Traveling light is an essential step towards embracing the spontaneity of travel. With a small pack, you can travel on impulse, sprinting down the platform to catch that departing train, and leaping from boat to village bus without missing a beat. From the comfort of home, it might feel like you need everything but the kitchen sink, but when it comes to packing, less is definitely more.
One of the first surprises for new travelers is that things from back home are easily available in other countries. If you can pick it up when you arrive, why haul it halfway across the world? The other big first-trip packing lesson is the value of having space in your pack–you never know when you might find a Buddha statue or hand-embroidered wall hanging that you can't live without.
If your backpack is bursting at the seams when you set off, you'll soon find yourself wrestling with multiple bags while the light load travelers are grabbing the best seats on the bus. Travelers with a single bag experience less stress–they're the folk you see whistling cheerfully as they walk out of the terminal building while you're still fighting to drag your suitcases off the conveyor belt.
Of course, packing is a deeply personal process. Everyone has their own standards of comfort, and their own notions of what counts as essential. But by following some field-tested tenets of traveling light, you can shed size and weight. And as every veteran traveler knows, you regret the things you didn't bring much less than the pain of hauling around things you didn't need!
The first law of travel physics
There's one inalienable rule of travel physics: the contents of your bag will expand to fill the available space. If your bag is stuffed full at the departure gate, you're already en route to a second bag if you spot anything you want to buy when you reach your destination.
Start with a bag that fits into a plane's overhead compartment, and fill it with only as much stuff as you can fit in without shoving. Leave behind the rest. For ninja-level packing, make a second pass and remove anything you aren't 100% certain you'll use. Tough decisions on your living-room floor will pay big dividends on the road.
Black holes are so compact that now even light can escape their gravity. Your bag should function on a similar principle. Folded is smaller than scrunched up. Folded and rolled is smaller still. If your clothes take up more than one-third of your bag, you are probably letting sartorial decisions take precedence over practicality.
Know your destination
The streets may look different to the street you live on, but the shops sell almost everything you'll find back home, from shampoo and sunscreen to camera cards and phone charging cables. Where tourists gather, you can probably also find plug adapters, the latest movies on DVD and the candy bars you grew up with. A few things genuinely won't be available in your chosen destination, but most will, so don't fill up your bag with things you can buy as and when you need them.
The rule of three
Three pairs of socks. Three pairs of underwear. Three T-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 skirt should suffice. Stick to light, flowing clothing made from cotton and blends that dry quickly and look good without needing an iron to remove every wrinkle.
Pack less, wash more
It turns out most cultures have figured out how to wash stuff. Whether you use the hotel laundry or the local dhobi-wallah (clothes washer), a clean shirt is usually just a few hours away. Pack fewer clothes, and wash them when they get dirty, and that onerous weight on your back will get miraculously lighter. At a pinch, most lodgings have a sink and running water–bring a length of string and you've got an instant washing line.
Most modern electronics (like phones and cameras) switch voltage automatically when you plug them in. If in doubt, check the plug for a note saying ‘Input: 100~240v’ or something similar. Leave voltage-specific devices that require heavy, old-fashioned adapters at home. A three-way splitter plugged into a multi-country adapter should be enough to keep all your devices juiced. If you have USB-powered devices, even better. Bring a plug with multiple USB ports and you'll just need to carry the cables.
Only bring what you need
Repeat this to yourself as you pack. The unknowns of traveling make us want to surround ourselves with familiar items but this kind of ‘what if’ thinking is a fast-track to a heavy pack. If you aren't certain you'll use it, you probably don't need it. Remember, many things can be hired, bought or borrowed as you need them. That mask and snorkel? You can probably hire one when you reach the beach. That hairdryer? Most hotels have one.
Don't go shoe crazy
Veteran travelers rarely pack more than two pairs: a comfortable pair of trainer-type shoes that are good for trekking, day-wear and running, and a pair of flip-flops (thongs) for beach wear and dubious-looking bathroom floors. Only bring smart shoes if you're definitely going somewhere you can't get away with trainers (or pick some up locally when and if you need them).
Let tech be your friend
These days, your phone can double as your music player, camera and more, weighing not much more than a sandwich. Heavy books used to the bane of travel (though a blessing during long waits for transport). Today, you can load a whole library onto an e-Reader and a whole record collection onto an MP3 player. Carry a small portable power bank to keep your devices going when you can't get to a wall socket.
Be weight aware
Some things–paper, glass, metal, batteries–are just heavy, so try not to pack them unless you really need to. If you need battery-operated devices, look for lightweight versions; a head torch powered by a button battery weighs much less than a traditional torch powered by heavy alkaline batteries. To stay on the right side of airline weight baggage limits, carry a small, portable luggage scale.
Function over form
Prioritize useful things. A ball-gown may look great, but a crumple-friendly cotton dress that you can wear on the bus, beach and dancefloor will take you a lot further. Here are some tried and tested travel essentials:
- A quick-drying pack towel: fluffy towels are bulky and take ages to dry; synthetic towels dry quickly and pack away to nothing.
- A sarong: it's a changing room, it's a blanket, it's a curtain for privacy, it's a towel, it's a bag, it's a sunshade, it's quite possibly the most versatile item in your bag. Oh, and you can also use it to cover your legs.
- Compression straps: they squeeze things into your bag, fix things to your bag, and fix your bag to other things, like the roof rack on back-country buses. They'll also function is a washing line (or bring some string).
- A cotton scarf or bandanna: it's a head covering for mosques and temples, a sun hat, a dust-mask, a neck and shoulder warmer; you can even use it as a fashion accessory.
- A frisbee: in addition to its friend-making potential, 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.
Tips for the airport
Even if you get your packing list down to the essentials, you might find there are one or two items that just won't fit, particularly on the way home. If necessary, exploit the the airline industry's three biggest luggage loopholes:
- Wearing is not carrying: stuff your pockets, don your jacket, wear your hiking boots and pack your sandals.
- ‘Carry on plus one personal item’: most airlines let you supplement your carry-on bag with a camera bag or smaller backpack, giving you some bonus storage.
- Duty-free doesn't count: if you can't fit it in your bag, most airlines let you carry on air-side purchases without penalty in a carrier bag (which also has room for more loose items).
Savvy packer's pack list
Here is a list of everything we'd suggest for a multi-week trip to most popular backpacking destinations.
- Backpack (40L max, 35L is even better)
- Bag liner (or a large, heavy-duty plastic bag)
- Passport and other documents
- Compact umbrella
- Three or four light stuff sacks for organizing
- Three shirts or T-shirts
- Two pairs of pants (trousers)
- One pair of shorts (or a skirt)
- Three pairs of socks
- Three pairs of underwear
- Fleece jacket, hoodie or long-sleeved top (for air-conditioned transport and high elevations)
- Bandanna and/or scarf
- Comfortable walking shoes (wear them when you fly)
- Comfortable sandals or flip flops
- Sleep kit: mosquito net, sleeping bag liner (or a lightweight fleece blanket), ear plugs
- Shower kit: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant (or try a piece of alum), small bottle of shower gel
- Food and drink kit: snack bars, a travel mug, water purification tablets, a water bottle, a folding knife for cutting fruit
- First aid kit: mosquito repellent, clippers, tweezers, plasters, headache tablets, small tube of antiseptic and your usual meds
- Camera and accessories (if you can't get by with your phone camera)
- Laptop (if your smart phone won't cut it) wrapped in a waterproof bag
- Smart phone and headphones (plus charging cables)
- Notebook and pens
- Parachute cord (or string)
- Lightweight head torch
This article was first published in October 2014.