How to travel with just a backpack

Jennifer Blair

While most travelers only use packing cubes in a suitcase, they can also help keep your backpack organized for long trips too.

How to travel with just a backpack

There's something about traveling light, with nothing but the pack on your back, that's extremely liberating. When you travel light, you're able to go off the beaten path and perhaps find some hidden gems that you wouldn't otherwise find.

But fitting all of your clothing, supplies, and other belongings in one bag can be pretty difficult, and most of us are prone to "overpacking". Fortunately, with a little practice, you can master the art of packing light so a backpack is all you need to get through almost any trip. Here are our best tips for traveling with just a backpack.

Choose the right backpack.

Smart packing begins with your bag, so finding the right backpack has to be the first step. Capacity is key: you have to be able to fit everything you need in it. Look for a backpack that's as big as you need while still fitting the size requirements for an airline carry-on. For a week-long trip, a 35L backpack usually gets the job done. For two weeks of travel, you'll want a slightly larger option, like a 45L bag.

You also undoubtedly want a backpack that's comfortable. Opt for one with padded straps, as they will likely feel better on your shoulders. Fit also matters; most manufacturers use torso length to determine sizing, so have a friend measure you before you shop.

Organize your bag.

Efficient packing isn't just about choosing the right backpack. Organizing your backpack for travel can save you precious time -- and frustration -- when you're on the road. Plenty of backpacks have multiple compartments or dividers that allow you to separate clothing from toiletries and other items. This makes everything easier to find when you're on the go.

If your backpack doesn't have enough compartments, a set of lightweight packing cubes can be a lifesaver. Not only do they help organize your items, they compress them in order to take up less space in your bag. Large plastic zippered bags could also work; just be sure to press all the air out of them after you've added your items.

Be selective in your packing.

If you're going to travel with a single backpack, you have to be very selective about what you bring. Forget about multiple outfit changes each day. Experienced backpack-only travelers usually limit themselves to three changes of clothing in total: one to be worn that day, one to be washed, and one that will be drying. Stick to just two pairs of shoes if you can, too, so you only have to carry one pair in your backpack at any given time.

If you're staying at a hotel or with family and friends, there's no need to pack towels. If you're bunking at a hostel or camping in the great outdoors, on the other hand, you'll need to bring at least one towel. Look for half-sized towels that dry quickly so they won't take up as much space in your pack.

Opt for lightweight, multipurpose clothing.

Lightweight clothing takes up less room in your backpack and is easy to roll up and carry. Cotton is a classic option, but you may also want to consider bringing clothing made of nylon, rayon, or silk.

You'll gain more versatility if you pack pieces of clothing that can be worn several different ways. For example, you might wear a basic sundress to dinner and then throw it on over your bathing suit as a beach cover-up the next day.

Wear heavier items.

Of course, if you're traveling in a cooler climate, you probably can't pack only lightweight clothing. But if you need to bring a jacket or jeans, you can still maximize space by wearing those heavier, bulkier items when you're on the go. Apply the same rule to your shoes: wear the heavier shoes and stash the lighter pair in your backpack when you're on the move.

If it's too hot to wear a jacket or sweater during the day, try tying it around your waist or looping it through your backpack straps to conserve space.

Bring the smallest items that you can use.

You'll save space by bringing the smallest possible versions of your necessary items. For example, although it may be more cost-effective to buy a regular tube of toothpaste for a two-week trip, two travel-size tubes add less bulk to your bag.

Apply this philosophy to tech gadgets, too. You probably don't need to bring a tablet or laptop if you can access the internet and social media via your smartphone. You may not even need to bring a separate camera, since smartphone cameras can take some pretty high-quality photos these days.

Buy things as you go.

Unless you're traveling in a remote area, you'll likely pass quite a few stores on your trip. That means you don't have to pack those just-in-case items in your bag before you head out. If it turns out that you need an extra sweater for colder nights, you could always grab one on the road.

Don't worry about bringing every possible over-the-counter medicine you might need, either. If you catch a cold, chances are you can find a nearby store stocked with cold medicine, cough drops, and tissues.

Pack tape and plastic bags.

There are a few essentials you might need in the event of an emergency -- items that simply can't wait until you find a store. Throw a small roll of duct or gaffers tape in your backpack. This can come in handy if any holes or tears develop in your bag or the straps break. Pack a few plastic bags, too; you can use them to separate wet or dirty items from the rest of your belongings. Plastic bags also come in handy as an extra waterproofing layer when you're traveling in inclement weather.


If you're accustomed to traveling with an entire array of suitcases and bags, the idea of hitting the road with a single backpack is probably somewhat daunting. But if you make a few key changes to the way you pack, you'll find that backpacking can be a fun, stress-free way to travel.


Jennifer Blair is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

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