I have seem many people around here (Khao San backpacker area of Bangkok) with ridiculously huge bags on their back and front, which look even more ridiculous covered with a poncho for Songkran water fight!

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