In or Out: How to Pack for a Month-Long Trip

Have you seen the beginner backpacker? They’re easy to find near the luggage carousel at any major airport. The first-time backpacker is the one struggling to get a much too heavy (but shiny new) North Face from the ground to its rightful position. They are under-prepared and overpacked.

A real talent for packing comes from experience, but there are certain truths which all wise backpackers can pass on. I was once the tiny pair of legs sticking out under a backpack filled with almost my whole wardrobe, and I don’t want to put any prospective traveler through this torture unnecessarily.

Backpack Zipper

It’s easy to pack for a weekend away. Throw every outfit you’ll need in your backpack, then one more “just in case”, and zip it up. But if you’re going to be on the road for a few weeks, the process gets a bit trickier.

Mom Said: Pack Light

The nature of your trip is the first consideration when you’re planning your packing.

Long walks to train stations, constant checking in and out of hostels, bringing your pack to a gallery before you move on to the next city: you might be surprised just how often you’ll carry around your backpack.

The nature of your trip is the first consideration when you’re planning your packing.

If you’ve done enough planning to know you’ll be spending a week or so in the same accommodation, and changing location using convenient transport, then perhaps you can afford to pack heavier. But I wouldn’t.

Even the best plans go awry — that’s what makes traveling fun — and that’s why packing light is right. All the old adages are actually true, especially the one I always repeat when I’m on my bedroom floor with a full backpack and another pile of maybes: “If in doubt, leave it out”. I promise that this has to be your basic packing principle.

An important corollary to packing light is making sure your clothes mix and match. It is much more important to get to the end of the day without breaking your back than it is to follow all the latest fashion trends. Besides, you don’t even know yet what’s actually fashionable where you’re traveling.

Four Seasons in One Day

Research the likely weather at your destination. And then remember that the weather is one of the most unwieldy weapons of nature and you simply can’t trust her.

For me, this means including clothes that layer. I’m not strong enough to haul around thick pullovers or fancy raincoats, but I can get warm by putting an extra T-shirt on under my sweater, and stay dry with a thin fold-away rain poncho. When a heap of rain is likely in my destination, I do usually pack a small umbrella, because walking in and out of museums or cafes with a soggy raincoat and wet feet tends to wear thin fast.

At the other extreme, heat and sunshine make me carry a cap and swimsuit wherever I travel. They’re both small, lightweight items that have been useful much more often than I’ve expected. A cap can keep the sun or even the rain off your face, while a swimsuit could help you get into a lake or sea or even into a heated spa in a creaky old Eastern European town or the mountains of Japan. It’s good to be prepared.

A Trip to the Ballet

It’s worth keeping in mind the huge variety of activities that you might undertake on a month-long backpacking trip.

If you plan to do a lot of walking, then a decent pair of hiking shoes is one of the most essential items. But wherever possible, travel with them on your feet rather than carrying them in your backpack. Road test your socks first to avoid the situation of having to stop every few hundred yards to retrieve them from halfway down your boot around your heel. That’s a tip from my bad experience.

Most backpackers sport the grunge look, but try to include some combination that will dress up your appearance a bit. Female travelers can roll up a thin skirt for special occasions; men could try to include a collared shirt that looks presentable without ironing. Thinking ahead like this means you won’t be sitting in the front row at the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow looking really scruffy. Yep, my bad experience too.

Techno-Packing

Gone are the days when travelers need to lug around a Discman and a bundle of CDs. Today’s tiny MP3 players are a godsend.

But be careful that you don’t fill up the extra space with digital camera gadgets, cables for “what if” situations, heavy battery rechargers or anything designated as “spare”. Technology is often heavy, and you probably won’t need anywhere near as much as you think to entertain you: remember, you’re going to be experiencing all these great new things instead.

Last Word: The Three Biggest Backpack Blunders

Books: Nobody needs more than one book in their backpack. Yes, you’ll need something to read on flights or bus trips. But books add weight, so you need to follow the experienced backpacker’s strategy: finish a book first, then go looking for the next one. You can swap it with another traveler for theirs, find a swap shelf in a hostel or simply leave it somewhere and buy a new one.

Hair dryer: Backpacks should come with a large label saying “no hair dryers allowed”. They’re bulky, the voltage might be wrong, you might not even have a power outlet, and above all, your hair will dry naturally. And half the time you’ll stay in a place that includes a hair dryer anyway.

Shoes: You don’t need six pairs of shoes. I promise. Shoes are heavy, shoes are bulky, and nobody sees them. Most of my long trips have been made with hiking shoes (on my feet) and a pair of flip-flops in my backpack. The flip-flops work great for grotty bathrooms, beach trips and a drink out in the evening. Comfortable walking shoes are the key for the rest of your traveling moments.

16 Responses

  1. Stacy

    Great tips! The RSS feed says this is written by Amanda, but here on the site it says Mike. What’s up? I’ve been reading your posts on my Google Reader, and this is the first time I’ve seen your new look. I like it!

    Reply
  2. Mike Richard
    Mike

    Thanks for the kudos, Stacy! I just posted the new design last night.

    Not sure what’s up with the author byline though since this was posted by Amanda. I noticed the Amanda/Mike thing too. I have a few new authors and contributors to introduce over the coming days/weeks.

    Reply
  3. Rene

    I swear by the Go Lite backpackikng philosophy, whether it’s a week in the mountains, a month on my motorcycle, or a year in my RV.

    My best advice: Skip the preposterous gadgetry. My friend Ted Simon traveled to the most remote parts of the world, twice, by motorcycle, and never took a GPS with him. He got lost a few times, and had a blast.

    Reply
  4. Mr Yap

    Instead of carrying books, I usually buy newspapers the day of my arrival and departure. It weighs less than a book, keeps you well informed of what’s happening in your host country, serves as scrap paper to scribble notes and emergency as a toilet roll.

    Reply
  5. Rob O.

    I like to take a hefty fistfull (or two) of magazines. I read them along the way then simply leave them in the seatback pocket or wherever for the next lucky traveler to enjoy. Long before the end of my trip, I’ve dwindled down my entire magazine stash and have made room in my bags for the trip home for a few souvenirs.

    Reply
  6. Jay

    Amanda…do you have any specific #s for a month-long trip? (Thailand)

    e.g. 10 pairs of socks

    Reply
  7. Terry

    If you are only planning to wear some thing once, don’t take it (exception: an event trip for which the outfit is necessary)

    If you are thinking of packing 10 prs of socks, pack only 5 pairs.

    If you are planning to be away for a month, think of what to bring for 7 or 8 days AND THAT IS ALL. Wear outfits more than once. Mix and match, as well.

    Reply
  8. KAMIBACKPACKERS | » 25 Tricks for Traveling Lighter

    [...] “If in doubt, leave it out.”: If you think an item might be handy but you aren’t totally sure you’ll use it, leave it home. If it’s something you can’t get along without, take it. Anything that raises doubt isn’t necessary for your trip, and if you wind up wanting it, you can just buy a replacement. [...]

    Reply
  9. Caitlin

    This post was extremely helpful–I am about to embark upon a 5 week road trip and am definitely struggling with packing light. Especially shoes. Seriously, it’s a problem. I can think of EIGHT PAIRS I really, really, really, really, really, REALLY want to bring…because I’m ridiculous (just ask my boyfriend…).

    One of them is my trail runners, which is obviously an essential.

    The other seven? Regular running shoes, three different pairs of sandals, dressy flats, Converse sneakers, and a pair of lace up boots with a slight heel.

    (Go on, say it–I’m RIDICULOUS!)

    The practical girl who grew up gallavanting through the woods and had baby-dreads from swimming a LOT and refusing to comb her hair knows this is the stupidest thing ever to be seriously considering bringing 8 pairs of shoes for a 5 week trip.

    But my inner street-style afficianado keeps screaming BUT THEY COMPLETE MY LOOKS!

    How often will I be in an actual city where anything but my hikers would be necessary on this trip? Grand total? 7-8 days at best.

    I’m ridiculous. :(

    Reply
  10. victoria

    the thing I’ve been wondering is: you should i take a towel with me? i’m planning a month long trip and probably wont be staying at hotels, so, is it necessary? I hesitate because it is pretty bulky…

    Reply
  11. NLM

    Pack light and then…DON’T WORRY. You’ll either miss something or you won’t. If you do, buy it on the road; if you don’t, your back will thank you!

    Reply
  12. Maxine

    Pair of hiking boots and flip flops might work for some trips but if you want to look good in a bar, neither of those two will work. lol.

    I liked the book swap idea. I hate e-readers and i am dreading carrying many books, but I love to read, so your tips were great. Thanks.

    Reply
  13. Lisa B.

    Add one pair of ballet flats, or one low-cut top (so no one notices your shoes).

    Reply

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