Now, excuse my bluntness, but a lot of travel advice is bollocks. As an example, if you took the combined advice of the American and UK foreign offices as to which countries are safe and which are not, you’d never leave home. FOREIGN DANGER everywhere.
It would be irresponsible of me to advise the adoption of a more cavalier approach to travel safety, but what I hope to do in this post is to get everyone packing a bit smarter.
A huge, no YUGE, Can of worms’
This is definitely an area in which I’ve learnt from past mistakes. I look back on the ludicrous overpacking of previous trips and chuckle- The roller bag/trunk which I took on a 2 week package holiday in Greece 15 years ago possibly the most hilarious. The thing was quite literally big enough to fit an MI6 agent in, whether or not he packed himself and locked himself in. What on earth did I bring? But anyway, I digress.
What do you really need to pack for a 2 week resort holiday anyway?
Nowadays, people have got into good habits about light packing for short European hops, since budget airlines have implemented more and more pricey hold luggage charges. In fact, I managed a whole 2 week stay in Ibiza with a tiny Ryanair-spec trolley bag (obviously just before their most recent ridiculous downsizing exercise), although I’ll admit it was a squeeze. It’s liberating to be able to stroll out to your destination without waiting for your main bag to arrive. Or to be hopelessly lost, as the case may be.
But what do you pack for your longer trip? What, for instance, would you need to take for a year-long round the world trip? What about a 3 week whale-watching safari?
The first thing you have to consider is what you’re going to be doing on holiday. Is it a 2-week package trip, where you’ll be picked up from the airport and dropped at your hotel, then returned to said airport? If so, a roller bag has to be the way forward, since you’re not really going to be carrying it anywhere.
For anything else, where you’re likely to be moving around a bit, you need to start thinking along the lines of a backpack. You must consider that, outside Western countries, you’re not necessarily going to have a smooth pavement. Or any kind of tarmac. Roller bags do not cope with gravel! Roller suitcases are not made to be picked up and lugged around. In fact, they are a bloody nuisance. I found to my cost in 2011 that Japanese tube stations have a lot of staircases. A LOT, with no alternative routes. My ludicrously big and heavy roller holdall became a big albatross around my neck.
In terms of backpacks, I’ve seen a few on the market with a convertible wheel/handle built in within the backplate, and personally wouldn’t bother. Multi-purposing creates compromise, and extra weight. The wheels and handle aren’t going to be as functional as a dedicated roller bag, and the back system not as comfy. You will never bother to use the roller function. Trust me on this.
There’s a vast spectrum of price and specification within the rucksac world. From travel packs designed for mainly urban use to proper Bear Grylls affairs kitted out with ice axe and kit loops, the world is your oyster, and you can spend anywhere from £50 to £300.
For my big trip, I went for an Osprey Farpoint 70, which is firmly on the “travel pack” end of the spectrum. The major advantage of packs like this is the fact that they unzip completely to allow packing as if it were a suitcase. However, I also found that trying to fully stuff it isn’t quite as easy as a toploader. Some space invariably gets wasted. But, you can more easily keep your clothes orderly and know where to find things…
I like the Farpoint, but it’s by no means perfect. The price is at the higher end of the travel pack scale, coming in around £100 at UK stockists. The suitcase-style loading has proven to be really handy when I have been travelling between places on a daily basis. I haven’t needed to pull everything out at once, unlike Sarah’s hobo-style bag explosion at every different hostel. The majority of the stuff stays in the bag, and with careful packing you can just get at the odd t-shirt or change of clothes. The internal compression straps are reasonably handy for compacting piles of clothes, and the mesh pockets inside the cover are great for keeping useful stuff to hand.
However, there aren’t enough little pockets on the outside, and actually the back system is pretty poor for a fairly expensive case. One of my shoulder straps has compressed itself to the point of discomfort, something I’ll be talking to Osprey about. Apart from that it stood up to the rigours of 12 months of overland travel pretty well, with only one external zip toggle having broken. And with the single main compartment and some careful packing, there’s no wasted space. It’s also very light.
The Farpoint 70 is actually a 55l main bag with a 15l daysack which zips on to its back. This is a completely pointless function since, once the bag is loaded with daypack attached it becomes ludicrously bulky to the point that you’ll never bother. Seriously, I read all of the reviews saying this and I now agree. You can however clip the daysack onto the shoulder straps of the main bag, so it’s in front of you for crowded markets etc. This is a genuinely useful function. And the daysack in itself is a great little bag.
Added to this, the main bag’s relative bulk means it has a small footprint, unlike some of the long thin large-capacity rucksacs. It therefore fits beautifully into storage compartments on sleeper trains, buses and the like. You’d nearly get away with it as carry-on luggage, and I gather that many people with the Farpoint 55 (smaller version) actually do.
Which leads me nicely onto the next question. How big do you want it?
Light packing is the holy grail of the long term traveller. I’ve done well to escape my weighty demons: My current main bag is 55l, firmly at the the lower end of the spectrum, and weighs approximately 14kg. If I was just travelling in hot climates I could comfortably lose 15l and at least 5kg, however as it is I needed to pack for conditions ranging between minus 5 degrees C in Mongolia and possibly low 40s in Central America. I can’t deny that the urge to ditch my fleece, cold weather gear and walking boots wasn’t strong in the tropical heat of SE Asia though.
Here’s a revelation: You don’t need to pack any more for a year’s RTW trip than you would for a reasonably adventurous 2 week holiday. Seriously. You have to plan on doing washing along the way, and I’ve worked on the basis of about 6 days clothing before I need to do a wash. But fundamentally you don’t need much more. Laundry is as cheap as chips at most hostels worldwide.
I’m going to come out with another loud pronouncement: If you’ve got an 80l bag, you ARE carrying too much stuff. Limit the size of your bag, and you won’t be tempted to fill it. You have to carry this thing, and the lighter and smaller it is, the happier you will be.
I cannot see any reasonable argument for anyone needing to carry more than about 65l on a non-specialist long term trip. Pack light, pack capsule wardrobe. Leave the hairdryer.
“Never pack jeans, as they dry slowly and are bulky“
Sorry, but that is a standard piece of travel advice which is quite simply bollocks. Try this as a starter for 10: Look around the South American marketplace or Chinese restaurant you’re in. Are all of the other people wearing Bermuda shorts or Craghoppers travel trousers? Of course they bloody aren’t! Jeans are a brilliant starter for 10 in the game of travelling like a local. It’s what everyone else is wearing! I’m not suggesting that your big pale Western face isn’t going to stick out a foot above the rest of the crowd in downtown Beijing but genuninely, it’s a great first step into blending in, a key to successful, hassle-free travel.
Another benefit of jeans is that you’ve got your nightclub/smart evening outfit already sorted… And on my big trip there were at least 2 weeks during which jeans were the perfect clothing- Riding horses in Mongolia and a week motorcycle tour.
So, in my respectful submission, don’t ditch the jeans. Alright, if you’re coming to SE Asia for 3 weeks in summer you probably won’t wear them, but you’d be surprised.
The joy of new travel gadgetry soon subsides. You don’t really need a portable bathplug, folding hairdryer, ANYTHING from those ubiquitous Go Travel hanging displays, not even a hilariously tinfoil hat-esque RFID blocking wallet.
What you do need is power for your gadgets. On my current list, you might say I’m over-equipped, with an iPad and Bluetooth keyboard (a must for serious writing, and doubles as a stand for treating oneself to a bit of UK TV), Kindle (The old, little one), iPhone and iPod (Again, the tiny one). But hey, all have their roles to fulfil. And most use USB power, so I don’t have to cart around handfuls of charging cables.
In terms of a charger, I have an eBoot. It works brilliantly comes with its own carry case and has an iPad-specific USB port (higher ampage) as well as a second USB port. It also works as an adaptor.
It does the job, and is neither bulky nor heavy. There are other similar products available from Amazon including the well-regarded Skross range.
In addition, I have a big capacity Anker powerbank with me. It’s possibly slightly over-specified power wise, however when you’re taking multi-day train journeys or are out in the wilds of Mongolia far from electricity it’s good to know that there’s always another camera charge left. I would wholeheartedly recommend one of these, having previously had a Chinese knockoff which was rubbish. It’s a bit heavy, but worth its weight in gold.
I also love my ridiculously cunning Lifesystems pocket belt, which has a concealed pocket big enough for a few banknotes. It’s comforting to know that even if I end up bereft of all luggage and/or my undershirt passport pouch/wallet I still have $100, which is more than enough to exit most scrapes and to get to the embassy.