Travel Hacks

How to Pack Your Life in a Backpack

Lettie Stratton
February 19, 2024

One of the most intimidating aspects of long-term travel can be how and what to pack. Even the most seasoned of travelers can have trouble narrowing down the items in their piles enough to fit into a backpack. Where does one even begin? How can you possibly fit everything you need?

Whether you’re pursuing solo travel or are part of a group, and whether you’re a first-time globetrotter or have been around the block a time or two, these packing tips can help you hone your packing chops so pre-trip prep intimidation is a thing of the past.

Define The Purpose of The Trip

A woman sitting on the floor with her backpack

There are many reasons to travel. Travel can inspire creativity, help you find your true passions, and aid you in becoming a better world citizen. No matter what your reason is, one thing is essential for the packing process: you must determine your purpose for needing or wanting to pack your life up in a backpack in the first place.

Perhaps you’re traveling to give back to a local community, or maybe you’re using your trip to gain a new perspective and a fresh start. Your answer to the aforementioned question will influence both what and how you pack.

Here are a few more specific questions to get you started:

  • How long is your trip? Will you be gone for a month? Six months? A year?
  • What are the primary activities you will be doing while you’re traveling? Will you participate in outdoor activities like hiking and biking? Will you spend most of your time pursuing leisure activities? Will you be working?
  • What are your absolute essentials that you cannot live without (medication, personal care items, etc.)?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to figure out what they mean. This part is pretty straightforward. If you’re mainly going to be outside, be sure to pack plenty of quick-dry layers, for example. If you’ll be in cities or towns frequenting restaurants and museums, be sure to pack appropriate clothing. Make a list of activity-specific gear you think you might need before putting anything at all in your bag.

Organize your items

Travel supplies on top of a map
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

The next step is to organize. This is hyper-relevant if you’re going on a longer trip (six months to a year) because you really want to be sure you don’t forget anything. Of course, organizing your items is much easier if you have the skills to stay organized in your day-to-day life.

The packing process will be much, much easier if you don’t have to spend hours searching for your outlet adapter and wondering where in the world your rain jacket has gotten off to. Additionally, it’s important to organize not only your things, but also to organize your week to help you meet your packing goals day by day.

Start with a piece of paper and a pen and make a list of everything you think you might need. Then gather those items and put them in piles, organized by type: electronics in one pile, shorts in another, then t-shirts, etc. It really helps to be able to see all of your gear laid out in one place before you pack it.

Resources like this general packing guide are a great place to start when you’re making your first piles. Make a mark next to any item you don’t have and will need to borrow or purchase. Check, double-check, and triple-check your list.

Some basic guidelines I like to follow are listed here:

  • Something to sleep in
  • Something to be active in
  • Something to look nice-ish in
  • Everyday wear
  • Something to swim in
  • Toiletries/personal care items
  • Small bag for daily journeys

The key here is multipurpose. You want to bring shoes you can wear on the trail and in town, for example, and layers that look great at dinner but are comfortable enough to lounge around in. Make sure multiple items can work with multiple outfits.

Be Harsh

Photo by Philipp Kämmerer / Unsplash

Being harsh is the hardest part of packing. Knowing what you need to leave behind can be just as important as knowing what to bring. Leave your items and gear out of your backpack for one week. Each day, take one thing out of your pile. I know, I know —You’re probably saying, “but I might need this!” or “I definitely might use/wear it once or twice!”

While that may be true, you need to prioritize functional and multi-purpose items that can serve you in a variety of situations. Remember, you’re literally going to be carrying all of your possessions on your back — so choose wisely. Luckily, inspiration is available — just take a look at this man who only owns 15 things.

Packing isn’t so bad if you take it one step at a time and remain motivated and willing to cut down your pile a bit each day until you have just what you need — nothing less and nothing more. By defining your trip’s purpose, spending time organizing, and being harsh about your choices, you’ll be well on your way to a well-packed backpack to accompany you on your travels.

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Maybe you're not going on a full-blown backpacking trip - so we've put together some ultimate packing guides for some of our favorite destinations!

Lettie Stratton
Lettie Stratton is a writer and urban farmer in Boise, ID. A Vermont native, she is a lover of travel, tea, bicycles, plants, cooperative board games, and the outdoors. She’s still waiting for a letter from Hogwarts.


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