Packing your travel backpack involves a lot of trial and error. Things you swear you couldn’t live without will end up being dumped along the way, and things you didn’t realize you needed will be added to the growing packing list for the next trip.
Over the course of many trips abroad, I’ve met people who have packing down to a fine art, but also people who seem to miss the point of packing light entirely. Here is a list of the top six packing mistakes I’ve encountered, and how to avoid them.
A Stack of Books
An extended trip abroad may seem like the perfect time to get through the complete works of Dickens, or to re-read the entire Harry Potter series. Unless you’ve downloaded them all onto an e-reader, then, trust me, it isn’t. A stack of books will add unnecessary weight to your backpack, and you’ll regret it (or end up dumping them) when your back starts to ache.
What to Pack Instead: An E-reader, Or a Single Book
An e-reader is perfect for long travel, as you can download countless books (often for free, or very cheaply) to keep you occupied on long trips. If this isn’t for you, then try to limit yourself to carrying just one book at a time, and remember that you can exchange each book at a hostel or second-hand bookshop when you’ve finished.
All the Food Needed for the Whole Trip
Yes, this is something I’ve encountered on the road. Some people are convinced that the food in other countries is made up of pure poison, and refuse to eat anything they haven’t brought from their own country.
On a recent trip to Nepal, I met a woman who was shocked that I ate the local food, and had brought a month’s worth of granola bars and crackers from the U.S. I have also encountered a man who was so obsessed with sticking to his diet that he carried giant bags of beans and rice, which he’d cook in massive batches on the hostel stove (much to the annoyance of everyone else who was trying to use the kitchen).
Not only does bringing your own food prevent you from trying new dishes on the road (in my opinion, one of the greatest parts of world travel), it is also an absurd amount to add to your luggage.
What to Pack Instead: A Water Filter, Multivitamins, and Medicine
Food in other countries is not dangerous. Water, however, may be. Be sure to bring a water filter bottle or purification tablets to avoid leaving a trail of plastic bottles in your wake. If you’re concerned about getting a balanced diet, try some multivitamins as a health boost (though, honestly, the benefits of these are inconclusive at best). And yes, eating new food in a new country may lead to an upset stomach, so be sure to have some medicine handy for both diarrhea and nausea as you travel the world.
Lots of Electronics
Some people swear that they cannot get by without their laptop, iPad, smartphone, and all the gadgets that go along with them. Not only are these expensive items begging to be stolen, they can add a tremendous amount of weight to your travel bag. Unless they’re absolutely essential (for example, if you’re working on the road), leave them behind.
What to Pack Instead: A Small Tablet (or Nothing!)
A small tablet will do most of the jobs of a laptop and is useful when a WiFi connection is available. But it usually isn’t essential- don’t forget, you can always use public computers when on the road.
Hair Products and Cosmetics
Your hair will not look its best when traveling, and it’s best to just accept this early on. While you may want to treat yourself to some heavy-duty conditioner (to control the frizz, if you’re like me!), you don’t need a whole host of styling gadgets and unnecessary hair products. And I will never cease to be amazed at the people who bring hair dryers on long trips.
It’s also not worth using up precious packing space on makeup and other beauty products. Traveling is a time when you can forget about caring what you look like. Not to mention that giving your skin and hair a break from makeup and styling is better for them in the long run!
What to Pack Instead: A Scarf and Moisturizer
Bring a small scarf to cover your hair at its most out-of-control, and bring a decent moisturizer to protect your skin. And enjoy the freedom of not having to carry a bunch of products, or to spend time on your appearance each morning!
Clothes For Every Occasion
I often meet other travelers who always seem to be impeccably dressed and glamorous. One girl I travelled with for a while in South America, wore a different outfit each time I saw her. When we met up for a night out, she turned up in an immaculately clean white dress and high heels, while I wore sandals, torn cargo pants and a top in need of a wash. However, when I saw the amount of luggage she had brought (so much that she had to get someone to help her move hostels), I certainly didn’t feel envious.
When traveling, there will always be times when you feel scruffy. But if the alternative is bringing a massive suitcase full of clothes then scruffy will do!
What to Pack Instead: Suitable, All-Purpose Clothes
Pack just a few outfits of good-quality clothes that won’t tear or turn see-through after a few bucket washes. Don’t pack according to looking good on your nights out, instead try to take into account where you’re going and what you’ll need on a practical level. Don’t bring clothes that are unsuitable to the climate, or clothes that are immodest when traveling to a conservative country.
When I’m packing for a long trip, I usually try to stick to two pairs of trousers, a pair of shorts, a dress, five tops, one or two jumpers, one jacket, a pair of rugged walking shoes and a pair of sandals. I make sure all my clothes can fit inside one (breathable!) tote bag inside my backpack, and if something can’t, it doesn’t make the cut.
I’ve met people on the road who have packed everything from ankle weights to resistance bands to dumbbells. Yes, dumbbells. Exercise equipment is without a doubt the most unnecessary thing I’ve ever heard of someone packing. It’s understandable to want to stay fit on the road, but bringing equipment to do so is incredibly unnecessary, and adding literal weights to your backpack is insane!
What to Pack Instead: Running Shoes
Chances are, when you’re traveling, you’ll get plenty of exercise walking around cities, hiking through mountains, or trying new activities. For me, if I’m staying in one place for a while, I seek out a dance class to join, that way I get some exercise while learning something new!
If you’re determined for some more strenuous exercise, bring shoes that you can run in and go for a jog. It’s a great way to stay fit while seeing some of your new surroundings. If you want to step your exercise up a notch, try some circuit training, and remember that you don’t need gym equipment when your own body provides weight to train with. I’ve even seen some people bench pressing their backpacks to get their workout fix!
Of course, these are just some tips for practical packing for world travel. Most people will add their own few items they simply don’t want to travel without (I myself have been known to travel with a very impractical toy monkey given to me by a friend). So the final decision, of course, is yours. Just please, please don’t pack dumbbells.