What to pack is generally the last big stress but it needn't be.
Buying a rucksack
The main features to consider when buying a rucksack:
How to decide what to take
The first and best thing you should do is make a list - then half it!
Remember that what you do not take with you, you can always buy locally.
How best to pack a rucksack
Get into the habit of packing your rucksack the same way each time.
Packing your bag or rucksack properly will ensure that you:
- Pack everything in your rucksack when in a rush.
- Keep your valuables safe.
- Keep commonly used things easily accessible.
- Pack your rucksack faster and more efficiently (very useful when your bus leaves in under 2 minutes!)
TOP TIP: If you can get into the habit of packing your rucksack in a certain way right from the start it will save you loads of time and help keep your valuables more secure.
Heavy stuff goes in the middle
If you have the classic top-opening rucksack then it will be best to keep things such as your sleeping bag or hiking boots in the bottom where they are out of the way but can be easily accessed through the bottom zipper.
Packing heavier items in the middle of the backpack as close to your back as possible will put less strain on you when carrying your rucksack.
Security is a big issue. You can minimise the risk from bag-slashers and petty thieves by ensuring that you pack valuables such as your camera or any expensive souvenirs deep inside your pack - wrapped up in other clothes.
Side and top pockets
I tend to pack my toilet roll and dirty underwear in the side pockets as these are too easily opened by petty thieves.
The same applies to the top pocket of your rucksack or bag. Resist the temptation to store anything of any value here as you will be asking for trouble.
Get adequate travel insurance so you can claim back any lost personal belongings.
I tend to keep as little as possible of real value in my big pack when travelling by train, bus, etc. I take a day pack with my money, passport, tickets, digital camera and any other items of personal value with me, while my large backpack travels alone on the roof.
Although it would obviously cause a lot of hassle, I try and think along the lines that I could still survive quite comfortably with the small day pack I have right next to me.
See the section on bag safety for tips on how to avoid falling prey to scams but if you have packed your bag wisely and also secured it with either a padlock or travel strap, then you should pass through your whole trip without incurring any major problems.
Keeping your clothes in relatively good shape will not generally be on the top of the list of priorities for the average backpacker.
It is, however, a good idea though to store everything in your rucksack in small plastic bags. This not only keeps your clothes waterproof but also speeds up packing as you will only have to stuff a few things into your bag before running for the bus. You could also consider buying a waterproof rucksack cover.
Is rolling clothes better than folding?
I have come across some travellers who swear that by rolling their clothes tightly, instead of folding them, they keep them looking better and less creased, but every time I have tried this I have never noticed any real difference!
The only benefit I can see is that the creases are more random - rather than straight lines down the front of your T-shirts, for example.
Too much baggage?
The last main point to remember is that you will slowly accumulate more and more luggage as your trip goes on. You can either start looking at shipping some items back (such as your sleeping bag, boots, souvenirs) or else you will have to find ways of squeezing everything in your pack.
You will no doubt develop your own personal art to packing all your accumulated stuff into your bag, then one day forget how you have done it and spending the next 30 minutes screaming at your hiking boots - that's what usually happens to me!
How heavy should my rucksack be when packed?
Airlines have limits on the weight of bags. If you are travelling to America or through America on a round the world flight ticket that is going west-bound, then your weight limit for one bag or rucksack is 32KG.
If you are not travelling through America, then baggage limits for airlines are typically 20KG. Always check with your travel agent before travelling. Baggage weight limits are also noted on your flight tickets.
What to look for in a good rucksack?
The main thing to look for is a padded hip belt. This will take the weight off your back when trudging around town looking for a place to stay as well as during any hikes you do.
You should aim to carry about 50% of the weight on this belt. (At airports wrap the hip belt back around the pack to ensure that it doesn't get caught in the conveyor belt. This will also help deter or slow down nosey people.)
Very few bags are totally waterproof and it is not really worth your money spending the extra on this. Some come with waterproof tops.
We recommend packing your clothes in plastic bags to keep them dry, but you can also buy a waterproof cover which can be attached to most bags within seconds for those inevitable downpours!
Travel safety and security
Watch out for the following:
- Bag Swapping in airports, stations, etc.
- Bag Slashing
- Keeping it secure
Bag swapping at the airport
Bag swapping can be deliberate, but more often an honest mistake at the airport, but whatever reason it is extremely inconvenient.
Try to get through customs and through to baggage reclaim as soon as you can. It is best to stand where the luggage comes onto the carousels to ensure that your bag is with you straight away.
If your bag has no obvious features to distinguish it from the others it may be a good idea to make it easily and quickly recognisable to you by sewing on a badge or fitting a safety strap around the whole bag. This also ensures that others realise quickly that they have grabbed the wrong bag.
Bag slashing is thankfully a relatively rare occurrence and is when thieves use razor sharp knifes to subtly open up the side or bottom of your pack allowing your stuff to either drop out or to enable a hand to rummage inside. This is most common in certain areas of South America and it may be wise to sew a metal mesh panel, such as 'chicken wire', inside the pack. This can always be ripped out later when you get to safer places.
Rucksack security meshes are available online which also help serve as a visual deterent.
Theft from hotels or hostels
Theft of bags from hostels, buses etc is generally a lack of awareness by the traveller and not by violent attacks. Theft from your hotel or hostel accommodation can be minimised by either:
- Locking your room if possible.
- Keeping valuables in the property's safe.
- Storing your bag in lockers if available.
- Chaining your pack to a radiator etc in your room.
- Packing everything in your bag and securing it to prevent petty theft.
Theft from transport
Theft from transport is a little trickier, especially if the only room for your pack is on the roof of a bus with the chickens! The only thing you can do in this case is to make sure you have all your valuables in your money belt or daypack and try and check it is still there when you stop while keeping one eye on people about.
Keeping your belongings secure
Keeping it secure is a simple and effective way to deter petty theft. Spend a few extra minutes while packing to ensure that all your valuables are tucked away deep inside your bag, with no obvious protruding shapes sticking through the side.