putting the “pack” in backpacking

I have spent the last two to three weeks packing, unpacking, and packing again; taking out a stack of things and putting a few back in; shopping a bit, returning some things, buying some more. I have borrowed a few items and donated many. I think I am as ready as I can be. I have to be, I am about an hour from Bogota where I will land and spend a few days at a hostel before deciding where to go next. I bought a one way ticket (more on that later), put my things in storage, arranged dog care for Dougie, and wrapped things up at work. I’m not even sure how long this trip will be – I’m thinking about three months but I find myself talking about “if” I come back, not “when”. I will come back, when it’s time.

For the next three-ish months I will live out of a pack that I have to not only zip closed, but also be able to carry. I successfully condensed my life into a 40L pack (carry-on size) which just barely closes if I squeeze everything and wear my bulkiest items. It wasn’t easy. I kept asking myself: what if I need something and I don’t have it? The answer is: buy it, or go without – neither is a big deal. At all.

I researched packing lists online and put one together for myself (female-specific packing lists were most helpful, because duh; and I also found one for three months in South America by a woman). I followed these lists pretty closely, packing a little bit less because I plan to purchase things as I need them. I started packing while in London, and figured I would save a great deal of money by buying things in South America.

I have never done a long trip like this before, so I will have to report back on how well I did. Until then, a bit about my decision making process:


Having moved to a new country three times, I know there are certain things I prefer not to live without and that aren’t available everywhere. I packed two extra tubes of my favourite sunscreen (Lise Watier Sun Smart), which is only available in Canada. I’m especially sensitive to the sun, I wear at least 30 SPF daily in Canada, and I know I’ll need even higher SPF in South America. But it’s my favourite.

I have way more over-the-counter medication than I will need for myself (cold medicine, natural sleep aid, pain relievers, hydrocortisone). I know that, as with my favourite sunscreen, the brands I like in each of those categories are not available everywhere. I think it might be overkill, and it will be the first thing to go if I have to make room.


It was hard for me not to pack at least two of everything. At home, I buy more toilet paper as soon as I open the back-up pack in the closet, and I don’t think I have ever had less than five unopened toothbrushes in my home at a given time. (I am not a hoarder, I am just a sucker for marketing and I like to stock up when things go on sale. Also, my dental hygienist/Mom still gives me toothbrushes for every special occasion.) Ditching the extras became much easier when I tried to lift my bag after the first round of packing. I was Reese Witherspoon in Wild, only not as cute.

I packed an extra rain poncho and an extra flashlight (I brought a headlamp for myself). I figure that those things are quite small/light and when you need one, you really need one. It is also likely that someone else has forgotten theirs, and it’s nice to be able to help out.

I packed an extra (cheap) pair of glasses. I broke my glasses earlier this year and they were quite expensive to replace – the cost is manageable, but it often requires waiting a few weeks for a new pair and I don’t want to slow down my trip to wait for new glasses.

Extras that did not make the cut included an extra bathing suit (see below re: Unrealistic Ambition) and sunscreen brands I’m not particularly attached to. I struggled finding high SPF sunscreen in India, but have asked around and should be able to find it in South America.


Better Safe than Sorry

When I travelled in India, I was the only one in my group who didn’t get sick and I credit probiotics and having grown up on a farm. My sister and I played after school in the irrigation ditch that ran through cow pastures. Gross, yes. But I’m not as susceptible to E. Coli (knock on wood…no, seriously…I am not trying to tempt fate here, I’m just saying that what works for me might not work for you). Probiotics were insanely expensive: I spent over CAD$100 on enough for three months, but I consider it an investment. They take up a lot of room, but I’d rather be carrying a full pack than staying in my hostel regretting it. The woman at the health store talked me into buying Activated Charcoal, which helps if you have already caught a bug. The bottle says it also helps with hangovers…either that is a lie, or the world’s best kept secret. Honestly, how have I never heard of this before? I’ll report back.

I bought a Life Straw for purifying water. In India, I took water purification tablets with me and did not use them once. But the straw was cheap, light weight, and takes up very little space. It will come in handy if tap water is the only option.

I never leave home without a large bag of bandaids, moleskin, blister pads, and other foot care. Obviously, avoiding blisters is critical.

Unrealistic Ambition

At one point during my trip to REI, I needed a reality check. I was trying on hiking shoes and the salesman explained the features I would need if I were going to be climbing down a really steep cliff. I nodded along, agreeing those were worth a few extra dollars. And then I thought back to last time I was climbing cliffs…never! As much as I enjoy picturing myself a rugged hiker, I am just not. I want to be, and I might be at the end of this trip, but I need to be realistic. I’m not saying I didn’t buy the hiking shoes, I’m just saying they probably won’t see as much action as they were designed for.

In my mind, three months from now I will be like Katniss: a bad ass, mountain scaling, tanned and toned, cliff diving, body surfing, nature loving goddess. I will go to the beach and braid my hair.

In reality, I am pale A.F. and so sensitive to sun that I can’t go to the beach before 5pm. I’m afraid of the water. In the last decade, I have not taken more than two weeks’ break from my desk job. If I come back from this trip able to walk without limping and without a peeling sunburn, it will be a success. Maybe a little less Katniss, and a little more of a cross between Peggy Olson and Rose from Titanic.


Game Changer

Use packing cubes! I picked up a few from Muji because they are cheaper than the Eagle Creek ones. But I already regret it, the zippers are weak, the size of the Muji ones is off for women’s clothing (too big, and things flop around), and I will likely have to replace them soon. I do have one Eagle Creek one, and it is far superior. Whichever ones you get, packing cubes are great when you’re sharing space (such as in a hostel): your stuff isn’t spread all over the place, you can quickly find what you need in the dark, and it is easy to re-pack when it is time to go.

I always travel with a journal, but this time I’m carrying two. One for documenting my trip, and a small notebook to scribble notes, recommendations for places to visit, and most importantly: to communicate. My Spanish is minimal, so jotting down the address of my hostel, being able to write out words I’m pronouncing wrong, or draw a map for directions will be helpful. Plus, it will end up full of great memories by the end of the trip.


Clothes ended up being the easiest thing to pack and downsize. I already dress comfortably and practically, but usually in cotton. Since cotton doesn’t dry quickly, I had to do some shopping. I invested in a great pair of pants from REI that are designed for hiking/outdoor activities (quick dry material, zipper pockets, stretchy) and I have been wearing them for weeks. They are black so I look a little bit less like a tourist than with the khaki convertible ones. I bought shorts from MEC in a similar fabric, which I left behind this morning after wearing them for about an hour yesterday. I bought them a week ago because I wanted a longer inseam in order to avoid Chub Rub* but hadn’t worn them outside the fitting room. I wish I had, so I could have had time to return them; instead, I sent them to the donation bin. They were poor quality fabric that was scratchy, and the shorts rode up.

* Most women I know are painfully familiar with Chub Rub (a.k.a. thigh chafing). I swear by talc powder – I have tried deodorant and the glide sticks that runners use, but talc not only works but feels good. The thing is, sunscreen cancels out the talc and since I can’t forego the former, the only logical option is longer shorts/skirts/dresses.

I bought 4 pairs of merino wool socks, mostly Smart Wool brand but also some Darn Tough which the salesman recommended. I packed 9 pairs of the underwear I already wear daily (Hanky Panky, the world’s most comfortable thong and it is in quick drying lace). Shoes include hiking boots (just in case I climb a mountain), some Ecco walking sandals that are ugly but comfortable, the world’s most comfortable sandals – Sanuk, made from yoga mats – and some ballet flats. I don’t really need the ballet flats and debated leaving them, but threw them in at the last minute. My Papa and I had an ongoing joke about the number of shoes I travel with and I thought it would have made him smile; I will think of him when I wear them.

Shirts were easy – mostly yoga tops I already owned but a couple of cheap tank tops from H&M. I did bring some cotton shirts anyway – nothing feels better on a sunburn and I have enough that if one doesn’t dry it isn’t a big deal. I had originally included a long tie dye skirt but took it out. It took up too much room and fit into the Unrealistic category. I have owned it for over two years and worn it less than five times. If I want to be a hippie chick I’ll stick to harem pants (see: Chub Rub). I brought one bathing suit, two sports bras and one regular bra. Finally, I brought a 3-in-1 North Face jacket. The outer shell is waterproof, the inner lining is warm, and you can zip them together to make a proper winter coat.


2 thoughts on “putting the “pack” in backpacking”

  1. So excited to live vicariously through your travels! I have a (very tentative at this point…) Argentina trip in mind for 2017, debating a possible second stopover. I’m dying to get back out there and am so excited for you that you’re actually DOING IT. Sending a virtual high five your way.

    I totally second your ballet flat choice, because sometimes you want to clean up a bit and sometimes you want to kinda sorta pass for a local, and simple, non-hikey shoes help on both fronts.

    You aren’t looking for packing recommendations, I realize, but having suffered a few Texas summers now, there is one product I swear by. In a small tube so weighs MUCH less than powder. If you find yourself suffering from the dreaded chub rub and wanting a solution via care package — seriously, please let me know and I will hook you up. I am an evangelist for this stuff.

    1. Yes please! Probably can’t receive it here but I am always looking for solutions other than working off the chub :) I just spent a lot on trainers because I hadn’t accounted for being in a city that’s chilly. I packed as if I would be camping the whole time and wish I had something to wear out. Oh well, another excuse not to go on the party bus :)

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