To our friends and family, my husband and I are freaks of nature. We can travel for three months at a time sharing one medium sized backpack and two small daypacks between us. This is unfathomable to most people, who cannot conceive of leaving their house without half their closet, the entire contents of their bathroom cabinets and their complete collections of books, CDs and mobile electronics.
I have had my own luggage dilemmas. While traveling for four months through Southeast Asia alone, I decided to err on the side of caution and plan for every eventuality. I took much more luggage than the average human would ever need. After a month of schlepping my heavy bags from planes to trains to the tops of buses to boats to hostels, I’d finally had enough when, after spending 30 minutes hauling my bags to the top of the steep stairs of a hostel in Thailand, they slipped from my grasp and slid all the way back to the bottom in less than 10 seconds. As I sat defeated and on the verge of tears at the top of the stairs, I vowed to lighten my load. The next day, I gave away or shipped home three quarters of what I’d brought and was a much happier, lighter traveler.
Luckily, my husband is the original light packer and multi-tasker, so we are the perfect travel team. After traveling together for five years, Luis and I finally have packing down to a science. We started with a full backpack each and several daypacks and smaller bags, but after many misadventures running, fully-loaded and off-balance, through the driving rain and wind to make last-minute bus connections in the remote pampas of Argentina or having to ferry our belongings back and forth multiple times between customs and immigration offices on the back of a rickety scooter at a rooster-infested Bolivian border crossing, we got smart.
Why it’s important to travel lightly
Traveling should be about freedom, enjoying new adventures, experiencing other cultures and a change of scenery, but for many people it is about anxiety, insecurity and fear of the unknown. They compensate by taking as many things as they can carry (and often much more than they can carry), but as the traditional aboriginal saying goes, “The more you know, the less you need.” Clever packing allows travelers to truly enjoy trips, free of the worry of having to carry and keep track of many pieces of luggage and from having to plan an elaborate wardrobe. The less to carry, the better: the weight of luggage seems to increase exponentially as travel wears on.
Often, especially when traveling in developing countries or when trekking, it is necessary to carry your own luggage or hoist it yourself on to the top of trucks, 4x4s or buses. On the Alternate Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, for example, horses carry your luggage for the first three days while you trek up and down the sides of the Andes, but on the fourth and final day, when most travelers can barely walk themselves, they have no choice but to carry their own backpacks, as the final stretch of the terrain is too steep for the horses. If you can’t lift and carry your own bags, you’re bringing too much.
Aside from the benefit of saving money (as most carriers now charge for extra luggage and weight), carrying less frees you from having to keep track of many pieces of luggage, which is especially useful when rushing to make travel connections or traveling in less than secure areas. It is much easier to keep an eye on one bag than four or five. It is also much less likely that you will be confused or easily distracted by thieves and scam artists or that your luggage will be lost or misrouted.
Why you don’t need all that stuff
It is a truism that you should take half the clothes and twice the money that you think you will need. Just like at home, you will find yourself wearing the same comfortable clothes again and again. It can be tedious and repetitive at times, and you will probably want to burn every item of travel clothing in a flaming sacrificial bonfire when you return home, but the trade-off is worth it. When you are traveling and recycling clothing, nobody in the different places that you visit will notice that you’re wearing the same blue t-shirt for the fourth time. Once you figure out which clothes work for you when traveling, it can be amazingly freeing: packing takes almost no time at all, dressing is simple and you will feel great when you realize how very little you really need to survive.
In general, the length of the trip and the climate are unimportant. By taking the right clothing and shoes, you can layer, mix and match and be prepared for almost anything, from one week to one year. Taking multi-purpose items and hand-washing can extend your options forever. Obviously there are exceptions but much of this gear can be rented when you arrive at your destination and for general travel, the less-is-more plan is preferred.
How to do it:
Clothing and footwear technology has changed everything. Today’s materials run the gamut from lightweight, durable, warming, cooling, breathable, windproof, waterproof, water-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, stain-resistant, fast-drying, reversible, multi-pocketed and convertible to any combination thereof. Lightweight hiking pants can be converted to shorts in seconds; sleeves and linings can be added and removed quickly as the climate changes. The wide variety of super-functional lightweight fabrics make it easy to avoid taking heavy cotton, wool or polyester clothing, which take forever to wash and even longer to dry.
Bring the basics
• Take a couple of sturdy, plastic bags to use for hand washing in hotel or hostel sinks or showers, some plastic clothes pins and a lightweight, flexible laundry line with a loop at each end. Keep clothes clean and save on the high cost of local laundry services. A small can of Febreze for removing odors can also be useful when there is no time to wash and dry your clothes, and can also be used to freshen sleeping bags, towels or bedclothes.
• Don’t take new clothes or clothes that you seldom wear at home. Make sure that every item is something that you are comfortable wearing repeatedly. Once you are on the road, it is too late. If you find that the new pair of pants that you brought is uncomfortably tight in the crotch, you will never wear them and they will become dead weight.
• Keep clothes in neutral, solid, non-running colors. This serves two purposes: it will be easier to mix and match outfits and you will be able to wash everything together or at least in only two loads.
• Shoes should be lightweight, comfortable and waterproof. Almost every hiking shoe, walking shoe or sneaker is available with Gore-Tex or a similar waterproofing agent. Flip-flops can be worn in the shower to avoid picking up nasty things like athlete’s foot, at the beach, when walking across stony creeks or rivers, on boats, for sightseeing in warmer climate cities, or as bedroom slippers. It’s not necessary to take both hiking boots and sturdy sneakers unless you are doing some serious mountain trekking. Wear your bulkiest shoes in transit to save the room and the weight in your backpack. You may also want to bring a lightweight pair of flat shoes, such as ballet flats for women or loafers or topsiders for men, just in case you need something a little more formal.
Make items do double-duty
Think creatively about the possible multiple uses of every item that you add to your backpack.
• Toiletries: shampoo can also be used to hand-wash your clothes or as bodywash. Perfume doubles as air or fabric freshener. Cotton pads soaked in alcohol and sealed in a Ziploc bag can be used to clean oily skin, disinfect cuts and scrapes, remove ink stains from skin and clothing, clean glasses, and sanitize things in hotel rooms or hostels (toilets, TV remotes, phones, etc).
• A sarong: A sarong or pareo has multiple uses and can serve as a towel, a swimsuit cover-up, a beach blanket, a scarf, a wrap for keeping warm on buses or planes, a skirt, a shawl for covering shoulders, legs or head when visiting places of worship, a makeshift tote, or a tablecloth for picnicking. A large microfiber travel towel can serve many of the same purposes in a pinch.
• A nylon cord: A thin nylon cord can be used as a laundry line, for securing backpacks or camping gear, hanging food from trees when sleeping outdoors, last-minute repairs or emergency shoelaces.
• Duct tape: Duct tape can be used to prevent blisters by wrapping feet before hiking, supporting sprains and minor fractures in an emergency, to secure backpacks, make minor repairs, seal holes in tents or screens, and seal gaps in hotel windows and doors.
• Cotton bandanas: Bandanas can serve as scarves, head covers, napkins, facecloths, mini towels, wraps (sandwiches, delicate items), and can be tied into small bags for carrying souvenirs, etc.
Technology has changed travel for the better forever. Aside from the incredible improvements in clothing and shoes, portable electronic devices such as iPods and E-books allow a traveler to carry massive amounts of music, information and reading material without adding to the weight of luggage.
• MP3 players: MP3 players such as the iPod allow you to take your entire CD collection, audio books and travel guides and every podcast that you ever wanted to hear. They also have room for photo storage.
• E-readers: The Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle are a godsend.With an e-reader, you can download hundreds of books before you leave home. They also save room and the weight of carrying around bulky guidebooks, which can also be downloaded, either in complete book form or by chapter. Lonely Planet, for example, allows buyers to purchase and download individual chapters or regions of their guidebooks, instead of the whole book. E-readers can also store Word and PDF documents, maps, music and photos.
• Netbook or iPad: Extra storage and wireless internet access can be a lifesaver. A small Netbook, iPad or cell phone with internet access will allow you to stay in touch with your friends and family, book airline and hotel reservations, download travel information and update your blog without having to search high and low for an internet café. It also keeps your data secure and uninfected by avoiding PCs used by thousands of travelers and locals which often harbor unseen spyware or viruses.
• Flashdrive: A pendrive or flashdrive takes up almost no room and can be useful in storing emergency information/contacts, photos and documents such as copies of passports and credit cards, travel reservations and maps.
Sharing saves space
One of best tricks for packing lightly is to share things with your travel partner. Clothing, shoes, toiletries, iPods, laptops, travel towels and books can all be shared and will save an enormous amount of room and weight.
If you are the same clothing size as your travel partner, you can double your wardrobe. Even if you are not the same size, looser items like sweaters, rain ponchos, scarves, gloves and hats can still be put to double use. To be honest, gender isn’t even that important anymore, most of the clothes, especially for adventure travel, camping and hiking, are androgynous.
You don’t need two bottles of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, sunscreen or insect repellent. If you can agree on a brand or type, one bottle of each will be plenty. If you run out, you can buy almost everything locally and international brands can be really, well, interesting, to say the least.
One of my pet peeves about backpacks is that the items inside can be so inaccessible, so I had our local tailor install a heavy-duty zipper around the periphery of the bag so that I could just open it up like a sardine can, easily and quickly adding or removing items. It is also helpful and time-saving when coming through international customs, as the officers can do a much quicker search. Many of the new backpacks already have zippers on the bottom, top and sides, making life much easier for travelers.
• Use structured net bags or packing cubes. These light, washable bags come in various sizes and colors and can be packed with individual categories of items, making things much easier to organize and find. I use one bag for underwear, one for socks, one for toiletries, one for t-shirts, etc. Carry a light, quick-drying laundry bag to keep dirty clothing separate from clean (this can also double as a pillow case if needed).
• Don’t take unnecessary items that you will regret having to carry later. Hair dryers, curling irons, electric shavers, heavy books or guides, expensive (or expensive-looking; thieves don’t know the difference) jewelry or watches, a full-size laptop, or large pillows or blankets will make your life miserable in short order. Clothing items to leave behind are items that can be worn with only one other thing, heavy boots, high-heeled or dress shoes, heavy cotton or wool items such as jeans or bulky sweaters.
• Roll clothing to avoid wrinkles and to save space. Rolled items can also be tucked into small spaces, such as shoes, outer pockets or daypacks. When using packing cubes, more items can be squeezed in when rolled and rolling also helps to keep more of the surface of a garment clean. Wrap shoes in individual plastic bags to protect other clothing. Always tuck in a few extra plastic grocery bags; they take up almost no room, weigh nothing and can be used to storing wet towels and bathing suits, as a laundry bag, for wrapping shampoo bottles to prevent leakage or for food storage.
• Choose a piece of luggage that you can live with for a long time. The ever-popular backpack is still widely available and popular, but newer versions are much lighter, more durable and with much more functionality than backpacks in the past. Wheels will add weight to your luggage, but can make life easier in the long run. If you don’t want to spring for new luggage, you can inexpensively update your existing gear with heavy-duty zippers, waterproofing or added pockets. It’s also a good idea to have the zippers, straps, cords and clips replaced regularly to avoid wear and tear. A backpack is only as good as its fasteners.
Sample packing list
Over the years, I have developed a bare bones packing list which works for almost every location and length of trip, but you can modify it to your own needs, adding a parka and insulated wellies for your trip to Antarctica or a snorkel and flippers for a week in Fiji, for example.
Although this list seems pretty basic, it will work for most trips and climates and will fit nicely into one half of a standard backpack or a medium sized carry-on. You should tailor the packing list and techniques to your own needs, but once mastered, you can use this list and your newfound skills for all your trips.
• 8 t-shirts: 4 short-sleeved, 2 long-sleeved, 2 sleeveless or tank tops
• 2 sweaters
• 2 long-sleeved, convertible, lightweight, quick drying, wrinkle-resistant shirts
• 3 pairs convertible lightweight pants (can be converted to shorts with a zipper) in different colors
• 1 pair comfortable drawstring pants, such as yoga pants (for relaxing, the beach, sleeping, or for long bus, plane or train rides)
• 2 bathing suits (for men: any style; for women: 1 one-piece and 1 bikini)
• 5 pairs of socks; 5 pairs of underwear; 2 bras, sports bras or undershirts
• 1 skirt or dressier shorts in a neutral color
• 1 windproof, water-resistant jacket, with a removable lining and hood
• 1 lightweight plastic rain poncho with hood (should be large enough to cover you and your backpack)
• Sunhat or cap; sunglasses
• 1 sarong (pareo); 1 scarf (wool, cotton or silk, depending on the weather); dark colored insulated gloves in a washable material
• 1 pair of flip-flops; 1 pair of either sneakers or hiking boots; 1 pair of flat, light dressier shoes such as loafers
• Toiletries: shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, insect repellent, moisturizer, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.
• First aid kit with emergency travel meds (Cipro, Ant-diarrheal, anti-histamine, elastic bandage, Band-Aids, etc)
• E-reader, Ipod, Netbook, camera with storage cards, batteries and/or chargers and adapters
Although traveling lightly may at first seem drastic or impossible, the truth is that it just takes a little practice to master. Of the many benefits, you will gain a new sense of confidence and independence once you realize that your enjoyment of life is not tied to owning (and carrying) the largest number of material things possible. You will find that, in fact, you need very little to live happily. That can be an incredibly liberating and transforming feeling.
Having less luggage allows you to focus on the trip, taking in the incredible sights and experiences instead of biting your nails about how much you have to carry, what to wear or whether your belongings are safe. Learning to pack well and lightly, leaving unnecessary items behind, is learning to travel well. It is a skill that you can learn and perfect, one that will also serve you in everyday life, increasing your confidence, reducing your load and helping you to enjoy the ride.