Could you travel indefinitely with just a 20 Liter backpack?
I bet you could—and in this post, I’ll do my best to show you how.
A bit of background: I’ve been doing the “digital nomad” thing for just over 2 years now, and my approach to travel/packing/productivity has changed considerably. Last year, I wrote a post about how to travel the world full-time with just a 30 Liter pack. A few people found it interesting, so I decided to write a follow-up with my latest packing list. I’ve since ditched the 30L pack in favour of a 20L daypack, which suits my needs just fine.
I get (and see) questions all the time about gear and clothing for long-term backpacking and/or being a remote worker. In some cases, people do require specialized solutions (e.g. for bringing expensive photography gear, drones, musical instruments, etc).
In the vast majority of cases, however, people are just looking for advice on how to get through a 3-6 month trawl through South East Asia or South America without developing lower back problems. Take it from someone who’s been at it for a while: you truly don’t need much to travel full-time in hot climates.
Behold, the “Minimal Viable Nomad” load-out:
This is everything I would bring to Chiang Mai. Or Bali. Or Medellin. Or anywhere else (as long as the temperature isn’t going to drop below 20C too often).
The backpack itself
- The pack itself is a Filson Journeyman Backpack (in black). This was purchased a few years ago—back when I was working in an office, and when spending $395 on a daypack seemed perfectly normal. If you’re doing regular travel, there’s really no need to spend anywhere close to this amount on a backpack. There are many 20-25L packs that would do the job just fine (check out the Distilled Gear List on this blog).
- What I like: the Filson pack is built like a tank. Large, high quality zippers. Strong stitching. A water resistant exterior (it kept all contents dry in heavy monsoon rain). Wide, comfortable straps. It also doesn’t hurt that it looks really, really good—a very clean, timeless design without any distracting hip or chest straps.
- What could be improved: the laptop compartment isn’t raised, so I typically keep some socks at the bottom of the bag to create a cushion from the bottom of the bag (in any case, a laptop sleeve is recommended). Also, there’s not much air flow between the pack and my back—going for a multi-day hike with this thing could be unpleasant.
Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with the Journeyman. It’s sturdy enough to last years on the road, but also hipster enough to make me look like a local (i.e. not an obvious “traveler”). Most importantly, it has allowed me to reach the next step in the “one bag” process: full-time travel with just a daypack.
If all you have is a daypack, many travel “annoyances” suddenly no longer apply to you:
- No need to check a bag (ever). Even the most aggressive of airport gate staff simply wave you through—no one is going to bother weighing your pack to make sure it’s under 7kg (except Jetstar Australia, of course, the absolute madmen).
- No need to rush onto a plane/bus early to claim valuable overhead space. In a pinch, the bag slides neatly under the seat in front of you
- No need to spend 1-2 hours upon arrival checking in to your hotel/Airbnb just to drop off a big piece of luggage. With a daypack, you can go straight into a city and start exploring
- No need to bring a “separate” daypack
What goes in the backpack
- 5 regular t-shirts. I’ve been a fan of American Apparel’s basic cotton tees and Uniqlo’s HEATTECH line for a while now (I’ve moved on from Uniqlo’s Airism tees, don’t like the texture and they rip too fast).
- 7 pairs of Uniqlo Airism boxer briefs. Very comfortable and cheap. Someday I plan to upgrade to all-merino stuff, but I’m in no rush to do so.
- A few pairs of socks (mostly ankle socks, with one pair of longer socks). I’m a big fan of Darn Tough socks.
- 1 pair of Outlier New Way shorts. I wear these 90% of the time—they look great and dry in minutes. These double as my swim trunks (I find that I don’t actually swim that often while traveling, so a separate pair of trunks would be recommended if you’re into daily swims).
- A small micro-towel that works great in a pinch.
- 1 Eagle Creek half-cube that stores the boxers, socks, and micro-towel.
- Flip-flops (you’ll inevitably give in and start wearing flip-flops, regardless of how hard you try and maintain the fashion sense of your previous life)
- Macbook Air 13” as a general purpose machine. I’ve since replaced mine in favor of a 15” Macbook Pro for photo editing, but the majority of people will be just fine with a 13” (or smaller) machine. While the Air’s screen is definitely outdated by today’s standards, it’s still one tough machine—and would suit most people just fine. Don’t go overboard on the computer purchase: just buy what you need to get your work done.
- Computer accessories: laptop charger, cheap Logitech mouse, Universal USB adapter, and G-Drive 1TB USB drive for offline backups.
- Earphones. I can vouch for the Shure SE215’s as a good compromise between price and audio quality (don’t have any experience with the newer, wireless variant of these).
- Nalgene 500mL water bottle. Great for the impromptu day hike, or for sneaking vodka into otherwise proper venues (I kid, I kid).
- Small toiletry bag with the essentials (toothbrush, clippers, a few bandaids, razors, and so on)
- Obligatory Field Notes notebook and pen (notebook remains mostly empty—primary use is for gear shoots like these).
- Sunglasses in their own case. Mine are by Oliver Peoples, so I’m always paranoid about losing/breaking them. I used to bring eyeglasses too, but I ditched them because my prescription isn’t that strong to begin with (also, everyone looks prettier at -0.5).
- Small combination padlock for hostel/station lockers.
What I wear on me
- Levi’s jeans. Yes, these should be replaced with something more sensible for travel. But I still like how versatile and tough denim is, so I continue to travel with a pair of jeans.
- Leather belt (by Tanner Goods). It’s tough as nails, ages beautifully, and I get to show it off every time I’m asked to remove it when going through airport security.
- Pair of regular New Balance sneakers. Again, these aren’t really “travel” shoes and it doesn’t really matter to me. If you expect to be doing regular exercise, hiking, or trail running, I would recommend picking up a pair of Merrells instead.
- Smartphone. Not really optional these days, and some people opt to travel with multiple. I like my iPhone 6S—it’s good enough for anything I need to do with a phone. The camera is great.
That’s everything, and it all fits nicely into the Journeyman. Here’s a picture with everything packed for a travel day:
Just to drive the point home, here’s a list of notable stuff I don’t bring with me:
- No long-sleeved shirts (or jackets). It simply doesn’t get cold enough in most popular nomad destinations.
- No rain jacket or umbrella. I typically buy a small umbrella at 7/11 if things get gnarly. Otherwise, it’s too hot (even with the rain) to justify a rain jacket. I’m aware that there are some very lightweight ones on the market.
- No dress shirts or slacks. Stopped caring, will show up in nice restaurants with jeans, sneakers and a slim v-neck tee instead.
- No flashlight, headlamp, multi-tool, or other common “EDC” items. Smartphone light suffices for the most part. If I’m going on a long hike, I’ll just buy one for that purpose and then donate it.
- No separate digital camera. Smartphone cameras are “good enough” these days. If I expect to do a lot of photography, I’ll bring my Ricoh GR with portable travel tripod (it fits into the Journeyman just fine, on top of everything else already mentioned)
Could you travel with just a 20L backpack? Perhaps you already do (shout out to everyone in the “one bag” community). But in case you haven’t tried it, I urge you to give it a shot—”liberating” doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling of traveling this light.
How low can you go?
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