I’m Not a Backpacker; I’m Just Traveling with Backpacks

Quick note before I begin this post: This might be a little bit of a rant and I apologize beforehand. If you refer to yourself as a backpacker, if you are obsessed with the Thai islands, if you overly love to party, etc. be ready to be slightly offended. But it’s time you realize something, so read on.

Ok let’s get started. Unpopular opinion coming atcha. I HATED the Thai islands. Ok, hate is a strong word. And the Thai islands are some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen. So maybe the word “hate” is a little much. But the Thai islands proved everything I had expected to be true about Thailand.

Let’s rewind a bit. I’m living in Indonesia. I had just come from Singapore and Malaysia and had a blast. And was falling in love quickly with the Asian culture. To be honest, when I was leaving Malaysia, I was absolutely not looking forward to Thailand. To me, Thailand has always seemed like a played out, overrun tourist destination for full-moon parties or honeymoon resorts, and that’s just not my style. But, as I was just an hour flight away, I knew I had to see it for myself to hopefully prove me wrong. I knew there was so much more to this country than what I was thinking, or so I hoped.

However, when I arrived in Krabi, I was greeted with everything I hated: loud Westerners with no regard for a new culture, already drunk, with 2+ massive checked bags a piece, and looking for the closest party. Major eye roll. Yea I know, if you’re reading this and you’ve been to the south of Thailand, you’ll say “Obviously Paige, what did you expect?” But I had hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as I’ve heard. Man, was I wrong.

Now listen. If you are looking to party with a bunch of fellow white, English-speaking people in gorgeous places, by all means, visit the Thai islands. But what I noticed was that the culture I fell in love with was missing from the second I landed (It also might’ve not helped that I almost didn’t land. Long story short, we hit a really bad storm; lightning hit the wing; we tried to make an emergency landing; the wind was too strong and right before we landed, the pilot had to go full-throttle straight up to avoid crashing; one of the flight attendants was crying; and I was ready to leave Thailand before I even actually got there. But I’m alive, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice).

Ok ok I’m done bashing the islands because I’m being cynical and totally didn’t hate them that much. I had a really good time to be honest. But there is one thing I realized about myself when hopping from island to island:

I am absolutely not a backpacker.

backpacker

Yes, I’m traveling with two backpacks and may look like one. But for the first time, I really was forced to spend time with the “backpacker” type. You know, the one that hasn’t showered for two days, isn’t wearing shoes, already has a beer (or two) in hand, and somehow manages to talk about the number of countries they’ve ever been to and how they’re “like sooo powerful man.”

I’ve learned a ton of patience while traveling. And I’ve learned that I have zero patience while traveling. Years ago, the backpacker term was truly that: stuffing your life in a bag and exploring a country as it was meant to be seen, leaving nothing behind. I don’t know if I’m just old now that I’m thirty but holy shit is this not the case anymore. These “backpackers” as they refer to themselves might travel with a backpack but they leave trash everywhere, they refuse to learn the local language, they get absolutely pissed drunk, are the loudest in the hostel, and expect everyone to love them.

But I’ve realized that while all of my belongings fit in two backpacks, I will never call myself a backpacker. While I haven’t showered in two days, it’s because I have been so busy hiking or exploring the city I’m in that I crash right when my head hits the pillow on my hostel bed. While I may not get the pronunciation correct, I’ll do my best to only speak the local tongue when I can. While I may like to have a few beers, I know my limit and know that I’m not in my own country and need to show respect (and know my way back to the hostel without stumbling around).

So if you are a “backpacker,” please be more self-aware. Please learn to respect a culture and blend in, not stand out (in a rather embarrassing way). And for god’s sake, it’s a 45-minute boat ride from island to island. I promise you, you don’t need to slam 10 beers before you get to the next stop.

On that note, I’m grabbing my two backpacks and softly saying “thank you” and “I’m sorry” in Thai behind every one of these “backpackers” to show not all of us are like that. I promise.

How I Moved Across The World With Two Carry-Ons

Here’s the deal: I REFUSE to check bags. I mean, absolutely refuse. The type of stubbornness that is equivalent to the guy that got arrested for putting on something like 100 items of clothing to avoid checking his bag… THAT type of stubbornness.

Let’s rewind to when this insecurity with checked bags all started. I was young. My family was traveling to Australia from the US. My dad, who was a frequent flyer for work, was annoyed at the newbies in my family‑-read: my teenage sisters and mother-‑that packed massive rolling luggage. Yes, we’d be in Australia and New Zealand for quite some time, but he knew. He knew exactly what I know now.

We arrived in Australia and, to much of our surprise at the time (except for my father), our luggage was covered in oil, soaked through to our clothes. I know, I know, this isn’t an entirely normal thing to happen, but it was enough for me to understand that shit happens to checked bags.

The loss of clothes or bags didn’t register at my age as monetary value, but the time it took for us to handle this issue with the airlines and delay the start our journey did. I knew for as long as I live, that if it was possible, I would make it my goal to only ever travel with a carry-on.

That means week-long snowboarding trips, two week trips throughout Europe, and yes, even moving across the world.

CarryonPacking

This was no easy feat. In fact, I’m sure I unpacked and packed both carry-ons at least ten times. But I did it, and am moving from the United States to SEAsia with just two carry-ons. It really isn’t that crazy, I promise you. I keep hearing, “Oh god. I could never survive” or “There’s no way that would be possible for me.” I promise it is if you find enough self-control to work with the steps below:

Step 1:

Sell EVERYTHING that means nothing to you. In order to truly find out which material things mean something to you, ask yourself if you’d be truly heartbroken if you lost that item in a break-in or fire or flood. Not the most pleasant thought, I know. But if your answer is honestly no, then this means that you CAN live without it. You’d be surprised how little you need to actually live comfortably.

  • One note for this: If, and only if, you know you’ll be moving back home eventually, do keep items that you know you will either not make much money from selling or items that will cost more to replace when you return than it will cost to keep and store. Make smart decisions here.

Step 2:

Lay out everything you believe you will need for your trip/move. Now this is the tough part and something I could write five different posts about, but this step is entirely personal to you. For me, I was a former video producer so footage of my trips overseas is pretty important to me. That and I’ll be working and creating video along the way. So a majority of both my bags are cameras and equipment. While I did pare down my equipment by a ton and settled on using a GoPro and iPhone X instead of bringing my DSLR and lenses, those items are definitely taking up far more room in ratio than my clothes are.

As well, this part is extremely dependent on where you are moving to. Moving to the north of Russia? Good luck getting enough goose down jackets and fur lined boots in those carry-ons. My advice in that scenario? (Besides maybe don’t move somewhere where you can’t feel your face. I mean why would anyone live somewhere where they can’t feel their face?) Budget enough to buy your clothes when you get there.

Step 3:

Pack up the rest of your belongings (keepsakes, files and paperwork, out of season clothing if you chose to keep it, your entire vinyl collection—which is probably something I’m going to miss most) and put them somewhere safe and reliable, whether that be an extremely caring and loving family member who doesn’t mind you taking up room in their garage, or a storage unit. Keep at least one box empty at home with you while packing… trust me, you’ll need it.

Step 4:

Now don’t panic or cry when you read this one, because I swear it will all be ok. Take everything you set aside to bring with you, and divide it in half. I’m not joking. Do it right now.

It’s our materialistic tendencies at their finest. We ALL overpack. Some of us are just slightly better than others at it. But trust me, you won’t wear that third pair of jeans or that really nice shirt you still have the tag on from four months ago but for some reason think you’ll bust out on this trip.

Step 5:

Ok are you ready? Divide it all in half again. Starting to panic now? Don’t. Take a deep breath. Ok, I might be a little too harsh on this, but you started reading because you wanted to pack your life into two carry-ons. This takes some serious self-control here.

I panicked too. And honestly, up until five minutes before I left the airport, I was tearing apart my bags figuring out what else I could shove in that last box heading to the storage unit so I could actually close my carry-ons.

Here’s the biggest advice I can give you and if you read any part of this post, this is the most important piece to absorb. While packing, keep reminding yourself that clothes can be purchased ANYWHERE. It may not be the style you necessarily prefer. But best part? You’ll totally fit in with the locals.

I know this takes a bit more budgeting, but I promise, you probably won’t need much of anything. And if you do, it’ll probably only be because you lost a sock under the bed at a hotel somewhere or your shirt shrunk in the dryer at the local laundromat.

Step 6:

Time to pack those bags. Remember the game of Tetris? Well I hope you were really good at it as a kid, because those skills are about to come in handy. Take the items you know you can’t or won’t want to buy in the new exciting place you’ll be exploring (prescriptions, expensive items like camera equipment/laptop, strangely enough tampons if you’re going to Asia as a female, etc) and pack those first. You may have to move them around a bit, but you know these are items that MUST fit no matter what.

  • Before packing, be sure that your bags fit the carry-on specifications. This may be obvious, but specs vary from airline to airline (and sometimes quite drastically), so it’s better to be safe than to be the person that’s looking like a fool trying to shove and squeeze her bag into the carry-on measurement funbox at security. Trust me, I’ve been there, and it’s less than pleasant (cue guy layering on 100 items of clothing).

If you’re a seasoned traveler, you know the rolling trick. If you’re not, take a look at some of the most common packing tip videos, and get to tight rolling those clothes. Bringing shoes? Stuff them with socks and underwear. Or better yet, can’t fly without that neck pillow? Take the stuffing out of the pillow and stuff it with pajamas, socks, underwear, shirts, whatever fits and is comfortable. How’s that for a packing tip?!

Step 6.2:

Now for toiletries. Again, a little dependent on your preferences AND where you’re going. Shampoo/Conditioner? Pick those up when you get to your destination. Your favorite facewash? Definitely bring it with you in a 3oz. container. Try to organize your toiletries by need. This is easiest for when you are staying in shared rooms, such as a hostel. Why? Because when you need all those little items for your shower, you’re not left undressed, standing under running water thinking, “Shit. I forgot my body wash in my other pouch and I went for a five-hour hike today. Fantastic.” No one wants that. Not your suitemates either.

Organizing by need will also help you realize what’s important and what isn’t important to bring when packing. I definitely tend to pack two different toothpaste tubes for some reason EVERY TIME because I forget I packed one in one area of my bag and will throw another one in. Don’t be me.

Step 6.3:

If you are choosing to pack two carry-ons (or more correctly, a carry-on and a personal item), choose the one with more outside pockets as your personal item. This will be the bag that you carry on the front of you at all times. This is the bag where you will keep all important documents, cash, etc in, as well as any items you’ll need throughout the flight (compression socks, gum, a book, your noise-cancelling headphones to drown out the baby next to you). Those multiple pockets are just asking to be opened and explored, so keeping these items close to your chest is your best bet. As for the bag on your back? Pack any items you wouldn’t mind losing along the way, such as hair brush, or clothes, or toiletries you don’t mind buying abroad if necessary.

Step 7:

Make sure the bags close. Then, make sure the bags won’t kill you as you’re running to your gate two terminals away on your 30 minute layover. For me, I know I’ll be traveling throughout SEAsia, so I knew these bags had to be comfortable and not too heavy. Take a stroll or jog around your house with both bags on, regardless how ridiculous you may feel. Did your back or neck begin to hurt? Imagine what it would feel like after 20+ hours of travel. Time to get rid of more stuff. Trust me, you’ll be thanking yourself later.

Step 8:

Double check everything, print out necessary documents, and separate cash/passport copies amongst pockets and bags, just to be safe. Keep mental note of where everything is and that every item has its place.

And you’re ready to go!

See. Wasn’t too bad was it? Ok, just kidding. I know packing your whole life in two carry-ons can be overwhelming. But like I told you to repeat to yourself, people just like you live every day in the place you’re going and live just fine. If you find you don’t have enough clothes, or forgot floss, or your sandals broke, I promise you’ll be able to find something to replace it wherever you are. Keep your mind open and be ready to live like a local!

May your travels be as light as your packing–Now keep exploring!

Extra step:

Let’s reverse this a bit. You’ve got the light packing down. You’re a pro. But now you’re heading home, you bought all the elephant pants and trinkets you could ever want, and now your bags are definitely not zipping up like those pants you’ve been holding onto since high school (we’ve all got those “goal weight” jeans). Remember those clothes you brought with you? That nice shirt with the tag still on it or that extra pair of jeans. I promise you that nothing will make a local woman’s day more than you just giving her free clothes. I’ve done this with a few of the hotel staff I come across and local friends I’ve made. I’ll take out those items I brought from home that I know I can live without, and will leave it with a small note for whoever is coming to fix up the room. And if that doesn’t work for you, find the closest orphanage or homeless shelter and drop them off on your way to the airport. The smiles I’ve seen from women across the world ecstatic that I am just giving them clothes could be one of the best feelings you have all trip.

Have any other tips for packing light on long trip? Please share in the comments below!