So what do you pack when you are leaving with no plans to return?
Well, as little as possible. Although we have no idea how long we’ll be on the road, we shouldn’t need to pack more than we would for a one month trip. Travelling light makes things a lot easier – you can walk around trying to find a place to stay, you can squeeze on a crowded bus and you can run to catch a train. For this trip we are aiming to travel with small enough backpacks that we can fit them on planes as hand luggage to save time at airports, and hopefully be able to take them inside South American buses rather than put them on the roof.
We admire ultralight packers like Tim Ferris and Karol Gajda from Ridiculously Extraordinary, but unfortunately we haven’t managed to do quite as well ourselves. Still, we haven’t done too badly as our backpacks are half the size of most travellers’.
Check out our very first video to see us packing our stuff!
If you can’t see the video click here.
In the video Simon points out some of our space savers including Somerset shaving oil, packing cubes for keeping our stuff organised and Montane featherlite waterproof jackets. Simon’s luxury item is his Martin Backpacker travel guitar, but it’s actually very lightweight and easy to carry along with his backpack.
We did fit everything into our bags, but after this first pack we tried compression bags for our clothes. These worked surprisingly well – squeezing out all of the excess air and giving us some extra space.
Simon’s bag weighs about 10kg and mine is 8kg. This is more than we’d like ideally but it’ll get lighter when we wear our heavier clothes and get rid of some books!
Our backpacks fit into the dimensions required to take on planes as hand luggage, but we do have the travel guitar as well, so we’re not sure we’ll get away with two pieces of hand luggage (UPDATE: We haven’t had any problems except on tiny 18 seater Amazon planes).
So what exactly is in there? Here’s a list of everything we’ll be taking with us as we set off on our indefinite South America travels. It may seem a lot but we’ll be working on the road and visiting different climates. We managed to fit everything into these two small backpacks.
Note: YOU CAN SEE THE LATEST VERSION OF OUR PACKING LIST (September 2017) HERE.
This list was updated in December 2010 and changes made in red.
Our Packing List
- Traveller’s cheques (not really necessary but an extra back up).
- Debit and credit cards
- Driving licence & international driving licence
- Copy of eticket for first flight
- Spare passport photos – made them ourselves for free
- Photocopies of passport – also emailed to family
- Vaccination card
- Money belt
- 40 litre North Face Overhaul 40 backpack (Simon) – In 2014 he changed to the Tortuga Outbreaker.
- 30 litre Vango Transit 30 backpack (Erin) – In 2014 I changed to the Osprey Farpoint 40.
- Backpack raincover – keeps our bags clean, dry & helps prevent pickpockets
- 1 small combination lock each – the main compartment of our bags are always locked in transit.
- Light cable lock – for locking our bags to things
- Thin cotton shoulder bag – for a daybag
- 2 packing cubes each – 1 large for clothes, 1 small for underwear & other bits
- 1 Compression bag each for our clothes – saves lots of space.
- Macbook Pro 13 inch laptop + neoprene case + charger
- Asus Eee PC 10 inch netbook + case + charger – one laptop was not enough for the two of us so we bought this in Buenos Aires.
- Western Digital My Passport 500Gb Hard drive – for backup, unbelievably small and light
- Small mouse – design work without one was difficult
- Travel power adaptor
- Canon EOS 400D SLR camera + case
- Tamron 18-200mm lens
- Charger + 3 batteries
- 2 x 2GB compact flash cards & 1 x 8GB CF card. I don’t really need this much storage as I can upload regularly on to the Macbook.
- USB Card reader – This struggled to read the 8GB card so I changed it for a small USB cable.
- Cleaning brush
- Canon Ixus 100 IS compact camera with 8GB SD card – for HD video and for when we can’t be bothered to carry the big camera (happens often in cities and at night)
- Charger + 2 batteries for Ixus
- Tiny tabletop tripod
- 2 kettle lead power cords (1 US style, 1 European style) – we can use these for our camera and laptop chargers.
- Ipod Touch
- 8GB iPod nano
- In ear headphones x 2
- Large headphones – Simon snuck these in at the last minute and I can’t get him to get rid of them. Completely unnecessary and bulky but they fit in the bag so they are staying.
- iPod cable – so we can charge them from the Macbook
- Headphone splitter – so we can listen to one iPod at the same time
- Cheap digital watch (with an alarm)
- 3G Kindle -we ordered this 10 months into our trip as books were so hard to find (and heavy). It is amazing and now replaces novels, guidebooks and phrasebooks/dictionaries.
- Martin Backpacker Travel Guitar + case
- Spare guitar strings + plectrum
- Pocket size notebook – this is useful to have to make notes when out and about
- Pencil + rubber
- Pack of playing cards – we weren’t using them much
Clothes – we are both taking:
- Sunglasses + travel case – Simon lost his sunglasses & case so now has cheap new glasses and no case
- Hiking shoes – North Face waterproof ones. Heavier than we’d like but necessary for long treks.
- Sports sandals (waterproof) – so useful for water sports, river crossings, rocky beach walks etc.
- Thin Fleece
- Icebreaker bodyfit baselayer top – made with Merino wool these keep you warm and never smell.
- Montane Featherlite Smock – tiny waterproof jacket
- 2 x socks (coolmax) – wish we had quick dry ones
- Extra warm clothes- the Andes are cold so we had to pick up an extra thick fleece, thick socks, hat, gloves and scarf, and an extra long sleeve top for Erin. We will get rid of what we still have of these once we hit the Caribbean coast.
Clothes – Simon is also taking:
- North Face trousers – light weight, quickdrying, zipped pockets.
- Cord trousers – decided to keep these as the temperature is often cool in South America & a second pair of trousers is necessary (plus they look more normal).
- 2 x shirts (1 long sleeve, 1 short)
- 1 x tshirt
- 3 x underwear
- Swimming boardshorts
Clothes – Erin is also taking:
- Cotton trousers – couldn’t find any proper travel trousers that weren’t ugly.
- Light jeans – decided to keep these as the temperature is often cool in South America & a second pair of trousers is necessary (plus they look more normal).
- Thin cotton summer dress – I added this at the last minute and it’s great for really hot weather and doesn’t take up much space.
- Board shorts
- 3/4 sleeve black cardigan – sadly lost at a laundry. It was really useful so I will get a replacement if I find one.
- 2 x tops
- 1 x tank top
- 4 x underwear
- 2 x bras
- Tankini swimsuit
- Sun hat
- Thermal leggings – will dump these once we’ve left the cold Andes. These were really useful for cold nights.
In 2013 I started travelling with an addition pair of shoes—Tieks ballet flats which are stylish, ultra comfortable, and pack up small.
- Clear storage bag/cube
- Insect repellant (50% deet) – we haven’t needed any since the Amazon but we’ll pick more up when we need it.
- Riemann once a day suncream (2 x 100ml bottles) – it lasts all day. We ran out of this but are getting more sent to us as it’s so useful.
- 2 x Lush shampoo bars – for hair and body. We ran out but are getting another bar sent to us.
- Toothbrush each + small cover for end
- Tiny 15ml Theramed liquid toothpaste x 2 – we can’t get this abroad so we just buy the smallest tube.
- Travel size hairbrush
- Deoderant (small roll-on)
- Lip balm
- Nail clippers
- Razor + 2 spare blades
- Shaving oil – this stuff is amazing and this tiny bottle lasted 9 months. We are getting more sent.
- Hand sanitiser (small 50ml bottle). Useful when trekking and when bathrooms don’t have soap.
- Moon cup – I think this is essential for travelling women. It takes up less space than tampons (and you don’t have to worry about finding them) and is better for the environment, your body, and your wallet.
- Dimenhydrinate travel sickness pills – a lifesaver!
- Few antiseptic wipes + plasters
- Prescription medications
- Ciprofloxacin antibiotic – really useful to have on hand for stomach illnesses. It can be bought cheaply in many developing countries without a prescription.
- Moo business cards – they have lots of different photos from our travels on the back.
- Travel towel – Simon has a small pack towel, which he hates but hostels usually provide towels so he rarely needs it. Erin uses a very old, threadbare towel that packs up small.
- Small roll gaffa/duct tape – fixes everything
- Head torch each – really useful for places with no electricity or power cuts
- Earplugs – essential (for Erin, Simon sleeps through anything)
- Eye mask – pick up a free one on the plane
- Tiny sewing kit – a few needles and some thread
- Few ziplock bags – always come in handy
- Toilet paper – it’s useful to have some on hand. A whole roll isn’t necessary.
For more tips on travelling light see our post How to Travel Long Term With Only Carry-On Luggage. Our Resources page has detailed write ups of our favourite items.
Don’t forget travel insurance for your gear. The cheapest we’ve found for long term travel is with True Traveller and they allow you to purchase a policy when you are already travelling (most companies don’t). Read more about how to buy travel insurance.
If you’d like to learn more about how to travel carry-on only, see my book, The Carry-On Traveller: The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light, which is available for Kindle or paperback on Amazon.
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Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.