Living Out of A Backpack (Our Findings After 8 Months of Travel)

So you’re looking for tips to help with living out of a backpack? You’re in the right place. After 8 months of traveling with just a carry-on-sized bag, we know a thing or two about keeping things light, simple, and making the most out of your space and weight requirements. In this article we’ll share everything you need to know about stuffing your life into a backpack, what we learned over 8 months, and what we’d do differently on our next travels.

We’re a couple that traveled together for 8 months, so there will be tips for both men and women who want to live out of a backpack in this article.

Choosing A Bag Wisely

Key checklist to decide on a backpack for long-term travel:

  • Carry-on sized – 40L bags, 50x40x20 dimensions
  • Good back and shoulder support – you’re going to be carrying it around all day, everywhere, and you’ll want it comfortable. Go to a shop before to try bags on, even if you don’t buy it there.
  • Breathable mesh – it’s going to get hot sometimes if you don’t want a sweaty back, get some proper mesh airflow technology going
  • Strong, sturdy frame – when you pack it, it doesn’t misshape, and keeps its shape all year round
  • Weatherproof – a waterproof bag will help immensely. If not, get some bag covers (especially if going to monsoon areas)
  • Reputable brand – past reviews, with warranty so you know you’re buying something that’s tested, tried, and lasts
  • Hip belt – great for weight distribution when carrying around

Bags that fit this bill that are good choices are:

  • Osprey Farpoint 40L (Men) & Osprey Fairview 40L (Women)
  • Tortuga Outbreak 35L (popular on Reddit)
  • Osprey Trek 55L (better suspension system for back, but less likely to get away with as carry-on luggage)
  • Tortuga Setout
  • Patagonia Black Out

Firstly, the most important thing is the bag you’re going to take. You want to have a good, sturdy bag, that will withstand harsh weather conditions, has good back support, breathability, and is easy to pack. At first, I was considering getting a cheap bag on Amazon, but Iris (my partner) cleverly pointed out that our entire lives would be packed into this bag and we should probably get a reputable brand. She was 100% right.

Most backpackers tend to take 60L+ bags with so much in them. Don’t be this guy or girl.

You really don’t need as much as you think, and:

  1. You’re going to have to carry that 60L bag everywhere with you (it gets extremely heavy and sweaty)
  2. You’re going to have to pay extra for bags on all your flights

If you’re happy with doing that, then go for it. But, if you’re going for a long time away, really think about the importance of those extra pairs of jeans, shoes, or whatever you think you need at the moment. You’ll probably end up throwing them on the road (we threw a lot of stuff we initially took)

While you’re traveling you’ll also want to think about a day pack. Our advice is to get something that’s waterproof, but you’re able to fold up completely and has no shape. This will be more uncomfortable on days out, but it saves so much weight and space in your bag. Putting a bag inside a bag fills the bag up pretty quickly if you don’t have one that you can pack down into a small place.

The bag we got for this was from Thailand and cost 500baht. I’m well aware I got ripped off, but honestly, it was the best 500 baht we ever spent.

Osprey makes a great ultralight daypack that is around $40, but you can most likely get away with the cheap $6 one on Amazon for this. If you’re not carry extremely heavy kit, then you should be fine.

We chose an Osprey Farpoint 40L. We had no complaints with this bag. It has been fantastic and we’ve used it for over 1.5 years now. Nothing broke, didn’t lose shape, fit perfectly for all carry-on guidelines, and has a great design with different compartments that are useful to separate things like electronics, clothing, first aid, and other stuff that’s important.

A Note on Clothing

If you want to travel on a budget, take Nylon & Polyester clothing. These never crease, they’re lightweight, don’t take up space, dry very quickly, and don’t hold smells. They are the perfect, budget travellers clothing choice. If however you have extra money, it’s better to take Merino Wool clothing. These are warmer, lightweight, and have the same properties as synthetic clothing, it’s also the better environmental choice.

Wearing the grey synthetic top I have and the black synthetic polo. Polo is smart, you wouldn’t be able to tell it’s a gym polo unless you looked at the logo on the arm.

Think about what climates you are traveling to. If you are going to mostly tropical environments, you don’t need to pack large coats or warm clothing that will take up a lot of space in your bag. If however, you are going to colder climates, you’re really going to have to think about how to pack efficiently and what to wear to stay warm.

A better way to stay warm while still saving space is layering your clothing. Wearing an undershirt, a thermal, a fleece, windbreaker and jacket will keep you warm in a lot of colder environments. Having this setup instead of a bulky coat could save you a lot of space. You also need to prioritise waterproof clothing. Waterproof over leggings, jackets, shoes etc.

For shoes, I personally took some Nike Goretex trail runners. These were great for all conditions. Try to get a single pair of shoes that you’ll be able to wear in most conditions, and don’t pack multiple pairs. 1 pair of shoes, and 1 pair of flip flops or something for the beach is enough.

Below is a quick guide to travel fabrics when living out of a single backpack:

Best & Most Luxurious – Merino Wool:

  • Lightweight.
  • Maintains its shape.
  • Resists creasing.
  • Provides warmth.
  • Relatively expensive.
  • Odor-resistant.
  • Dries quickly.

Cheapest & Best – Nylon:

  • Affordable.
  • Lightweight.
  • Holds its shape.
  • Resists creases.
  • Offers warmth.
  • Less breathable.
  • Stain-resistant.
  • Odor-resistant.
  • Durable.
  • Dries rapidly.

Cheapest Runner-Up – Polyester:

  • Inexpensive.
  • Lightweight.
  • Maintains its shape.
  • Resists creases.
  • Lacks breathability.
  • Durable.
  • May develop odors.
  • Can be uncomfortable.
  • Dries quickly.

Worst But Natural – Cotton:

  • Pleasant to the touch.
  • Breathable.
  • Slow to dry.
  • May develop odors.
  • Heavy.
  • Prone to creasing.
  • Susceptible to tearing.

Optimizing Your Bag for Space & Weight

Vacuum bag vs packing cube (vacuum right, packing cube left)

When you’ve only got a 40L backpack you’re going to need to keep an eye on space and weight.

There are 3 ways you can save space in your bag:

  • Using portable vacuum packs (best – see why in the photo below)
  • Using compression cubes
  • Rolling clothes

The best way to save weight in your bag is by careful packing. This is where clothing choices come in again. Pack lightweight items that are useful. If you’re traveling long-term it’s best to leave the style aside and think about packing more practically.

If you additionally have anything that’s solid, like a metal water bottle, or a plastic tub that could be swapped out for something you can make more compact – do it. Something like a foldable or silicone bladder water bottle won’t keep your water cold or hot, but will save so much space when you’re packing. We personally took two metal water bottles which took up an incredible amount of space. We threw them out at month 4, because cold water just wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to push them in the bag.

Packing List for Him

I’ve left a packing list below for both women and men. There are some items you won’t need here. It is designed to encompass everything you’d need, but you can decide to drop some things if you like. Below this list, I’ve posted our packing lists from our 8-month travel around SEA (South East Aisa) to give you an insight into how much we ended up taking and what a lady packed vs what a man packed.

Here’s a packing list idea for men and women to live out of a backpack for a year while travelling:

  • Clothing
    • 2-3 shirts
    • 7 pairs socks
    • 7 pairs underwear
    • 1 swimsuit/trunks
    • 2 pairs shorts/skirt
    • 1 pair jeans
    • 1 pair sweatpants
    • 1 jumper
    • 1 waterproof jacket
    • 1 coat/warm jacket
    • 1 pair sliders OR flip flops OR sandals
    • 1 pair smart shoes
    • 1 pair all purpose shows, good grip, plain colour, stylish for all
    • 1 sun cap
    • 1 pair sunglasses
    • 2 upper thermal tops (for layering in cold)
    • 1 pair gloves (waterproof, warm) – sealskinz great
    • 1 warm hat/beanie
    • 1 scarf
    • 1 belt
    • 1 set pyjamas
  • Electronics:
    • Laptop, phone, tablets
    • Headphones
    • Headphone splitter
    • Travel adapter plugs
    • Charging cables
    • USB plugs
    • Travel multi plug
    • 25000mAH power pack
    • Camera, memory card, charger
    • Flash light
    • Alarm clock w batteries
    • Batteries
    • Elecrics bag (see article)
    • USB/External drives
    • Phone/tablet holder
    • Travel kettle (foldable)
    • Books
  • First aid kit:
    • Insect repellent
    • Bite cream
    • Throat sweets
    • Paracetamol
    • Ibuprofen
    • Plasters
    • Latex gloves
    • Anti-septic
    • Vapour rub
    • Deep heat
    • Blister plasters
    • Painkillers
    • Vitamins
    • Your medications
    • Hand sanitiser
    • Masks
    • Tweezers
    • Diarrhea medication
    • Sun cream
    • After-sun
    • Condoms/birth control
  • Fitness items:
    • Resistance band(s)
    • Yoga mat
    • Push-up bars
    • Gym rings
    • -OR- TRX System
    • Workout shoes
    • Jump rope
  • Travel Aids
    • Pencil case to hold docs
    • OR paper sleeve
    • Shoulder bag
    • Bum bag/fanny pack
    • Travel pillow, eye mask, earplugs
    • Headphones
    • Medical bag
    • Elecrics bag (see article)
    • Bungee cords/rope
    • Language guide/phrasebook
    • Maps/directions
    • Metal clips
    • Compression socks
    • Travel clothes line
    • Travel fork, spoon & knife (plastic)
    • Thermos bottle for cold & hot
    • Water filters
    • Stationary (filling out on arrival visa)
    • Locks
    • Money belt
    • Fake wallet with expired cards & cash
    • Compass
    • Whistle
    • Pocket tool/knife (not carry-on)
    • Lighter (not carry on)
    • Roll-up/foldable backpack
  • Money:
    • Foreign currency
    • Home currency
    • Debit and credit cards
    • Emergency money
    • Revolut travel card
  • Toiletries:
    • Nail clippers
    • Tweezers
    • Roll-on deodorant (lasts much longer than spray, usually only 50ml)
    • Microfibre travel towel
    • Toothpaste (normal tube is 100ml within limits of plane)
    • Toothbrush
    • Buy shampoo in destination
    • Buy suncream in destination (unless cheaper in home country)
    • Makeup bag/items
    • Sanitary pads
  • Important documents:
    • Passport
    • Tickets printed
    • Visa printed
    • Extra passport photos
    • Digital scan passport
    • Printed scan passport
    • Vaccine certificates
    • Drivers license or IDP
    • Health insurance
    • List of medications
    • Medical information
    • Hotel booking info/code to get in

What We Packed for 8 Months of Travel in Southeast Asia

One Bag Packing for Women

  • Gym shorts x2 & Gym leggings x1
  • Dresses x3 (don’t need that many)
  • Jeans x1 & Skirt x1 & Belt x1
  • Long flow trousers x1 (best trousers for hot weather)
  • Tops x5 (2 playsuit tops, 2 T-shirts, 1 long sleeve & 1 gym top)
  • Bikinis x2 & Swimsuit x1 (for pool areas)
  • Underwear and Socks x8

One Bag Packing for Men

  • Jeans x1
  • Joggers x1
  • Shorts x2 & Swim shorts x1
  • Tops x5 (2 polos, 2 T-shirt & 1 long sleeve)
  • Belt x1
  • Boxer shorts and Socks x8

One Bag for Women

  • 2 clothes cubes (In the end took only the big one with everything)
  • First Aid Kit (Homemade)
  • Medium Travel Towel
  • Beauty Bag & Wipes
  • Tripod
  • Few books and pens
  • Laptop, Ipad, Chargers
  • Two shoes (Wear trainers on travels)
  • Electric compartment case
  • Water bottle (Not displayed)

One Bag for Men

  • 2 clothes cubes
  • Water bottle
  • GoPro compartment box
  • Macbook, Charger & Extended Hard Drive
  • Few books and pens
  • Beauty bag
  • Sliders
  • Resistance band
  • Medium Travel Towel
  • First Aid Kit (too, in his bag, not displayed)

First Aid Kit (Homemade)

  • Variety of pills
  • Gloves
  • Antiseptic Wipes
  • Anti Bacterial Wipes
  • Wrist band
  • Vaporub
  • Cough Sweets
  • Variety plasters & Blister plasters
  • Deep heat cream
  • Bungy cord

Beauty Bag & Tolietries (Hers)

  • Soap
  • Deodorant roll on
  • Skin products
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Minimum make-up
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
  • Inhaler
  • Tweezers x2
  • Nail clippers
  • Headbands
  • Needle and Thread
  • Shaver

A Note on Washing Clothes

This can be quite hard to keep track of, especially if you’ve only taken a few sets of clothing along with you. In places like Southeast Asia, you won’t have a problem at all, unless you go to more rural areas, because there are washing machines pretty much everywhere (especially when doing laundry in Thailand).

When you’re travelling around, the best thing to do is to wash your clothes while you shower in hot water at night, then hang them out under a fan or aircon overnight (if wet outside). If not wet, get a travelling clothes line and hang it up somewhere high (the higher the better as more wind will get to it). If you have planned your clothing materials cleverly, they will dry very quickly. Quick dry clothing like nylon, polyester, or merino wool will dry very rapidly after washing.

Pick up some small packs of detergent and clothes softener from a local store and get to work washing your clothes!

You can also wash your clothes at hotels, but this gets pretty expensive, and a lot of the time they’ll lose your clothes. I’d recommend using a laundromat or washing by hand over this (I lost quite a bit of clothing during my travels when using services).

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