40-Liter Backpack: Is it Mandatory Gear for Long-term Travelers?

Erin ~ 40-Liter
JV ~ 40-Liter

In 2008, Erin and I traveled for a year with 60 and 65-liter backpacks; the same ones we use when we go camping.  They’re big enough to hold a tent, cook-gear, and lots of extra layers for those cold mountain nights.  In hindsight, when it comes to what we packed back then, it’s almost laughable.  Fast forward three years, with an 18-month multi-continent itinerary in tow, and behold, our new 40-Liter backpacks have revolutionized our travel lifestyle and are permanently in the “don’t-leave-home-without-it” category.  Let me explain how to make the 40-liter pack work:

Clothing: Less is More.  Packing four pairs of shoes for those what-if scenarios of travel?  Forget it.  Pick 2, a sturdy hiking shoe (I prefer trail-runners which can also be worn to the gym) and your sandal of choice and be done with it.  Shoes take up tons of room in your pack, are super heavy, and chances are you’ll be sporting your flip-flops 99% of the time anyhow.  Have a pair of jeans packed?  Unless you can’t live without them, those Levi’s will probably see more backpack-time than wear-time.  They’re heavy and don’t breathe and like most travelers, you’re probably hitting up the tropics where the only temperature is hot and the dress code is no-shirt-no-pant-no-problem.  Leave ’em at home.  You’ll appreciate them that much more once you’re back.  Try a zip-off pant or a pair each of ultra-lightweight pants and shorts.  Shirts?  4 Tees/tanks and a long-sleeve of choice.  I like a short-sleeve button up too.  Jackets?  If you’ll be in cold temperatures on your trip, and if you’ve got the room (you will), a thin rain jacket and a Puffy sleeping bag-style jacket in a compression sack are just what you need.  Stuff the Puffy with thin gloves and hat and you’re set.  And last but not least, your smalls, panties, and unders.  Guys, 3 pairs of undies should do the trick.  Make sure they’re the kind that dry fast and more importantly, get comfy with going commando.  Laundry day comes fast.  Ladies, a weeks worth is Erin’s mantra.  Anything else you need or want once on the road, you can enact the BIT philosophy (But It There.)  After all, Tees are only $1 in India and renting is always an option for excursions.

Dr. Bronner All-One!

Other crap.  Sunscreens, bug sprays, twelve types of medicine, shampoo, conditioner, hair products.  No, no, and no.  Leave ’em in the medicine cabinet.  Buy sunscreen and bug sprays in small doses when you’ll need it and where you’ll need it.  Medicines?  Outside of mandatory prescriptions, buy them when you need them.  Don’t worry, every country has some sort of pharmacy and drug prices abroad are jaw-droppingly cheap.  Damn pharma companies.  A small bottle of Dr. Bronner soap is the only thing you need to carry; it’s shampoo, face wash, body and laundry soap all-in-one and leaves your skin feeling minty fresh.  And it’s crazy how well salt-water mixed with a heavy dose of sunshine gives your hair hold, bounce, or whatever else you’re looking for.  There’s always the option of shaving your head or growing your hair too.  Either way, removing all of these bulky, hard to pack, heavy items from your pack list (and keeping everything below 3.4 oz, 100ml) will make life on the road that much easier.

Checked bags: Dollars and Sense.  But most important of all, more than than not being weighed down, is the 40-liter backpack is the max that airlines consider “carry-on” luggage.  Check-in lines?  No chance.  Baggage fees?  No way, Jose.  Roller suitcases, eat your heart out.  Once you arrive, while everyone else on the plane is filling out lost-baggage claims or jockeying for position to grab their enormo rollerbags-from-hell off the belt, you’ll have already been through customs and hailed a cab, well on your way to experience the world.  Don’t want to shell out another $150 for the pack right before the trip?  You’ll end up spending more than that once on the road.  Checked-bag fees are $25-50 almost everywhere now plus when the train runs late to the airport and you’ve got 30 minutes to get through security, having to check a bag could be the difference between making the flight or paying a $125 change fee and spending the night in the airport.  Case in point, on a recent flight from NYC to Hong Kong, American Airlines, bless their little hearts, had the wrong terminal on the departure board, turning what was a cushy 90-minute before departure cruise into the 30-minute fight-or-flight Amazing Race dash.  We’ve all been there.  Finally at the correct terminal and gasping for air, the only reason we were able to board was because we vehemently stated “we don’t have any bags to check!”  One phone call later and we were through security and boarded our plane with time to spare.  The pack nearly paid for itself on day 1.

All in all, the nomadic, backpacker life is just plain easier with the 40-liter backpack.  And the same holds true for weekend warriors and 10-day summer vacationers.  Keeping things simple and lightweight makes the travel experience that much more enjoyable.  Plus, once you’ve worn through and stained all of your Tees, you get to go shopping for local, handcrafted clothes.  After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a new $5 wardrobe?

4 thoughts on “40-Liter Backpack: Is it Mandatory Gear for Long-term Travelers?

  1. Anonymous

    I will never forget our short walk from the Amsterdam train station to our Hotel. 5-6 BIG “A” bags dragged across cobble stone. A less than 1 mile walk that burned about 10,000 calories. Never, never again.Would like to buy a pair of those light weight pants you use that “zip off” in to shorts. Where did you get them???

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