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I’m backpacking around Asia for eight months — with only hand luggage

by Staff

I’m away on the adventure of a lifetime — an eight-month stint in Asia. For this kind of trip, travellers typically bring hay bale-sized backpacks containing all types of gear, from walking boots, mosquito repellent and zip-off trekking trousers to party outfits, tents and overstuffed medical kits. But I’m doing things differently.

When I arrived in Heathrow airport in June 2023 to start my journey, I had my passport in hand, a one-way ticket into the unknown, and only a hand luggage-sized bag on my back, which held everything I’ve brought with me on my trip. When I placed my bag on the scales, I was amazed to see that it weighed only 10.4kg, but I must admit I had one last moment of paniccan I really survive just with this?

I’m 26 years old, and have pulled a complete 180 on my life. I quit my office job as a copywriter and left my maximalist Manchester lifestyle behind — a life of spending the little disposable income I had on cute home decor for my flat, beauty products and trips to the pub with friends.

Hazel Thayre about to set off on her trip

But, much as I loved my exciting city life and all the sweet-smelling luxuries that came with it, I knew it was time for a change. So I decided to finally set off to pursue my dream to solo backpack around southeast Asia. I booked a flight to Bangkok, stored my things in my parents’ attic and didn’t look back.

In preparation for this trip, I watched hours of YouTube vlogs, read countless articles and asked my well-travelled friends to enlighten me with their worldly knowledge. I quickly came to the realisation that I wanted to be a minimalist backpacker — someone who travels very lightly, with little luggage — just the bare minimum. I only have a few tops, trousers, two pairs of shoes and limited toiletries. I didn’t bring fancy clothes, a colourful choice of swimwear, or many electronics, but I have everything I need (my kit list is below).

However after many months travelling, I am fully convinced that this was the right choice. I’ve saved money by not having to pay to check in or store bags. I’ve saved time by not waiting in baggage claim or getting a suitcase out of the hold after a long coach journey. I can walk around more easily, and make last-minute plans without worrying about storing my bag. I feel less physically weighed down, which has lifted a weight off my shoulders in every sense. It’s given me more freedom, and freedom is what backpacking is all about, right?

A longtail boat on Koh Tao

A longtail boat on Koh Tao

ALAMY

The thought of fighting with heavy straps in the sweltering heat on an island in the Philippines and stressing about the whereabouts of my things couldn’t be less appealing. In seven months of travel, I’ve hiked volcanoes in Java, Indonesia, snorkelled with baby sharks in Koh Tao, Thailand, trekked through rainforests in Borneo, Malaysia, and I’ve always had everything I needed for every type of environment and activity.

I’ve met hundreds of backpackers on my way, and found that the vast majority of them travel with 60-litre bags, in some cases even 80 — mine, by contrast, is a 40-litre one. Solo female travellers aged 20-24 tend to be carrying the most. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments when I’ve felt envious of their beautiful co-ord outfits, immaculate nails and five-step skincare routines, but when I see their pained expression as they strap on a backpack nearly the same size as them, I’m grateful I’ve been so selective.

Interestingly, nearly every traveller I’ve spoken to admitted they wished they’d only brought hand luggage too.

And when I need something, like a new cleanser or a dress as a little treat to myself, I just buy what I need along the way. I’ve even thrown things away — white trousers that have turned beige, a couple of T-shirts that shrank in the laundry, old suncream. Though if I could have added one luxury item, I wish I had brought a good camera.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that comfort and convenience is king. Everything non-essential is a luxury.

Hazel with her Osprey Fairview 40 backpack

Hazel with her Osprey Fairview 40 backpack

Downsizing my daily rituals and stripping back my consumer habits has had its challenges, especially on days when my self-confidence is low and I’d love nothing more than a spray of perfume and to feel squeaky clean. But having fewer possessions to worry about has given me an invaluable understanding of how little I need to feel truly happy.

Being unburdened by extravagance doesn’t only save money, time and energy, it makes me think more clearly and find a new sense of value in the small number of things I have.

Peace comes from experience and the people you meet while travelling, not the clothes hanging in your wardrobe. It’s an outlook that has improved my relationship with myself immensely, and it’s something I encourage every aspiring backpacker to consider.

Here’s how I did it: my hacks and kit list.

“Can I really survive just with this?”

“Can I really survive just with this?”

GETTY IMAGES

My southeast Asia backpacking checklist

Clothing

Hack: pack what you think you’ll need, then halve it. Opt for light, breathable materials and neutral colours that go with every outfit.

• 8 crop-tops
• 1 T-shirt
• 2 pairs of trousers
• 4 pairs of shorts
• 1 pair of black gym leggings (great for travel days)
• 1 long skirt (perfect for visiting temples)
• Travel-size make-up brushes
• Hairbrush
• Factor-30 and factor-50 sun cream
• Cotton buds
• Mini perfume
• Travel wash
• Bug spray
• Tampons

Medicine

Hack: if you plan on taking different modes of transport, bring plenty of travel-sickness tablets with you. You’ll thank yourself when the roads are windy and the seas are choppy.

• Multivitamins
• Ginger capsules to deal with sickness and nausea
• Paracetamol
• Ibuprofen
• Dioralyte
• Probiotics
• Plasters

Miscellaneous

Hack: lockers come in all shapes and sizes, so invest in a pair of padlocks with a thin but strong flexible wire that can fit through small holes to keep your valuables safe.

• Waterproof day pack
• Microfibre towel
• Earplugs
• Eye mask
• Padlocks x2
• Bum bag
• Reading glasses
• Water bottle with filter (this will save you so much money)
• Carabiner clips
• Waterproof phone case

My backpacking essentials — the things I couldn’t live without

Osprey Fairview 40 backpack in jungle blue (£160)

If there’s one thing that’s worth the investment for even the most budget-focused backpackers, it’s a good-quality backpack. I’m using the Osprey Fairview 40-litre backpack and I love it. It has several compartments as well as a clam opening design, meaning I can find things easily and keep everything organised. Avoid backpacks that only open at the top. This will make accessing your belongings so much harder.

Hanging toiletry bag (£10-£20)

A toiletry bag with a hook is worth every penny. Hostel bathrooms aren’t always the cleanest, so having a bag you can hook to the towel rack will keep your toiletries off the floor and within easy reach when showering and getting ready for the day.

Teva sandals (£45)

Backpackers do a lot of walking, so spending a little extra on well-made, comfortable sandals is essential. I’ve worn my Tevas every day and I haven’t had one blister.

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Compression packing cubes (£20-£30)

These have been a game-changer. Packing your tops, bottoms, swimwear and underwear into separate cubes means you can find stuff easily, manage how many items you have and keep your clothing clean. The compressing design frees up space in your backpack too.

Uniqlo Round Mini Shoulder Bag (£14.90)

You’ll find nearly every backpacker with one of these and for good reason. They’re lightweight, super-comfortable, and you can fit so much in them, even a bottle of water.

Would you go on an eight-month trip with only hand luggage? Let us know in the comments below

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