When packing, there are three main considerations:
1. What luggage am I bringing?
2. What are my absolute must-haves (for any trip)?
3. What do I need to bring that's unique to this trip?
Let's start with #1.
What Luggage am I Bringing?
Finding the right luggage for traveling is crucial. You want something that's roomy enough for trips where you may be carrying extra bulk, but you also don't want something that will be too heavy and cumbersome for occasions where you're carrying it for significant portions of time. Most travelers find that they need two kinds of luggage: a large backpack for carrying your clothing and gear, and one small daypack for essentials that you want on you at all times. When picking out your luggage backpack, I recommend shooting for anything between 60 to 80 liters in size. While it's easy to compress a backpack if you don't use up all 80 liters, it's much harder to stretch it and force everything to fit into a small pack that simply doesn't have enough space.
When you're picking out your backpack, shop around, and try things on. Don't buy something blindly online without having tested it out first. Head to your local outdoors store (such as REI or Eastern Mountain Sports) and work with a specialist who will find the backpack that's most formfitting, comfortable, and viable for you.
As for the daypack, you want enough room so that it can fit anything you would need on a flight, in transit, or in any situation where you're out an about. A good test for a proper daypack is that is has compartments for pens, wallet, papers and documents (such as your passport), and room for a book or two, a rain jacket, sunglasses, a small toiletries/first aid kit, and a pocket for a water bottle or two. If you think you'll be carrying a laptop with you on your travels, look for a daypack with an internal laptop pocket. If you're carrying a DSLR camera, look for camera backpacks that can safely hold your camera gear, while still having ample room for necessary documents, transit necessities, and day items. Typically, daypacks run between 20 and 40 liters, and can also be tested and purchased at your outdoors retail store.
What Are My Absolute Must-Have's?
No matter where you go or what you're doing, 99% of the time, you will have to pack the same constant necessities. These include:
• Toiletries (including: toothbrush, eye mask/ear plugs for sleeping, hair ties if necessary, just one small bottle each of toothpaste, shampoo, and soap -- remember, you can purchase these things abroad if you run out)
• A converter if you're traveling abroad and power outlets are different from your own. It's worth investing in a universal converter so you don't have ten different ones for ten different countries. These can usually be purchased online.
• Medications & copies of prescriptions. Along with medications, be sure to bring a broad spectrum antibiotic (which can be given to you from your travel doctor), as well as staples such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Dramamine (if you get motionsick)
• Guidebook and a small phrasebook.
• Headlamp with spare batteries.
• Nalgene water bottle.
• Sunglasses and glasses (with your prescription, in case you lose your glasses)
• Pack towel
• Rain jacket
• Rain cover for your backpack
• Rubber sandals for communal hostel showers
• Sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner. The liner can be washed, which will make you feel cleaner throughout your trip, and it can also be used in places where it's too hot to sleep in your sleeping bag, or you don't want to sleep in the provided sheets.
• Laundry bag
• Basic First Aid Kit
Optional (but recommended):
• Headphones (and a spare pair, in case yours are broken or lost)
• eReader and Book
• Notebook & pens
• Plastic bags for items that may be wet or muddy
• Deck of cards
Insider Tip: Using your shampoo or body wash is a great substitute for washing clothes, so ditch bringing laundry detergent. Pack along a clothes line and pins for drying, too.
What Do I Need to Bring That's Unique to This Trip?
When deciding what clothing, shoes, and gear you should bring on your trip, consider your trip's location, climate, activities, and culture. The best way to get an idea for what kinds of clothes to bring is by looking through a Lonely Planet guidebook on the region you're traveling to. In every Lonely Planet, there is always a section devoted to telling you about what clothing is culturally acceptable or unacceptable, as well as also giving you a month-by-month look at what climate is generally like in certain regions at certain times of year. For example: you may be traveling to the Sahara Desert in August, but you'll also want to bring a warm sweater and hat because it can drop to freezing temperatures in the desert at night. In another case, you may be traveling to northern Norway in January, which requires a serious amount of extreme cold-weather appropriate clothing. If you're going trekking in Nepal, you'll want a mix of both cold-weather clothing and even warm weather clothing, such as hiking shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, as it can get surprisingly hot and humid in the Himalayan trekking regions.
Once you've picked up your guidebook or have turned to Google and you have an idea of what kinds of weather you'll be facing, you'll want to find clothing that's as versatile (and, again, culturally appropriate) as possible. Especially for long-term trips where you may be traveling to multiple countries and will have to pack for a variety of climates, you're going to really want to snoop around your outdoors retail store to find clothing that's as lightweight, durable, and compactible as possible.
Here are some tips for packing light and versatile:
• Bulky fleece jackets should be replaced with synthetic down coats that were designed to compress to save the most space as possible.
• Clunky sweatshirts should be replaced with lightweight (but just as warm) alternatives, such as SmartWool and/or Patagonia pullovers and zip-ups that are well-fitting and designed to easily be packed away.
• Jeans are not only cumbersome and inefficient with their size, but are difficult to wash and dry efficiently when on the road. Swap them out for comfortable lightweight pants that are easy to travel in, hike in, and explore in.
• Dresses and skirts are excellent for formal occassions, for hot locations, or for when you just feel like dressing up. Just be sure that you're well aware of the cultural expectations regarding dresses and skirts. Do they need to at least cover your knees? Do they need to cover your ankles? Can they be spagetti-strap style, or will you need to cover your shoulders, or your chest, or both? The same rules apply when deciding on bringing shorts and tank-tops. Cultural awareness needs to be acknowledged when packing.
• Only bring a handful of underwear and socks. Remember, you can (and should!) do laundry on the go, whether you pay for it to be done, or whether you do it in a hostel sink. You shouldn't bring a month's worth of these things, as they can take up a significant amount of room, and are easy to clean and quickly dry. So just pack a bare minimum (I usually bring a week's worth).
• Find the right shoes. Usually a pair of supportive hiking boots are efficient for most traveling, hiking, and walking you'll be doing, and rubber sandals are good for swimming and showering. Some people opt for bringing along a third pair of every-day shoes, such as Toms or Converse, that are subtler than hiking boots and are nice for casual days where you aren't carrying a heavy backpack.
• Don't go shirt crazy. It's easy to find yourself wanting to pack a shirt for every occasion, but you'll find just how little you actually need. Instead of bringing your whole wardrobe, pick out three or four shirts and stick to that. Something for cooler weather, something for warmer weather, and anything that can be layered.
• Finally: use compression sacks! Everyone has their own method of organizing their backpacks, but using compression sacks to organize clothing allows more space in the backpack for extra gear, such as bulky hiking boots or a sleeping bag or tent equipment.
Insider Tip: When women are traveling to more conservative regions, it's always a good idea to bring along a shaul or scarf if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to be considerably covered up (such as visiting a mosque).