How to pack like a travel ninja.

Sometimes I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.

I constantly meet travelers, first timers and veterans, who look like they stepped out of the STA Travel Catalog. I see them wandering around, giant flashy pack on their back, guidebook in hand, looking for a hostel. I know exactly where they are coming from because I was there too. But after over a decade of traveling, I have honed backpacking down to a science that makes life easier and experiences more rewarding. First step is to forget everything you learned from the STA Travel Catalog.

“The guide says we packed too much”

Search for what to pack for a backpacking trip and you will find more advice than you could ever read. I know because I have read it all. Let me save you the trouble. Ignore it.

Start with 1. the essentials, and then add to your pack according to:

2. what defines your trip
3. where you are going
In that order.

1. Essentials:

Easily the longest and most debatable of the three packing steps is what makes up the essentials.

Requirements: small enough to be carried on to a plane. Golden rule #1, Never check luggage. If your bag isn’t bigger than checked luggage, you have no choice but to pack small. Carry-on backpacks are usually smaller than 30lt or 2000 cubic inches.

Better yet, skip the backpack all together. <gasp!> That’s right, backpacks can be a traveler’s biggest surprise letdown. Why? First, they are expensive. Name brand quality is hard to find under $100. Second, they are make you a shining target for thieves (bag slashers, bus thieves, muggers and taxi kidnappers all mark their victims by their backpacks). Lastly, they separate you from the local population. Granted, a two-meter tall, blonde, blue-eyed Dane will have a hard time not turning heads in on a chicken bus in Guatemala, but if bus robbers skip his things and go for the 50 liter pack belonging to the guy behind him, the Dane wins.

Use what the locals use. Traveling Central America you see few locals carrying big backpacks (small ones, yes), but loads carrying rice sacks. You can get a heavy plastic bag for fifty cents from any little store, pack everything in there to keep from getting wet, then put that in a mesh rice sack or flour sack. Tie the top and sling it over your shoulder and people will be none the wiser. And don’t worry about having to carry it with a hand… having everything on your back is really only needed for people who bring so much they have to put it under or on top of the bus when traveling, and that ain’t you!

Muchacho! No se puede llevarla al avion!

Bathroom stuff.
This can be a female’s Achilles heel. It is so tempting to try to squeeze the shampoo aisle into your new quad-folding bath case with integratedhanger and fogfreemirrorandwaterproof …ugh. Stop. Toothbrush (without special case…this is junk invented by the chinese to sell more plastic crap), small tube of toothpaste, bottle of your preferred shampoo (travel size to be carried on planes), comb if you use it, deodorant, razor.

But you may be sitting at home smelling nice and clean with clear skin and shiny hair and asking yourself, what about my soaps and face washes and conditioners and nail kits and makeup and nose hair trimmers and botox injections and chemical peels? Well, I am not saying you can’t use that stuff while you are traveling; you can find all of those wonderful, modern conveniences in nearly every third world country, though I don’t know how keen you might be on getting botox injections in a Bangladesh back-alley market. Golden rule #2, Live without it for a while, and if you think you need it, get it en route.

This one swings wildly depending on the person, so it is hard for me to really judge. But I am always up to the challenge.

Leave the expensive, quick-dry, light-weight North Face gear at home. Ditch the new hiking boots and for god’s sake do without the bucket hat. Again, main rule, like with the bag, is that none of the local people wear that and you stick out like a sore thumb. And you will find that you will probably not need all that fancy stuff. The Machiguenga aren’t going to be looking at you thinking, “man, I have been living here my whole life but that foreigner sure knows how to dress according to the climate and environmental condititons… gotta get me soma that!” Not that I advocate donning a samurai suit when visiting Japan or running around with just a penis sheath if going to remote African communities, but people in most cultures dress in nondescript pants and shoes, a casual T-shirt or button up and sometimes a baseball cap. Dressing similar is good because your clothing won’t garner stares, you will seem more approachable to the local population, your clothes will survive most of the situations you will probably find yourself in, and, if you need something new, that is what you will find in markets all over the world.

Ok, within reason.

Golden Rule #3, Dress comfortable. If that means packing your North Face gear and new hiking boots, well, okay then.

Bring one set of nice clothes for going out. Look sharp when you go to public places in the evening. You will find, wherever you go out, that often the worst-dressed people in the place are the backpackers. Locals dress nice in public at night, so should you.

Here are the clothes that I usually pack when traveling for four days or four months:

2 pairs of jeans, one casual and one sharp for the evening.

1 pair of shorts, casual looking but good for swimming as well. And for god’s sake ozzies, NO STUBBIES!

4 shirts, two casual t-shirts, one decent-looking button up and one collared polo style

4 undies, feel free to pack more since they squish down small and are light weight. Yes, I do wear them without washing more often than I should. You will too.

4 pairs of socks, two ankle socks for when I am wearing shorts with shoes, two long socks for jeans

1 pair of casual shoes with a thick sole, good for going out or walking the trail

1 pair of flip flops

Essential stuff.
Camera, and I can’t stress that enough. When your trip is done, memories, a few souvenirs and maybe a scar or two will be all you will have. There is a good selection of tough, waterproof point-n-shoots out there, invest!

A pen and small pad that can fit in a pocket will be more useful than you realize.

Sarong or kaffia or anything similar. This is a perfect towel replacement (and it dries quickly), good for wrapping stuff up in (like your head if in the desert) and will have a myriad of other uses.

Small kit with basic necessities like plastic bandages (bandaids or plasters), ibuprofen, condoms, tampons, bc pills.

Headlamp or other small flashlight with batteries that are easily replaceable.

Sort of essential stuff.
Up to you to decide whether to bring your mp3 player or phone. Music can save your life on long trips, and having a phone can help smooth things along when meeting up with people or making reservations. Both can be lived without.

Consider bringing a plastic bag full of trinkets or souvenirs from your home to give to local people you meet along the way. On a trip to New Zealand I brought two dozen Texas Ranger buttons that I found at Wal-Mart for fifty cents each. They were priceless as thank yous and helped cement friendships that continue to this day.

If you wear glasses, bring your hard case and save them from getting stepped on.

Not essential stuff.
Books. Burn em. If you are looking for something to read, pick up a local newspaper or magazine or nick something from the hostal book exchange. Pass it on to someone else when you are finished. Don’t carry more than one and DON’T bring any from home. A guide book is an exception, of course.

Computer. You can find internet cafes even in the most remote areas. It’ll do you some good to drop off the email map for a while, anyway. Prewrite your blog posts on paper to minimize your time having to deal with the crappy connection.

Towel. Believe it. Big, heavy, always damp and will stink before long. And don’t think that one of those goofy travel towels is the answer. Bring a sarong or kaffia instead (see essentials: stuff).

Traveler’s checks. Don’t be the laughing stock of the hostel or the bank you try to cash them at.

Take a look at what I packed for a recent five-day trip to Corn Island:

Click to enlarge. No prescription drugs necessary!

2. What defines your trip.

For most travelers (who will be reading this),  the reason for taking off to foreign lands to go. That’s great, though can be somewhat unfulfilling after a while (that’s touches a whole other backpacking philosophy I will have to expand upon oneathese days). However, this means that they won’t have to pack anything special. Easy. Some people will be going with a real purpose that defines their trip. One fella I met was planning a trip around Europe and the Pacific to visit the WWII graves of his great uncles. Another traveler I spoke with was already six months into her trip hiking to the most remote Mayan ruins that have been discovered. Depending on what defines your trip, you many need to pack more than four pairs of underwear.

This is very specific to each trip so I can’t possibly give specific advise, but just remember when reviewing your “to pack” list that generally, less is better, more is too much and don’t forget the sunscreen. Photographers, pack all your camera equipment. Surfers, don’t forget your board. Hikers, ignore everything I said about backpacks. Creepy old man sex tourists, please god pack extra condoms.

The point here is to bring what you will use and leave behind what you won’t. Most travelers won’t ever need a sleeping bag. Leave it. Some travelers will use their sleeping bag twice in six months. Leave it. You will figure something out.

3. Where you are going

This might be the most obvious, but you would be surprised how many travelers don’t properly account for the conditions they are traveling to. Nights get cold in Xela, Guatemala. Bring a sweater. Sun gets hot in Oz, bring a hat. Sun gets bright on the ocean and on top of Mt. Rainier; don’t forget your sunglasses and sunscreen. The great thing is that when you change climates you can easily sell what you don’t need to travelers heading in the opposite direction.

A few tips on how to pack:

This isn’t regurgitated information you will find rewritten a hundred times in travel forums… this comes from one man’s real experience. So forget all of what you read out there in armchair travel land and listen up because I am about to debunk a few of the “great ideas” floating around.

Bad great idea: rolling clothes instead of folding them
Rolling clothes turns them into cylinders and cylinders aren’t efficiently stackable. Folding clothes like a normal person makes rectangular prisms, which can be stacked with near 100% efficiency. And I don’t want to hear the flashpackers crying out, “what about the wrinkles!?” Folding clothes doesn’t make wrinkles, wadding clothes makes wrinkles. So don’t roll your clothes and save some space for that bottle of duty-free.

Bad great idea: locking your backpack zippers together
This is a recipe for disaster. As soon as you lose your key you are in trouble. If you forget to unlock it before checking it at the airport, you are in trouble. If your bag gets stolen, slashed or you get mugged, the lock won’t matter. Trust me, it’s a bigger headache than savior.

Bad great idea: rolling luggage
Are you an airline pilot or going on a cruise with your great aunt? No. If you insist on rolling luggage, you are lazy and pack too much.

Bad great idea: packing most frequently used stuff at the bottom of your pack
Nobody ever thought that was a great idea; I just made it up. But seriously, common sense dictates that your most frequently used items should be within easy reach, so throw your bathroom stuff in a plastic bag and your other odds n ends in another baggie and keep them somewhere handy.

I’ll pay you this quarter to pick up the dollar I dropped.


That’s it for now. Look, the most important thing to remember when packing for your big trip is to do yourself a favor and keep it small, light and quick. And remember, it’s okay to have a chuckle at the novices lugging around a pine-log sized backpack full of crap they won’t use.  I will leave you with one of the best fortune cookie messages I ever almost ate by mistake:

Happy packing makes happy holiday. Lucky number 3, 16, 23, 43, 48, 55

P.S.  All I know is that I don’t know everything, so I will update this post as good ideas start rolling in from the comments. Dis cuss.



10 Responses to “How to pack like a travel ninja.”