65 litres is not a challenge

When I began packing for my three month trip around South East Asia and Australasia, the contents of my backpack looked something like this:

I had trouble fitting everything in to begin with, and only ten days into my trip I forced myself to have a rethink, and as a result left over half my belongings in Sydney.

When you are visiting a new part of the world it is impossible to get a good idea of what you will need until you get there. And what you need and what you want to take become two very different things once you start excitedly rummaging through your summer wardrobe while it is still close to freezing temperatures outside. I set off with a 65 litre backpack packed to the limit, but weighing a pretty respectable 11.2kg.

Here’s the mystery regarding backpack contents: you can go away from home for as little as a week, but as soon as you step foot in the country you’re visiting your backpack begins to put on weight. You can add nothing to its contents, take nothing out, and attach nothing extra to its general mass, but give it a short amount of time and a mysterious 2kg will have somehow found its way in. Mine now weighs in at 16kg and as far as I know I have taken more out than I have put it.

I’m not sure exactly what contents I set off with now, but I estimate it was in the region of 15 tops, 5 pairs of shorts, 3 or 4 dresses and skirts, leggings, a pair of thin jeans, a few warm tops, 3 pairs os shoes, separate make-up and toiletries bags, laptop, assorted first aid items and electronic devices, complete with chargers and connecting wires. Oh, and 4 books. I’m not sure what I was thinking.

While some people find it easy to travel lighter than I would for a research trip to the library, I like being prepared for different weather and having options in what I wear. I’ll stick to my opinion in saying I was right to be prepared for different weather; I arrived in Bangkok to be greeted by 32c heat and sunshine, while Sydney greeted me with a downpour of rain that lasted several days, and other parts of Australia suffered an exceptionally cold summer during my visit.

The trouble with hot countries is that while you may not need many layers of clothing, the ones you do wear get dirty very quickly and you want to change most of what you’re wearing at least once a day, if not more, especially after muddy treks and visits to elephant sanctuaries (I’ll leave it to your imagination what the numerous different stains you can accumulate there are). Outfit changes add up to more clothing, and carrying an increasingly heavy backpack in heat that is still climbing past the late 30s is neither enjoyable or recommended. If your trip is one involving visiting a lot of destinations in quick succession, you will spend a lot of time heaving your bag around, and cutting off destinations from your list of places to visit in favour of being able to keep your bag in one place for a while should not take priority.

After three months in temperatures ranging from 11c at night to 37c during the day, and weather ranging from everything from snow and ice on New Zealand’s glaciers to sweltering heat on Thailand’s beaches, here is what I would recommend taking, and the challenge I would give myself if doing it again:

5 vest tops/tank tops/tshirts

3 pairs of shorts

2 skirts

1 dress (though I could probably cut this out if I was being really strict)

1 pair of flip flops

1 pair of trainers or walking sandals – something for colder days and sustainable enough for treks

1 bikini (NOT four)

As little underwear as you can bring yourself to pack, remember – small things dry quickly!

1 warm top or hoodie

2 pairs of long leggings or thin trousers

1 thin waterproof jacket

A small bag of toiletries – buy tiny bottles of stuff. It doesn’t matter how quickly they run out, it’s better to buy them regularly than carry big bottles of stuff that just ends up leaking.

A small first aid kit, including: travel sickness tablets (even if you don’t get travel sick, you will inevitably be sat on a bus with someone who does at some point), plasters, stomach settlers, mosquito repellant (high deet %). Anything else you need you will be able to pick up en-route.

Concentrated washing liquid – a bit of a life saver when you’re down to your last pair of just about everything and can wash it all in a few minutes in a sink.

A travel towel – yes, they’re rubbish for getting dried but a regular towel is one of the biggest wastes of space you can get.

A sleeping bag liner – a silk insert that fold up to a tiny size and can be used on its own in hot countries.

A camera and an old mobile phone which you can buy local sim cards for, especially useful if arranging to Couchsurf or meet locals.

As for a laptop, mine has proven to be both a heavy burden and extremely useful. It is invaluable if you’re travelling expensive countries in which internet cafes will quickly eat into your budget, while those in SE Asia are cheaper than buying a newspaper at home. Next time, I would make an investment in a tablet device. They’re light and as much as I hate electronic reading, can save the weight of numerous books too. The number of people I have seen travelling with them makes me think they’re quickly becoming common enough not to put you at the centre of attention with light-fingered individuals either.

Oh, taking your passport usually helps too.

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