I've spent almost ten years now adventure traveling to the five continents and, although I still consider myself a rookie compared to many of the travelers I met around the world (pros with 20 or more trips under their belts!), I built over time a pretty extensive experience on how to gear up for adventure. This experience comes in part from mistakes I did in my first trips and in part from all the things I learned observing fellow travelers more experienced than myself. With this article I'd like to share some of my experience focusing in particular on the best strategies for packing.
General wisdom about adventure traveling suggests to pack the lightest luggage possible and I couldn't agree more! However, traveling light requires a great deal of discipline in choosing only the items needed for the specific trip and systematically leaving home the superfluous. My first suggestion is to gather all the info you can on the place you are visiting (climate, accommodation, activities, etc.) in order to narrow down to a precise gear list of what is needed. Secondly, choose a small bag: this way you will be forced to limit the items you pack. In any case, never (I repeat never) travel with more than 20 kilos of luggage: not only you'll get tired carrying a bulky pack but you you'll probably face several issues with regional air transportation.
The many and varied trips I did over the years convinced me that the best strategy is to carry two backpacks: a big one for the main luggage and a smaller one for day trips and carrying core gear on planes (i.e. the essential gear that lets you carry out the trip even if you lost the main luggage). The only two cases in which I would change this strategy is if you're traveling on a vehicle all the time (I did this in Namibia) or if you have backache: in these cases I'd substitute the big backpack respectively with a waterproof bag (to put on the roof avoiding a secondary cover) and one of the latest wheeled duffels.
Sticking to the main strategy, the big backpack in my opinion should be a 50-60 liters internal frame hiking pack with hipbelt and heavy padding for comfortable wearing, tough fabric and seams and plenty of access. I prefer three-compartments packs: a lower compartment for sleeping bag and footwear, a main compartment for clothes and other gear, a top pocket for accessories. Access should be guaranteed from the top and from the front or laterally. Lateral and frontal compression straps are key to steady the load.
The small backpack should be a lightweight 25-30 liter hiking or raid pack with one main compartment for carrying core gear and several smaller pockets to neatly organize items and access them quickly. I prefer backpacks with the fewest external pockets possible for greater security against pickpocketing, light hipbelt and padding for comfort, an elasticated pocket to carry a water bottle (I'm no big fan of hydration packs for adventure travel) and built-in rain cover. If you do serious photography (I do), this backpack should also contain almost all your photo gear. After years of searching I think I finally found the perfect small backpack: Lowepro's Primus AW. It carries essential gear and my SLR with three lenses and a mini tripod in a frame within plane limits.
Regarding packing itself (an art I soon discovered), I won't annoy you with different tactics to place items within the backpack (the general rule is to place heavier items near your back). My only suggestion is to pack everything in lightweight plastic or fabric bags for improved protection, space optimization and quicker access. I prefer fabric bags that guarantee proper ventilation and reduce moisture except for wet climates and packing footwear where plastic bags are a must.
In addition to the two backpacks the third item you can't leave without is an undercover security belt. It should contain passport, money, credit cards, emergency info and should never leave your waist during the trip (except when taking showers obviously). I prefer synthetic or silk belts in skin-like colors and with two or three internal compartments. When packing, wrap all items in lightweight plastic bags to protect them from moisture and above all sweat.
Finally, for protection against the elements and environments with lots of dust I always carry a good backpack cover: I use it both for checking the pack on a plane and whenever the pack travels on the outside of a vehicle. Also, during my latest trips I got used to a medium-sized dry bag (big enough to store everything carried inside the small backpack). It's invaluable for protecting photo gear in case of trips over (or inside) water and in case of heavy dust such as in the desert.
Published in October 2008.