5 things to ditch from the pack (and what to bring instead)

5 things to ditch from the pack

Got a ridiculously ungainly monstrosity of a pack that is your arch-nemesis and allows you no end of frustration nor extra taxi fees because you can’t stand hauling it up yet another hill in the sweltering summer heat?

Cool hostel buddy, Lviv, Ukraine.
“Next up, on Hoarders…”

Welcome. we are here to help.

You can actually spot the long-term backpackers from the newbies by their pack size. First-time travelers, bless their hearts, aren’t entirely sure what to expect from wild and crazy adventures out on the road, and often bring more than they really need, just in case. It’s not such a bad idea, but more often than not, they pack extra garbage they’ll never use and end up regretting it after a week of hauling it around all the time.

It’s a lot easier than most people think to travel light, and it’s even possible to travel for years with nothing but a carry-on. All it takes is a little strategizing.

So here you’ll find a list of the top 5 bulkiest, heaviest, least necessary items that many backpackers still think they can’t do without, and the lighter, smaller, packable alternatives that’ll become your best friends at the ultralight party.

You’ll find the list formatted thusly: What to ditch What to bring instead. So, without further ado:

1) School backpack Packable backpack

This is one of my top recommendations for backpackers looking to cut down the weight of their packs. Ever see those backpackers with a backpack on their back and a “frontpack” on their front? That’s a whole lot of gear to be lugging around, and there’s an easier way to do it, not only in terms of weight, but plain and simple awkwardness.

ChicoBag Travel Pack
ChicoBag Travel Pack: Full-size when open, tiny and forgettable when packed.

If you want to bring along a small backpack for day trips, hikes, all-day city wanderings and other assorted jaunts, consider a packable backpack. They fold up into their own pocket, take up no more room (and weight) than a t-shirt, and expand to become fully-featured backpacks spacious enough for a sweater, jacket, guidebook, water bottle, camera, snacks, and so on. In other words, they give you all you need, but they’ll disappear into the main pack when they’re not in use.

Take a look at a list of favorites for details.

  • Approximate weight savings: 1 lb (0.45 kg)

2) Laptop Tablet/Smartphone

This’ll be a controversial one, and I’ll readily admit that if you’re a digital nomad who needs a laptop to work online, well then okay. You get a pass. For everyone else, there’s an easier way.

Kindle Fire 7" tablet
No hardbacks. Never. Ever.

Consider a tablet. The smaller ones especially. They’re smaller, lighter, and more rugged that your average laptop, they have optional keyboards, and the cable is smaller, too. Battery life is better, they’re often cheaper and thus less of a financial hassle to replace if lost. Plus you can play Angry Birds!

An added bonus (and it’s a big one) is that you can ditch all physical books from the pack. Tablets double as e-readers (so you can also skip the Kindle, if you haven’t figured that out yet), which means if you replace a single book with a tablet, you’ve already won. On top of weight savings, I’ve always been an advocate of e-readers for any serious book fan; you can buy whatever book you want, and you can get old books free, since the copyright has expired.

Now, admitting the potential downsides, tablets can’t do everything. They come rather close, but you might have functionality on your laptop you can’t duplicate on a tablet (multitasking and intensive copying and pasting, for example). If that’s the case, consider performing those functions at internet cafés. I won’t claim this is better; just that it’s worth considering if you only have to do “serious” work once in a while, and can get away with tablets the vast majority of the time otherwise. Think about how frequently you’d want to perform intensive tasks, and how frequently you’ll be happy having cut significant weight from the pack, and weigh the pros and cons accordingly.

And if you’re really going ultralight, bring just a smartphone, or even just an internet-capable MP3 player. If all you want to do is browse the internet and email your friends and family, the downside is rather slim. And the upside is that it’s rather slim. Zing!

  • Approximate weight savings: 4 lbs (1.8 kg), depending

3) Hiking boots Casual shoes

Hiking boots, huh? Okay, I guess. Are you going hiking? No? Huh. Well that’s kinda weird, isn’t it?

Casual shoes from Timberland
Tell me these can’t handle a hike.

I think hiking boots are one of those automatic inclusions that people sort of assume is necessary despite how easy it is to get by without them. Not only is it rare that you’ll be hiking anyway, but are you really sure you need serious hiking boots? Those monsters are designed for serious mountaineering with massive packs, and if you’re paying attention to any of the instructions here, you simply won’t have one. So why bring hiking boots?

Instead, just bring a pair of casual shoes, which you’re probably bringing anyway. A nicely built, attractive pair of leather shoes will be more than capable of handling a trail or two, and they’ll clean up quite nicely afterward. It’s actually quite easy to bring only a single pair of shoes (plus flip flops or sandals), particularly if you’re  a guy, and use them for any shoe-related occasion. A nice pair of casual shoes will work just as well in the club as they do on the trail.

If you must bring separate pairs of “nice” shoes and “functional” shoes, well, I probably won’t be able to convince you otherwise. But if that’s the case, just bring sneakers/tennis shoes/trainers. As long as they don’t suck, they’ll work perfectly well on a hike, particularly if they’re waterproof.

  • Approximate weight savings: 2 lbs (0.9 kg)

4) Sleeping bag Sleeping bag liner

This is another one of those automatic, just-in-case, you-never-know items that you’ll probably never use. If you plan on camping, great. If not, a sleeping bag will accomplish absolutely nothing.

Cocoon ripstop silk sleeping bag liner.
It’s about the size of a soda can.

While it’s true that hostels occasionally charge for sheets, this is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence, and the less often it’s an issue, the more useless a sleeping bag will become. Consider a sleeping bag liner instead. These sleeping-bag-shaped inserts are intended to protect the inside of a real bag, and can be thrown in the laundry far more easily, but they serve just as well as impromptu sheets, and also provide a little extra warmth for those chilly nights.

If you’re worried it’ll be too cold in the hostel, then you should probably find better hostels anyway. If you find yourself in a compromising position and it’s too late to change, sleep in a sweater. You’ll be okay.

  • Approximate weight savings: 2 lbs (0.9 kg)

5) Fleece jacket Synthetic fill jacket

I know what you’re thinking. “What the fuck!?!?” But hear me out.

Montbell Thermawrap Pro Jacket
It’s shocking how frequently I wear this jacket.

It’s not that I don’t bring a fleece jacket. I always do. But it’s the lightest and thinnest I can possibly find. When it gets even colder, I add a synthetic fill puffy jacket. These jackets are generally half the size and weight of a comparably warm fleece jacket, and the nylon shell doubles as a windbreaker. Plus, they make excellent nook-and-cranny-fillers due to their frictionless and slippery fabric. You know those “bubbles” you see in filled packs? A puffy jacket will stuff into those and you’ll barely know it’s even in your pack (in other words, never use the jacket’s included stuff sack).

So it’s not that I recommend using it as your only cold-weather clothing; but it’ll work much better than a thick fleece parka that you can only wear in freezing temperatures. Chances are you’ll bring lighter sweaters and long-sleeved shirts anyway, meaning you can replace the fleece with a puffy coat with no downside.

Take a look at this post for more info on down jackets, synthetic alternatives, and so on.

  • Approximate weight savings: 1 lb (0.45 kg)

What’s the total?

80 liter travel backpack vs. a 20 liter ultralight backpack.
The pack should actually be SMALLER on a long trip, since it’s less annoying that way.

If you’ve been keeping score, these weight-saving alternatives save about 10 pounds, or 4.5 kilos. Keep in mind that’s just an approximation, which depends on the specific items you’ve cut, but damn, 10 pounds. That’s a lot of extra weight to be carrying around when you’re running to catch the last train of the day in the middle of nowhere. And if you do it right, there’s generally no disadvantage to adopting these strategies. You’ll get away with it, and you’ll never go back.

Weight-saving quickie extras

So I wanted to cover the largest items, the worst offenders of the back-breaking ordeal that backpacking can often become, as cutting them out will represent the best weight savings you can find. But long-term travelers find all sorts of other fun tricks to cut down the weight, and you might be surprised at how minimal you can go with no regrets. Here are a few more highlights:

  • Towel Undersized travel towel (can’t believe this didn’t make the list!)
  • Pillow Rolled up t-shirt
  • Mesh organizers Outfits rolled in pants

Well, that’s it for now. Got any tips? Feel free to share!

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

33 Comments on “5 things to ditch from the pack (and what to bring instead)”

  1. Great tips. I still carry my laptop which is huge and so heavy (Sony Vaio) and I desperately need to change it into a smartphone or a tablet. Any recommendations?

    1. This guy did this and liked it: http://beersandbeans.com/2013/04/07/why-i-ditched-my-laptop-for-an-intel-tablet/

      But I also like Apple a lot so I think this would be great: http://www.gizmag.com/logitech-ipad-mini-keyboard/26107/pictures#8

      Google and Samsung are also building cheap, tiny laptops like the Chromebook for $250, which is about as cheap and small as a “real” laptop is going to get: http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices/landing.html

      Plus Google has the Nexus tablets: http://www.google.com/nexus/7/

      I just packed up my bag with what I want to take on the next trip, and now I really want a tiny tablet…

        1. I’ve got one and I like it a lot. They often have subtle colors or patterns instead of fluorescent orange or whatever the hiking companies think is popular. On the other hand, I like what Patagonia is doing with its traceable down, so you know it’s not from a source that doesn’t care about animal cruelty. Not everyone can afford a Patagonia down jacket, but it’s worth thinking about for those who can.

          1. They make orange jackets so you won’t be shot during hunting season. Which I immediately realized after seeing someone wearing orange on the trail while hiking in central Florida

          2. Yeah, I remember that from camping and hiking trips, and it definitely makes sense. I just wish there were more alternatives for people who need high-quality rain gear, but just for city use. Not that the options are terrible, but they’re usually a little sporty.

          3. I’m planning to do some travel soon. My previous experience with down jacket has led me to the conclusion that “down alternative (microfine polyffiberfill) is a better choice for me. Compression/fluff/ warmth is comparable, but Bang for buck often better and I’ve gotten soaked a couple of times and DA dries out Much faster! keeps you warmer when wet, I think. Hollofill is the champ at retaining insulating value when wet, but not as cushy, compacts more like regular fiberfill.
            I always used my down jacket rolled in a t-shirt as pillow. A rolled tee under the neck just isn’t my sleep style. My “Down Alternative” is a better pillow, but this jacket is simpler, less “constructed” than the down ski jacket i used before.:

          4. There’s a company out there that makes a down jacket that packs down into a built-in stuff sack that’s shaped like a neck pillow. Pretty clever. I expect more and more people will “borrow” that idea as time goes on.

  2. Great tips man! Like Agnes I still carry a laptop though have not thought of ditching it for a tablet yet. I do a lot of photo processing using Lightroom and Photoshop and the tablets are not as fast yet when it comes to handling multiple programs. But maybe in a few months or a couple of years, tablets will be more powerful than the laptops we have today.

    1. Yeah, the multitasking is a big deal. I tend to do very little photo editing, though, so I think I can get away with it. But I’m so used to having several windows and tabs open all at once that it would be a big change. We’ll see, though.

  3. I tried both ways: one trip with a laptop and one with a tablet. Pros and cons for both but am leaning more and more toward the tablet since I can generally do everything on it as well as back up photos from my smartphone or standard camera to it and back it up remotely ever so often to Dropbox or what have you. The tablet method by far ruled weight wise and it was never a hassle to take it with me on day trips. The ability to use local SIM cards in the tablet as opposed to USB dongles/myfi accessories etc on the laptop absolutely was the best especially since I don’t tend to unlock my phones when I travel or roam for data. It helps that I don’t shoot RAW format so I’m able to use the relatively small storage of the tablet to manage my photos but anything bigger and I’d have to recommend the full blown laptop AND backup drive but I think you’d have to be semi serious about how you’d want to output or manipulate your photos after the fact to go that route and with camera quality on portable devices these days, I find it hard to justify the SLR.

    While we’re on the topic of photos, make sure you don’t spend too much time in the viewfinder. Take fewer pix and savor the journey with your EYES! Sketch, write, do voice recordings, anything but take too many photos.

    I carried a little laptop bag for my secondary bag and it fit everything nicely. It would bulge a bit every now and then but in the more metropolitan areas I felt it helped to blend in more and didn’t feel like such a tourist. The tablet could go everywhere which just helped to access maps and notes much quicker. Simply wonderful.

    I also pack a bag of ear plugs. I have made many friends by being able to supply earplugs when a fellow hostelmate transforms into a chainsaw.

    1. Good to get some user tips. I agree on the gigantic camera predicament. My computer screen is 1 megapixel. Why would I want a camera that can shoot 16? I so rarely feel the need to zoom in 16 times closer that I just don’t see the point. I use high-quality cameras from 8 years ago and they work fine. I rarely took photos higher than 3 megapixels. Occasional cropping is useful.

    2. Sounds like your tablet is really performing many more functions than they used to. What type of tablet is it?


      1. I’m speculating using one, so I haven’t bought one yet. I just play around on other people’s tablets. But I think either an Android tablet or an iPad, particularly the smaller ones, might allow you to do pretty much everything, depending on what you need to do.

  4. Great tips. I cant survive without my laptop and my camera which makes my luggage quite a heavy one but over the years I have been able to squeeze my luggage into 15 kg. And that is all my stuff, my life really.

    1. I’m seeing if I can get away with just a smartphone being my only camera. Smartphone cameras are getting better and better, and my photography skills have held still.

  5. Yay, another lover of ChicoBags! I am a HUGE fan of anything ChicoBags which is probably due to my having gone to school in Chico, but whatever. Fabulous idea with the sleeping bag liner! I’d never even thought of that and I’ll be adding it to my packing list! Thanks for the great tips! I’m seriously considering buying a tablet for my upcoming trip rather than bringing my MacBook. We’ll see.

    1. I’m dorkily thinking of buying both of their backpacks, because I like the one I have already, but the upgraded version is pretty great, too. Plus the messenger bag is cool…

  6. For a covertable tablet I’ve been traveling with a Lenovo Helix. It can act as a tablet for those times when you don’t want to be rude with a laptop, but also can outperform most laptops. Great screen too.

  7. I’m a small person so I appreciate all the posts about backpacks and traveling light. My last trip I took a completely stuffed suitcase and an all-too heavy shoulder bag that one of the straps broke- kill me. NEVER again. I was not roughing it by any means so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world but definitely got my attention.

    I recently purchased a MacBook Air 13″; it does everything I need plus more and only weighs 2 pounds, I absolutely love it. It is also nice since it is synced to my phone which I use as a camera and I can iMessage/FaceTime from it if I need.

    I am considering getting the TravelFresh Sleepsack for my next trip, anyone tried it? I know the reviews complain about no side opening but I’m not too worried about that, just the weight.

  8. Re laptop vs tablet.
    A phablet, 5.5″ to 6″ screen, might be all that some people really need.
    Easier to carry around all day, and can use as camera/GPS/email/tourguide.
    SIM sometimes more secure or useful than wifi.
    Can even make phone calls…..
    Samsung Galaxy Note 3 works for me.

  9. One other idea from when I was camping that bridges the gap between bringing a pillow or using a sweater: Just bring a pillowcase. It folds up to practically nothing, but you can toss your clothes, your parka, or anything soft into it for a surprisingly decent pillow-shaped thing. I get really annoyed when trying to use just a sweater because it always unfolds and flattens out within like five minutes, and this makes me much less cranky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.