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Updated October 2019
Backpacking is the best way to see Southeast Asia! We traveled Southeast Asia for 6 months with only carry on bags, and there were so many times we were glad that we only had one small bag each to deal with! Here we share our Southeast Asia packing list for 6 months in a carry on bag.
Choosing a Backpacking Pack
The first backpacking essentials are the backpacks themselves! Tom and I used two different backpacks, and Tom’s top-loading hiking pack did NOT work out well for him so he switched to a North Face travel bag mid-trip.
Osprey Porter 46
I carried an Osprey pack
that I actually purchased years ago with the intent of eventually using it for international travel. Some big advantages to Osprey packs are the lifetime warrantee (that’s a HUGE one) and the comfort of the packs.
My Osprey is designed to provide the maximum amount of space while still falling within the dimensions required for a carry on.
One awesome feature on my Osprey pack is the fact that it unzips completely so it does not need to be loaded from the top. This feature makes finding things in the bag a breeze, and also makes it easier to pack than a top-loading pack.
North Face Router
Tom started out our trip with a pack that he had for back country hiking, and while it’s an AWESOME pack for hiking, it didn’t work well for traveling Southeast Asia.
Mid-trip Tom decided that he needed a different bag, and he purchased the North Face Router pack. It was a great choice, and he plans to continue using this bag on future trips.
The North Face Router is similar to my Osprey pack in some important ways. It unzips all the way, making it easy to pack and unpack, and it has dedicated pockets for toiletries and electronics.
The Router is a bit smaller than my Osprey which worked just fine for Tom because he doesn’t carry a DSLR camera and a laptop like I do!
Southeast Asia Packing List- Clothes
Tom and I both have experience traveling with just a carry on, and with hiking long distances wearing backpacks. One thing that we are very careful about is packing light! (But not TOO light, like the guy in the picture, who clearly forgot to pack a swimsuit…)
Sure, you can fit all kinds of dense, heavy items into a 46 liter backpack, but then you won’t be able to carry it more than 50 feet before you want to cry your eyes out and head home.
Additionally, Southeast Asia encompasses a wide variety of climates. From extremely hot and humid Cambodia to the chilly and foggy hills of north Vietnam we needed to be prepared for LOTS of weather changes!
The real key to packing light is making sure that you have items that will mix and match easily, so that you can make several outfits from just a few clothing items. We also LOVE sturdy, lightweight fabrics like merino wool and polyester blends. The North Face, REI, and Patagonia all make excellent, high quality clothing out of lightweight, moisture wicking material.
Also, I want to specifically mention the best socks in the ENTIRE world- Darn Tough socks. They are incredibly comfortable, durable, and even have a lifetime warrantee- yes, you read that right, each pair of Darn Tough socks are guaranteed to last forever.
I’ve really put my Darn Tough socks to the test, and I’ve never had a single pair get a hole or thin out. Seriously, go get yourself a pair of these
and you’ll see what I mean! (and to be clear, this opinion is 100% my own, Darn Tough doesn’t even know I exist….although I wish they did! Anyone from Darn Tough want to work with us???)
The list of clothes I will be bringing:
4 short sleeve tops
1 pair long hiking pants
1 pair knee length shorts
1 pair long, lightweight flared leg pants
2 dresses (1 maxi length, 1 knee length)
4 pairs Darn Tough socks
3 pairs regular old cotton socks
7 pairs underwear (boy shorts are my fave for traveling!)
Tom’s list is similar, but with a couple additional pairs of shorts/pants in place of the dresses.
I also made sure to under-pack clothing because I knew there would be clothing essentials for traveling Asia that I could buy on our trip, and I wanted to leave room to add those to my wardrobe.
The Best Shoes for Backpacking Asia
The weather in Southeast Asia is very humid, but temperatures vary between regions. We each brought one pair of sturdy sandals and one pair of trail runners.
For sandals I brought a pair of Sanuk Yoga Sling sandals
, which are incredibly comfortable and durable. I love these sandals! They’re super comfortable, and I can walk long distances in them without any issues.
Tom brought a pair of Teva sandals.
Tom LOVES his Tevas for travel, and when he finally wore out his first pair he immediately bought new ones.
For trail runners I brought Merrell Bare Access Arc 4’s.
These are super lightweight and breathable, with just enough support to keep my feet happy, but not so much that I lose touch with the ground (I personally don’t enjoy over-cushioned shoes).
Tom brought New Balance men’s trail runners. Tom loves New Balance because they provide solid support on paved roads.
We went hiking in a few different places in Southeast Asia, so trail runners were an awesome choice because they are comfortable on hiking trails, AND on paved roads.
UPDATE: One item that we SO wished we had in Southeast Asia was water shoes! The beaches are often rocky, and having water shoes would have allowed us to swim anywhere we wanted! To find the perfect pair of water shoes check out this Divein article for water shoes!
Other Backpacking Items
There are a few other items that we carried with us while backpacking Asia. Since I work on our blog while we travel my pack was stuffed with blogging essentials. Luckily, my clothes are smaller than Tom’s so I had more space to spare in my bag.
Along with my clothes I carried:
- Nikon D5200 camera and lenses
- Lightweight camera tripod
- Macbook Air
- 64GB flash drive
- Universal travel adapter
- Travel Scarf (SO awesome, it has a secret pocket where I can stash my phone and wallet)
- Packing cubes (these allow you to save SO much room in your pack)
- Combination lock for a locker
- Combination luggage lock
- Life Straw water filter (this is a just-in-case item since travelers are advised not to drink the tap water in SE Asia)
How to Pack a Backpack
Now that we have everything we need it’s time to actually pack! There are a couple important things to consider when packing a backpacking pack.
First, you want to distribute the weight so that the heaviest items are at the top of the pack. This means that your lightest items need to sit at the bottom of your pack, and the heaviest items should be at the top of your pack near your shoulders.
Getting the weight in your pack properly distributed is one of the BEST ways to make your backpack more comfortable to carry. By properly distributing weight you insure that your hips, not your back or shoulders, are supporting most of the pack’s weight.
In my backpack that means that my camera equipment sits at the top of my pack because it is by far the heaviest item I’m carrying. I started out our trip with the camera in the bottom of my bag, and once I switched it to the top my bag felt so much lighter!
The next most important thing to consider is that you want the section of your backpack that sits against your back to be relatively smooth and free of lumps. So, for example, I pack my bag so that my laptop is sitting against my back, because my laptop is a nice smooth surface without lumps. Trying to walk long distances with big lumps pushing into your back is extremely uncomfortable!
When you pack your clothes use packing cubes!! In order to make the most of your packing cubes I recommend rolling your clothes rather than folding them. Rolling them keeps them from getting wrinkled and also maximizes space in your packing cubes.
Remember to put toiletries and electronics in an easy to reach spot because you will need to remove them when you go through airport security!
Fitting your Backpack
Once you’ve packed your backpack you will want to adjust it to maximize comfort. The key here is to make sure that your hips are carrying most of the weight.
To achieve this, extend the backpack shoulder straps as far as they will go. Next, put your backpack on and buckle the hip belt. Now tighten the shoulder straps until you feel the weight of the pack begin to transfer to your hips. Continue tightening until you feel your hips supporting the weight of your backpack.
Go for a walk with your backpack on to be sure that you have it properly adjusted. You can always make changes to the fit, but it’s nice to start your trip with a backpack that feels good.
One reason traveling by carry on rocks is it makes our travel through Southeast Asia so much easier! Read our guide to taking the Bangkok to Chiang Mai overnight sleeper train!
For more info on Southeast Asia, check out our Southeast Asia Backpacking Route, and read the must-visit spots recommended by 11 travel bloggers!
Interested in camper life? We lived and traveled by RV for two years!
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