Travelling light: a how-to

Everywhere I go, I see young travelers with seriously large packs looking like they are on a mountain expedition: the common sight is some younger, smaller person, a big backpack on their back that probably weighs about 65 pounds, and another daypack on the front, probably weighing another 20 pounds, then possibly a camera case or computer case hanging around their shoulders, and various pads, items or gadgets clipped to their pack. And at least 75% of that bulk is either dirty clothes they are carrying around, clean clothes they might never wear, multiple redundancies in clothing (you don’t need four, or even two, pairs of sandals), stuff they could have gotten locally on demand, or worst yet…stuff they won’t ever need or use.

Over time, I have grown to realize that I can get by on considerably less than most folks realize, and there are some real benefits to packing light. You can get up and out of your guesthouse very quickly (it takes me about 5 minutes for me to totally pack everything), you are less likely to leave anything behind, you can carry your pack with you on public transport, which decreases the risk of theft or loss, you can do spontaneous things, and you gain the freedom to walk around easily when looking for a guesthouse, restaurant, taxi, etc.

However, this doesn’t mean there is any lack of comfort! On the contrary; carrying a smaller pack means you are much more comfortable while walking, you sweat less, and the shoulders and backs of your shirts do not take a beating from your pack straps. Also, with some foresight, you choose clothes that are durable, comfortable, versatile, and can last several days without washing….nylon zip-off cargo pants that can double as shorts, for example. And if the weather becomes unpredictable or my travels take me somewhere I had not planned for (like, into the mountains of the Philippines), I buy something at a discount clothes outlet, and discard it when I no longer need it.

Packing light does take some planning…I carry small rope for a clothesline, and do a little wash almost every night to always have fresh underwear, etc. I usually do this by wearing my shirts or shorts in the shower, inside out, and scrubbing them with soap or shampoo. Whenever possible, I try to check into a hotel early in the day so I can do a proper clothes wash…or else I just leave my dirty clothes with one of the ubiquitous washing places that do a kilo for $1 which are in every town. But the responsibility of managing my clothing far outweighs the discomfort of carrying around 50+ pounds of useless gear.

Here is a photo and the contents of the entirety of my pack for this 3-week South East Asia trip, with the exception of what I am wearing as I take the photo. The pack, fully loaded, weighs in at 6.5 kilos (14.3 pounds), but with a little more care, I could have trimmed that down even more. This is small enough that I take it on the plane as carry-on, and I find that I am not in need of anything at all. In fact, at this moment, on day 5 of my trip, everything I own is clean and pressed, and I am wearing clean clothes.

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Water bottle
Book (notice no guidebook. For this trip, I just took photos on my iPhone of the pages that I needed)
Reading Glasses
Sunglasses
Small rope (clothesline, tiedown, etc)

Four shirts (I am wearing one)
-Nylon quick dry shirt that never gets stinky or dirty
-Two very lightweight cotton ones for hot days (I could have brought only one)
-One medium-weigh short sleeve cotton shirt for cooler days.

T-shirt (almost never worn)
Baseball cap

One pair of shorts (I am wearing them)
One pair of nylon zip-off cargo pants
Swimming trunks (I should have left these behind; the nylon pants would be fine)
Four pairs of underwear
Two pairs of socks
One pair of lightweight slip on closed toed shoes
One pair of river sandals (good for wet days or in and out of boats….not shown as I am wearing them)

Toiletries (you really need a whole lot less of these than you think!)
-toothbrush and toothpaste. I try to buy the travel tube…no sense carrying around enough toothpaste for a family!
-disposable razor
-tiny bar of soap from the hotel
-2-3 tiny packets of shampoo and conditioner…these are available everywhere and are much more convenient than tubes
-small hairbrush and small comb
-tiny jar of vaseline (for blisters, chafing, etc)
-small container of hair gel. You’d be amazed how this helps you go longer before needing a haircut!
-eyedrops
-sunscreen (I carry a small travel sized pack of SPF 30)
-small container of Baby Powder
-a few Qtips

Medications
-This takes some planning. For starters, I don’t carry much of anything, but only what I might conceivably need on a trip. I would never need an entire box of cold medicines, and things like aspirin or panadol are available everywhere so I rarely carry them. I mostly carry some muscle relaxants for my back, some decongestants, some anti-diarrhea pills (only a couple), some Alka Seltzer and a bunch of bandaids.

Electronics
-iPad and cable
-iPhone and cable
-USB wall charger
-extra battery pack. I can keep that charged and use it to charge my iPhone while my iPad is plugged in the wall
-tiny USB plug for a cigarette lighter
-little bag to carry the cables

That’s it. It’s no heavier than a bookbag, and I am not lacking for anything at all.

I learned several tricks for packing years ago. It’s very hard to pack frugally for a long trip when you are standing in your house, surrounded by all your stuff, so I rely on these three strategies.

Strategy 1) Take half as much stuff, and twice as much money. Whenever I pack, I look at the pile when I am done and think “is there anything in there I can just buy cheaply if I need it?” Like a raincoat or folding umbrella (a disposable poncho works great) or a pair of flip flops (available everywhere for dirt cheap)

Strategy 2) Pack everything directly into my daypack. Feeling just how crammed or heavy the pack is getting is a great motivator to leave stuff out.

Strategy 3, my favorite) When packing, make three piles. One is things you know you will NEED (toothpaste, shirt, several pairs of underwear), one is things you THINK YOU WILL NEED (raincoat, extra t-shirts, warm socks), and the last is things you WANT (extra guidebooks, frisbee, lightweight hammock, sneakers, another pair of sunglasses, etc.

Then, just take the first pile.

It sounds funny, but making that second pile gives you ‘permission’ to not put something in the first pile. And the third pile ends up being the vast bulk of all that stuff that I see kids carrying around in their Herculean effort at backpacking around the world.

So go light, go fast and leave most of that crap at home. I promise you…you won’t miss it.

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