The following guest post about packing small with a 26L backpack was submitted by Julie. Please note that this post contains affiliate links, and if you make a purchase, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting HPL!
Why did you decide to pack small?
I started packing small after my study-abroad in England, where I had over-packed about 4x over (you can listen about it on a HerPackingList podcast), since then I’ve been going smaller and smaller.
About 6 months before my trip I’d purchased a new daypack for hiking, the Women’s Deuter Trans Alpine 26L SL (though it’s technically a cycling pack). I wanted to bring this pack with me on my trip, but didn’t like the idea of having multiple large bags. Then one day it dawned on me – what if I brought my 26L as my main pack? Well, once I challenge myself, I can’t back down.
I love this pack [the Deuter Trans Alpine 26L SL]. It was my schoolbag for the last year of my Master’s when I would be away from my house for 12 hours at a time. I’d desperately wanted to upgrade from a stuffable bag for hiking, and this one is great for that. It has back ventilation, a built-in raincover, capable of holding a 3L hydration pack, a great hip belt and an optional separate section for clothes or a camera that can be zipped or unzipped depending on whether you need it.
What Kind of Trip was This?
Solo through Vancouver, Squamish, Sydney, and Melbourne, then meet up with my travel-buddy for 5 weeks of Tasmania and New Zealand. The trip consisted of driving through Tasmania and New Zealand, lots of day hikes and outdoors activities, and some cities sprinkled in. Temperatures would range from just around the freezing mark in the south of New Zealand and higher elevation hikes, all the way up to 28 degrees (that’s Celsius, so 82F) in Vancouver and Hawaii.
What initially went into my pack (one or two things changed between taking this photo and actually packing):
- Deuter 26L Transalpine
- Large cross-body bag to hold my camera and items for long flights: Later gave this away
- Stuffable knapsack: Purchased during trip (which technically put me over 26L after this purchase)
- 2 pairs of Flipside Leggings (from Encircled)
- 1 pair convertible hiking pants
- 1 pair jeans
- 1 merino wool hoodie
- 1 warm fuzzy sweater (purchased during trip)
- 1 long sleeve Heattech shirt
- 4 tank tops (3 synthetic and 1 merino wool)
- 2 t-shirts (synthetic, purchased during trip)
- 1 Chrysalis Cardi
- 1 sleep shirt: My sleep shirt is actually an athletic shirt, this way it didn’t get that gross feeling from multiple wears.
- 8 pairs of underwear (6 quick drying)
- 7 pairs of socks: I lost some of these to my friend’s dog when I was staying with her, so I ended up with less in the end.
- 1 bra
- 1 sports bra
- 1 Chaos merino wool tubular headwear (basically a Buff)
- 1 merino wool tuque
- 1 pair merino wool gloves
- 1 pair Tieks (fold-up flats)
- 1 pair Flipsters (Fold-up flip flops)
- 1 pair waterproof trail runners
- 1 warm stuffable outer jacket
- 1 rain shell
- Lush shampoo bar
- liquid conditioner
- solid facial cleanser
- Lush solid deodorant (cut to the amount I would use)
- solid Dr. Bronner’s soap
- moisturizer with SPF
- lip balm
- prescription medications
- daily contact lenses, enough for whole trip
- mini eyeshadow
- travel towel
- laptop (for most people, I wouldn’t say a laptop is necessary, but I have chronic wrist pain that makes using my cell phone very difficult, so for me it is a must for long trips)
- laptop charger
- cell phone
- cell phone charger
- Kobo e-reader
- DSLR camera
- camera charger
- hot coffee/tea travel mug
- eye mask
- stuffable travel pillow
- favourite tea
What I Would Change
I ended up ditching the cross-body bag and getting a stuffable daypack because my sensitive back couldn’t handle the crossbody after about 2 weeks, not to mention I began to appreciate the extra space. Next time I’ll bring the stuffable daypack and a small clutch for nights out instead.
I would bring more T-shirts: For some reason, I don’t wear T-shirts at home, but surprised myself when I found them useful for travel! Who knew?! Next time I would trade out some of the tank tops for T-shirts.
A warmer outer layer: I’m constantly cold, but against my gut went with a synthetic outer jacket instead of a warmer down one. I was pretty cold for most of the trip, and ended up having to buy a fuzzy sweater to compensate for the lack of warmth, even after trying to wear all of my layers at once without success.
No Chrysalis Cardi: I love Encircled, and wear their Dressy Sweatpants and Flipside Leggings almost everyday in Toronto. But the Tencel fabric is too heavy and slow-drying for a mostly-outdoorsy trip, and found that I never really reached for my Chrysalis Cardi. I very rarely used it as a scarf or a wrap. I found it to be too light for a wrap in cold weather, and too heavy as a scarf for any outdoor activity, not to mention the material got sweaty and stayed sweaty pretty fast, which ended up making me colder.
I mostly ended up using the Buff as a scarf instead. The Cardi was useful in Hawaii as a dress, but I easily could have bought a light cheap one while I was there. Otherwise it I don’t think I used it enough to make it worth it to pack for this kind of a trip.
Pros of Packing Small
- I could take transit that usually didn’t allow large packs
- I was able to carry my stuff for long distances
- I never needed to ask for help
- I used everything I packed!
Cons of Packing Small
- I still didn’t pack light enough to do carry-on for budget airlines without buying extra weight
- There wasn’t a lot of extra room
What I Learned
There is a difference between packing light and packing small.
Despite the size, my pack and extra bag was still 10-12kgs. I have a small frame, so this was still a little difficult. Next time I’ll focus on getting it lighter as well.
>>Check out the best backpacks for petite women.
I’d rather have a bigger pack with extra room than a small pack
- I never wished I had brought more stuff, but I did often wish I had left more space. I didn’t like having to stress over whether I could buy 100g of tea for a souvenir, or if I had room for a knee brace after I injured myself early in the trip.
- If I were to do this trip again with my 26L pack, I would try to pack lighter/thinner clothing, less tank tops, and less sweaters – I really only needed one warm fuzzy one, and maybe a second cardigan for fancier occasions. I also would consider leaving out my DSLR. Previously I’ve used it for nature photography, but I found it to be a nuisance on longer hikes, so it’s a strong consideration.
- I opted for comfort on my travel days, since they were often overnight flights, just wearing leggings and a sweater. If you are up for it, you can also lighten your pack by wearing your bulkier items on travel days.
Pack within one colour palette.
All of the non-neutral clothing I packed was blue, purple, turquoise, or hot pink. This way, no matter what I wore I knew it would match.
Fabric is a big deal for me.
- Aside from Encircled’s products, everything I packed was merino wool or synthetic. As a result, I only did laundry 3 times during the trip (and once I just did it because it was free, I could have gotten away with twice). Nothing got that gross feeling of wearing it too many times, and if something was super dirty or stinky I just hand-washed it in the sink.
- I also started to realize how much things like a slightly thicker fabric would add up in terms of weight and space. In the future I’ll focus on packing lighter fabrics.
>>Read more about the best fabrics for travel clothing.
Everyone has their own wants, needs, and definitions of packing light.
For me this means less bags, lightness in weight, back support, and the security of having extra space in luggage. What does it mean for you?
Even though it was a bit difficult for me, I would absolutely consider doing this again – I love a good challenge. I learned loads about myself (no pun intended) and how I pack from this trip, which will make it easier for me to pack and enjoy on future trips to come!
P.S. – You might enjoy reading Brooke’s ultralight packing list.
About the author: A second-time contributor to HerPackingList. Julie was born and lives in Canada. Having already visited 6 continents, she likes to joke that her favourite places so far (Iceland, New Zealand, and rural Ecuador) have been “where sheep outnumber people”. When she isn’t travelling, Julie enjoys outdoor activities, strange theatre pursuits, and trying not to buy too much tea. She one day hopes to start her own travel blog about cynical travel.
Lady Light Travel says
I’ve noticed one problem putting a heavy load in a smaller pack. Large packs are designed for heavy loads and have suspension systems that distribute the load. Small packs ate designed for lighter loads and may not have the better suspension system. When you put a heavy load in a smaller pack it can sometimes overwhelm the suspension system. You end up with the pack shifting or the straps cutting into your shoulders.
Like you, I prefer a larger empty pack if I’m not constrained by size limits. I find that it is more comfortable. That way I can actually buy that nice souvenir.
Kudos to you if you’re able to leave a larger pack empty! 🙂
Charlotte Littl says
This was great. The trip sounds amazing. I’m planning on bringing my 45L bag with me for a 12 month trip and I was worried it was too small but I will give it a go!
I want to do 6 months (NZ, Feejee, Auz, SE Asia with carry on luggage only but just not sure I’ll be able to! When are you going away and how to you plan to pack small?
Thanks 4 of us 60 and over are going for a month out west. Never been before I just bought the backpack and it holds more than you’d think. I like the rain jacket.
I pack two small fold into it’s self back packs for day trips What were the most comfortable shoes you wore? Flips or sneakers or hiking boots?
Thank You from late in life traveler
I actually used the blue knapsack for day trips. With how it was built, it’s really what it was meant for it and works great! For shoes it depended on the weather and terrain, I tend to find trail runners or teva sandals most comfortable.
Hope you enjoyed your time out west!
Good tips and insight! I think I’ve discovered I need to use different bags for different trips. I’m not sure why I can’t use one. But I’ve got a duffle for camping (military grade so dirt is ok), a rolly for flying (it’s tiny and so easy to maneuver) and a backpack for weekend trips (I love to fit everything in it’s little pockets).