Hong Kong's skyline of skyscrapers backdropped by tropical mountains is not only aesthetically appealing, but also represents one of the most population-dense areas on the planet. By comparison, if the entire population of the US lived at this density, we could all fit inside Vermont and New Hampshire. Photo: Creative Family/Shutterstock

How to Travel Anywhere in the World With a Small Backpack

Technology + Gear Insider Guides Budget Travel
by Eben Diskin Nov 8, 2019

If you’ve ever lugged heavy rollaway suitcases down a cobbled European street, or desperately tried to find a single Cliff Bar in the abyss of your massive backpack, you know that when it comes to packing for a vacation, most of us overdo it. Whether it’s infrequent travelers who check three bags for a two-night stay, or veteran backpackers who travel with massive hiking packs that take 30 minutes just to untie, we just pack too much — half of what we’re bringing on vacation could probably be left at home. But with a little bit of discipline and creativity, you can travel pretty much anywhere in the world with a small backpack — the same backpack you’d use to carry your books to class. Here’s how to do it.

Kill your darlings

There’s a popular piece of advice designed to help writers avoid wordiness and cumbersome language: “Kill your darlings.” It applies to packing, too. We tend to bring along things from our wardrobe that we like — not necessarily what we need. If you’re going away for three nights, you don’t need five dress shirts, four pairs of pants, and three pairs of shoes. If the thought, “Well, just in case…” creeps into your mind while looking at a piece of clothing, you probably don’t need it. Consider each day of your trip, what you’ll be doing, and what clothes you actually need to be comfortable. Take this approach, and your backpack will become half as heavy.

And this doesn’t just apply to warm-weather destinations with relatively light packing demands. One of my most ambitious packing accomplishments was preparing for a trip to Greenland. Given the trip’s fast pace and multitude of outdoor excursions, lugging a suitcase into glacier tents, onto ferries, and over dirt roads was unthinkable. Determined to bring only my backpack, containing nothing but the bare essentials, I drew confused glances from airport baggage workers, tour operators, and pretty much everyone else. “That’s all you’re bringing?” said the woman at the Air Greenland check-in counter. “You know you’re going to Greenland, right?” Sure, I may have worn the same thermal shirt and pants four times that week, but it was Greenland — not the Met Gala.

The Smart Squish

The most important packing technique is something I call the “Smart Squish.” Don’t be afraid to cram your clothes and other necessities anywhere you can find free space — but do it smart. You don’t need a separate, zippable compartment for your socks or toiletries. Start with the big stuff, then squish the small stuff anywhere it fits. I always start by putting shoes at the bottom of the biggest compartment — arranged side by side like a tetris piece — followed by pants, thermal shirts, and T-shirts. Underwear and socks can usually fit in the margins. If you have nicer shirts you don’t want to get wrinkled, use the laptop compartment. That’s right, it’s not just for your MacBook, folks. Fold up your flannels or button-downs and you can actually slide one or two into this handy little slot — and there should still be room for your laptop.

Think outside the backpack

Creativity is key in the world of packing. Don’t make your backpack do all the work — you’re perfectly capable of pulling your own weight. Especially for trips to cold-weather destinations, which require heavier fleeces and jackets, you might need to bring clothes that won’t fit in a backpack. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to wave the white flag and check your bag. Wearing seven layers on the plane is a terrible piece of advice, but tying a fleece around your waist or stringing an extra pair of boots to your backpack strap is perfectly feasible. You’d be amazed what you can bring on a plane, reasonably comfortably, if you get creative with your body. Wear your sweatshirt like a belt, and layer a thermal under your shirt and jacket. You can always remove layers on the plane so you’re not sweltering hot. Layering pants is also an option — they tend to take up valuable room in your backpack — though removing the extra pants on a plane might be a bit more embarrassing.

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