A Guide to Minimalist Backpacking

[Guest post by George Mason]

Are you the type of person who can’t leave the house for an overnighter without hair straighteners and two memory foam pillows? If you’re considering travelling on a gap year or sabbatical, read on for essential tips on minimalist backpacking. It’s very simple, honestly. Consider the two components of the word: ‘back’ and ‘packing’. Your new mantra is “I must pack to save my back”.

[Photo by topgold]

The key is to find a happy medium between lightweight luggage and the essentials that you personally need to be safe and comfortable. Let’s assume you’re on the usual South Asia route – perhaps Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia or India are on your schedule. Obviously if you’re off to the wilds of Alaska then you’ll need a totally different kit, but the following advice should get you round South America and even Australia.

What is light?
Well, the spectrum really depends on your own weight and strength. If you can pack a bag which is less than 12lbs (5kg), then you’re Bear Grylls and you don’t need to read the rest of this article. For the rest of us, that bag weight is ultra-light territory and probably means you’ve forgotten something. Ideally you need to aim for around 20-30lbs (9-13kg). That means really thinking about the fewest items needed to cover every eventuality and only packing what can’t acquire on your travels. Walk around with your full pack for a day and see if it’s feasible. Try running for a train at the end of it to see why packing light is important.

Through the magic of hand-washing, all you really need is a couple of sets of clothes – one to wear, one to wash. Realistically you may not be able to wash and dry every day. If you’re off to a country where clothes retail in the pocket money bracket, consider buying a few more items when you arrive. Work out the types of clothing you’ll require for the weather you’re likely to encounter. That could be as simple as underwear, socks, t-shirt, jumper, anorak and quick-drying trousers (no jeans, they’re a nightmare to dry). Travel-sized detergent bottles are available over the internet but best to buy when you get there.

Another secret weapon, that doesn’t take up to much room in your rucksack, is the handy travel washing line. They come with suction cups and hooks for easy hanging and are made from twisted elastic – so no pegs! You might also want to consider a travel sink plug – there’s nothing worse than trying to soak clothing in running water. Or losing a sock down a wide plughole.

Backpacking generally entails a lot of walking. A good quality pair of lightweight, yet sturdy, trainers is vital! Flip flops are a negligible burden, inexpensive and comfortable for short distance walking, so buy a pair when you get there. If most of the trip will be dedicated to walking up mountains, then take your proper (read: heavy) hiking boots and buy some cheap trainers whilst you’re out there. Break your boots in before you get there (can’t stress this enough) and pass the cheap trainers on to a local charity at the end of the trip.

If you are doing a lot of long-distance travelling, you don’t want to end up tearing your hair out in boredom. Books are an obvious choice, but they take up space and can weigh a lot. If you’re lucky enough to own a Kindle or similar reading device, this can be an amazing travel item (typically long battery life and quickly charged via USB). It’s risky because it’s a high value item, so don’t show it off too much in public, and make sure it’s insured.

Your mobile phone is a pretty essential bit of kit in everyday life, and it’s no different abroad. Call your provider or shop around for one who can set you up on a good overseas tariff. Be sure to take a charger and a universal adapter. Rely on the kindness of strangers for electricity use and plug in wherever you can get away with it!

Every great journey needs a soundtrack, so if your phone doesn’t allow you lots of room for music, take along an iPod or similar music player. If your phone has expandable memory it will allow you to hold enough music on multiple SD cards, though a dedicated device can offer better battery life. With all these items, pack them in sealed plastic bags whilst out and about so they don’t get water-damaged.

Take Advantage
You may have thought about staying in one of the nicer hostels or hotels on the first night of your journey while travelling. This is a great idea – settle in, acclimatise, but better still you can benefit from all those free toiletries. OK, they might not be the same brands as you use at home, but thankfully you’re backpacking, no-one expects you to look like you just stepped out of a salon.

The Little Things
Instead of lugging that giant guidebook with you, why not photocopy the parts that are essential? Maps, key numbers and details of the places you really want to visit, for instance. Water purifying tablets are a godsend and mean that you don’t have to heave around 2 litre bottles of Evian. Back up all your tickets and receipts onto your phone so that you don’t have to carry round crumpled bits of paper – they can get ruined in a rain shower.

Bare (mostly) Essentials
• Passport and necessary visas
• 2 sets of quick-dry clothing
• 1 pair of trainers
• Debit card and cash/traveller’s cheques
• Camera phone- unless you’re here for travel photography, this should be sufficient
• Universal charger and adapter
• Ipod/MP3 player
• Thin sleeping bag liner – hostel bedding isn’t the cleanest
• Washing Line
• A few essential toiletries – but by no means enough to last the entire journey
• Basic first aid items – plasters, personal medicines, painkillers, condoms (you never know)
• Water purification tablets
• Money belt
• Travel detergent and travel sink plug

Leave Some Room!
You’ll doubtless pick up knick-knacks along the way to bring home, so try to leave some room in your backpack for these. Post them home at the first opportunity. This advice counts for your mindset too. Leave all the clutter at home and don’t over-plan. You can pick up things on your travels. Unless you are going to the most remote places, the local population can survive where you’re going, and so can you.

George works and plays for Sixt.co.uk. He’s more of a cyclist than a driver (he wants to solo cycle Europe), and prefers to get local transportation whenever and wherever he can.

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Minimalist Backpacking

  1. AvatarChris Stillwell

    Some nice tips! Microfiber towels can be handy as well, they’re a bit pricey but fairly light and dry really quickly if you have to shove it back in your bag. Failing that if your hotel / hostel doesn’t already provide them, you can always pick a standard towel up pretty cheaply at your destination and leave them when you move on instead of lugging them around.


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