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How To Living Out of A Backpack (The Smart Way)

By Ryan | Tips

living out of a backpack


Planning for life on the road can be tricky – you’ve accumulated all sorts of trinkets and clothes and general favourite items which give you comfort in the day to day. Well, now it’s time to forget about them.

This backpack is about to become secondary part of you, and unless you’re Chuck Norris, you won’t want to be carrying the same weight as a second you around with you from town to town. You have to pack smart!

So, how do you decide what you really need and what you don’t need? Well, your contents of your backpack will depend on where in the world you are visiting, but the principles for living out of a backpack should be the same.​


For any type of travel you need to plan, and this continues right up to packing your backpack. Even if you’re just going for three weeks in one country, you don’t want to be lugging unnecessary items around with you. Here are my principles for packing:

Ask Yourself ‘Where Am I Visiting?’

living out of a backpack map

As much as I know that you know where you’re going, do you really know? Understand climates, dangers and other vital bits of information about the place(s).

​I would suggest getting a guide book, such as Lonely Planet , but only the most up-to-date edition possible and for the first country or area you’re visiting.

Those books can be very heavy, and believe me, if you are staying in hostels, you will meet plenty of people over a beer or three who will have been where you’re going and to places you’ve never even heard of. Use them for tips as they’re the most current form of information you’ll ever receive and they cost and weight nothing.

living out of a backpack hike

I, for example, am traveling through Central and South America in the dry season, where 99.9% of the time I need only a T-shirt and shorts.

However, I also planned to do a volcano hike in Guatemala where temperatures can drop below freezing. Before packing, I researched the availability of buying or hiring clothes for cold temperatures in the area and found that there is a mightily cheap second hand clothes market in the local town. I bought all of my clothing provisions for less than $10 (fleeces, thermal hat, gloves, scarf, windproof trousers, the lot), which I then left in the hostel before moving on to my next sunny climate.

This research saved me a lot of weight (and money, as buying it all back home would have been expensive) when traveling through the rest of the countries on my trip.​

Necessities First

living out of a backpack first aid kit

First aid kits, anti-malarial tablets, sunscreen, basic toiletries; these and any other essential items for your trip need to be considered first and foremost, if you can’t pack something that will keep you safe, healthy and hygienic because you’ve decided you need an extra stiletto, your priorities are in the wrong place for traveling.

Pack Light

Pack as light as you physically can, whilst still keeping the above principle in mind.

My backpack, for generally hot climes, with some cooler days and nights in higher altitude cities, consists of the following (I am mostly staying in hostels so don’t need camping equipment):

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    ​Four T-shirts
    Four T-shirtsOne jumper
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    ​One jumper
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    ​One fleece jumper
    One fleece jumper
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    ​One wind and rain proof kagool
    One wind and rain proof kagool
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    ​One smart/casual collared shirt
    One smart/casual collared shirt
    One pair of jeans (chino type trousers are also good)
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    ​One pair of jeans (chino type trousers are also good)
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    ​Two pairs shorts
    Two pairs shorts
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    ​Five pairs of socks
    Five pairs of socks
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    ​Five pairs of underwear
    Five pairs of underwear
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    ​One pair swimming shorts
    One pair swimming shorts
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    ​One pair trainers
    One pair trainers
    One pair sandals
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    ​One pair sandals
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    ​One pair of lightweight flip-flops (for showers)
    One pair of lightweight flip-flops (for showers)
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    ​One hat/cap
    One hat/cap
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    ​One pair of sunglasses
    One pair of sunglasses
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    A super lightweight notebook laptop for writing (a tablet may work for you)
    A super lightweight notebook laptop for writing (a tablet may work for you)
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    Toiletries bag (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap (not shower gel), deodorant, floss, shampoo/conditioner (2in1), nail clippers and a razor)
    Toiletries bag (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap (not shower gel), deodorant, floss, shampoo/conditioner (2in1), nail clippers and a razor)
    One bottle sunscreen.
    One bottle after sun
    One reading book (Kindles are much better for lightweight reading, I just don’t have one)
    One travel guide
    Smartphone (and charger)
    Travel adapters
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    ​One bottle sunscreen.
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    ​One bottle after sun
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    ​One reading book (Kindles are much better for lightweight reading, I just don’t have one)
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    ​One travel guide
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    ​Smartphone (and charger)
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    ​Travel adapters
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    ​Passport and other key documents.
    Passport and other key documents.
    Microfibre/quick dry towel
    A pen knife.
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    ​Microfibre/quick dry towel
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    ​A pen knife.

You may find you need even less than I do, or you might find you need a little more. Just acknowledge your limits and go over every item twice, to make sure you really need it.

Pack Right

As important as packing light, is packing right. Your bag has limited space, so it’s important to plan out the way you fill it.

Here is an example of how to pack clothes , which is also useful when packing other malleable items.

​A big regret of mine whilst traveling is not bringing packing cubes for my trip, they really help compress and compartmentalise your clothing and other items, helping with easy access to things you may need at certain times of your travel.

living out of a backpack packing cube

Absolute Don’ts

So, aside from what to pack, here are tips of what definitely not to pack for a long-term trip.

Books (more than one, anyway)

living out of a backpack books

I made the mistake of bringing three books with me to read. I’m a big reader, but by no means a fast reader.

My biggest issue is that I’ve had to carry the weight of these books for as long as it’s taken me to read at least the first one.

I quickly realised that, in general, hostels have a book exchange (usually completely free) and that I’ve seen the books I’ve brought with me on a couple of occasions. Which means I could have just picked up the book as and when I needed to read it, or, been more open minded and just chosen another book.

Wash Bag

living out of a backpack washbag

Totally separating your clean clothes from your dirty clothes is, for obvious reasons a good idea, but don’t bring a separate and bulky wash bag.

If you’ve followed the advice above, you’ll have packing cubes, these are a much more efficient way of separating unwashed clothes from fresh ones.

Keep one spare and scrunch it up until you have laundry items to fill it with.

Jewellery or Sentimental Items

living out of a backpack jewellery

As much as there are far more friendly and nice people in the world than bad people, you still have to be careful.

The odd item that is important to you is fine, but overtly fancy jewellery or other expensive things could draw unwanted attention, and if it’s something particularly sentimental to you, definitely don’t take it with you.

You can always wear it or use it again when you return home, and just imagine how distraught you would be if someone took it from you.

Regular Bathroom Towel

living out of a backpack bathroom towel

Absolutely and 100% the best and most useful item I included in my packing list was a microfibre or quick-dry towel.

As long as you’ve got somewhere to hang it (a bunk bed or hanging hook) it will dry in a matter of hours. Compare this to your thick, cotton towel back home... you can sometimes leave it hanging for 24 hours and it still hasn’t dried, which when you’re traveling is an absolute no deal.

Wet towels add weight and also make your bag and other clothes smell.

Microfibre towels are also much lighter and pack into much small spaces than standard towels.


As with any travel advice, you need to consider your own requirements for your trip. Research your destinations, ask others who’ve been, or search forums for answers. Genuinely and honestly ask yourself if you really need to bring a certain item, as it may cause you problems further down the line.

Backpacking is tiring enough sometimes without carrying unnecessary weight along with you.

If you have any further tips for our readers, or think that I’ve missed something out, feel free to comment below and give us your suggestions.


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About the Author

Hi, I'm Ryan Smith, a solo traveler, and founder of with a bunch of friends. I love going outside, reading books and talking to people.