What’s in the backpack?

The road to simplicity in 6 easy steps, along with some thoughts on applying minimalism when choosing the backpack’s content.

Having a pleasant time on the road requires a certain degree of moderation when packing stuff to carry around with you, especially for long term travels.
There’s a catchy advice circling out there and it sounds like this: “Take all the things you’d like to have with you and put them on the bed. Then throw half of them and put the other half in the backpack.”
That will work for shorter trips, but it’s definitely not the way to do things when preparing for some serious traveling.

So, I’d suggest a different approach which is based on my experience and mistakes too 🙂

1. Do the math.

Before even considering the content itself, estimate how many kilos your back will have to withstand for long periods of time, plus the threshold you would never want to cross.

2. Test yourself  to see how it goes:  take an approximate load around the house for a while.

It’s likely you’ve rarely (or never) carried anything heavier than 15kg for more than half an hour. I was lucky enough to grow up in the country side, where carrying heavy loads for long periods of time was part of the routine. Even so, seven years of city life have made me soft and even buried some of the memories that would have been useful in estimating the weight that would fit in my comfort zone. I had to relearn it the hard way during a one month trial in Middle East, one year before starting the current 6 months trip through Asia.
There’s no reason for you to do the same, so check your comfort zone and the maximum load to carry if there’s ever the case for that.

3. Choose the right backpack for you.

Your back and shoulders should hurt a bit by now 🙂 If not, you’re either very resilient or very lucky, since obliviously you don’t need that many things with you. Let’s hope there’s no third option: you’ve underestimated the total weight and you haven’t tested your limits. But, it’s alright to be wrong at this point, as step 2 will be repeated further down.

Now that you know your limits, it will be easier to chose the backpack depending on its overall capacity. Rule of thumb: if there’s space, you’ll fill it! So, don’t pay more for extra capacity because you’ll definitely end up carrying more. 65 liter ones are the norm, so resist the temptation of buying something bigger, unless you really need the extra space.

Now, about the model itself. My advice: don’t even consider those widely spread mountain backpacks with their top loading system, if you don’t want to have the Sisyphean task of going through all your stuff every time you’ll need something placed at the bottom. Opt instead for backpacks with a side opening and your life will be infinitely easier when packing, unpacking or simply searching for something (this goes hand in hand with the packing style, but we’ll get to that part soon).
Check for those models that have a detachable day pack. This is really important because you won’t have to carry a separate smaller backpack for the daily activities. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it will be probably easier to show you. This is the backpack model we’ve used so far – High Sierra 29″ Compass Travel Pack.
The day pack is zipped to the main backpack and it’s easy to take it off and mount it back. Also, there’s an adjustable back system and a protective cover that can keep the straps hidden for bus, airport baggage handling.
While I’m really happy with this model, Andra finds it a bit too big, allowing her to buy (and carry) too many souvenirs 😀

4. Prioritize.

Gather all the things you’d like to have with you and prioritize based on their importance. Start with those “you can’t live without” and work your way up to the “nice to have” things.

Make only three piles of stuff (the 3rd one being “haven’t got a clue about”), otherwise it’s going to be harder to decide which fits where. Also, don’t consider anything that you think you may need to use once or twice (except for things related to your well being: medicine & protection).
Think practical. For clothes you won’t need more than 3 pairs of pants, 3-4 t-shirts, 2 pairs of socks and one warm hoodie for chilly nights or rainy days. Underwear is not that heavy, so you can be generous in this regard, if it makes you feel confortable.
Keep in mind that white clothes will need more frequent washing than darker ones, thus it’s best to avoid them. On the other hand, they’re very useful if you’re traveling during the hot season as they provide better protection from the harsh sun.
The towel is important to be a quick dry model, otherwise you risk turning your entire backpack into a smelly bomb 😀 Micro fiber towels fit in the dry fast category; also they have good water retention capacity and take up a lot less space than conventional towels. No fluffy feeling from these towels, but you can definitely live without that 😉

5. Pack clothes the right way: roll them.

Maybe some of you already know this: by rolling clothes instead of folding them you have some real advantages:
– they get far less wrinkles this way;
– it saves up space in the backpack (don’t see this as a reason for adding more things, though ;));
– it’s easier to fit them in any part of the backpack and you can use every little space available;
the best one: you gain better visibility and quicker access to your stuff, without the need of messing with other clothes to reach the desired ones (like you’d normally have to do in case of folding and stacking them up). Just to get an idea about this, here’s a photo of my backpack I took while back in India, when preparing to leave Rishikesh.

6. Don’t leave home without:

– Cash, credit cards.
Documents: Passport, ID, driver’s license, photos (for visas and other unexpected uses), airplane tickets, booking confirmation. Make photocopies for emergency situations. A better alternative is to have scans sent to your email address, thus having them ready for print, but without having to actually carry anything for “just in case” situations.
Flashlight. There are frequent power outages in some countries (in India and Nepal these occur even in the capital). Also, apart from the obvious uses, if powerful enough a flashlight can be used as a defensive weapon as it can temporarily blind an attacker. Some models have a specially designed self-defense face that can inflict serious damage. You can find them by searching for “tactical flashlight” on Amazon or your favorite search engine.
Compass. It’s understandable to see it as old-fashioned in this age of GPS and electronic maps. But, take this from a fellow geek who used to think the same: a compass and a map are far easier to use and more reliable than a 2-5” screen with limited battery life. The maps you can get for free from your hotel or a tourist information office and most have the main attractions highlighted and even described briefly. Instead of fiddling with a small device, it’s more practical to ask locals for help: have them point on the map the current location and the destination, then just use the compass to stay on the right track.
Here’s a small and inexpensive bracelet/watch compass I prefer to use, because it’s more convenient to carry around than bigger models:

A multi-tool. You can imagine how often you’ll need the knife, the screwdriver and the beer opener 🙂 As for the other blades and things, they can come in handy in the weirdest of time.
A travel adapter, converter and/or multi plug. Check first if you really need them, as many hotels and hostels can actually provide you with something like that on request (if they are not already installed in the room). As for CouchSurfing, we haven’t met one experienced host that didn’t have such things. Worst case scenario: they will tell you where to buy them from (usually it’s “just across the street” ;)).
Emergency Survival Kit and First Aid Kit – especially if your definition of fun is putting yourself in harm’s way 😉
Drugs: prescription medicine, analgesic/painkillers, antidiarrheal, antialergics (if there’s the case), antibiotics.
Travel insurance. It’s far cheaper to get an insurance than staying in a hospital on your own money. I got a nasty food intoxication in Turkey and the only hospital in the area was a private one. Just for a one night care in the hospital, the bill was over 150 euros. The travel insurance on the other hand was 20 euros for one month.
– Guidebooks: anything is better than nothing, but it’s wiser to invest in the best ones (preferably the latest editions). Until now we’ve mostly used Lonely Planet & Rough guides and they are both great. Maybe I’m biased, but I think Lonely Planet guides are by far the best ones out there.
Alarm clock (or a phone with a reliable alarm) if you don’t want to miss the free breakfast at the hotel, your flight, bus etc.
– Zip lock bags for protecting from moisture sensitive equipment – and for storing in one place small items that you don’t want to have running around. Also, they are particularly useful in keeping well sealed the toxic waste 🙂 – dirty clothes that you haven’t got the chance to wash before moving on to another location.

There’s a ton of things you may or may not use and there are many resources out there. In the end, everything depends on the individual and the type of journey you’re preparing for. Here’s a list that will help you make sure you haven’t overlooked anything:
Check this link too:

But, before rushing to buy more stuff to put into your backpack, keep in mind that many things are available on the road at prices most likely lower than those back home.

Is the backpack ready?!

Repeat step 2 and carry the backpack around the house for 30 minutes. It’s definitely going to be fun! If not for you, then for your house mates 🙂

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go through my own backpack and remove around 2kg of useless stuff to send home by post 🙂
If you must know, I was overzealous with some clothes that I haven’t even unpacked in the last 30 days, plus some gadgets that are just shifting position through my backpack (and the planet :D), without having actually any practical use.

At the end of the trip, after having fully understood the degree of usefulness of every item in my backpack, I’ll unpack everything and share the content with you – with plenty of details and insights.
Until then, I can tell you my two personal favorite things:
1. Hydro-bag. Why? Because it rocks! 🙂 It makes it easy to have water conveniently placed within reach. Also, it releases you of the burden of having to go through the backpack every time you’re thirsty, or worse – having to carry the bottle in your hands.
Trust me, proper hydration is a giant pain in the ass on a hot summer day. There’s a camera to carry along with a guidebook and maybe a map & compass. Add the heavy bottle of water to the equation and your hands will be tired even before the hike starts.
A tip you’ll appreciate: grab a thermal insulator bag and put the hydro-bag inside it; it will keep the water cold for hours!

2. Battery charger & emergency gadget charger.
Yeah, I love gadgets too! 🙂 Especially those that allow me to optimize the backpack’s content to the maximum.
This little thing can recharge AA batteries and then use those batteries to recharge depleted electronics while on the go (can recharge a phone up to 4 times). Extremely useful in a lot of situations (camping in the woods for once); it just depends on how much you rely or need gadgets with you at all times.

If you want, share your favorite travel toys here.  I’d love to hear about them and maybe consider some for my own collection 🙂


2 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Great post Razvan.
    I was wondering if you felt the need to buy local, better suited to the heat, clothes?

    Did you get travel insurance in advance for all the 6 months or do you buy it locally?

    • razvan ciuca says:

      Thanks Paul!

      That first question is really interesting 🙂 We find the whole process of trying local clothes quite educational.
      In Middle East we noticed that some clothes were differently built: the texture was a bit rougher with lots of holes to let the skin breath. So, yes we bought a few shirts to see if they help with the heat and they did! Sometimes it can be counter intuitive – like wearing long sleeved shirts in the summer when you’d instinctively want the opposite, but it’s always wise to follow the locals.
      As for the health insurance, we’ve bought it in advance from Romania. It’s easier this way and cheaper to pay for a longer period of time, rather than splitting it in smaller time frames (minus the hassle). If I remember correctly we paid each 50$ for these 6 months.

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