How to tell when your backpack needs a diet

You’ve tried all the diets, you’ve done all the Richard Simmons workout videos, and still you can’t seem to tighten your backpack’s waistband (err straps?) … well fret no longer! We know how easy it is to lose control of your backpack’s appetite when you lead such a hectic life of travel, and we’re here to help. No gimmicks, no tricks, just the facts!

First, before you can move forward with your weight loss goals, you have to face some hard truths; your backpack is verging on an unhealthy weight. Your sore back and shoulders are begging you to make some lifestyle changes, and frankly, if you have to endure another airline staffer’s judgey side eye at weigh in, you might just lose it at the check in counter. You may feel alone surrounded by so many impressive and intense “ultralite” backpackers (although that kind of extreme weight loss is not what we’re aiming to achieve here), but we’re here to help you every step of the way. Why trust us? We’ve been there! At our heaviest, our packs were weighing in at around 22 kilograms (or close to 50lbs), and we carried that baggage around (literally) for far too long.

Lauren pictured wearing said hat that was cursed during all transit immediately after purchasing.

How did you get here? The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem.  The extra and unnecessary possessions are never amassed at once, rather, they are accumulated slowly and surreptitiously over time. That scarf from Florence? “That won’t take up that much room.” That hat from Cinque Terre? “It’ll look so good in pictures and I’ll just wear it on the plane!” That souvenir you buy that you’ve erroneously convinced yourself won’t get destroyed after 8 months of being squished and squeezed in planes, trains, and automobiles. That new sundress you bought because you’re getting sick of the same old clothes after 3 months? “I’ll throw something else out to make room” (Narrator: “she, in fact, kept everything”). We even know someone that carried a faglong (a Philippine two-stringed, fretted boat-lute, thanks for asking) for several weeks (which is equal parts awesome and absurd), only for the airline to lose it on his flight home.

Every single one of these additions to our packs, no matter how useful or meaningful they may seem at the time, ends up adding more than we would imagine to our load. We found that it’s a lot easier to justify these purchases when we’re standing still in a location for longer. It’s a little harder to resist that swimsuit that caught your eye after you’ve passed the store for the fifth time, or a souvenir that has garnered more sentimental value because you’ve become more immersed in a culture. These kinds of purchases are empty calories to us long term travelers. 

Rachel's hat went missing "mysteriously" on our flight to Cambodia. Carol Baskin is a suspect being investigated in relation to its disappearance.

When it comes to long term travel, often souvenirs are deadweight that just end up getting destroyed anyway. If you’re the kind of traveler who likes tangible momentos, we suggest only buying things like postcards, patches, stickers, cheap things that don’t carry weight, don’t take up that much space, and won’t be a devastating loss if they get destroyed. We’re not here to police your midnight cravings or your purchases; if you happen to find a souvenir that doesn’t follow these guidelines, we’re not saying you can’t ever indulge in buying things again. The key is in finding balance and practicing moderation. If you buy something you must (and don’t just say it) maintain the parity of your pack by getting rid of something else (but we don’t recommend toting around musical instruments). This diet will tolerate no cheat days (or cheat purchases)

But maintaining a healthy backpack weight goes beyond the things you accumulate on the road; it starts before you even embark on your journey. To achieve a healthy backpack weight, you have to be strict from the very beginning (which we decidedly weren’t). If you haven’t worn that shirt with the tags still on it after it’s hung in your closet for three months, we promise it won’t do you much good on the road either. You don’t want to set out with your bag packed to the max, because there will always be new additions, the things you didn’t know you would need, and you will need a little extra wiggle room in your backpack’s waistband for those days your pack is feeling just a little bloated.

We struggled with what to bring because we had the task of packing for not just an entire year away from home, but also multiple seasons of clothing. Even when we rationalized that we wore everything we had packed, we both knew we could have gotten away with a lot less. Afterall, unless you have an entourage to carry your trunks, long term travel is not a fashion show. In spite of all our extra stuff, we often found ourselves wearing the same items over and over again; what qualities did these clothes possess that made them so conducive to the nomadic lifestyle? Often these pieces were neutral, moisture wicking, versatile, compact, easily layerable, and could stand up to the abuse of constant wear. If it doesn’t meet these requirements, you’re better off leaving it at home.

On to the act of packing itself; we know that this isn’t always the most calm experience. Rachel tends to panic when she packs, it’s an experience often clouded in anxiety for her, so often she packs too much or doesn’t think through the contents of her bag because of this brain frenzy. In order to see through the fog, it's helpful to prioritize organization. Neither of us had ever used packing cubes in our previous travels, but we decided to give them a go, and now we are total converts. Not only do they serve the same organizational purpose as dresser drawers, but they compress your clothes in a way that saves space and simplifies the packing process. When it comes to packing, less is more, and it’s better to find yourself without than with too much. We always seem to forget that clothing stores exist internationally?

But what to do when you’re already months into your trip and your backpack is so far from being “beach ready?” It’s time to cut the bulk. Whether you choose to donate your extra stuff, or send it home internationally, the method is still the same; it’s gotta go, Marie Kondo style.

The good news is, once you’ve implemented these new lifestyle habits and cut your pack’s weight and bulk, it’s so much harder to allow yourself to revert back to your old hoarding ways. If you do fall off the wagon, we will still be here to help you buckle down (your pack) and steer you back on the path toward your weight loss goals. We can’t wait to see your backpack’s new and improved look at the airline check in counter.