Just before graduating from college, I had the opportunity to take a quarter off of school and decided to backpack in a part of the world that was completely foreign to me: Southeast Asia. Looking back, I'm still unsure how I fit two and a half months' worth of clothes, shoes, cameras, souvenirs, and more into a camping backpack. (Scroll down to see the evidence—it was half the size of my body.) So after carrying all my personal belongings in said backpack through three countries, 17 cities, and countless trains, buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, etc., I could tell you exactly which items I could have never left home without—and which were simply deadweight.
Everything I brought with me for two months of travel. See? I wasn't kidding when I said my backpack could have swallowed me whole.
For most shorter vacations, I usually have the luxury of packing a few extra outfits just in case, but that was far from my experience in packing for this backpacking trip. In fact, it was the ultimate exercise in creating an edited travel wardrobe since the limited space I had to work with forced me to narrow in on a few key pieces I could wear over and over (and over) again. Hindsight is 20/20, naturally, so if I had to do it over again, I can immediately think of a handful of things I'd never bring.
I may not be packing for another backpacking trip quite like this in the near future, but I pretty much still abide by these tips for shorter jaunts, too. Any time I have to fit more than a few days' worth of belongings in a carry-on suitcase, I think back to the time I was schlepping my overweight bag around Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and the thought alone of my packing remorse is enough to motivate me to narrow things down.
Ahead, read all the packing tips for backpacking I'm sharing for making the most of what luggage space you do have—backpack, suitcase, or otherwise.
Won't Pack: Shoes That Hold Their Shape
Will Pack: Shoes With Flexible Materials Only
I knew my choice in shoes would make or break my travel experience, but I can't overstate how important it is to pack the right shoes. I made the mistake of bringing my Birkenstocks along, thinking they were a comfortable option, but the stiff soles only make my life more challenging since they took up valuable real estate in my backpack. By contrast, my foam-soled Tevas and rubber-soled Converse traveled delightfully well.
Won't Pack: High-Maintenance Fabrics
Will Pack: Low-Maintenance Fabrics
I was traveling to a new city every few days and hardly folding and unfolding my clothes properly at each new destination. So you can imagine that wrinkles would be my worst enemy. If I had to do it all over again, I'd ban all fussy and delicate fabrics from my luggage like lace, silk, and chiffon, and pack exclusively easy fabrics like cotton and linen. As it happened, I ended up wearing the above navy linen sundress on repeat throughout my travels.
This should go without saying, but hey, sometimes you need to remind yourself of this when packing. Versatile pieces only. This is especially true for tops, which, if you're anything like me, you easily pack way too many of. On any trip shorter than a few weeks, this would be no big deal, but on an extended sojourn like this with such limited luggage space, every single garment needs to pull its weight.
Won't Pack: Different Bags for Every Occasion
Will Pack: One or Two Wear-Everywhere Bags
Stop me if I'm sounding like a broken record here, but packing too many different kinds of day bags was a major regret of mine. Instead of bringing a tote bag, crossbody, pouch, and an evening bag, I wish I'd simply brought one larger crossbody bag that could carry me from sightseeing during the day to dinner and drinks at night.