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Travel the World with a Backpack: 12 Tips to Pack Light

The following 12 tips make it possible to travel with check-in only, traveling with a backpack only, meaning faster, easier jumps from airport to destination.

About our Guest Blogger:

 Travelling without check-in luggageA guest blog by our friend and world traveler Natasha Paterson from Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Natasha and her husband Ed became avid travellers after they got married. Natasha was coerced to go on a trip for their honeymoon, instead of saving their money. Since then they have both been hooked, to date having travelled to 34 countries on 5 continents together. Like us, they prefer nonconventional independent travel over tour packages. 

We enjoy independent travel where we can get off the beaten path and spend time getting to know the local people and culture. Knowing how to travel well is a valuable life skill, and we love brushing up on our travel skills any chance we get! –Natasha Paterson

Tips for packing light

My husband and I have visited 34 countries together. We travel for weeks at a time living out of a backpack each. And every trip, we try to pack lighter because we’ve found that the less we bring, the more fun we have. We usually only take what will fit in carry-on luggage, which allows us to start our vacation as soon as we get off the plane – no waiting to collect luggage.

To start off, here’s a packing list that you can tailor to your own needs. You can save it and use it at your leisure. Click here: Packing List.

Here are 12 tips we’ve learned over the years:

how to travel with just a backpack

1. Cut it in half

Most people pack twice as much as they need – if not more. So review everything you plan to bring and see if you can eliminate half of it!

2. Choose a colour palette

In order to get the most out of a limited wardrobe, start by choosing a colour palette (for example: black, grey, burgundy and blue). Try to choose darker colours if the climate allows since they don’t show dirt as easily. If you keep your chosen palette in mind as you select your wardrobe, everything you bring can easily be mixed and matched.

3. Wear it three ways

Each item you bring should be able to be used in multiple ways. If an item can only be worn/used in one way, seriously consider if you’ll get enough use out of it. A few examples:

  • Dressy sports sandals can be worn with a skirt, pants, shorts, or on the beach with a bikini.
  • A functional travel skirt can be dressed up to be worn out to dinner, or worn as a beach cover up.
  • A soft scarf can be used to dress up an outfit, as a head covering when the culture requires it, or as a pillow case on a plane or train.
  • Comfortable, attractive pants can be worn out to dinner, hiking and site-seeing and even on an overnight flight or train.

4. Try it out/break it in

It is especially important to break in shoes and boots before a trip. It’s best to start by wearing them for short time periods (or when you’re not standing or walking for long). Then take them out for some longer walks.
It’s also a good idea to wear, and wash, clothes before your trip to test them out. If the tag in the back collar drives you crazy, remove it. If an item shrinks after the first wash and no longer fits, that’s good to know before your trip! If something requires ironing before each wear, forget it.

5. Skimp and splurge

Items like pants and jackets don’t need to be changed and washed as regularly as items like socks and underwear. Pants and jackets take a lot of space, so skimp on how many you will take and instead splurge by using the extra space on extra socks and underwear. You won’t have to do laundry as frequently this way.

6. Bring some extra bags

Ziploc bags always seem to come in handy. Also a laundry bag and/or a shoe bag allows you to keep dirty things separate from clean things and minimize the use of disposable plastic bags which are bad for the environment.

7. Keep the essentials with you

If your luggage got lost, what would you NEED in order to carry on with your trip? In a worst-case scenario, if you had your camera, necessary paperwork and cash, a change of clothes and some basic toiletries (and medication if necessary), you could probably make the best of things without having to spend a day shopping. So always keep these essentials in your carry-on. Even if everything fits into carry-on, keep your essentials at the very top of the bag so if you’re forced to check something, you can grab your essentials quickly.

8. Only use carry-on sized toiletries

Even if you do plan to check luggage, if you make it a habit to pack carry-on sized toiletries, it will help you pack light, and you won’t have to worry if you accidentally pack something in the wrong bag.

9. Wash and wear

Washing items along the way allows you to pack lighter. If you’re tight for time, or don’t feel like doing laundry, you can often pay to have your clothes washed for a very reasonable fee.

10. Wear your bulky items on the plane

If you’re bringing hiking boots, jeans and a sweater, wear all that on the plane. It will allow you to fit more in your bags. Don’t forget, they weigh and measure your bags, not you.

11. Be ruthless

People are unique. Trips are unique. Your packing list should be unique. It should evolve to suit the trip you’re about to take, and your comfort level. I’ve provided a sample packing list, but all the items are not necessary for every trip. Scratch as many items off the list as you think you can. Add items you know you can’t live without.

12. You can always buy it there…

What happens if you run out of shampoo, or you wish you had brought an extra sweater? Then you have a good excuse to go shopping on vacation! So, if in doubt, leave it at home. You’ll likely find you get along just fine without it.


Remember, no one ever says, “I wish I packed more stuff.”

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  1. Nathan & Danica
    13 December, 2015 at 9:39 pm Reply

    Any suggestions you have to travel light and keep it all in carry-on? Let us know!

  2. Arefa
    6 February, 2016 at 10:44 am Reply

    Hi Danica,
    Awesome tips to pack a travel backpack and made it lightweight.
    Thanks for the nice sharing.

    • Nathan & Danica
      6 February, 2016 at 8:47 pm Reply

      Thanks Arefa, glad you liked it! Any travel backpack recommendations?

  3. Keith & Robin
    3 April, 2016 at 9:37 pm Reply

    Great article! I have a tip of what NOT to do when travelling. Don’t buy books every place you stop. Your bag will get real heavy, real fast and you will have to lug those things around with you till you get home. If you want the book so bad, order it when you get home and spare your back.

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