The 30l Backpacker
A packing guide for the lightweight long-term traveller.
Over the past years, I have collected and shared different kinds of advice on making a great travel experience. Some of those advices are connected with packing and after several years of iteration, it’s time to summarize those learnings in form of a go-to packing list.
Packing efficiently and reducing luggage unlocks benefits that can have a deep impact on the way traveling feels like. Handling a small and light backpack throughout transportation between places is not only more comfortable but also just generally less stressful and therefore more enjoyable. Also, being able to take luggage as carry on into a plane or bus is often cheaper and also dramatically reduces the risk of loss or damage. And those planning for a real backcountry adventure have obvious pragmatic reasons to pack as light as possible.
But that’s just one direction we can aim for when packing efficiently. It also allows to take specialized hiking-, camping-, and sports-equipment that give us access to unique outdoor experiences. Those things need space and when we want to fit them without ruining our back then we better minimize our luggage already when packing the basics.
Packing the Basics
Just like everyone else, I took way too much luggage on my first long trip. I brought an extendable 65l travel backpack and a 30l hiking backpack — both fully packed. Several years later, I still bring the same backpacks but now they mostly carry climbing gear — and overall it’s still less luggage than what I started with. Would I not be loaded with ropes, harnesses and carabiners, I would for sure be globetrotting with no more than hand luggage these days.
What I learned in the meantime can be put in one simple sentence:
Bring minimal, multi-functional and combinable equipment for the climates and situations you plan for.
After several years of regular travelling around the globe, I feel like I found a well-rounded combination of equipment to bring on long trips. The list contains everything needed for a trip ranging from a month to years with casual activities in mind. It will usually fit a 30l backpack but when travelling to hot and cold climate zones during the same trip then a 35l might be more appropriate.
Obviously we don’t only need to decide what to bring but with clothes also how much of everything. How much we bring mostly depends on the washing interval that we are planning for. I recommend one week intervals and that’s what the list is optimized for. Also, I am a man and women will want to bring some different stuff. But despite all cliches, those differences shouldn’t have a noticeable impact on the overall volume and weight.
To really fit everything on the list, there are some important tricks to note before we start packing: Storing clothes in 4–5 packing bags not only helps to compress them but it also keeps them clean and organized. Most importantly, packing bags significantly speed up the frequent unpacking and packing activities during a trip. Rolling bigger pieces of clothes will also save some space. And yes, this is how boring all your adventurous friends really are: They exchange about the most efficient ways to fold socks.
That’s enough of grandmother’s wisdom for now! Let’s have a look at the first part of the list:
- 8 Light Underpants
- 8 Pairs of Socks (types vary according to climate)
- 4–8 Merino T-Shirts
- 1–2 Merino Long-Sleeves
- 1–2 Casual Long-Sleeves
- 1–2 Pairs of Outdoor Pants
- 1 Pair of casual Pants (optional in warm climates or full outdoor mode)
- 1 Gore Tex Rain & Wind Jacket
- 1 Micro Down Jacket (all but tropical climates)
- 1 Pair of long Merino underpants (all cold climates)
- 1 Thick Fleece (only very cold climates)
- 1 Pair of Gloves (all cold climates)
- 1-2 Pairs of Shorts (all warm climates)
- 1 Pair of Bathing Shorts (optional)
Let’s start with the Merino shirts: Merino wool is a fascinating material and I didn’t believe the hype until I tried it myself. Now it’s somewhat the backbone of my packing strategy. For less than half of the space and weight of an average cotton shirt, Merino shirts are the best possible choice for basically every activity and climate zone — either as T-Shirts in hot conditions or as a base layer in cold climates. Because they dry even faster than synthetics and don’t easily smell, they can easily be worn twice — even when sweating. They also come in elegant colors and motives so they’re a good fit for all kinds of situations.
The next step to reduce volume is exchanging all normal pullovers with functional long sleeves. I usually go for medium thickness which provides an excellent volume-to-warmth ratio when made of the right material. Again, Merino long-sleeves are highly recommended as they make the perfect 2nd layer in all cold climates. Optionally, adding a thick fleece to the mix will get us covered for temperatures way below freezing point.
A micro down is probably the most important space-saver for everyone who doesn’t plan a trip entirely in tropical climates. The warmth to volume ratio of a micro-down is unbeaten which makes it our weapon of choice as the final isolation layer against the cold. As a top layer, a light Gore Tex jacket protects us against rain, wind and snow in all kinds of climates.
Considering long pants, bringing the right two pairs is definitely enough. I usually bring one more fashionable pair for urban activities and one for outdoor adventures. I found a fashionable pair of outdoor pants that I’d wear during normal hikes and in fancy restaurants alike. When travelling in dominantly warm climates where shorts are the default, it’s also fine to only bring one pair of pants. In cold climates, adding a base layer of Merino underpants keeps our legs comfortably warm in otherwise freezing cold conditions.
All of the above combined will be sufficient for all but the most extreme cold climates without making any noticeable compromises in comfort. On many trips you will face predominantly warm or cold climates anyways, so you won’t need to bring everything on that list. Yet, high altitudes, even in tropical climates, as well as chilly desert nights should not be underestimated. In doubt, bringing a micro down jacket has never turned out to be a waste of space.
- Light Sports or Outdoor Shoes
- Sandals (all warm climates, otherwise optional)
As a primary pair, I recommend bringing some light and fashionable sports or outdoor shoes that you feel comfortable wearing in a nice restaurant, a walking or bicycle tour and on easy hikes alike. Sandals are a must when your journey takes you to the tropics. But they are also just as useful around beaches, hostels and pools.
- Hat / Cap
- 4-Port USB Charger
- Power Bank
- Drawstring Bag
- Packing Bags
- Passport Cover
- Headlamp (optional)
- Power Converter (if needed)
Most of the listed accessories should be straightforward, but you might wonder why to bring a 4 port USB charger. Especially when staying in dorms, you will often run into situations with few and often occupied power plugs. Instead of being one of those unplugging bastards, it’s time to share some love now! Exchange one of those single or double ego-chargers with your quadrupel mega-social power-hub and everyone is going to be happy! True story.
A power bank is useful when there is no chance to charge our precious phone or camera in a safe place. We can charge the power bank on any plug and later use it to charge our devices in a locker or while carrying them with us. Also perfect for playing your favorite mobile game on long bus rides and flights.
Exploring bat caves in Laos, finding the dorm bed after clubbing in Lisbon or repelling hundreds of meter in the pitch dark from a mountain in Jordan: I love my headlamp. What has saved my ass on difficult hikes several times already, is just useful in so many other situations. That’s why I bring it on every trip. Your phone’s torch might also do the job. But I can’t live without my headlamp.
A drawstring bag is a perfect secondary backpack for easy hikes and sightseeing activities. It doesn’t consume a notable amount of space when stored away and is just perfect in all situations where you want to take some stuff for sightseeing or bathing but bringing your travel backpack would be overkill.
- Toiletry bag / Necessaire (with a Hook)
- Toothbrush & Floss
- Earplugs (Silicon)
- Quick Dry Towel
To fit all bathroom stuff in one small toiletry bag, it’s worth buying or rebottling bathroom liquids in small containers and refilling them along the way. Considering the quick dry towel, a medium sized one really does the job.
- Standard Bandages
- Blister Bandages for Feet
- Fever reducing Meds
- Anti Diarrhea Meds
- Wound Disinfectant
- Hand Sanitizer (all places with problematic hygenia)
- Antihistamines (in case of known allergies)
- Other prescribed Meds (when needed)
Good blister bandages can be a rare find but often make all the difference between joy and suffering on a trip. Definitely bring them when you’re not used to walking long distances or when bringing new shoes.
When you have severe allergies, always bring antihistamines that you know work well for you. When travelling, it’s hard to know in advance what allergenes you might be exposed to and how quickly you need to react.
The meds on the list are mostly intended to buy time before having the opportunity to see a doctor. Don’t take diarrhea and fever easily during travelling — especially not in the tropics. They can be symptoms of a severe disease or infection and might require immediate treatment.
One word about antibiotics: Bacteria tend to have local variants and many of those variants are creating resistances against various antibiotics. That’s why it is often counter-productive to use standard broadband antibiotics from your pharmacy at home while travelling. Unless you are going to places where healthcare is basically inaccessible, better consult a local doctor when you think you’re suffering from an infection. They know about local resistances and will prescribe working antibiotics.
- Translations: Google Translate
- Offline Maps: Maps.me / Osmand
- Hiking & Outdoor Activities: Wikiloc
Google Translate is especially strong in places where you cannot even read letters and where learning the basics of a language is already hard. Google Translate has come a long way and is now capable of translating everything from street signs to entire menus directly from a phone camera. It also works well with languages that don’t use latin characters like Japanese, Hebrew and Arabic.
Even when you buy a local SIM card, offline maps can still be valuable as they don’t eat up your often limited data. Maps.me is perfect for cities while Osmand shines in the wilderness with its hillshades and contour lines.
For all kinds of hiking, Wikiloc is like a fountain of inspiration for trails and routes all over the world. And it doesn’t stop there: From kayaking to paragliding, Wikiloc has it all. It’s a gigantic collection of GPS tracks with descriptions for basically every activity that you can think of. It often saves the need of taking a guide and allows you to explore a national park on your own terms. In places with less developed tourism it can make all the difference when good outdoor guidebooks and trail markings are rare finds.
About Mobile Internet
Unless you have special roaming conditions available, buying a local Prepaid SIM card is generally a good idea when staying in a country for more than 2 weeks. Prices vary quite a bit from country to country with decent data plans ranging from $5 — $50 per month. As internet access is predominantly provided through mobile networks in developing countries, mobile internet there is often fast, widely available and cheaper than in wealthy countries. That makes it a good alternative to hostel Wifis which tend to collapse under the load of too many data greedy devices.
The cheapest option: Just disconnect.
- 2 credit cards
- ID card
- Driver’s licence (plus an international licence when required)
- Access to online banking
- Vaccination pass (all places with vaccination requirements)
You can lose quite a lot of things on your journey and you will get over it. But when you lose your passport, your ID and your credit cards all at once — then you have a real problem. That’s why it’s important to not only bring backups like a second credit card and your ID but to also keep them safe and separate.
When your passport gets lost then your ID will make it relatively easy to get a temporary passport at your respective embassy. In many situations you can continue your journey within a few days and cross borders with a temporary passport as if it was a regular one. One noticeable exception from this rule is the US where foreigners cannot enter with a temporary passport — not even when in transit.
With credit cards it’s a similar situation: As long as you still have one credit card left, you can always even buy an entire new set of equipment if it comes down to it. But when you lose all your credit cards then things get tricky even though it’s not the end of the world. Most banks will send a replacement card to an address abroad via express delivery. But express in this case regularly means 1–3 weeks. In situations like this, you might still be able to get cash from other travellers or your host in exchange for a bank transfer to bridge the gap. But it’s really not a comfortable situation to be in.
That being said, I’ve been lucky to have never lost anything to thieves or robbers even though I have travelled some places with serious security issues. In my case, it looks like the person that I should be most careful about is myself: Almost every time that I was close to lose an important document, it was me being scatterbrained. Nevertheless, I heard enough first hand stories from other travellers that I never want to experience myself.
Avoiding the worst case scenario
Always keep your ID and one of your credit cards in a different place than your passport and your other credit card.
While on the road, always keep your passport and primary credit card separate from your wallet and wear them hidden at your body. Most criminals target wallets, phones and cameras but don’t care much about passports.
While staying in a place, keep your passport and backup credit card in a safe place at your accommodation. Instead, carry your ID and a (digital) copy of your passport and Visa with you.
Now that we saved so much space and weight packing the basics, we can also consider bringing some of the fun stuff! As not everyone brings their own surfboard or climbing gear, I will focus on the classics — hiking and camping equipment.
- Hiking boots
- Rain pants (all wet climates)
- Bottle / Camelback (optional)
- Knife (optional)
The hiking addon doesn’t really add much to the luggage as long as hiking was already at the back of our minds when planning out the basics. Bringing hiking boots usually means that we will wear them while travelling between places so that they don’t use up extra space. With the right backpack we can easily tie and store our normal shoes outside of the backpack. Rain pants should be really thin and therefore tiny when folded. Everything else on the list is desirable but not mandatory when hikes are just occasional. Overall, taking some hiking extras should not make it necessary to bring a bigger backpack.
- Sleeping Mat
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Linen
- Sleeping Pillow (optional)
- Camping Stove
- Camping Pot
- Camping Cups
- Camping Cutlery
With the camping addon, we will inevitably end up with a bigger backpack. And that might be worth it when going to places like Patagonia or California where camping is both, awesome and a big money saver. In any case, packing lightweight is obviously even more important when going on multi-day hikes with camping equipment.
Most importantly: Feel comfortable
When it’s your first time backpacking and you still don’t know how you’d possibly pack that small for your upcoming trip — don’t worry. This post is meant as an inspiration and nothing more. I bought most of the special and rather expensive stuff on the list (like Merino clothes and micro down) over the course of several years while iteratively optimizing my luggage. Also some things will always just be more important to some people than to others.
When you are already an experienced traveller then I hope that I still had some good hints for you here and there. And when you can think of some optimizations that didn’t make it into this article then I’m looking forward to hear about them in the comments!
Enjoy your next trip!