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Learning to Pack Light Through Trial and Error


Photo by Mat Honan on Flickr

Planning what to pack is definitely the least fun part about traveling, especially when you’re backpacking. When traveling to many different cities with only a backpack to carry your stuff you need to be strategic. Often, it becomes difficult to decide what exactly you “need” to bring and what you can live without. Through trial and error, I have learned a few tips on packing light. Get Cultural Information Before You Pack On my first real backpacking trip, I traveled through South East Asia, China, and Hong Kong. During this time I would also be spending a few weeks teaching English in Thailand. Instead of asking the volunteer coordinators what I should be wearing, I packed heavy slacks, button down shirts, and dressy tops…the type of clothing an American teacher would wear in an American classroom. Imagine my surprise when I got there and everyone had on loose t-shirts and lightweight capris. Looking back now, I can’t believe how silly I was, actually picturing myself teaching English in a 3-story, air conditioned brick building, just like I had gone to in high school. In reality, I had taught in small village classrooms that were often sweltering. Before you pack, get information on cultural norms (are tank tops appropriate? can knees be showing?), weather (no need for a sweater if it’s 90 degrees and above 24/7), and activities (teaching, hiking, beaches) before you go. You Don’t Need to Be Prepared for Every Emergency No, that is not a typo. When I backpacked Europe I actually brought along a full First Aid Kit. While nobody would call me dumb for wanting to be safe, was it really necessary that I carry 1,000 bandaids of assorted shapes and sizes, gauze pads and non-sterile roll gauze, non stick pads, ABD pads, emergency drinking water, a cold compress….you get the idea. Realistically, a few bandaids and some aspirin would have been sufficient (especially as I got so fed up with the giant supply case I ended up throwing it out, completely unused aside for one small bandaid to prevent flip-flop blistering). The same goes for clothing. It’s common to go into a panic when you pack, dreaming up fairytale fantasies that most likely won’t happen. “But what if the Prince asks me out to dinner? I absolutely must bring an evening dress just in case!” “I should bring at least one pair of heels in case I end up on a yacht on the French Riviera.” “Yes, it’s summer, but what if a blizzard hits and I don’t have a winter coat?” While it’s possible that you may end up in a situation where you’ll want to have a nice dress, fancy shoes, or a winter coat in the summer, don’t pack it. Trust me. There were many times backpacking Europe where I honestly did wish I had a nice pair of heels or a cute designer mini dress to go clubbing in, but I was there for an entire summer and there were only a handful of times I would have worn these. Only bring the essentials, meaning if you’re not going to wear it/use it regularly, you don’t need it. Also, unless it’s a special medication, you can probably buy it once you’re abroad. People Will Forgive You For Not Looking Like You Spent An Hour in Front of the Mirror I actually met a guy in Amsterdam who became my boyfriend when I was backpacking. I had on wrinkled capris, a sports bra, gym shirt, no makeup, and my hair was in a knot on top of my head. Oh, did I mention we were going out clubbing? He spent the entire night talking with me and dancing with me and from there we spent a long weekend being inseparable. “Why did you even talk to me that night?” I asked him, a few months later when I was at his parents house in Vancouver, Canada, my hair blowdryed and some mascara on my eyelashes. He laughed. “We were backpacking. I would have thought it was weird if you didn’t look under-dressed.” People will know you’re a backpacker, and other backpackers you meet will be in the same boat. Nobody is carrying around a full wardrobe and hair appliances when they can only fit ten items of clothing maximum. When packing, focus more on logistics and less on trying to look good. Mix and Match Your Wardrobe This is why I love skirts over dresses. You simply change the top and you have a completely new outfit. I also used a light cotton zip-up as both my jacket and a long-sleeve shirt, and brought along a small scarf for when it was a little chillier. When packing, try to stick to one color scheme if you can, that way the few items you bring can all be worn together. When I backpacked Europe, all my clothes were brown, yellow, pink, and camo green, so I was able to pair the five shirts I brought along with either my two pairs of shorts, one pair of capris, or one skirt, making for many different looks with only a few items. Try to Find Multiple Purposes for the Same Item and Always Use Your Smallest Option When backpacking Europe, I was getting seriously frustrated with my toiletry pouch. It looked like it was about to burst and everytime I opened it I had to take a million ziplock baggies out. I got rid of the loofah and small body wash (which I would have gone broke replacing every few days anyway) and opted for bar soap. Yes, I would be without my luxurious lavendar-scented scrub for a few months, but when backpacking every ounce of space counts. I almost cried with joy when a few weeks into my trip I went into Lush, a handmade cosmetic and beauty shop that creates organic products from fresh, natural ingredients, and found their solid shampoos. One bar lasted my entire trip and certain ones double up as a conditioner, too. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do this, but I ended up throwing away the bar soap and using the solid shampoo as a body wash, as well. I was able to wash myself from head to toe using only one small product, which saved me a ton of space. Another multipurpose product I like is tubes of vaseline. I use it as chapstick, mascara (if you put some on your lases it makes them look darker), and on really dry patches of skin. If you plan on bringing lotion (I have to or I actually start to peel and get really itchy), find one that is multipurpose for your face and body. It all boils down to one simple equation: less items=more space.
Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

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  1. bernie on at 11:33 am

    Hi.. Going to Thailand soon… Wheres a good cheap place to stay??? Hope to then move on to Hong Kong and Macau.. know any good places there?? lol. and is air asia ok??? Thanks!

    • jess2716 on at 1:43 pm

      You’ll have a great time. The air is fine, and there are many cheap hostels and guesthouses to stay. Make sure to go to Chaing Rai and Chaing Mai, those were my favorite 🙂

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