Let me be the first to admit, I used to be terrible at packing for these kinds of adventures. Especially for what I call a “multi-focus” trip. Meaning there could be camping, cities, hot AND cold weather, and you needed a little of everything except a spacesuit to really do it right.
Shorter or “single-focus” trips are much easier to accomodate with a backpack. If you´re going to Southeast Asia or Central America, you don´t need to bring a winter coat or heavy boots now, do you? Just hanging in hostels? No need for camping gear either.
You can literally jam a few things in a 30 liter bag and live out of it forever!
But what about long term travelers or those who are doing a multi-focus trip? How can you take everything you need in a bag that´s 60 liters or less?
The mere thought of it, at least for me, was enough to bring on a panic attack!
So from my experiences, here are a few things I learned (the hard way) for those aspiring to do an extended or multi-focus backpacking trip.
- If you aren´t sure you´ll need it, DON´T bring it!
I´m an American and we have this habit of bringing literally everything we think we´ll need for a trip, including stuff for wildly unrealistic scenarios. (i.e. I might need to fight off a wild bear and kidnappers at the same time. So just in case, I will bring bear mace, a machete and 5 extra pairs of underwear . . . in case I also get uncontrolable diarrhea while I´m under attack).
As absurd as this sounds, you might be surprised by the odd ball scenarios playing out in your head when you try to justify bringing, oh I don´t know, 4 spare sets batteries for your electronics.
Truth be told, unless you´re planning a full-on expedition to somewhere as remote as Antarctica or uncharted Amazonia, there WILL be stores literally everywhere selling all the same things you can buy at home (or at least a passable knock off version). Everything from spare Go-Pro parts, clothes, batteries, antibiotics, outdoor gear and anything else you can imagine.
If you end up needing something, then you can just buy it versus carrying the extra weight in your pack for months on end. Trust me . . . every ounce counts when you´re taking it on your back!
2. Unless you know for a FACT you´ll need specialty gear, just stick to a quality sleeping bag and a Lifestraw.
Had I known how readily available tent and hammock rentals (and purchasing options) would be when I spent a year and a half traveling around South America, I would´ve left everything except my Kelty sleeping bag and my portable Life Straw (for water purification) at home!
Most travelers end up going camping with a group who already have gear, stay in a wilderness lodge/cabin (very popular in Amazonia), or go with a guided tour company who rents or uses their own gear.
Unless you planned on doing a lot of wild camping, you can literally rent or buy everything else on location if you decide, on a spur of the moment, to emulate Reese Whitherspoon´s character in the movie Wild.
** Side note: A short list of cities with places to buy high quality camping/ wilderness gear in South America include:
* Quito (Ecuador)
* Lima (Peru)
* Huarez (Peru)
* Cusco (Peru)
* La Paz (Bolivia)
* Santa Cruz (Bolivia)
* Santiago (Chile)
* Pucon (Chile)
* Puerto Mott (Chile)
* Punta Arenas (Chile)
* Buenos Aries (Argentina)
* Bariloche (Argentina)
Even if you don´t want to purchase high end gear, but end up needing a sleep mat, tent or something similar at the last minute, you can always rent or get second-hand gear cheap in most towns I´ve been to on 5 continents.
3. Bring multi-purpose clothing and NOT a lot of it.
This one is definitely the hardest, especially for us ladies. Um, hello . . . we need options! Am I right?
But that´s the thing, you really don´t.
Backpacking culture isn´t like regular travel. Literally, no one will care if you don´t show up in perfectly coordinated, Instagram worthy outfits. In fact, most people will think it´s weird as hell if you do.
Because backpacking is all about utility.
And if you´re the one slugging 30+ pounds of crap everywhere, believe me when I say you will start getting ruthless with your travel wardrobe very fast once you´re a few weeks in.
Not to say you can´t look cute or stylish, but when making those selections, look for ítems that pair up with all the rest of your clothing choices. Make cute, fun or colorful choices for base layers and they can easily transition into part of an outfit you can wear with a skirt dancing. A sundress is perfect for hot days, but add leggings and a top layer and it can easily transition into something for a colder day.
The key here is layers. Lots of them and lightweight.
I have friends who insist on bringing their favorite jeans with them everywhere, but I avoid putting denim in my pack for several reasons: 1.) They´re heavy, 2.) They take FOREVER to dry when wet, and 3.) They don´t roll down very small.
These will be your hardest choices, but keep in mind you get a lot more mileage, space and weight saved in your pack if you choose lighter weight materials (i.e. Merino wool, synthetics, etc.)
I personally love scarves and always have at least one in my pack. They are perfect for hair and face cover, neck warmer, a beach saraong, emergency towel and they´re also just cute!
Ultimately, the clothes you pack will be dictated by where you plan on traveling, but believe me when I say you don´t need as much as you think!
4. Keep shoe choices realistic
This follows suit with #3 and most extended backpackers really only need 2-3 key pieces of footwear in their bag: 1.) Good hiking boots (if you plan to do any serious trekking), 2.) Trainers, and 3.) Good walking sandals.
Unless you plan on extended hiking, then you can probably get away without the hiking boots (wasn´t an option for me). Otherwise, a good pair of trainers and a set of Keen-type walking sandals are perfect. A pair of dollar store flip -flops for communal showers are also a good idea to have and take up almost no space in your pack.
However, if you´re dying to have at least 1 pair of cute shoes for going out, stick with flats that are light and small.
Always wear your heaviest shoes when you travel too.
5. Don´t cut corners on rain gear!
For yourself AND your pack! If you have to leave other things behind, you definitely want to make sure you have room for good rain gear. A quality rainfly for your pack and either a long poncho or full rain suit for yourself is highly recommended.
Why the ugly, fisherman style gear? Why not just a rain jacket you ask?
Because in MANY parts of the world, rainy season does not F*** around. (I´ve survived rainy season in the Amazon, Africa, Central America, the Caribbean and Patagonia).
If you are traveling in areas where being soaking wet could put you at risk of exposure (i.e. Patagonia is a great example of this), a rain jacket will still leave you completely soaked and cold from the waist down.
Despite how ugly they are, the company Frogg Toggs makes excellent, lightweight rain suits that did very well for me in these regions!
You can save the fashion statement for another occasion. You´ll thank me later.
(P.S. – test ALL your waterproof gear before you go!)
6. Ditch the 10 lb. Lonely Planet guidebook
I´m a huge book nerd so this one was hard for me. When I did the first packing trial run for my 1.5 year trek, I literally had 4 books in my bag and I topped out at a weight of nearly 50 lbs.
Yeah, never said I got it right the first time.
Having one book is nice, but a Kindle or Tablet with the Kindle Ap will be your best friend on the road. Also, hostels are well known for having multi-lingual book swaps available for their guests.
Though most importantly, what about those old school, phonebook size guides the major guidebook companies produce?
Despite being full of useful information, they are completely impractical to travel with in your backpack. I recommend memorizing or making print off copies of relevant maps or sections you want to take with you. The rest of the information you need, you´ll be able to find on location.
Most hostels and hotels have regional guidebooks available for their guests to browse and of course, fellow travelers are always the best source of Intel on the ground.
So definitely leave those dumbell weight books at home!
Now that you have an idea of what not to do when gearing up for your big trip, only one questions remains . . . What the heck should you bring?
I put together a sample packing list here for a multi-focus trip through South America, without any planned camping, in a variety of climates.
(All this fits easily in a 60 liter backpack, with room to spare)
- 2 short sleeve shirts (or tank tops, your choice)
- 2 long sleeve, quality base layer shirts (I recommend Merino wool or Under Armor)
- 1 pair long underwear bottoms
- 2 pair Athletic quality leggings
- 1 pair cargo-style trekking pants that zip off into shorts
- 2 pair wool socks
- 2 pair lightweight socks
- 4 pair undies
- 1 lightweight rain suit (jacket and pants) by Frogg Toggs
- 1 sunhat
- 1 bandana
- 1 scarf
- 1 zip up hoodie
- 1 heavy fleece or warm jacket
- 1 long skirt
- 1 wool beanie/hat
- 1 pair light wool gloves
- Water resistant hiking boots (only if you plan on doing wilderness trekking)
- Trainers (only if you don´t plan on bringing boots)
- Keens (or similar sandals good for walking)
- Cheap, disposable shower flip-flops
- Compression sack (for clothes and sleeping bag)
- Small pocket knife
- Something to read (limit one book)
- Small toilitries
- Hand sanitizer
- Toothbrush / paste
- Reusable 1 liter water botltle (metal is more durable)
- 2 liter Camelback style water delivery system (only if you plan on doing extended hiking)
- Small waterproof box (for electronics)
- Camera, phone and earbuds
- Roll of toilet paper (trust me)
- A few small, reusable ziplock bags
- Compact first aid kit
- Compact camp towel (avoid the micro-fiber ones…they STINK after being used a few times, even when washed!)
- Quality, compact sleeping bag (I love my Kelty!)
- Lifestraw (or similar) for easy water purification
- Small day pack (for day hiking or walking around town)
- Reusable laundry/market bag
- Small notebook or journal for taking notes
- Quality rainfly for your backpack
- Bug repellent (for tropical or malaria regions only)
- Any necessary medications
And that´s it folks! Anything else you wear out, lose, damage or end up needing can easily be bought or replaced along the way! This will save you so much trouble on the packing end so when you finally take that extended trip you´ve been dreaming of, the only thing you´ll need to worry about is making memories!
Until next time, keep wandering.