The first commandment of adventurers everywhere, “Thou shalt not travel with anything thou cannot carry at a dead run for half a mile and store under thy seat.”
I ain’t fakin’ nothin’ that’ll slow down my travelin’…
Before planning what to bring on your trip, it’s important to pick the best backpack or suitcase for your needs.
Choosing a smaller bag is the first step towards avoiding that largest of mistakes (bringing too much stuff). It is also a way to automatically limit what you bring along. The key is to find a bag that you can be happy with over an extended period of time.
Suitcase or Backpack?
Whether you bring a suitcase or backpack depends on the nature of your trip. Suitcases are more likely to be useful if you:
- will be “headquartered” in one motel while you tour the countryside
- have a myriad of things that you really do need to take (too much for a backpack)
- have no need to keep things with you during the day
- will be traveling by car (rather than public transportation)
In contrast, backpacks:
- work particularly well if you are staying at a new location each night
- encourage more efficient packing
- provide increased security
- speed up the packing process
Packing everything in a backpack also means limiting yourself to one bag, an exercise seen as a virtue by many seasoned travelers.
Benefits of One Bag
Traveling with one bag most likely means that you will:
- worry less about your things
- be more comfortable walking around
- save your back, and
- have a happier trip
The one bag you take could be a carry-on with wheels instead of a backpack. However, even in situations where a suitcase would be perfectly fine, many minimalist travelers simply prefer a backpack.
Skip the Wheels
Travel bags with wheels are nearly three times as heavy as bags the exact same size without wheels. In addition, the bag with wheels often results in a loss of up to a third – or even half – of available packing space.
So travelers pay triple the weight penalty in fees for rolling carry-ons if the bag is checked in, all for the use of wheels that can only be used in the smooth corridors of airports and hotels.
The minute you get out in the real world, bumping down cobblestone streets – or worse yet, unpaved roads with unpleasant organic materials strewn between ruts, the wheels quickly lose their value.
What Size Bag?
Suitcases: If you do opt for a suitcase and are flying to your destination, stick with a smaller size, so you don’t have to check in your bag.
Many airlines now have limits of 45 inches for bags – length plus depth plus width. Sometimes they allow for a little larger than this, but not much.
Backpacks: As long as your loaded backpack weighs less than 40-45 liters you should be fine. If your backpack is much bigger than that, you may face extra airline fees or have trouble squeezing onto crowded buses. Some bus drivers also charge extra if they think a backpack is too big.
Because backpacks are the bag of choice for most minimalist travelers, the remainder of this chapter will focus on backpack selection.
Choosing a Backpack Type
There are two basic types of backpacks, both of which have their place in the right situation:
Top-loading packs, just as the name implies, open on the uppermost side. Because they hold more, top-loading packs are generally better for longer trips.
On the down side (no pun intended), their top-loading feature does make it more difficult to access items at the bottom of the pack.
Front-loading packs, of the type commonly used by school children, generally feature a zipper that opens up the entire front side.
While this feature allows users to access anything in the pack very quickly, it also puts a lot of stress on the zipper. That’s why front-loading packs are generally used only for day or weekend trips.
Backpack Features to Look For
In selecting a backpack, there are a couple of important features to be aware of.
Though many minimalist travelers have moved in the direction of small tablet computers such as the iPad, some still require a laptop. If you do need to carry your laptop, look for a pack with a laptop pocket.
A “rain fly” is another helpful feature of some of the newer packs. In the event of rain, these backpack covers slide easily over the pack, protecting your gear from moisture. A rain fly is highly recommended – especially if you are traveling through Southeast Asia or other tropical places where heavy rains are particularly common.
Other backpack features to look for would include:
- comfortable shoulder straps
- a padded hip belt (to spread the weight of the pack)
- plenty of outside pockets
Other than the above, don’t dwell too much on the features of the pack. The most important thing is to find one that’s comfortable for you.
Although online shopping certainly has its benefits, the best strategy here is to go to a camping or sporting goods store such as Cabela’s and start trying on packs.
Because no two people are built exactly the same, every person appreciates backpacks in their own unique way.
Finding a backpack that fits comfortably can make a world of difference during your travels.
There are some places in life where you shouldn’t cut corners: a backpack is one of those places. Though it’s possible that you might stumble on the perfect pack for you at a garage sale or in Aunt Millie’s attic, don’t count on it.
Especially for extended trips, you’ll want to look at the more expensive brands.
Otherwise, you risk being marooned in Malaysia with a zipper broken on your main compartment…
A quality backpack is likely to cost you $100 or more. Although the most popular backpack brand right now is Osprey, there are many other good brands. Here is the short list of backpack brands to check out:
- Mountain Hardware
Traveling With Your Backpack
In addition to the task of finding the very best backpack for you, there are a few things to look out for when traveling with a pack.
Checking your backpack at an airport can be stressful because there is a risk of damage to the pack. Packaging your backpack properly can greatly reduce the risk – and fear – of damage.
There are two main ways to protect your backpack if you do need to check it in:
- Place the pack in a larger duffel bag, or
- Secure the protruding parts of the backpack with extra straps.
Duffel Bag Method: Duffel bags designed specifically to protect backpacks during travel can be purchased in outdoor specialty stores.
Put a TSA-approved lock on the backpack zippers when packing it in. This should keep your bag secure during the airport baggage check process.
Straps Method: For this method, it is important that your backpack is filled. That’s because the straps can better secure a backpack that has little extra fabric or room to move.
If you use this method, there won’t be anything between your backpack and the conveyor belts used to move luggage in airports – so you have to cinch it up well.
Start by securing all the straps and buckles that are part of your pack. Allow as few free hanging items as possible. Tuck loose straps into zippered pockets or tie them to loop holes on the pack.
You will likely need 2-3 extra straps for this method. Those extra straps can be pulled around the protruding parts of the backpack (such as the shoulder straps or hip belt). If tightened properly, the extra straps will prevent the pack from getting snagged on conveyor belts.
Square knots are a good way to secure the extra straps – just be sure to pull them tight and tuck in any extra strapping.
Traveling light is a simple and exciting way to see other parts of the world – and of the available choices, a light, comfortable, and easily-organized backpack is one of the best pieces of gear a traveler bent on traveling light can acquire.
Being mobile, or able to carry everything you’ve got, is the key to easy foreign travel. If you think you’re strong, try picking up all your equipment and walking around the block.
The day on which one starts out is not the time to start preparations.