Packing your Travel Backpack

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I dread packing for travel. So much so that I often find myself waiting until the last minute to finish, and I rush to the airport, still zipping up my bag on the way to the car.

I’ve learned, and so can you: it doesn’t need to be this way.

By putting some intention and care into what you bring and how you pack it, the packing process can be painless and easy. Here are some easy strategies to pack a backpack well.

Planning to Pack

Starting with a plan will make the packing process less arduous. Even if you are not the planning type (or planning the contents of your bag seems like overkill), the process will make packing less stressful. At least it does for me.

Planning to pack involves these steps:

  • Figuring out what to bring
  • Figuring out how to get it in the bag
  • Finishing placement in the bag
  • Setting priority

Pack for a Mission

What is the intent of your trip? It sounds silly but keeping this type of mind will make it easier to pack.

If your goal is to go trekking, your shoes should probably reflect that. Additionally, the weight of your travel backpack should reflect that as well.

If you’re going for business, you should have clothes that reflect the needs of your environment. Similarly, you should plan for what you will wear should something happen to your luggage. These business situations can be unforgiving if you lose all your business attire.

Having backups in your carry-on travel backpack is an excellent way to avoid that particular problem.

Budgeting Your Space

It’s important to consider the opportunity cost of every inch of space in your backpack. Every item you pack is another item you can’t.  Think of it as a budget. Every item you spend money on should earn that expense. The same should go for anything you pack.  Is it something you’re only going to use once? If so how bad are you going to need it?  As I heard someone say once “make everything earn in its place.” This is where you want multi-task items or outfits.

I consider this often with shoes, which take up a lot of space in bags. You want more versatile footwear that can fill several roles. For me, a dress shoe really has to “earn its place” with a specific need to make the cut. This is especially true with clothing, as mentioned below.

Cut Back and Edit

It’s good to have room in your pack, whether to make it easier to maneuver contents or to add anything you might pick up along the way.

There’s comfort in having some free space. It makes it easier to repack the bag, which always seems to need more room when you’re returning and can’t bring yourself to fold as neatly.

Leaving that space also helps avoid overpacking –which is always easier said than done.

Most travelers want to be prepared. The truth is, you likely can get by with half of what you start with (unless you are seasoned in the arts of packing light.)

Your primary packing-hack should be this: learn to leave things behind. Reuse what you take, and try to find alternatives at your destination. More on that later.

The frustrations we experiencing traveling makes this point for us well. Not struggling with liquids at the security checkpoint may be incentive to make do with toiletries at your destination. The hassle of unpacking your electronics might mean your phone camera is good enough for this trip (as much as it pains me to suggest leaving a dedicated camera at home.)

Have Good Placing

To maximize the space and convenience of your bag, you should consider where something is placed, in addition to how to get it into the pack in the first place.

Stuffing things into your backpack is not sustainable over your travels: bag entropy sets in. Objects get jumbled, and you run out of space quickly. If you’ve ever found that it’s harder to close your bag at the end of a trip –even with the same contents– you know what I’m talking about.

Placing is how you put things in your bag so that they rest comfortably, and can be removed easily. Additionally, it reflects the care you put into making sure that you can get to what you need when you need it. You don’t want essential papers you need at the airport at the bottom of your bag.

Similarly, you probably don’t want pajamas at the top (unless you plan to change into them on the plane.)

Protect What Needs Protecting

Protecting your belongings should be a primary factor in how you pack. Poor placement of fragile items can put them at risk of breaking –where better packing can shield them from the occasional minor impact.

You also have to consider the likelihood of exposure to the elements, like heat or water.

There are also less natural threats to possession in the form of theft or other malicious acts. Having valuables in outside pockets of your bag makes them vulnerable to theft.

Pack Less, Wash More

Instead of packing a backpack with more clothing, consider taking more multi-use clothing and some detergent for washing your clothes at your destination. This is obviously easier with some fabrics than others. And it will also be more comfortable in some living environments than others. But if you can wash your clothes in your destination, you can save a considerable amount of space and earn a lot of convenience by cleaning there.  Some fabrics and clothing types are easier to wash than others so this might shape your packing plans.  Here is some clothing that you can pack that which can be easy to clean:

  • Backpacker underwear: These articles are made from quick-drying fabric that is supposed to be antimicrobial and can be washed in the sink with a little bit of water and soap, then dried in a towel and hung to finish air drying. The underwear is then clean and dry within a couple hours.
  • Light, quick-drying fabric:You know the type of travel gear that lets you get splashed with water and is then dry in minutes? That’s the same kind of material that lends itself to quick washing and drying.
  • No high-maintenance fabrics: You probably don’t want dry clean only clothes unless you intend to use a dry cleaner your destination. If you do, by all means. But most dry clean only clothes are a bit too fussy to stuff into a backpack anyway.

Priority and Order

Thinking of how you use the bag will help order the contents. You should answer these questions to put some order around where you will be placing items in your backpack.

  • What will you be using most?
  • What needs to be removed from your bag while on the go?
  • Is anything particularly critical in a short notice (e.g., EpiPen)?
  • Is anything susceptible to theft/heat/water?

With that in mind, keep your frequently used items toward the top of the bag, or easily accessible. Small, essential things like medicines should be in an easy to grab containers like a ziplock or mesh bag. It’s much easier to find one of those quickly than a single pill bottle that might have drifted to the bottom of your pack.

Pack Inside Your Pack

Packing is partially the art of predicting how you will need to unpack. The more intentional you are about packing your bag the right way, the less effort you’ll have to put in emptying your bag later. Bonus: if your bag is organized the right way, repacking it later will be easier too.  The worst case scenario is that everything is disorganized in one large compartment. This makes it very hard to find a specific item and often results in you needing to dump out the contents and start over. This is where travel cubes or other packing tools come in handy.  Using a travel cube you can store various items by category making them easier to find later. This keeps them bundled together and easy to grab as needed. As mentioned earlier, it’s easier to grab a cube containing all your small things, than to find one of the little things somewhere in your pack. You could also use bags or some other container to keep things together. Mesh bags or ziplock bags are good options for this. More on that below.

Bags in Bags – Pack a Backpack with Bagception

There are a couple of different ways that you could break out your containers within your backpack:

  • Complete outfits:If you pack with the intention of having certain items of clothing go together as outfits for particular days you could put them all within one cube and then merely pull that cube out of your bag
  • Context or purpose:If you have certain types of things that you use in a given situation you might put them together in that way. Your photography equipment, your toiletries, your socks; you could put all of these things in their own cube so that you can easily find them when you need them. Most people do this with their toiletry bags anyway
  • By type:You might put all of your pants, underwear, or socks in one cube. This makes it easier to find what you’re looking for when you don’t have a larger organizational scheme

Containers for Packing Within Packing

There are several different tools for packing within your bag:

  • Packing cubes:Simple and sleek collapsible containers that let you put your Tetris skills to work ordering your bags
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  • Mesh bags:Less structured, easier to work around but not as easy to identify and pull what you want out of the bag. May work better in backpacks than in luggage
  • Folding boards:A good option for smaller packs because of how they can slide in like a notebook
  • Plastic bags:The cheapest solution, and not a bad one if you want to organize your things but still keep costs down

Bringing it All Together (in Your Bag)

The most important advice for packing your bag well is to be thoughtful about what you are bringing and careful about choosing what not to bring. Once you have the right backpack, packing is the next step to making travel easier.

Place items in the bag with forethought to how you will want to take them out and think about the role each piece will play as you carry it across the city or across the world.

Thoughtful packing makes travel more enjoyable and less stressful, so try the tips above to see if you can benefit from these simple strategies for an organized, lightweight bag.

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