I want to start by saying that there are more than one ways to do it. My packing philosophy might not be right for you, but there’s a thing or two I’ve learned that work for me, and there’s a good chance they’ll work for you too. This won’t be a list of useful things to bring but reflecting on how to decide what and how much to bring, how to manage the weight and space, to resist or give in to the urge to shop, etc.
First of all: a suitcase or a backpack?
I’m all in for suitcases. This has sometimes been questioned by other travelers I’ve met along the way, some saying things like I’m not a real “backpacker”, a title that I couldn’t care less about to be honest… But some people seem to think that to travel for several months is to be a backpacker, and that one should always carry a backpack. This doesn’t fit my packing philosophy at all – the longer I travel, the more things I need and want to have with me. And more weight is a lot easier to roll by your side in a four-wheeled suitcase than to carry on your back. I’m still keeping to one suitcase to avoid extra charges on flights.
I once tried a backpack for a couple of weeks when I borrowed one from a friend in Lima for my “gringo trail” around Peru. I didn’t need most of my stuff for that, so I left my suitcase and most clothes waiting for my return in Lima. The backpack wasn’t even nearly full, but it was super hard on my shoulders, back, and even legs. I guess you get used to everything and it could get easier over time, or if you’re more athletic than me maybe you wouldn’t have any problems.
An argument I often hear is that you can’t roll your suitcase on all kinds of terrain. In all my travels, only once in Philippines this was the case with a muddy area leading to the hostel, and then a hostel worker simply carried it for me past that part. Of course I can’t roll it on cobblestone streets, for example, but if I have the weight that I have anyway, in backpack or suitcase, I wouldn’t walk very long carrying it on my back either – I’d take a taxi in either case. When I need to move my luggage it’s between airports, bus stations and hostels, and those are basically never walking distances.
So, especially if you want to bring a lot, I’d go for a suitcase. I know there are backpacks with wheels but I haven’t found a need to buy one just to get more backpacker credibility.
This is also something I’ve been basically critisized for by some hardcore backpackers, haha. Some people seem to think that nice clothes are not for long-term traveling, and you should only bring basic and technical clothes, in colors that won’t show dirt and can be washed and dried in the same load. Well, I definitely want to bring some of my nicest things along for having the time of my life. I like going to fancy clubs and wearing heels and dressing up time to time when traveling, like I do at home. Call me shallow if you want, but to me you then seem more narrow-minded.
Your favorites / most worn
It’s good to bring your favorites. These can be the basics, the technical, the nice and fancy… Whatever you like. Your most worn things at home probably have good potential to be your most worn things away from home, too. These are often versatile, can be worn in many situations and combined with many of your other pieces, and you probably already know how to put together many working outfits with them. You know you’ll be comfortable, and aren’t we all in a bit better mood when we like what we’re wearing?
Yes, you’re allowed to do this before and during your trip. You can buy this especially for the trip if it’s a different climate than home or if you find a versatile piece that would go with a lot of other things you’re bringing. Or if you find something that instantly sets you on a holiday mood and you can just vision yourself wearing it for the good times in your destination.
Often when you’re already on your trip you will see a need for something you didn’t think of when packing, or you see that a certain kind of piece would be like the missing piece of the puzzle to compliment what you brought along.
It’s ok to even buy things you don’t need but just like, even though it wouldn’t make sense to make your luggage heavier. It would be a shame not to if you come across something beautiful that’s typical of that region and culture, maybe unique and hand-made, and you can also support the locals and their handicraft. The things you get on the road you’ll often cherish as a souvenir with good memories a long time after your travels.
It’s good to leave at least some space in your luggage for these kind of things. If you don’t have the space be ready to give up and leave behind what you have the least use for. You can also ship things home if the fees are not an issue for you.