In my solo backpacking life, my backpack is quite a recurring problem. Too heavy, too voluminous, too much of this, not enough of that, it seems that I can never pretend to drag around a perfectly balanced backpack. You know, the one that would be suitable for any season and occasion, that won’t weight too much on my shoulders when I’m hitchhiking for hours, and that would even fit as a carry-on when taking the plane so I won’t have to pay extra fees. That ideal backpack in which I could even put my travel diary with all my drawing colours, and, of course, some exciting things to read.
Actually, Hermione’s bag is exactly what I need, the kind of tiny purse that doesn’t weight anything but where you could be able to put absolutely anything – even an entire library. Welcome to one of my most precious fantasy.
My friend Émilie from L’essence du voyage is touring all around France animating workshops on how to travel differently. She’s offering a traveling lifestyle more conscious, ethic, et often… slower. She’s the one I was leading workshops with about the Working Holiday Visa in Mulhouse since January; and that’s how we came upon talking about our backpacks while sipping tea. I have to say that Emilie’s backpack is quite small, and she seems to carry everything she needs to travel from one city to another for work.
We exchanged tips and stories about our backpacking lives and came up with the idea of writing this post together, the kind of post that would list the perfect basics for travelling solo and get the (almost) ideal backpack. So, here you’ll find our essentials to drag around the world no matter the adventure and the duration of your trip: it seems that no matter what, you only need to pack as if travelling for 4 days.
ADVICE NUMBER ONE – THE BEST ONE YOU’LL EVER GET
If there would be only one advice to give when it comes to packing your bag, I would give you this one: start to pack as you would usually do, which means with a lot of hesitating, removing stuff, putting some back, thinking that you might still need a little bit of that one, then leaving the hair dryer out, taking that colourful dress anyway, etc. We all know those heart wrenching dilemmas.
Once your bag is packed as usual, take it all out. And divide it by two. I’m telling you that you’ll thank me later, because there’s nothing worse than dragging around an overweight bag. And I do know what I’m talking about, I’m constantly trying to alleviate mine as best as I can. Ideally, one shouldn’t carry more than 10% of one’s weight… But it seems a little bit of a sweet utopia for me. 8-10 kg seems correct and would probably fit in a 40L backpack suitable for carry-on.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- ABOUT CHOOSING YOUR TRAVEL
- OUR CLOTHING ESSENTIALS
- OUR TOILETRY BAG’S ESSENTIALS
- OUR TRAVEL ACCESSORIES
- BASICS FOR YOUR FIRST AID KIT
- DOCUMENTS NOT TO FORGET WHEN GOING ON A TRIP
ABOUT CHOOSING YOUR TRAVEL
In a perfect world, the perfect backpack would be light: it should weigh less than 2kg when empty and have 2 to 3 compartments inside and 3 to 4 outer pockets. Having a lateral zipper is very useful because it allows you an easy access to your belongings without having to empty it completely every time you need a pair of socks or your towel (which is always lost at the very bottom of your bag when you need it anyway) As for the top opening, the larger the better in case you need to stack a sleeping bag or a tent inside. Last but not least, it’s important to have a good and solid handle on the top, because you will carry your backpack everywhere and use that handle to drag it in public transports and on many other occasions.
Those are things you need to check out if you want to be able to drag your backpack around for long hours:
- Adjustable shoulder straps to be sure it fits you perfectly
- An adjustable sternum strap as to stick your backpack against your back
- An adjustable hip belt to balance the bag’s weight between your hips and your back (and not your shoulders!)
- A breathable back panel to keep the sweat of travelling around to the minimum
- A rain cover (sometimes integrated) is also useful when carrying the bag in the public transports
The key word here is “adjustable” because it needs to fit your morphology perfectly. It’s also essential to try it before you buy it and wander anywhere. That backpack would become your best companion wherever you’ll go so it goes without saying that choosing a good one is crucial… so you need to be ready to pay an expensive price for it, because obviously the more comfortable backpacks are always the more expensive ones. But more often than not, they are solid and will last a good amount of time, if not a lifetime.
Emilie’s good backpacking tips:
- Put some distinctive sign on your backpack to recognize it easily (at the airport, on the bus, on a dormitory, etc. there might be loads of other bags looking exactly like yours – Quechua and Deuter are worldwide brands now!) Some sew their home country or home region flag on it, some have key holders, stuffed animals, etc… Here’s the part where you will choose how your travel buddy will look like!
- Carrying a little backpack when you want to go for a stroll, a day hike, a night’s walk or even just when you have to check in your backpack in the luggage compartment of the bus. There are little bags easily foldable and fitting in little pouches that you can find at Decathlon. I found the perfect fit for me while in Taiwan, the Bagcom brand makes some cute foldable bags with padded shoulder straps, sternum straps, outer pockets for water bottles and even a breathable back panel.
OUR TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
No matter if you’re going camping, hiking, volunteering, travelling, enjoying the sun for a few days or settling down somewhere, those things are the ones we can’t travel without – and truth be told, we can’t live without them even when we’re not on the road!
OUR CLOTHING ESSENTIALS
When it comes to choosing outfits to travel, it always a bit of a struggle. Especially if you’re going on a world tour or living in a country with a huge difference between Summer and Winter time. The key is to bring clothes as light as possible, but that can keep you warm when needed. Merino wool is perfect for that, as it’s light, warm, solid and breathable. (Be aware though, that most Merino wool comes from places where sheep are mistreated, however, some brand like Patagonia claim that their Merino wool is cruelty-free from now on!). And the best technique is still the “onion technique” which consists of wearing different layers of clothes in Winter time.
We also recommend you bring enough clothes for 4 days no matter how long you’re planning to travel. No worries, you don’t need 42 knickers, nor 56 t-shirts. You’d better forget about your pair of jeans since they weight a ton and take ages to dry. You’ll always find alternatives on the way, like washing your clothes, or buying what you need in second-hand shops. You’ll even end up borrowing clothes to your Couchsurfing hosts or friends you’ll meet on the way. Pinky promise. We usually wash our underwear day by day, as to always have one dry to wear. Good to know that the Marseille soap can also be used as laundry detergent!
As for packing them, I’m very happy with the rolling technique and will carry with me a few tote bags to protect my clothes from the rest of my stuff and take them out easily (especially the one with underwears!) And those tote bags will also be helpful when grocery shopping, or on a night’s out with friends.
ÉMILIE CAN’T TRAVEL WITHOUT HER PAREO!
“This piece of fabric is a wonder, I obviously use it when I go to the beach but also as a scarf (especially in public transportation and other places with strong air con). It also helps to protect my skin from the sun: as a headband or on my shoulders, and sometimes impregnated with a bit of water to cool down. The list goes on and on: linen, pillow, rug, skirt, and in places of worship, I use it to cover my legs or my shoulders… It also makes a good travel souvenir, as I love to buy new ones wherever I go!”
CÉLINE CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT A PAIR OF LEGGINGS
“Even though I might have been the last girl on Earth to give it a shot, it became one of my travel essential. It’s really convenient because you can wear it as tights with a skirt or a dress, as hiking pants when going camping, as a pyjama when you’re too sick/too tired to get out of your bed, as a working outfit, etc. It’s more solid than tights, lighter than jeans, and unlike tights, you can get barefoot in no time as soon as a little stream, a lake, or the ocean is offering itself to your little toes. I always travel with at least two pairs, a light one made from light cotton, to wear with my skirts and another one thick enough to keep me warm and resist the bad weather. The sport’s leggings make a good travel outfit as they often have small pockets to carry some money, your passport and your phone, and most importantly, they can dry pretty fast! “
OUR TOILETRY BAG’S ESSENTIALS
When the time comes to prepare our toiletry bag, the main watchwords are convenient, solid, reusable and handmade. We avoid Q tips and makeup remover pads that we replace with an oriculi and a few reusable pads. We think about menstrual cup and period panties. We bring solid soap, shampoo and toothpaste into inox boxes. We replace those day cream full of crazy promises with hydrating oils.
It’s quite easy to make your own after sun cream, sunscreen, deodorant, mosquito repellent, toothpaste, etc, so why not giving it a try? It would be less plastic bottles and wrapping and you can choose the quantity you want to bring with you for your trip. The ones wanting to bring some makeup could do like Céline and choose some mineral powder which can also protect your skin from the sun.
CÉLINE WON’T TRAVEL WITHOUT HER BAMBOO REUSABLE PADS
“It’s time to say goodbye to those terrible disposable cotton pads that take way too much space in your bag and are nowhere near environmental friendly as they create too much daily waste (can you imagine the amount of waste in a year as you’re using one or two pads a day?) I fell in love with the bamboo reusable pads (you can also find some made with organic cotton) more than 5 years ago and won’t get back to disposable cotton pads. The reusable ones are soft and gentle on the skin and combined with jojoba oil or coconut oil, they’re working perfectly as make-up removers. You can wash your bamboo pads with your regular clothes in the washing machine or even by hand.
They exist in all shapes and colours, and my friend Justine is making the cutest ones ever, that you can order here: Just Harmonie.“
ÉMILIE IS ALL ABOUT HOMEMADE
“This is the best way to know about what you’re putting exactly on your skin and avoid the toxic products. Here are my recipes to make your homemade sunscreen, deodorant and mosquito repellent!”
“Traditional sunscreen can have dangerous effects on the environment but also on our health, mostly because of the chemical filters and the nanoparticles. The Maya Bay Beach in Thailand has even been closed to tourists for 6 months because of the damaging effects of mass tourism and sunscreen on nature.
There are some alternatives though if you want to avoid destroying nature without burning your skin off – the best advice still being to cover up yourself when the sun is high and burning. Clothes will keep you cool and protect your skin: now some fabric even has UPF labels that will protect you from the sun. In Japan, Céline bought some UV sleeves that protected her from the sun while wearing a t-shirt. When going swimming, you can just wear some sport’s long-sleeves t-shirt in the water as it will dry quite fast afterwards.
As for proper sunscreen, it’s better to choose one without chemical filters, colouring, synthetic fragrances, parabens and nanoparticles. Those specific sunscreens (usually with an eco-friendly label) can be found in alternatives and eco-friendly supermarkets and sometimes in pharmacies (like the Alga Maris one).“
If you’d rather make your own homemade sunscreen, here’s how to proceed:
Beware not to breathe the zinc oxide, be sure to wear a mask or put a towel on your face when mixing it up.
- Melt the bee wax and the two oils at low fire. Mix slow and well.
- When everything is mixed and smooth, remove from the fire, and wait for it to cool down without hardening.
- Add the zinc oxide with a little bit of water.
- It’s ready to use! Don’t forget to mix it up a bit every time before using it.
“I’ve been trying this homemade sunscreen in Tanzania and Comoro Islands, even though I’m always super careful: I’m always wearing a hat and won’t stay exposed to the sun between 11 AM and 4 PM. This homemade sunscreen needs to be applied regularly, several times a day like a regular sunscreen.”
“Since I started to avoid useless plastic packaging and toxic products, I always bring baking soda with me. You can use it as talcum powder, and you can kiss the sweat smell goodbye! Of course, you won’t stop sweating but you won’t smell like a jackal. Same if you want to refresh your shoes’ soles after a long trek, just pour a bit of baking soda and it won’t feel like cheese invaded your shoes!”
Although if you’re not quite comfortable with this solution -it could be a bit messy throwing baking soda on your armpits- there are some amazing solid deodorants that you can find in organic shops. The Lamazuna ones are organic, vegan, cruelty-free, aluminium free and handmade in France. You just need to dip it in a bit of warm water and apply it on your armpits and here you’re ready for strenuous hikes and enduring the humid weather of South East Asia.
HOMEMADE MOSQUITO REPELLENT
Once the ingredients are all mixed up well, you can spray the lotion on your skin and your clothes.
OUR TRAVEL ACCESSORIES
Here are the accessories we can’t really travel without for diverse reasons. We’re both into bookworms so we can’t imagine going to travel without having something to read with us (and something travel-related is even better to give us some inspiration – here you can have a look at some good Taiwanese books). Same with the camera and the travel diary which are both our favourite ways to keep memories of our travels: it’s always nice to look back at pictures or pieces of drawings and writings.
CÉLINE WON’T TRAVEL ANYMORE WITHOUT HER CUTLERY KIT
“While living in Taiwan, I had the feeling I was spending most of my time throwing things in the bin: as I was mostly eating out (like most Taiwanese), I was using disposable cups, straws, chopsticks, spoons, plates, bowls, etc almost every single day… And found them also on beaches and in the depth of the ocean while scuba diving. Even though Taiwanese people have a very good recycling system with different bins and the recycling truck coming several times a week, they are producing way too much waste on a daily basis.
When I got fed up by the daily Bubble Teas’ straws and the disposable bamboo chopsticks I bought myself a nice wooden cutlery kit with chopsticks and a tablespoon as well as an inox straw with its little cleaning brush. Combined with my Swiss Army Knife and my tea infuser, I’ve become the Queen of the Zero Waste Take Away and Picnics! I’m still carrying my kit around with me, even though I often forget asking “no straw, please!”
ÉMILIE HAS BECOME A LIFESTRAW BOTTLE AFICIONADO
“My Lifestraw Bottle is without any doubt THE must-have I can’t travel without! Thanks to its straw filter, I had been able to drink any tap water and even water from rivers during my travels, even in countries when the tap water isn’t drinkable. To allow you to drink any water without getting sick, the straw filter is made of coal and hollow fibre membranes that will remove 99,99% of bacteria, microplastics and parasites. I used the Lifestraw Go Bottle on my last trip to Tanzania and had no problem whatsoever, even with some disgusting looking water! “
There are also other ways to filter your water, using the Water to Go filter bottles, water purification effervescent tablets and a water purifier like Steripen which purifies water using UV light! There are now plenty of options to drink safely while on the road and say goodbye to plastic bottles!
CÉLINE AND HER WHISTLE/COMPASS KEYRING
“This little keyring I bought only 2€ in Decathlon (more because it looked like a nice keyring to have than because it was an actual whistle/compass/thermometer/ magnifying glass) actually DID save my life, when I got lost in the sand dunes of Northland in New Zealand. One should never underestimate its own capacity to get lost, and in that case, it’s a huge deal to travel with a whistle/compass keyring. The whistle allowed me to call for help while finding my way out of the dunes using the compass. It’s quite helpful too when you’re in such a nice place for sunset, but it’s oriented South-East so you can forget about the perfect sunset over the mountains/the ocean! “
THE TRAVEL DIARIES HANDMADE BY ÉMILIE
“It’s been a few months that I started to make travel diaries with my sewing machine! I’m using only recycled paper and cardboard and fabrics I brought back from my previous travels. I’m sewing the fabric and the cardboard together for a solid base and then I just slip a notebook in. There’s either a blank notebook, either one with thoughts about mass tourism and alternatives to travel differently, as well as tips on how to prepare your trip, settle a budget, pack your bag and all the little details you could forget about!“
Buy your travel diary here: Les carnets d’Emilie
BASICS FOR YOUR FIRST AID KIT
When you pack your bag to travel to far-away countries, you tend to take everything you got in your personal pharmacy. However, if you ever get sick while travelling, it would be (almost) just like home: you probably will go to the pharmacy, the doctor or even the hospital.
If you don’t need any specific medical treatment, you’ll find everything you need at the local pharmacy or drugstore, and this checklist will be just enough. It’s useful to unpack the pills and put them in appropriate boxes or pillboxes so they won’t take too much space in your bag.
DOCUMENTS NOT TO FORGET WHEN GOING ON A TRIP
In any case, you should send yourself by e-mail a copy of all the paperwork, bookings, anything related to your travel. I find having a Cloud account very helpful (Dropbox, Google Drive and One Drive all offers some Go for free) because you can get access to your documents anytime (as long as you have Wi-Fi).
It’s better if you can carry a copy of your passport with you, so you won’t have to carry your original one every time you’re going out and you’d be able to leave it in the hostel’s locker.
As time goes by, my perfect backpack is getting way better.
When I started to reduce my bag’s weight, I discovered that it often means reducing my pollution impact to its minimum. A light and handy backpack is also a bag without too much plastic and useless wrappings, and where each item is useful, necessary and reusable. Soon, I was learning about Zero Waste techniques and Minimalism which, on top of helping me getting my bag lighter, are also in tune with my values and beliefs.
My backpack isn’t that full anymore, and I’m focusing as best as I can on unpackaged, second hand or/and homemade goods. I have to rethink all my way of living, buying and behaving. Now, my shoulders aren’t the only ones lighter. So is my mind. The less I possess, the happier I am.
It’s time to admit that tourism and travelling have a serious impact on the environment, between the plane carbon print, all the waste production (about 5kg per person per day – while we would only produce 1,5kkg of waste at home) and the over-consumption of water and electricity in hotels for example.
What’s the solution then? To quit travelling? Some already made the choice not to take the plane anymore and are favouring walking, hiking, bicycling, taking the train, carpooling or living in campervans. Some others are cleaning beaches, helping out in organic farms, getting involved in organisations while travelling.
Obviously, no matter what we choose to do, we can’t solve climate change by ourselves. But if we want to live in a better world and a better society, we must change the way we buy, we eat, we behave and the way we see and understand the world.
Who knows? We might inspire others and be part of a revolution.
I’d like to thank Emilie for sharing with me some of her secrets for light and eco-conscious way of travelling. I invite you to participate to her workshops in France if you have the chance (she speaks English too!).