10 Genius Hacks To A Lightweight Backpacking Packing List

Gap year. Summer vacation. Round the world trip. What sort of travel fix are you looking for? But, more importantly what will make your ultimate backpacking packing list?

Have you ever heard the saying “On a long journey even a straw weighs heavy”? While embarking on any trip naturally generates excitement and emotion,  you may feel like your pack is always spilling over with a billion and one straws in it.  And washing out underwear every night, doesn’t sound like the right panacea either.

With summer right around the corner, there’s no end to advice on what should make your backpack packing list. Wear one. Wash one. Don’t pack a bag. More is less. Take what you need. Yes you and I have heard it all before. Whether you are a minimalist or a maximista, ultralight or always overweight, read on.

Deciding on a lightweight backpacking packing list 

Deciding on a lightweight backpacking packing list is neither magic or a stroke of luck. It’s a state of mind. It’s a determination to discover, versus sticking to the same ol’ same ol’. A state of mind, you say?  Yes. Since it is a state of mind, you can change how you pack. Then, not only will you achieve lightweight status, but every piece on your backpacking gear list will be useful to you.

So what’s the deal with traveling with backpacks anyway?

It’s possible that outdoorsman Dick Kelty didn’t realize how far his invention of the rucksack or backpack would evolve over time. But, one thing wouldn’t change – innovating a better and easier way to carry things in the outdoors. Great gear. Gear that lasts. Built to endure.

It’s no secret that you get caught staring at backpack travelers. Afterall, there is a certain captivating allure to traveling hands free. You are mobile. Versatile. Risktaker. And ready. Ready?  Yes, you read right. Even though for some of us being ready or prepared means having more options than our backs can carry. But, in reality, the amount of things you have does not make you prepared. Rather, you are prepared when what you have is useful to you.  Thus the importance of the choosing the right items for your backpacking pack list.

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Why you aren’t backpacking (and what you can do about it)

Maybe there are three main culprits. First, packing a backpacking pack in itself seems simple. Not being able to get it right before the trip may seem like a telltale sign of future failure. So many may prefer not to take the next step. The second reason is that a poor fitting backpack has been described as an anchor. Not only does it make you physically immobile while on a trip, but it often makes people stay put at home. Still, yet others choose their backpack size according to the length of their trip versus their body weight and strength. This is a one way ticket to a bag that is too big and too heavy to handle. Cue frustration and back ache. And the backpacking pack goes packing straight to the attic.  

Thus, for many packing lightweight for an international or back country trip sounds like stuff that fairy tales are made of. How can you possibly resist packing for everything that could happen? Doesn’t being prepared mean having everything that you need? The answer is no. Let me explain.

Being prepared means bringing with you what you can’t find along the way. For example, when you go to work everyday, there are many things that you need but that you don’t bring with you. You can decide to take your lunch or you can decide to eat out. If cost is more important you’ll welcome the extra weight. If, you don’t mind spending the money on lunch, the extra weight is not welcome. Similarly, when packing for a trip, you can decide what to take with you, the material and the quantity and what you will get on the way. And if you’ve been eating those pasta leftovers for three days now, eating out gives you another advantage: a chance to experiment with something new that may soon become a favorite. It’s similar with our packing choices when we travel.

When you travel, it’s a candy store of new experiences. Granted, you won’t enjoy all the new experiences just the same, just like there are some candies, you don’t like. (Some people love black licorice. I prefer sour worms.) But, in trying new ones, you find new favorites that enrich our experiences. What is more, even what you don’t end up liking, sharpens your palate and defines your likes and dislikes. But, how will this ever happen if you only stick to what you know? So the key to backpacking more- and for a more enriching backpacking experience for that matter-is having less on your backpacking packing list and widening your spirit of adventure and discovery as you travel.   

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Rule of thumb # 1:

“With every item, ask yourself why you’re taking it. If you start with the words ‘what if,’ or you only plan to use it once during an extended trip, it may not be a necessity. “ – Frank Brown, Editor at 1 Bag, 1 World.

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So how do you choose which items make your ultimate backpacking packing list?

Here I gladly appeal to the more experienced in this area. Those who have been successful at packing their backpacking packs and traveling all over the world. Here I’ve chosen 10 main categories for you to explore along with male, female and family expert advice. I think you will really enjoy their experiences, their hacks, the videos and even podcast. Are you ready to widen your tastes and travel adventures? Ready? Set. Pack light!

10 genius backpacking packing list hacks that will take the weight off of your shoulders

So let’s get started with some backpacking basics for an excellent backpacking trip! First I’ll consider the things that should and should not make it on your ultimate backpacking gear list, advice on choosing the “perfect pack”, then how to pack that pack and last but not least advice for families looking to do the round the world long backpacking trip.

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Rule of thumb #2:  

Ask yourself these three questions:

Can I live without it? Will I cry if it gets stolen? Can I buy it local? – Greg Rodgers, Start Backpacking.

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  1. Think outside of the pack.- The outside of your pack is full of space. Choose a bag that gives you the best use of all that free space. Opt for a pack that offers pockets and side zip openings on the outside of the bag. This is especially important when considering a top loading pocket where in and out access may be difficult. For example, the Gregory Deva packs, come with enviable outside pockets big enough to fit shoes, flip flops and even a sleeping bag in the pocket on top of the bag covers. Check for mesh pockets on waist belts that are great for stashing snacks or waterproofed zipper pockets where you can put things like a passport or a cell phone.  These make your most used items easily accessible and there’s no unpacking your pack to get them.
  1. Only bring your go to pieces.– Keep at least three things in mind: comfort, material and versatility. When we say comfort I mean clothes that you love to wear. The ones you would wear everyday if your friends didn’t notice,  that fall perfectly and need no adjusting. They’re the ones you always go to when you have nothing to wear and always get compliments on. That’s the stuff that backpacking packing lists should be made of.  You will wear what’s in your pack and you will feel good in it.

 What is the best material to choose for your backpacking gear?

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Choose items that are resistant to smells after one wear for your packing list. Fred Perrotta at Tortuga Backpacks interviewed several experienced backpackers on this topic. One of them, David Dean (@driftingkiwi), expressed the near unanimous suggestion: use clothing made from Merino.  The benefits? It’s great for both warm and cold weather and it doesn’t smell even after wearing it for days.  Now, it’s totally up to you to decide how often you want to wash your threads. But, it’s nice to have the option to skip a few days of washing. Alex Jimenez (@TravlFashnGirl) offers some great advice when it comes to clothing as well. Besides choosing clothes that are minimal in weight and size, she recommends taking  clothes that are durable, wrinkle free and that compliment your style and fit. This is very important since you’ll be washing your items more often than usual. The more durable they are, the better they can withstand multiple washings.  

So what are we suggesting here? Pack clothes that you are already comfortable wearing. So leave out that favorite dress you bought last year, but have never worn. Chances are you won’t wear it on this trip either. Instead, pack those old worn jeans that fit just right and you can wear two weeks before washing (don’t worry I have mine too). The ones you turn inside out and air dry them clean. Yep those! Try a few multicolored shirts that hide spots. Shirts with slogans are more easily remembered than a floral or a solid print. Remember, comfort doesn’t mean dressing frumpy. For tips on how to pack less while still looking fashionable, Alex has packing lists from 6 to 15 pieces for both summer and winter travel here.

  1. Hit up the local dollar store for toiletries- Before we used to think that travel sized bottles were the godsend to a light backpacking packing list. The reality is all those 3 oz bottles on your packing list for backpacking add up. The true ultralight hack is to buy your toiletries locally. Granted, you may feel the need to freshen up if you have multiple stops before you get to your destination. Don’t cheat yourself. Pack toiletries for overnight rather than the length of your trip. Be sure to bring a little face wash, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a few dehydrated wet wipes so you arrive feeling fresh. Jess Dante (@TheAbroadGuide) suggests buying all of your toiletries upon arriving at your destination. That effortlessly takes the weight out of our pack. You might even be surprised to find that they have natural and organic products at a quarter of the price you are used to paying. And if you don’t like their options, there will be loads of your favorite stuff waiting for you back home.
  1. Choose footwear you can wear. – The shoe choice struggle is real for both male and female. For men their shoes can be very heavy and for women, there are literally too many choices. How can you cut through the fluff? The reality is-is that you won’t wear all the shoes you bring. One blogger brought 6 pairs of shoes to East Asia and ended up using one pair of flip flops and one pair of nerdy hiking/walking sandals.  So ladies, yes it’s hard. But, it’s worth it. Think practical and comfortable. Resist the urge to break in that new pair of shoes on a long backpacking trip. Opt for shoes that are already a good fit and that will give your feet room to swell in hot weather. And don’t forget, you can always treat yourself to a cute pair of shoes as a souvenir if you feel like you need more choices along the way.

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What type of shoes should men take?.– Matt Long’s gear list (@LandLopers) tends to choose a nice sneaker that can work for everything from hiking to happy hour and a light pair of loafers for dressier occasions. The shoes that make Clint Johnston’s ultralight backpacking gear list (@Triphackr)  are his pair of brown leather boots that are great for a full day of hiking and clean up nicely for a night out to dinner. I have to admit that I love that rustic look. The idea here is to choose a shoe that is both versatile and comfortable. On a side note, if you are traveling during summer, your feet will swell and sweat. Consider packing something like baking soda to keep your boots or trail shoes smelling friendly. Or if you want to avoid powder getting all over the place try a charcoal purifier that you can  reuse by hanging it dry from your pack.

Should you bring expensive sandals on your trip? Well, the decision is up to you. But, here’s one thing to keep in mind. If your itinerary includes visiting some sacred establishments where you have to leave your sandals outside, Greg Rodgers recommends leaving them at home. Why? Because your sandals may not be waiting for you when you come back. So consider leaving your fancy expensive items at home if you will have to leave your shoes unattended.

  1. Step out of your travel packing comfort zone– The first thing that might come to your mind, is to load up your Kindle with your favorite books. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, remember the backpacking packing light mentality:  Be willing to expand your horizons by discovering something local and new. For example, if you are a bookworm that can bear the idea of leaving behind your favorite books, Nicole Gulotta of Eat this Poem has some great things up her sleeve for you.  She unveils the best bookstores and reading nooks where you can get your dose of new reads and best eats at the same time both nationally and internationally. A bulky travel guide should not make your ultralight backpacking gear list. Instead,  stop over and check out a wonderful 24 choice list of travel blogs put together by the team at Fathom. There is something for the foodie, destination guides and both national and international neighborhood guides. Take a walk in the wild side and subscribe to a first hand experience blog instead.

Our fellow backpackers and Savvy Travelers, James and Sue, have another genius recommendation. They suggest spending a little money on a walking city tour once you arrive to your destination. It’s a great way to get introduced to your new surroundings and the history behind what you will be living and breathing throughout your trip.

You could also subscribe to some inspiring podcasts, for example, Jackie Laulainen’s at The Budget Minded Traveler. She specializes in helping anyone who has the desire to do international travel on a budget. Needless to say, your smartphone will be indispensable to you. So,  if you need help with your devices before you head out, Dave Dean and Dustin Main have some great tips here.
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  1. So this is what it all comes down to- choosing the “perfect” backpack – Finding it may seem like a search for Waldo. What is one of the biggest mistakes when choosing a backpacking pack? According to Jackie, people choose their packs according to the length of their trip instead of their body weight and strength. This is a problem because you end up packing more than what your body can handle.

What size should you choose?  There are two size markers. One size ranges from small to extra large that is according to the length of your torso. The second is a number that refers to the capacity of your pack. REI stores offer a great one-on-one service where one of their experts can fit a backpack to your back. They also have weights that you can put in the pack so you can test walk it in the store. 

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Rule of thumb #3:

” The length of trip and the size of your backpack have nothing in common.” – Jackie Laulainen

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Next, you need to decide on the loading style of your pack. There are pretty much three options:  top loading, front loading and suitcase style. A top loading pack provides great protection from the rain. But to maximize accessibility in a top loading pack, find one that has side zippers that allow you to access the inner compartment without having to take everything out. Front loading and suitcase style are highly accessible. Consider replacing the zippers with heavy duty zippers since these tend to break easily. For a more detailed discussion of the difference click here.

What should your “perfect pack” have?

You want to find a pack that has what Jackie calls the 3Cs: comfort, capacity and convenience. A backpack that has more whistles, like a padded waist belt, padded and adjustable shoulders mean comfort, easy accessibility and less body heat. Jackie has a great video about how to find the perfect backpack here.

If you are a petite size woman looking for the perfect fit, check out Tam Le’s reviews of several packs for petite sized womenOnce you decide on the pack size and the loading style that fits your taste, you need to know how to correctly fit a backpacking pack  to your body. REI has a great video here: 

A 4th C suggested by Jackie is finding a pack that has the right cost. Both Jackie and Tricia, a round the world traveler with her family, found great deals at the REI outlet where they have last year’s models at great discounted prices.

  1. How to load your pack like a rockstar.- The next big hurdle is how to pack it in. For those that have top loading backpacking packs, there can probably be no greater headache than constantly repacking your pack each time you need something. Shaun Hubert (@shaunhuberts) has an interesting take on a great way to pack your backpacking pack.  He packs his clothes in vertically. His items are not only organized but visible and easily accessible at all times. He places his clothes so that they look something like a file cabinet.You can quickly distinguish what’s inside and what coordinates with what. After wearing an item, he uses what he calls the jenga method. What he takes from the bottom he puts on the top thus keeping the clean and the dirty clothes separate from each other. Others may prefer packing cubes. One hack with using packing cubes is that you can pack the cubes according to outfits, weather conditions or activities. That way when you pull one out, you already know that everything you need is inside.
  1. Don’t forget the Travel Accessory Essentials –  Without tipping your backpacking pack weight, there are some items that don’t fit into the basic categories of clothes or shoes. However, they are essential to your trip and should make your ultimate backpacking packing list. For example, Clint Johnston packs at least four items as travel accessory essentials: he recommends a water purifier bottle, noise cancelling headphones, a sturdy timepiece, and an e-reader. Tricia, her husband, along with their four kids have their list of essentials too. She makes sure that every single member of her family has their own pack cover, knife and headlamp. Before each trip, she changes out everyone’s batteries and packs extras. And you? What would be your essentials for a long backpacking trip?

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Rule of thumb #4 :

If you are a solo traveler abroad that can’t lift your backpack by yourself, it is very unlikely you’ll be able to support the weight for miles or days at a time.

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  1. Do pack for emergencies- While you may not have as many injuries as you would hiking through the wilderness, you definitely don’t want to leave home without a small first aid kit. Pack the basics. Greg Rodgers has a great basic first aid kit that among other things includes medicine for pain, upset stomach and hydration packs. Especially be mindful if you are traveling during the summer. Hot days can take you by surprise. So please stay hydrated. Also, be sure to bring enough of any prescription medicine as you may not be able to find it abroad.
  1. Assure a good’s night rest- Tricia and her family have found their sleeping bags at different places, but one of them is REI. If you need help deciding on how to choose the right bag for the outdoors, there is a  great review here. Tricia has found down bags are warmer and pack more compactly while synthetic down is better in wet conditions and cheaper. What conveniences are you looking for? Once you decide, choose accordingly. They bring along pillow stuff sacks that they fill with clothes to use as pillows during the night. Great hack! If you are wondering about spending so much money on a sleeping bag, Bruno and Patricia  suggest something very practical from my point of view. They recommend striking the right balance between top features and affordable cost. They consider expensive items to be an investment- not a splurge- as they pay for themselves over the years. And I imagine it must be nice to have a reliable and time tested item that you have fallen in love with. Choose go to clothing. Choose go to equipment. If the weight of the sleeping bag is more of an issue, find a balance between weight and insulation. While it may be a little heavier, sleeping badly during the winter for several weeks or months just to save on a few ounces is not worth it either.

And what if you are a family going for the ultralight backpacking status?

Simply put, it’s doable. Take for example the Benson family. Originally from San Diego, California, they moved to Texas where the father works for the fire department. Looking from the outside in, it seems impossible for this family of 5 to go on a long backpacking trip. Yet, their oldest son says that he doesn’t want fear to shape his choices. And the parents are proud of his position. Check out an inspiring podcast where Jackie interviews the Benson family, before they set off for their round the world trip as a family. How are they managing with mortgage, work, plane tickets and what is their motivating factor? Listen to the podcast here or follow them here on their journey.

Don’t let packing your backpacking pack keep you from getting your travel fix. Neither let fear shape what you pack. Instead, work to adjust your mindset to bring what you need and make it part of your trip to find the rest at your destinations. And be open to the fact that just as Kelty’s rucksack has improved over the years, likewise as you travel your ultimate backpacking packing list will get better with each trip.

Are you ready to widen your options and have an enriching backpacking experience? Do you know someone else who could benefit from these backpacking hacks? Happy packing and travels to you both!

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