How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

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If you haven’t traveled with only carry-on luggage before, you may not have given much thought to including a travel backpack as part of your baggage, let alone using one as your only suitcase on a long trip. Considering the limited space, it’s essential to carefully plan what you’re going to bring and how to pack a travel backpack that fits within standard air travel carry-on size requirements.

Here are some suggestions to help you get the most out of the space you have to work with.

See Our Best BackpackOsprey Farpoint 40 Backpack

How to Pack a Backpack for Travel the Right Way

organize and digitize to save space when you pack a travel backpack

Digitize to Save Space

You can save a lot of space by loading up the electronic versions of books you want to read onto your laptop, tablet, or mobile e-reader instead of bringing the physical books. The same advice applies to digital music files vs. physical CDs, video files vs. DVDs, and digital maps versus paper ones.

Unless photography is the reason for your trip, you may be willing to get by with using your smartphone or tablet as a digital camera instead of bringing along a separate camera with lenses and other bulky accessories.

Organize to Fit More Items In

Take advantage of your travel backpack’s built-in mesh and zipper pockets, compartments, dividers, and straps to help organize and secure what you’re bringing. This helps you be able to leave some of the containers for those items at home.

Most bags have padded pouches for laptops, tablets, phones, and other electronics. Many also have a separate pocket on the top of the backpack for quick and easy access to sunglasses or travel documents. On the outside of the pack, you can usually find pockets for water bottles and snacks.

Take the Bare Essentials

At a bare minimum, you’ll want to bring your cash, wallet or pocketbook, travel documents and paperwork, ID, a change of clothing, and any medication and toiletry bag in your travel backpack.

You should also include a paper copy of your itinerary, essential contact information, ID, and travel documents. Storing this information on your phone or tablet is a good idea, but keeping a paper backup handy could save you significant time when you need it. These documents can also come in handy in case you lose the originals or your mobile device.

Think about what you need on your trip and try to bring only half as much. Many people pack for every possible circumstance because they don’t know how to pack a backpack. There’s no room for all of your possessions in a carry-on travel backpack, so think carefully about what is the most important thing.

Consider Clothing Carefully

Unless you’re planning a special occasion, you only need a small amount of clothing. One extra pair of shoes, a sweater or sweatshirt, a couple of pairs of pants, shorts, maybe a jacket, a few t-shirts, and four or five pairs of underwear and socks should be enough. Jackets and pants take up a lot more room than underwear and socks and need to be cleaned less often, so use that space for more underwear and socks. The laundry will balance itself out.

Plastic zip-lock bags can be used to organize and compress bulky clothing items like jackets and sweaters. Plastic bags also keep clothes relatively wrinkle-free. Bring along a few extra bags to protect your things from leakage of any liquid products and to store dirty clothes in.

To fit as many clothes in your travel backpack as possible, roll them up rather than folding them. While lots of people have their own version of how to pack a backpack, rolling clothes helps save space. Another great way to avoid wrinkles while packing clothes as compactly as possible is to wrap larger pieces of clothing around a pouch containing smaller, soft items like underwear.

Carefully consider each piece of clothing you’re thinking about taking. Try to envision how you can wear it in different combinations with other clothing items you’re bringing so that each item can be used in several different ways. If something can only be used once, you should probably leave it at home.

Use Every Inch of Space

Shoes contain a lot of open space. Pack them full of smaller items like socks, rolled-up ties, underwear or zip-lock bags of jewelry. Space is at such a premium in a carry-on that you need to learn how to pack a backpack using every last bit of room to store things. Fragile items can be nestled between softer clothes to help protect them.

Once you’ve filled your backpack and need just a bit more space, try zipping it up to compress everything, then open it again. If that doesn’t provide enough room, you can also let the bag settle overnight. This won’t open up huge amounts of space, but it may be just enough to squeeze in an extra small personal item or two.

Dress for Luggage Space

dress to save backpack space when you pack a travel backpack

If you’re determined to wear that bulky jacket and pair of boots on your expedition, you can always wear them on the plane or train instead of cramming them into your carry-on backpack. You may look a bit out of place with the other passengers, but you’ll appreciate all the extra space you have in your bag for other more important things.

Consider What You Can Purchase Later

When you start to act like a pack rat with your luggage, remember that you can buy everything you need to get by once you reach your destination. You might even realize that you don’t need something after all. For example, you may be able to save a little bit of room by buying travel-size toiletries when you arrive at your destination.

Save Your Back and Shoulders

Whether you’ll be wearing your carry-on backpack only occasionally or throughout your journey, properly distributing the contents will save your shoulders and back. You want to balance the weight distribution and create a stable center of gravity to make it as comfortable and maneuverable as possible.

If you’re not sure how to pack a backpack in a way that balances weight, position the heaviest items closer to your back, centered about halfway down. That will help to keep you from tipping over. Lighter, softer pieces should go toward the bottom of the bag with smaller things at the top. Try to evenly distribute your medium-weight items around the inside of the backpack so that one side isn’t weighed down more than the other. This will help to stabilize things overall.

Remember to Pack These Things Too

Packing a bag for travel

Most people tend to pack more than they actually need. The suggestions above should help you pare down your packing list to something manageable that will fit into a carry-on backpack. There are several more things you shouldn’t leave home without, and thankfully they’re small enough to squeeze into the few open spaces left in your travel backpack. Here’s a list of a few more essential items to make your excursion more enjoyable from start to finish:

  • TSA Approved Locks to secure your travel backpack using the lockable loops built into the zipper mechanism.
  • Small roll of toilet paper for those restrooms, public toilets or emergencies when you don’t have the toilet paper that you need.
  • Plastic trash bag to line the inside of your travel backpack to make it as waterproof as possible (water-resistant is not the same thing as waterproof).
  • Fabric eye cover or mask for those times when you need some sleep in a time zone where the sun is shining.
  • Small flashlight, battery-powered, or better yet, dynamo-powered for those times when you’re out of batteries and nowhere near a store.
  • Empty water bottle (metal or plastic, not glass) to fill and use after you pass through the airport security checkpoint or once you’ve landed at your destination.
  • Earplugs to help you sleep on planes, trains, or anywhere there’s a lot of background noise.
  • Band-aids and antiseptic swipes because you won’t have the space to pack a full first-aid kit.
  • Small towel that’s designed to dry quickly for everything from wiping up spills to waking yourself up with an icy face-rinse to wiping down your sweat in an extremely humid climate.
  • Portable battery for your phone or another mobile device, so you’ll always be ready to use it even if there’s no electrical outlet for miles around.
  • Duct tape, or at the very least electrical tape, to temporarily patch things until they can be repaired.
  • Outside cover for your travel backpack to keep the dust, rain, or other airborne challenges away from your belongings.
  • Medication: If you need any medication to stay healthy, don’t forget yours at home!

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In conclusion, whether you’re embarking on an international adventure or a short trip, choosing the best travel backpack and packing it effectively can make all the difference. For first-timers or those on longer trips, the key is to pack light and smart. Consider using a small backpack or duffel bag with comfortable shoulder straps, ensuring quick access to essential items like your credit card and travel documents. Opt for a minimalist approach to avoid heavy items and unnecessary baggage fees, focusing on packing only important items like clean clothes, a small first aid kit, and a reusable water bottle. Including a set of packing cubes and a compression bag can help maximize space, while dry bags can protect your belongings. Pay attention to the weight limit, especially if you’re on a basic economy flight, and be mindful of packing small items at the bottom of your backpack for better weight distribution. Remember, the ultimate guide to packing involves balancing personal preference with practicality, ensuring you have enough clothes for the kind of trip you’re undertaking, whether it’s an extended stay in South America or a long-haul flight to a cold-weather destination. So pack right, keep your load light, and enjoy the freedom of minimalist travel for a more enjoyable and efficient journey.