An old saying states: “Pack half of what you think you need… and then cut that down by half.” Overpacking is one of the most common rookie traveller mistakes and its the first rule you should known when you are setting off on a solo adventure.
Many people that are new to solo travel are doing it for different reasons. As you gain experience, you’ll get better and better at identifying what you really need.
We put together this list to get you off on the right foot if you are planning to head out solo for the first time.
The first principle: PACK LIGHT!
The golden rule of packing for a long trip is to pack light, even if it means packing less than you think you’ll need. Know that no matter where you go you’ll be dragging your bag with you for days, weeks or months at a time. Even if you are planning to stay in areas for a long time the unnecessary lbs will weighing you down and prevent you from moving more easily.
It’s advised if you are going off on your own to keep it simple: bring just a backpack.
This may seem like not enough stuff but when you really break down what you need a lot can fit into a little space. Plus it leaves more room for opportunity to acquire things abroad.
It is suggested that your backpack should weigh no more than 20% or even 10% of your body weight. A good rule of thumb is that your pack should be light enough that you can carry it, walk reasonable distances with it, and lift it into overhead storage without assistance.
With respect to size, you should ideally be able to fit all your belongings into one bag that is small enough to qualify as a standard carry-on for international airlines. This is known as the ‘one bag’ philosophy, and it has gained a cult following.
What kind of bag should I use?
We are very strong advocates of backpacks that are convenient, sturdy, versatile, and easy to stow. You can carry a backpack easily over long distances, over cobblestones and uneven pavement, through fields and forests, and even up and down stairs. Modern travel backpacks are usually well-designed to distribute the weight and make them comfortable to carry throughout your whole trip.
Rolling suitcases can be convenient for shorter weekend trips or on the road, but are less suited to backpacker travel where you will need for an extended period of time. Especially if you are hopping between multiple destinations, and relying on public transit and your own feet to get around. Duffel bags are not suited at all for long-term travel due to their poor weight distribution and awkward carrying style, so we highly advice not using those.
What size or type of backpack should I get?
Travel backpacks tend to be carry-on compliant up to 40L, depending on the dimensions of the bag. Even for months-long or indefinite travel, you should generally not need more than this size. Buying a larger backpack will just encourage you to overpack and be burdensome down the line.
There are two styles of backpacks: ‘top-loading’ and ‘front-loading’.
Top-loading backpacks usually have only one (drawstring) opening at the top, while front-loading backpacks have a zipper that opens up the front. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages.
- Top-loading backpacks are usually taller, thinner, and have a more comfortable and stable weight distribution. However, they are more difficult to pack, less flexible for storing larger items, and reaching items at the bottom requires digging around and/or partially unpacking your bag. Due to better weight distribution, we recommend these for hiking/trekking rather than travel, but might be preferred by backpackers who prefer comfort over organization.
- Front-loading backpacks are bulkier than top-loading backpacks, but are significantly easier to pack/unpack and easier to organize. These backpacks usually have a less rigid frame, making the weight distribution slightly less comfortable, but give you more flexibility. Front-loaders tend to be preferred as travel backpacks due to their better organization.
Your backpack is important, and for the time you’ll spend carrying it around, it’s worth investing in a good-quality model especially one that is comfortable to you. Outdoor sports retailers will usually let you try on models with different fill weights to simulate a full pack.
Basic packing list
Once you have your backpack picked out and you need to come up with your packing list. This will differ depending on yourself and where you are going but we created a sample packing list to help you see what packing light actually looks like.
You’ll notice that there is not much difference between packing for 2 weeks vs 2 months.
If you’ve packed the basics and still have space in your bag, resist the urge to unnecessarily fill it. Your back and shoulders will thank you, and besides, it’s good to leave extra room for souvenirs and anything else you might pick up along the way.
These are the must haves for almost anywhere you go so find a good spot to keep these safe.
- Phone + charger (unlocked to work with foreign SIM cards)
- Emergency cash and/or card(s), kept separate from your wallet
- Relevant documents, depending on the requirements of your destination (e.g. travel insurance, international drivers licence, vaccination certificates, visa paperwork)
- Essential medications, labelled (remember to check for possible restrictions on bringing prescription medication into your destination country if needed)
You’ll want to make sure you have enough hygiene items and while some you can acquire on the way its good to have basics.
- Shampoo (and, if desired, conditioner)
- Soap or body wash
- Toothbrush + toothpaste
- Hairbrush and/or comb (+ hair ties for long hair)
- Tissues (also useful as emergency toilet paper)
- Travel towel or other small towel
- Nail clipper (if travelling for longer periods of time)
- Set of bandaids (+ ibuprofen or other painkillers, if needed)
- Menstruation products, if needed
- If flying: clear plastic bag for liquids
When picking clothes its best to find ones that are adaptable based on the weather. Aim to pack 5-7 days worth of clothes and wash them, as most hostels, hotels and AirBnBs will have laundry facilities available. Layering is a must, especially on a long trip where you expect to encounter temperature changes.
Take comfortable, practical, and versatile clothing you can use on most occasions. You may also want to have at least one set of slightly ‘nicer’ clothes (e.g. button-down shirt/blouse, black pants) that you can use for going out or visiting more upscale nights.
- 2 pairs of pants
- 1 pair of shorts (or skirt), if needed
- 1 pair of leggings or long underwear, if needed (to layer for cold weather)
- 4-5 t-shirts
- 1-2 long-sleeved shirts or light cardigans
- 1 warm sweater or cardigan, if needed (to layer for cold weather)
- 7 pairs of socks
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 2 regular bras + sports bra, if needed
- 1 set of pyjamas / clothes to sleep in
- 1 light to moderate jacket, depending on weather
- 1 heavier coat (ideally rain/wind-resistant), if needed
- In winter: gloves, scarf, hat
- 1 sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes or boots (+ sandals, if needed)
- Plastic or reusable bag for laundry storage
These would be considered the optional items that will depend on your needs. However, many of these items can make your trip much more enjoyable some if there are items important to you make sure you find space for them.
- Ear plugs (trust us)
- Day pack or purse
- Portable power bank
- Adaptor plugs, if needed
- Notebook + pen(s)
- Kindle/eReader or books
- Emergency snacks (e.g. trail mix, dried fruit, protein bars)
- Sunglasses + sunscreen, if needed
- Small umbrella, if needed
- Hand cream + chapstick, if needed
- Shower flipflops, if needed
- Small padlock (for hostel lockers), if needed
- Bathing suit, if wanted/needed
Additional tips to reduce items
It’s not easy to pack light so here are some tips for you to make sure you are sticking to the core principal.
- No need for full-sized bath towel. It’s bulky and wastes valuable packing space so don’t even consider it. Instead look for quick-drying, compact travel towels or any small towel. Note you will probably get a towel anywhere on arrival but it can come handy to have your own.
- Don’t be afraid to borrow or buy. Don’t overpack thinking you “might” need an item and be sure of what you bring. Outside of your essentials almost anything is acquirable on the road so if you find your self really needing something buy it later.
- If you plan to travel regularly or for a long time, and if you can afford it, consider investing in high-quality, lightweight items. Not all expensive ‘ultralight’ or special ‘travel’ items are worth it, but some are: travel towels, merino wool, and ultralight/compact down jackets just to name a few.
As you pack your things, there are some things to keep in mind to stay safe and avoid a disaster once your on the road.
- Avoid storing your passport/phone/cash in outer pockets of your backpack, even if they zip closed. Outer pockets are common targets for pickpockets, who might dip into them while you’re momentarily distracted.
- It’s a good idea to set aside some emergency cash and/or an emergency card and store these separately from your wallet or ‘everyday’ cash.
- Never leave your bag unattended or out of your sight while traveling. Always keep a tight hold on it (or fasten it to something) in pickpocket hotspots like Paris, Rome, Barcelona etc..
- If you must store your bag out of your sight (e.g. on a crowded bus with a luggage rack), take out your essentials first and keep them with you.
Some bag and backpack manufacturers also sell “anti-theft” bags with features like slash-proof material, lockable zippers, hidden pockets, and straps that can be clipped and fastened to e.g. railings and seats. It’s up to you whether you want to spend the money, but common sense and situational awareness are far more effective at protecting your pack than any anti-theft feature you can pay for.
If you consider the items in this guide you should be set to begin your adventure on the road. While these are general principles the most important is to find out what fits your lifestyle and gives you the experience you want out of travel.