How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

The principles for packing a backpack for travel in civilized areas are a little different than getting ready for an outdoor adventure. If you are hopping between towns or tourist destinations, there will be shops, hostels, and other amenities.

I wanted to create an article that is focused on packing for travel that keeps these factors in mind. I also have specialized packing articles for hiking, camping and backpacking if that is a better fit for your next trip. (link to other articles)

Backpacks verses suitcases

If you are able-bodied, hands down, a backpack is better. A backpack will give you more freedom of movement by a large margin. In addition, you will have easy and fast access to all the items you need in a hurry on the road.

Backpacks work on any terrain you might encounter which can be an issue with rolling suitcases. You will also have use of both of your hands while carrying everything you need.

How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

You don’t need to invest in the same quality of pack that you would need for long outdoor adventures. However, take your time picking out a pack that will fit your needs. If you are new to using a pack, consider stopping in an outdoor outfitter shop for help with finding a good fit for your needs and body type.

Elimination game

You have made your list and you have all of your items laid out to get a sense of the space you will need. Now, take some time to consider each item individually. Do you really want to carry this with you everywhere you go?

There is a direct relationship between the ease of the load and the joy of the journey.

One of the great things about most traveling adventures is that you will have access to buy things that you need along the way. This can get expensive so you will have to decide where to cut corners. Will the hotel have the toiletries you need? Do you really want to carry all that makeup?

You are not likely to encounter emergency situations while you are in civilization. You do not need a fancy first aid kit or water purification system. Keep it simple, you will be glad you did.

If you suspect you might be hoarding too many items you will regret later, have a friend help you think through this stage of packing. Sometimes a little perspective is very helpful.

Weight of the Load

The balance of weight in your pack may not seem like a big deal, but once you have your backpack on for more than a quick walk in the driveway, you will be glad you took the time to pack it right.

The key to a good pack is balance left to right and proper weight distribution.

Lightest items (that you don’t need in a hurry) should go in the very bottom of the main compartment.

Heaviest items closest to the back, and up towards the shoulders.

Medium weight items can go on the outer section of the main compartment.

Quick access items. Save a little room in the top of the pack for things that you might need to grab which you can’t fit in the outer pockets. Finally, put the gear you are likely to want on the road often or in a hurry in the external compartments. For example:

  • Identification
  • Money
  • Camera
  • Maps
  • Binoculars
  • Water bottles
  • Event or transportation tickets
  • Guide book

Stuff sacks

When you are packing for travel, as opposed to camping or hiking, (link to those articles) you are probably packing much more in the way of soft collapsible items like clothing. You probably won’t be needing your tent, camp stove, or bear canister.

Because of this, stuff sacks make the most sense for organizing your pack. Even though stuff sacks can waste some space, because of the pockets of air between them, you will likely find the organization benefits outweigh the very slight wasted space.

Having sacks in a variety of colors and shapes will help you get what you want, when you want it. If most of your gear is organized into sacks, you can pack and unpack in seconds to find just what you need.

Compression sacks  

Compression sacks offer even more space efficiency for soft items like clothes, pillows, and blankets. However, they tend to be a bit pricier. The extra cost won’t add up to extra utility for hard items like books, cameras or other electronics.

Remember, whether using stuff sacks or compression sacks, packing in categories (all socks in one sack, all shirts in another) makes it easier to find what you are looking for without creating a lot of extra work for yourself.

Go a little larger than your starting capacity

Unlike in hiking where every extra ounce is critical, you have a little more leeway when it comes to packing a backpack for travel. There are two main reasons to try to have a little extra room in your pack when you set off:

  1. You are going to get lazy about packing perfectly. Trust me, it will happen.
  2. You will want to buy a few items on your journey to bring home.

Your pack should not be so loose that things slide around inside, but a little extra leeway for souvenirs and quick packs is a good idea. Some backpacks have compression features you can pack it tight, and then let it out a little on the way home.

Quick glance checklist for travel

This is not a comprehensive list, nor should you try to take all of these things along. I just thought it would be helpful for you to think through some of the items that can come in handy for day tripping or traveling along cities, towns and popular tourist destinations.

  • Layered clothing…no more than…
    • 5 tops
    • 5 socks and underwear
    • 2 bottoms
    • Jacket
    • Swimsuit
    • one comfy sleep outfit
    • Stop! You’re getting carried away!
  • Extra socks
  • Garbage bags or waterproof stuff sacks for dirty clothes
  • Identification: passport, money, credit cards
  • Small size toiletries – you can buy more!
  • Very basic first aid and sewing kit
  • Camera
  • Binoculars (get small ones)
  • Phone and charger
  • Journal or notepad
  • Pen
  • Sunglasses
  • Prescription glasses
  • Prescriptions
  • A smaller backpack for day trips
  • Washcloth
  • Headphones
  • Water bottles
  • Poncho
  • Small blanket/sheet
  • Pillow – inflatable options are nice
  • Book – you can trade on the road, just bring one!
  • Guide book and/or language helper

I hope this article has shared insight into how to pack a backpack for travel. If you have other ideas that I missed, or additional items you could never do without on the road, please leave a comment!


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