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How to travel with only a backpack

How to travel with only a backpack

I know that this title seems clickbaity and overdone. Plus, I’m sure many of you have actually traveled with only a backpack in your early 20’s to backpack through Europe, South America, SE Asia, wherever. This is my experience traveling with only a backpack as an adult who has a real life low maintenance beauty and hair routine. My fashion choices are also very basic and neutral. My beauty mantra is be as natural and simple as possible. So, with that warning, let’s go!

In the last two years, I’ve tried to pare down what I bring on trips to the bare minimum. The first time I attempted this was on a 5 day trip to Tulum, Mexico in February. I thought a warm weather trip and one where my friend and I had opted to stay in a hostel was a good start. I also wanted to break in the new backpack I’d just bought for my Kilimanjaro trip. I bought it in December 2017 after paying my REI Adventures deposit for a November 2018 trip. When I commit to something, I get excited. On this trip, I brought my 25 liter REI backpack and packed most of my clothes into two packing cubes, the same packing cubes that I use in a roller suitcase. They are washable, zip, and make organizing in any type of bag much easier.

So for a week in Mexico, I brought:

  1. a knee length linen skirt that I could dress up or down

  2. a long pair of loose, lightweight denim pants

  3. two swimsuits

  4. 4-5 tank tops (I alternated wearing these with the pants and the skirt)

  5. a dress that could be dressed up or down

  6. a dress to wear as a cover up to the beach

  7. sandals that were okay for riding a bike but also nice enough to wear with the dress, flip flops, and I wore slip on sneakers on the plane (I will not wear sandals on a flight)

  8. worn on the plane: leggings, long cardigan, tank top, and a short puffer jacket (it was February in Chicago), I rolled up my jacket, stuffed it in a tote that I used for the beach later, and strapped to my backpack (re-wore the leggings and the cardigan on the way home plus one of those tanks.)

  9. enough underwear for 5 days plus 1-2 bralettes (because beach vacations are the best time to not wear underwire bras, imho)

  10. a few pairs of ankle/no-show socks when I wanted to wear real shoes (2-3 pairs)

  11. toiletries (all mini sized for carryon): mini-shampoo, mini conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste, facial cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen for the beach and for my face, soap, mascara, deodorant, lipstick, lotion, and a comb for wet hair plus a few hair ties/ponytail holders/whatever the kids are calling them

  12. shoved my wallet, passport, phone, and lock (for hostel locker) in a secure pocket on my backpack)

  13. a crushable straw hat that has survived many trips in cramped conditions

  14. A Turkish towel for showering at the hostel. I brought two, one for me and one for my friend to use because I was not sure if she’d ever stayed in a hostel and I just felt like I’d come prepared.. These are great for travel and honestly, for every day use. They dry really quickly and just look nice.

That seems like a lot of stuff to pack into a backpack, but it all fit. It was tight and required some very careful packing, but I loved just being able to walk on and off the plane and not be hindered with a suitcase when I arrived at the Cancun airport and stood in a long customs line and then had to wander and find my friend, rent a car, etc.

Twice in 2019, I’ve traveled away for the weekend, Friday-Sunday, and have only carried a backpack as well. Once to a funeral and once to a wedding, both in warm climates but coming from a much colder climate. I’ve obviously had to have dressier clothes for those trips. Again, packing cubes to the rescue, only one for all of my clothes for short weekend trip and then more room for a few more toiletries, a book/kindle, etc. Again, I am comfortable repeating outfits on the plane as long as my shirt is different. I have these pants that I really like to travel in because I own a dark color and they dry quickly and make me feel like I’m somewhat put together. Especially if I am wearing a cute tank top or t-shirt and a jean jacket on top. They go with a variety of shoes (sneakers to sandals) and the hems can be bungee'd to make them capris. I also bought them on clearance in Lululemon’s “we made too much” section, and thus I paid half of the retail price. Buuttttt, for as much as I wear these pants, I’d almost pay that much. But constantly check the sale section and strike while they have your size and preferred color!

I don’t want this to seem jumbled and like I am not giving any real advice other than making a packing list, but my top tips to packing light or in a backpack are:

  1. Use packing cubes, because you need less than you think you do.

  2. Don’t be afraid to rewear clothes, especially pants or skirts. It helps to have lightweight fabrics that dry quickly and can be washed in a sink (if necessary) because I’ve definitely done that too. In all of the traveling I’ve done, I’ve been more annoyed when I’ve had too many things than too little. You can always buy an extra item or a toiletry that you forgot, but if you’re schlepping around a heavy pair of shoes that you don’t wear, you’re going to be annoyed.

  3. Relax your beauty and hair routine, you’re on vacation and no one really cares if you’re wearing makeup or doing your hair perfectly every day. Your natural beauty will show through in any photos because you’re relaxed, happy, and smiling because you’re having fun. I always say that vacations are for no makeup and no underwire bras.

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