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How to squeeze your entire life into a backpack

How to squeeze your entire life into a backpack

I’ve just packed everything I own into a backpack for my move abroad.

Usually I do everything in my power to avoid looking like a dorky tourist, but not this time. I was actually doing the large backpack on the back, small backpack on the front thing, because my bag is simply too full to attach them together.

My minimalist self is having an internal meltdown at the fact that my bag is basically overflowing, and I’m wracking my brain for ways that I can whittle down my possessions so that I don’t have to cart around this anvil on my back.

I’m not the only one to struggle with the inevitable stuff vs. bag size problem. One of my friends just moved to USA and took a total of three full suitcases (yes, three!) of her stuff over.

For those of you who may be planning a move abroad, and are frankly quite terrified of the moment you have to pack your bag knowing full well that your worldly possessions could not possibly be squeezed into such a seemingly tiny space, here are 7 tips that might assist your efforts.

How to squeeze your entire life into a backpack

1. Be brutal

The first step is to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to have to throw away/leave behind a bunch of your stuff.

I’m sorry, this is just the way it is. It’s unavoidable. Unless you are one of those rare few who owns barely anything, then you’re going to have to be brutal.

Spread out all your goods, then pack only the items you use regularly. Books are a definite no-no as they will immediately take up both weight and space in your bag – instead, invest in an e-reader. I use the Amazon Kindle.

As for the rest, question whether you actually need it. Toss anything left over or sell the remainder of your possessions. Getting rid of all your stuff isn’t as hard as you think, and you’ll feel like a weight has been lifted afterwards!

Packing lightly toiletries

2. Compact every item to a miniscule size 

Every time I purchase hairspray it seems to come in a larger, ‘25% more value’ tin. Now this is great when I have a bathroom to store it in, but backpack space is a limited resource so when I’m travelling I have to go with the smallest size.

Most liquid toiletry items can be compacted into smaller, TSA approved, space efficient travel bottles. This is another time to question what you really need to take – that bottle of fake tan and massive hairdryer are just going to take up precious space.

3. Vacuum seal bulky clothing

Seriously, vacuum seal bags are a godsend. We were given a few before our tip to Europe and they came in super handy for clothes that we’d only wear occasionally. Bulky winter jackets are jumpers can be made so much smaller when all the air is sucked out of them.

It’s as simple as 1) insert clothing items, 2) fold vacuum seal bag in half and sit awkwardly on top until most of the air is squeezed out, and 3) seal the bag. Viola, your clothes take up half the space.

Packing Cubes

4. Play tetris with packing cubes

To save yourself emptying the entire contents of your bag just to locate that one pair of swimmers you packed at the bottom, packing cubes come in super handy.

Separate your underwear from your pants and your beach clothing from your winter scarves by packing them in separate packing cubes within the bag. They take up no extra room and you can play a fun game of bag tetris while packing.

How to squeeze your entire life into a backpack

5. Shake it up (or down)

Ok, so all your shit still won’t squeeze in to the bag (yes, this is exactly what happened to me when I was packing for my move). You think you have it all sorted but really, who are we kidding? It’s not gonna fit.

A great trick is to sit your backpack upright, and give it a good shake. Everything inside should shift a little further down, compacting to leave a gap at the top of the bag. Bonus room!

6. Utilise every corner

If you give your bag a bit of a feel up, you’ll probably find that there are a few random spaces here and there where you can fit a few items.

Mine classically appear down each edge of the backpack, and in the corners of the bottom pocket. Any last items still not in the bag can be craftily inserted into these spots.

7. Wear your bulkiest items

Well, I didn’t wear my winter coat because hey, I’m headed to Sydney so I’d swelter when I got off the plane. But I did wear my hiking boots, plus a pair of jeans and a jumper. The bulkiest items are going to significantly impact your bag space so carry them on your body instead.

Try not to be that person who lugs around 2 backpacks + 2 duffel bags + a handbag and a laptop bag! I know you think you need it all, but seriously, you don’t. If it doesn’t fit, then empty your bag, reassess, and start again.

Check out this backpacking checklist to make sure you haven’t missed anything! Did you manage to fit your entire life into a backpack? Share your success or fail story with us in the comments!

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22 Responses to “How to squeeze your entire life into a backpack”

  1. Alexandria

    Great tips my love! I think that packing cubes and vacuum seal bags are a god send! I use them on every trip and they are absolutely amazing. I actually use all these tip in general just when packing for a trip. Good luck with the move!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Don’t they make packing so much easier than just chucking all your clothes in together! Looks like you’re a step ahead of everyone Alexandria 😀

  2. Petra @ The Global Couple

    Been there, done that! We left with a big backpack and front pack each, and came home 10 months later with an extra duffle bag and a huge rolling bag with two sets of skis and ski boots inside… That’s what happens when you live in North America where everything is so much cheaper than in New Zealand… Good luck keeping your minimal packing going when you get to the States! 😛

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh geez, that’s a lot of luggage! The worst thing is that you gather stuff on the road and come back with more than what you left with, making the problem worse… though I can totally understand the whole ‘it’s cheaper here than back home’ mentality – it’s hard to say no when you’re paying half as much as in NZ/Aus!

  3. Erika

    Great tips! When I lived in the UK a few years ago, I packed two full-sized suitcases and a duffel bag — it was horrible! I wish I had read packing tips like these before that trip. I would never make that mistake again. Dragging all those bags around was seriously the worst. Now whenever I’m trying to decide whether or not I really need to pack something, I think about how much I’m going to hate lugging it around later and that usually is what convinces me to leave it behind.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Wowzers! I used to drag around an insanely large suitcase plus carry on when I travelled, so I can relate to how you felt with all that luggage! It’s great that you’ve learnt to reassess what you need to take now, it’s a tough lesson to learn!

  4. Allison

    These are awesome tips, I just started compressing my stuff and it makes a huge difference. Though it is a pain for repacking when moving from place to place. I wish I could find a backpack that’s ample enough to hold all my stuff as a carry on though. I try to never check luggage, so I always end up using my rolling carryon, even though I have an amazing Deuter backpack.

  5. Julia

    Good luck!! Kudos to you girl for getting it all into one backpack, I moved to France with two overflowing suitcases!! I regret bringing so much stuff though, so you’re 100% doing the right thing 😀 Once again, good luck 🙂


    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You’re definitely not the only one! And I’m reeeeally struggling to fit it all in the one pack. Thanks Julia!

  6. Jessica C. (A Wanderlust For Life)

    When we moved our life abroad, we (For 2 people) had 3 large suitcases, and 3 carry-on suitcases, plus 2 guitars and a bike. We moved to Amsterdam, so the bike was a really good idea! But if we were moved every 3-6 months, I don’t think I would have as big of a problem to move things. Although, of course I found a few things I wish I didn’t bring…then it turned out that I didn’t bring many summer clothes! But we don’t plan on moving around, so I guess that’s okay 🙂

    Good for you for being ruthless with your stuff. Many of us need a little bit of that!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Wowzers, that’s a lot of stuff! It’s so hard when you’re heading to places with varying climates, because you can’t take just one season of clothing like you can with short term travel. Being ruthless is tough, but it does also give you a deep sense of satisfaction 😛 Thanks Jessica!

  7. Tiffany

    I roll all my clothes and can fit much more into a suitcase that way. I am not a backpack person as they end up hurting my back, but I have been able to go one trips in my carry on this way. When I moved abroad I brought 5 suitcases and a carry on. I got rid of tons of stuff. I remember I took 10 bags of clothes and shoes to the charity shop. I haven’t tried packing cubes yet, but I keep thinking I will. Great tips!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Rolling clothes is such a good tip! I still can’t figure out how it takes up less space, but it’s definitely works! 5 suitcases is a new record, I think, but kudos for eliminating a bunch of it 🙂

  8. Gwen

    I’m curious-How do you handle re-vacuum sealing those bags after you’ve used the clothing items? I would imagine it can be really difficult to find a vacuum on some travels which is why I’ve never ended up trying those out. Would love to know what you do in that situation!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It would be difficult of you use the bags that require a vacuum to get the air out, luckily I use the ones where you just press as much air out as you can and seal it by hand 🙂

      • Gwen

        Oh-haha I completely missed that fact! Well then it’s good to know they work. Is there any brand you find particularly sturdy and functional?

  9. De'Jav

    Great tips seems when moving countries we never realize how much we accumulate until it’s time to move.

  10. Harriet

    Great post! I used to go hiking very often before and I know what it is to pack a million things in a bag. The motto is : There is always space in a backpack! Thank you for the post! Really helpful tips !

  11. Shelia

    Amazing tips! I’m always trying to pack the whole apartment in a suitcase or a bag when I go on vacation! I’d definitely use these tips! Thank you!


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