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Minimalist Backpacking (The Ultimate Guide)

Why trust me for advice on minimalist backpacking? Well, I’ve been backpacking for over 20 years now and this is what I recommend to pack for your journey wherever you may be.

It should be said straight away that this post is about ‘backpacking’ in the term used for travel, not hiking. I know those two get mixed up a lot so if you’re after a hiking gear post this isn’t it.

Having said that, I do have a separate post which is for backpacking light (basically a minimalist hiking gear guide). You can read the minimalist hiking gear guide here if that’s the advice you were after.

Now back to the minimalist backpacking in the travel sense. I got into minimalist backpacking a long time ago and wished I had known about it when I first started out.

Back in 1997 when I first started backpacking around the world I made the mistake most travellers make and packed way too much stuff. I realised this on my 3rd day. I then proceeded to give half of it away to homeless people on the streets.

Over the years I perfected what items to carry for worldwide travel and have given a lot of advice to other travellers since.

In this post, I will show you exactly what I travel with. If I’m not 100% sure about the kind of adventure I will have then this is what I will take.

I have a general philosophy in life that:

The less you have the less you have to worry about.

That is true for minimalist backpacking.

Ever watched movies like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? You don’t see Indiana running around with a heavy pack. I know it’s just a movie, but you can easily put that into real life.

Disclaimer: The links to the items I recommend are affiliate links to Amazon which means if you purchase anything through them I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Everything I have linked to are things I have personally used myself.

What To Pack For Minimalist Backpacking

Minimalist Travel Backpack

Minimalist backpacking backpack selection.

The size of your backpack is important. The smaller it is the easier your life will be, either from the ease of carrying it, being able to take it as a carry-on when flying, simply being able to stuff it in tiny lockers, and more.

I currently use a 36-litre pack that I find to be a perfect size, and really you don’t need any more than that.

If you need a little more room then stretch to a 40-litre pack, but no more.

Don’t buy a wheeled bag or suitcase, they are totally not appropriate for travelling in many places.

For any kind of real adventure, they are a bad idea. Can you imagine heading into the desert with a wheeled bag? That’s just one example of many. Yeah, it’s a stupid idea.

A backpack is easy to carry anywhere.

My backpack is easy to carry around anywhere.

When looking for a backpack look for decent side pockets to store things and two compartments or more are better for organising.

Another good thing about buying a smaller pack is that it will generally be cheaper than getting a large one.

Having said that don’t get the cheapest bag as it won’t be as comfortable compared with a more expensive bag.

It’s best to get one designed for hiking as it will be very comfortable for carrying.

Having the smaller pack will allow you to take it on as hand luggage saving you money on budget airlines where you have to pay extra for hold luggage.

Also if you show up somewhere and have a few hours to kill before moving on, but want to have a look around, it’s easy to do that with a small pack, whereas having a larger pack will be heavy and uncomfortable.

There are lots of backpacks to choose from, but as I said before I am only recommending products I have used.

The North Face Recon has a 30-litre capacity, zip enclosures, stretchy pockets, 2 compartments with organising pockets, laptop/water bladder sleeve, and is comfortable and durable.

The small daypack:

Taking a smaller daypack and storing it inside the main bag, or carrying it on the outside is something new I have been doing.

This came about due to the Rainshadow not having a laptop sleeve. The small daypack has one and I use it as storage for my laptop when travelling between places for protection.

I then use it for day trips as a small ultralight pack for carrying day supplies or taking my laptop to a coffeehouse to work online.

As it is small enough and light it packs down easily into the main backpack without taking up much space.

The one I use right now is the Berghaus Twentyfourseven 20 litre backpack. In fact, I know people who use just a 20-litre backpack for travel.

There are plenty more small daypack options out there for you apart from this one though.

Read my guide to choosing a good minimalist backpack.

Clothes For Minimalist Backpacking

This is generally all the clothing I carry for minimalist backpacking. It varies but this is what I would normally have.

I pack so that I can get down to temperatures around freezing point as this is a good overall average to aim for.

If I end up in colder climates I will buy a cheap pullover and leggings for the time that I am there, and then give them away to a homeless person when leaving for a warmer climate.

It saves you lugging around extra cold-weather gear when you may only need it for a short part of your trip.

For example, I went from hot Thailand to the freezing Himalayas in the middle of winter and picked up a warm pullover for only $3 when there.

Even in expensive countries, you can find very cheap clothing in the cheaper clothing stores.

I pack very minimally as you can easily wash your clothes in the evening, leave them overnight to dry, and have all of them clean the next day. It only takes a few minutes of your time every few days.

No one likes washing their clothes but it’s better than lugging around extra smelly clothing in your bag for days until you do a bulk wash.

I only recommend the clothing that I have tried and know is good. There are women’s versions of the same gear but (being a guy) I haven’t tried them (no s**t).

However, they also get good reviews and are the same gear in a woman’s fit so should be great.

Use what I have mentioned before as a guide, such as having zips or button closure pockets on trousers.

Clothing is obviously a personal thing. What will work for someone obviously might not be as good for another. Some of the clothing items are unisex.

Cold Weather Clothes

Minimalist backpacking cold weather clothing.

This is a selection of down and synthetic insulated jackets that are perfect for minimalist backpacking.

These will easily cover you down to 0 degrees (32 Fahrenheit), especially when added with a lightweight fleece top like the North Face Glacier.

Down is more expensive than synthetic but is warmer for the weight and more packable. Naturally, if you will only be heading to warmer places then you will not need a jacket like these, a simple lightweight fleece would.

But if you plan to visit some colder regions then these jackets would be perfect. I recommend getting a jacket with a hood for more cosiness and warmth.

I’ve always loved the brand Arc’teryx (from Canada). They’re worth the money for the performance you get and they consistently get high reviews from outdoor experts.

My current favourite down jacket is the Montane Featherlite Down Jacket.

As for synthetics, the Arc’Teryx Atom LT Hoodie is my top pick.

These are the women’s versions for the Montane Featherlite Down Jacket women’s , and the Arcteryx Atom LT Hoody.

Rain Gear

A lightweight rain jacket is the best option for minimalist backpacking.

Rain gear is always a good idea as it’s easy to get caught out when in the mountains for instance and rain will make you cold very quickly.

I have been in North Thailand where it was nice and warm in the city but when hiking in the mountains the rain came in and things got cold very fast.

You can’t go wrong with the Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket and the Marmot Precip pant. 

They are excellent value for money and will do the job.

However, my current favourite rain jacket for backpacking light is the StormLine Stretch Rain Shell by Black Diamond.

It’s very lightweight and offers good rain protection. Perfect.

Pants and Shorts

I take only one pair of pants with me, one pair of casual shorts. and one pair of running shorts.

Make sure they are reasonably lightweight as you will need that comfort for hot places, and synthetic cotton/blend is better for easy drying and comfort.

The shorts (or maybe a dress instead for women) are obviously for a warmer climate.

But try to get the shorts (or dress) to cover the knees, as in some cultures this is more respectable, especially for visiting religious sites.
Also, try to have at least one zipper pocket for storing money or your phone safely.

I know people who fell asleep on a bus and their phone slipped out of the none zipped pocket, and they lost it without realising in their tired state that it had fallen out.

Every pocket in my pants and shorts has a zippered or buttoned pocket.

As for underwear that’s up to you!

I really like the brand prAna for clothing. They are always very comfortable!

These are the pants I use by them prAna Stretch Zion Pants and the shorts prAna Stretch Zion Shorts.

As for running shorts, the Brooks Sherpa do the job just fine.

My friend also uses prAna and she recommends these women’s pants and shorts by them – prAna Living Halle Pant and prAna Halle Shorts.

Clothing Accessories

minimalist backpacking - hiking in mountains.

One of the best things you can travel with when minimalist backpacking is a Sarong. I use it as a towel, for relaxing around somewhere hot, as a sheet, for a screen when staying on a bottom bunk in a dormitory.

It’s a multiple-use item that is perfect for travelling.

I carry a pair of running gloves that keep my hands warm enough.

A BUFF UV Headwear can be used for head warmth and also as a mask, which is especially useful if travelling in desert or dusty environments.

I use a sun hat for hot weather, but you can use a wide-brimmed one like the well-known Tilley Endurables.

If going somewhere hot make sure you have a hat to protect you from the sun.

Footwear For Minimalist Backpacking

The footwear I have is a simple pair of trail running shoes and flip-flops.

You should not take hiking boots unless your trip is mostly based around hiking and even then I have been 4000 metres high in the mountains in winter and was fine with trail running shoes.

Unless your whole trip will be based on cold weather conditions boots will be a waste of space and weight.

That being said I do have a pair of Solomon boots that I would take with me if I know I will be in very cold conditions like when I was in the Arctic.

They are very comfortable and kept my feet warm at -30 degrees celsius.
Salomon Men’s Quest Boot and the Salomon Women’s Quest Boot.

Flip flops are always handy. If somewhere hot they are comfortable for wearing outside and even in cold places can be used for walking around inside a hostel/hotel, or for giving your feet a breather after a day of hiking.

I like these ones: Teva Men’s Mush II Flip Flop

Teva Women’s Mush II Flip Flop

For shoes, I have been using the U.K.-based brand Inov8 for over 10 years now and at the moment really like their unisex Inov-8 X-Talon Runner. 

I kid you not I have never had a blister in any of their shoes and they fit like slippers straight away.

Darn Tough are my favourite socks. Comfy and long-lasting.

Packing Accessories For Minimalist Backpacking

Accessories are for what your personal requirements are.

I keep things simple, as that is the principle of minimalist travel.

In the past, I wouldn’t carry a mosquito net as they are bulky and in places that you really need them, like malarial zones, the hotel or hostel would normally have a mosquito net on the bed.

Nowadays though you can get a double-sized mosquito net (like the Sea To Summit Mosquito Net) that packs down very small.

I have found that it has come in handy in non-malarial zones to keep out insects in cheaper places, and also dengue fever mosquitoes.

It’s not a must-carry, but I enjoy the peace of mind of keeping the creepy crawlies away. Only take one if it packs small though.

Take a headlamp like the Petzl Tikka as it will come in useful when camping/hiking or for reading a book on the bus at night. A head-torch is more convenient than a handheld one.

I carry a SteriPEN Adventurer UV Water Purifier for water purifying. This is not essential if travelling in places where you can safely drink tap water.

But if you’re going into parts of the world where you can’t drink tap water and need to buy bottled water, then the Steripen will be a good investment.

The Steripen is not cheap to buy in the beginning, but calculate how much money you will save in the long run when you don’t have to buy plastic bottles.

Also not buying plastic bottles will help the environment. Take a Wide Mouth Water Bottle for the water purifier for purifying.

Take a padlock with you so you can lock the zips on your backpack (if they have zips) and for when using lockers in hostels. Make sure it is a key code one and not with a key, as losing the key would be bad.

Another item that is highly recommended depending on where you are is a compact umbrella. It’s very good to have it in rainy places like South-East-Asia.

A minimalist travel packing essential, I would even say.

Get a decent enough wind-resistant umbrella (like the one above I linked to) as they will last longer.

I have a wash kit bag that holds the bare essentials- toothbrush and toothpaste, shower gel or soap bar, beard trimmer, earplugs (essential for noisy sleeping environments), and the medication that I take.

Naturally, it will all depend on what your personal needs are.

You may also want to take some packing cubes to help organise your things.

Electronics For Minimalist Backpacking

Electronics will depend on what you do when minimalist backpacking around.

I recommend not taking a laptop with you unless you need it for professional work, or are seriously into photography and want a laptop for photo editing.

If I wasn’t blogging and doing photography work I would just travel with my smartphone and iPad.

This will be enough to keep in touch with friends, search the internet, and watch the occasional movie/tv show.

You can even use your smartphone as your main camera if you don’t care about taking very high-quality photos as smartphone cameras are good these days.

If you are looking to get a new smartphone, especially for travelling, don’t worry about getting a more expensive one unless you want a higher quality camera, etc.

Make sure it’s unlocked so you can add foreign sim cards.

When it comes to my laptop and camera I don’t go for the really expensive options, but I don’t get the cheapest either as I am making my living from blogging and photography, so I want decent enough gear for that.

I have been using Macs for years now and wouldn’t change at this point. I have the Apple Macbook Pro 13 which is a good size and weight for minimalist backpacking.

It’s also fast enough to do my photo editing within Lightroom, and I don’t need it for anything heavier than that.

Cameras For Minimalist Backpacking

Cameras for minimalist backpacking/

As far as a camera for backpacking goes I’m only recommending Sony cameras (I swear I don’t work with them) because they are the brand I have been using for several years now.

Plus I said I’m only recommending items I have personal experience with and would buy myself. A point and shoot will do most people for travelling. If I was going to get a smaller camera as an “always with me” camera I would get the – Sony DSC-RX100

If you want to take your photography a bit more seriously then I recommend a compact system camera mirrorless setup.

They are not so big to carry and you still have an interchangeable lens to expand the system, and the quality is good.

The first 2 years of photos on my blog were taken on a compact system camera. Unless you’re really into photography don’t bother with a large and heavy DSLR setup.

The camera I use is a Sony Alpha a7II which to me is the perfect pro travel camera as it’s full-frame, great quality, and not that big and heavy.

You will have to do research on the additional lenses for whatever camera you may buy as there are so many.

The lens can cost as much or much more than the camera itself. My favourite lenses for the Sony A7ii are the Sony 55mm F1.8 Sonnar, and the Sony 28mm f/2-22. 

These are both prime lenses (no zoom) and perfect for portraits, landscape, and street photography. I like prime lenses more than zooms as it makes me think more about the composition of the picture and the image quality can often be much better.

If you are serious about photography then a good lens setup is the way to go. If you cant afford it in the beginning then start cheap and work your way up.

Be aware: if you are going to invest in a changeable lens camera do your research for what brand you want to go with as you will be buying into their lens system as well.

The Lowepro Event Messenger 100 Camera Bag fits my camera and the two prime lenses. It’s a small and compact bag and the entire setup is ideal for travelling with quality gear taking up little space.

These are two other mirrorless cameras that I would recommend.

The Sony Alpha a6000 is an older model but still good quality and excellent value for money and the Sony Alpha a6500.

Another option if you are planning on doing some adventurous activities is to take a GoPro. 

The GoPro isn’t that expensive and is very popular with travellers around the world, for its durability, good quality, and waterproofness.

This is a good selection of GoPro accessories for adventure.

Read my article about the 10 best cameras for backpacking.

Minimalist Backpacking Lifestyle

So that gives you an insight into the kind of things I pack for minimalist travel anywhere in the world.

You can use this for advice on what to bring if you want to know how to pack light for two weeks, or how to travel light for years.

It will work for you. Trust me. And all this gear fits into a 30-40 litre backpack.

Although it would squeeze in as well, I tend to carry the camera bag on my shoulder so I have fast access to my camera if a photo opportunity comes along.

This system has worked for me for over 20+ years covering most places you could go.

Safe and light travels, and a happy minimalist life!

One thing I highly recommend to anyone going backpacking, whether it be in the travel sense of the word or hiking, is to take good travel insurance in case something goes wrong.

These are some of the adventures I have had with this gear to give you an idea of how this guide for what to pack for backpacking light can work anywhere for minimalist travel.

So there you have it! A rundown on what minimalist backpacking is and what to get to do it yourself.

I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.

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minimalist backpacking guide

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