How to Live Better Out of a Backpack

Backpacking & Trekking, Packing & Wardrobe — By on November 29, 2010 at 6:00 am

By Sarah Brown
LG  Travel Correspondent

If you’ve ever been, or even contemplated going, on a serious backpacking trip, you know there’s an art to packing up. But whether you’re grabbing a Jansport for a weekend jaunt or heading out for three months to tour Southeast Asia, deciding exactly what to take can be somewhat of a challenge. Lucky for you, I’ve gone on enough backpacking trips to have my method down. Read on for tips and tricks, gleaned from my own trial and error, for living the good life out of a backpack.

1. Pick a good pack

Your backpack is your foundation: Choose wisely. They’re built for all different adventures, in every size, shape, and variety. Do your research before you dive into buying. If you’re going on a short just-for-the-weekend trip, a day-pack should do just the trick. If you’re going for a longer journey, you’re going to want something with a few more frills.

Choose something lightweight, with a lot of compartments. You don’t want to add extra weight to whatever you’re carrying. Also, compartments are good for separating the dirty clothes from the clean, toiletries from everything else (in case of spillage), etc. For best support, find something with straps that run across your chest and your stomach. You may also want padding in the back to make carrying your load more comfortable. Think about size in terms of your backpack as a carry-on. When traveling in Europe and taking budget flights—Ryanair, Easyjet, for example— you can avoid the obscenely high charges for checked baggage by stowing overhead.

Finally, buy a lock for your backpack. When you’re backpacking and staying in campsites or hostels with people you don’t know, you may feel more comfortable leaving your pack behind during the day if it locked, rather than if it was just open for all the world to see, take, and enjoy.

2. Pack light

Keeping in mind that in the true spirit of backpacking, you’ll be carrying your world on your shoulders. There’s not much worse than having to carry around extra stuff that you don’t need or won’t use. Aim to pack the same number of underwear, bras, and socks to match the number of days you’ll be gone. If you run out for some reason—and can’t find water anywhere—turn them inside out and wear them again.

It’s a good idea to bring along a tiny to-go packet of laundry detergent and plan to hand-wash your delicates in the sink. You can almost always find something to hang them up on to dry. Sink laundry, as I call it, is also a great way to avoid bringing a lot of undergarments with you on a long trip.

It goes without saying: The “pack light” mantra applies to shoes as well. Shoes take up space. Are you really going to go for a run every morning…?

3. Backpack as closet

When you’re packing, think in layers. Depending on the weather, you may want to have a shirt + sweater + jacket situation going on, with the possibility of scarves, etc. Layers are great because you can easily adjust to any weather thrown your way. In addition, instead of packing more clothes to change up your look, pack more accessories. Scarves are great for this because they are versatile and don’t take up much room in your backpack.

Now the most important part about reusing clothes: convertible outfits. Plan combinations that can be worn during the day, and then easily turned into a nighttime outfit. This change can easily happen with…you guessed it! Scarves. Jewelry and belts also work well. Additionally, you can achieve the outfit change with the subtraction of a jacket, or perhaps the substitution of a pair of tights for a pair of jeans.

4. The travel outfit

You might be asking yourself why this is important for how to live out of your backpack. Well, what you wear on the day you travel to your destination inevitably dictates what’s left to be packed inside your bag. Wear the heaviest, bulkiest things you plan on taking with you— jeans, boots, heavy sweaters. This way, you have plenty of room in your bag for other items. Wear them the day you arrive and the day you leave, that way you don’t lose packing room on the way back.

5. Backpack as medicine cabinet

This is the part you’ve all been waiting for. Toiletries are often the bane of a girl’s existence when trying to pack for a trip. With this handy list, they no longer need to be! Plan to be as low-maintenance as possible. We’re still packing light here, only the essentials: toothpaste, toothbrush, face wash, bar of soap, deodorant. If you need lotion, pack a tiny tube of lotion. Only bring the makeup items you simply cannot live without. Don’t pack makeup remover; use your soap or face wash to take it off. Or avoid the face wash altogether and just pack face wipes for the whole trip (those can be used to take off makeup and to clean!).

Never underestimate the importance of deodorant, perfume, and gum. No matter where I’m going, I always bring these three with me, because I know that I might not be able to shower, use a mirror, or brush my teeth as often as I would like. These three gifts from God allow us to retain a semblance of humanity even when we haven’t properly cleaned in a few days.

How to pack your toiletries is almost as important as which ones to bring in the first place. Pack all your gel, liquid, and cream-esque toiletries in a Ziploc bag in travel-size bottles. If you’re packing in a carry-on, you will already need to do this for airport security anyway. Why Ziploc? It’s basically spill-proof, so if something goes awry, most of your clothes will remain dry.

Lastly, remember that most places you will travel to do indeed have supermarkets. Shocking, right? You don’t want to pack dead weight, so pack less in the beginning, and if you find you are really dying without something, you can always buy it.

6. Backpack as restaurant

When living out of a backpack, it’s always good to have a small stash of non-perishable food—granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Don’t pack things that will melt in the hot sun or that can get super messy. Bringing a little something with you helps you to avoid buying excess food when you’re traveling. And always, always have a bottle of water close by.

7. Extra odds & ends

For showering or beach-use, don’t pack a giant bulky towel; bring a hand towel instead. It takes up much less space and dries faster than a larger one. Always pack shower flip-flops. You never know what kind of nasty stuff is on that floor, or ground, or whatever… Just don’t risk it. Most backpacks have external pockets or elastic straps—these are perfect for holding flip-flops.

Pack earplugs and a sleep mask. You may to have to sleep in loud and/or bright places. These will help you get to sleep on the flight or in a noisy hostel—and help you stay asleep when inconsiderate bunkmates throw on all the lights at 7 a.m.

I always bring along bug spray, band-aids, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant. This last item is often overlooked but important. I learned my lesson after getting a deep gash on a Croatian island while sailing the Adriatic for week. My most precious item, however, is baby powder. It’s a cure-all: Greasy hair? Put baby powder in it. Got a rash? Baby powder. Smelly socks? Baby powder!

8. Backpack as fill in the blank

The lovely thing about backpacking is that more often than not, the unexpected happens. The shower at the hostel breaks. The train is delayed four hours. The airport is closed for two days because the country is on strike. If you pack correctly, you can overcome any of these situations, especially if you know how to use your backpack.

You find yourself sleeping on a bench in the train station? Use your backpack as a pillow. You’re on a bus in rural India with no seats left? Use your backpack as a seat on the floor. You’re hungry and you’re trekking through the highlands of Malaysia? Reach into your backpack/pantry and grab something to eat. You did some sink laundry but didn’t have time to dry your delicates before leaving to hike to the next campsite? Safety pin your underwear to your bag as you hike and it is magically becomes a clothes dryer. You have stuff that smells from sweating hot days in the Namibian desert? Open up that separate compartment, stick in your dirty clothes, and you’ve got a hamper.

From one who’s been on the move every three days for the past six weeks, these tips will have you living out of your backpack—your home away from home—as comfortable and clean as possible.


  • Joe says:

    Sarah, you obviously know what you’re talking about in regard to backpacking. You are missing a major backpacker asset, however, if you have never triused a Dreamhelmet. It was invented about ten years ago, by Jim de Cordova, who backpacked extensively, wrote a hostel guide, and later owned hostels. The Dreamhelmet blocks light and sound, and provides a pillow. It also has two credit card size secret pockets – and you know how crucial that could be, since every thief in the world knows all about money belts, etc.

  • Joe says:

    Sorry,’trieused’ is a new word I just now made up (accidentally). It means ‘tried or used’. Maybe it will someday be in the dictionary.


  • Charlotte says:

    PERFUME?? Yeah, if you love mosquitoes…maybe you should clarify that perfume/deodorant does not belong on hikes through wooded areas…