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Best of round the world travel

How to pack light: tips from a master packer

Packing small is essential for any globe-trotter committed to embracing the chaos of travel. With a small pack, you can chase down your Japanese train as it unapologetically departs on time. You can squeeze in to (or on top of) the only bus to the next village in India. Or, as we learned, when your scheduled speed boat leaves while you are busy bailing your guide out of jail, small packs will allow you to cram six large Americans into a tiny fishing boat to splash your way to your deserted island bungalow in time to watch the sunset.

The art of packing light: not a bulging seam in sight. Image by Nick Bramhall / CC BY-SA 2.0 The art of packing light: not a bulging seam in sight. Image by Nick Bramhall / CC BY-SA 2.0

Of course, packing involves deeply personal decisions. Everyone has their own ideas of comfort and style. But by following a few simple field-tested tenets of travelling small, you can shed size and weight. It might not always save your trip, but it will save your spine and your sanity.

The law of travel physics: the contents of your bag expand to fill the available space

Start with a bag that fits in a plane's overhead compartment with minimal shoving. Fill it with as much as you can with moderate shoving. Leave behind the rest. Tough decisions on your living-room floor will pay big dividends on the road.

Try to be dense

Black holes are so compact that light can not escape their gravity. Your bag should function on a similar principle. Folded is smaller than wadded. Folded and rolled: smaller still. If your clothes take up more than one-third of your bag, you are probably taking too much.

The world is not as savage as you think

It turns out, most cultures have figured out how to wash stuff. Whether it be via hotel laundry, a local cleaners, or the old lady around the corner ready to make a few pesos, a clean shirt is usually just a few hours away. At a pinch, most lodgings have a sink and running water.

Packing light pays big when it comes to outdoor adventures, like this trek on Svalbard. Image by Kitty Terwolbeck / CC BY 2.0 Packing carefully pays big when it comes to outdoor adventures, like this trek on Svalbard. Image by Kitty Terwolbeck / CC BY 2.0

Everybody loves a trilogy

Three pairs of socks. Three pairs of underwear. Three shirts. Wear one, wash one, dry one. You can get more miles out of leg wear, so two pairs of pants and one culturally appropriate pair of shorts or a skirt should suffice. Choose light, flowing, quick-dry cotton-poly blends in matching colours that handle wrinkles well.

Your phone is now smarter than you are

Most modern electronics (like phones and cameras) switch voltage automatically when you plug them in. (Double-check the plug where it says ‘Input: 100~240v’.) Leave voltage-specific devices and the heavy converter at home. A three-way splitter plugged into a multi-country adapter should be enough to keep all your devices juiced.

You don't need that. Or that. Or that either

Repeat this to yourself constantly as you pack. The unknown of travelling makes us want to surround ourselves with familiar items but the ‘what if’ game will get you in trouble. On the off-chance you find you do need it, likely you can buy or borrow it. But do bring a quick-drying pack towel, a rare example where synthetic technology outperforms the classics.

There are situations where it pays to pack light, like this trek through Baliem Valley in the central highlands of Papua, Indonesia. Image by Loren Bell / Lonely Planet There are situations where it pays to pack light, like this trek through Baliem Valley in the central highlands of Papua, Indonesia. Image by Loren Bell / Lonely Planet

The value of each item increases exponentially with each function

This is best illustrated with some examples.

The frisbee: in addition to its international friend-making potential (walk into any public space and start tossing one around, you'll see), strategically packing it on the outside edge of your pack provides hard-shell protection for breakables. Additional uses: cutting board, plate, bowl, bottle opener, fan, dry place to sit.

A sarong: it's a changing room, it's a blanket, it's a privacy wall, it's a towel, it's a bag, it's a sunshade, it's quite possibly the most versatile piece of cloth in your bag. Oh, it's also a skirt.

A parachute cord: use it to strap things to the outside of your pack, string up a clothes line in your room, tie your bag to the roof of your bus, or tie the roof back on to your bus.

At the airport

Once you've got your pack list dialed down to the essentials, you might find there are one or two items that just won't fit. If necessary, exploit the the airline industry's three biggest luggage loopholes:

1. Wearing is not carrying. Stuff your pockets. Don your jacket. Wear your hiking boots and pack your sandals.

2. ‘Carry on plus one personal item’ should be music to your ears. Consider a small shoulder bag, a camera bag, or smaller backpack for those items you are taking as gifts, and those you will be bringing home as souvenirs.

3. Duty-free doesn't count. If you can't fit it in your bag, many airlines let you carry it on without penalty.

All you need for a three-week trip: our writer shows us how to pack like a pro. Image by Loren Bell / Lonely Planet All you need for a long trip: our writer shows how to pack like a pro. Image by Loren Bell / Lonely Planet

Savvy packer's pack list

This is a list of everything the author takes on a multi-month trip to Southeast Asia. Other destinations may require slight modification.

  • Backpack (40 litre max)
  • Bag liner (heavy plastic trash-compactor bag)
  • Passport and other documents
  • Compact umbrella
  • Poncho
  • Three-four light stuff sacks for organisation
  • Three shirts
  • Two pair of pants (trousers)
  • One pair of shorts (or a skirt)
  • Three pairs of socks
  • Three pairs of underwear
  • Jacket / fleece (optional for cold international flights)
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sarong
  • Bandanna and/or scarf
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Comfortable sandals
  • One set of exercise clothes (light shorts, shirt, socks)
  • Sleep kit: mosquito net, sleep sack, small tarp (if you're looking to rough it), ear plugs
  • Shower kit (lots of personal variation, just keep it small): toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant (try the rock), small bottle of all purpose liquid soap
  • Snacks: snack bars, herbal tea, travel mug, packable chop-sticks
  • Camera (with batteries and cables)
  • Computer (small netbook in waterproof box)
  • Smart phone and headphones
  • Notebook and pens
  • Portable board game
  • Frisbee
  • First aid kit
  • Parachute cord
  • Headlamp