Packing Light

by Mike Shea on 22 September 2012

Last updated 30 May 2014.

Over the past three years I've become obsessed with packing light when travelling. I've tried a whole bunch of different clothes, accessories, and techniques for travelling light. This article gives a current snapshot of my favorite techniques, clothing types, and accessories for packing light and traveling with ease.

We'll begin with some ideas and techniques.

Traveling with a Single Small Backpack

Traveling with just a backpack is incredibly convenient. It's easy to get around, easier to secure, and you'll never have to chase your bags across an airport again. I've tried a couple of backpacks, but the High Sierra Loop backpack has gotten the best ratings. It weighs about a pound and a half, carries everything I need, and can easily fit in under the seat in a plane. It's the only bag you'll need. It's far easier to manage than a roller bag and you'll never have trouble storing it somewhere. The backpack is also under $30. Not bad for the only piece of luggage you'll need.

Wash Clothes Nightly in a Sink

The biggest and most radical change one can make when travelling light is committing to washing clothes each night in a sink. This concept alone reduces the amount of stuff you bring tremendously. Think about how many shirts you need to bring for a week of travel. Now imagine that number is one. One extra shirt is all you need no matter how many days you're on the road. Same for socks, same for underwear. You wear one set, you pack the other.

Pants and overshirts can usually go a few days before you have to wash them so you really only need to sink-wash underwear, undershirts, and socks. It takes about ten minutes. You can even mix it up with your daily shower by letting the clothes soak in soapy water while you're showering and then rinsing them out in the shower while you're still in it.

There's a bunch of different soaps you can use to wash your clothes. Woolite is a popular choice. While I haven't tried them, these Woolite travel packs look like they would do the trick, though they're a little bit expensive.

A single bar of Ivory soap can be used to wash your body, hair, and clothes. A half a bar lasts about a week. Here's an article on how to wash your clothes with a bar of Ivory Soap.

When you're drying your clothes. Place them out on a towel, roll the towel up, and then step on it when its all rolled up. This pushes a lot of the water out of the clothes and into the towel and makes them much quicker to dry.

A Smart Phone: The Only Electronics You Need

There's really only one piece of electronics we need these days, a cell phone. That and a charger can keep us connected and entertained just about as much as we need. You can pack your phone full of games, music, movies, TV shows, books, and audio-books and never be bored. Of course, you'll want some form of internet access or you'll want to download everything you'll need before you go.

If your touring, download any tour books (the tour guides by Rick Steves are excellent) directly to your phone and use them as a guide while you're on the go. An ebook version of your guide books will save you a couple of pounds per book in travel weight.

You'll want to be sure you have a good protective case for your phone. Replacing a phone on the road is a lot harder and, if its your only device, a much bigger deal if it breaks.

As good as the iPhone is, bring along a Moleskine and three good pens to jot down notes and capture some thoughts.

Want to Travel Lighter? Lose Weight

I know, this isn't really the right place for it, but if you want to shed weight from your bags, try shedding it from your body. Travel becomes so much easier when one isn't overweight. Though I've lost 40 pounds over the last couple of years, I could sure stand to lose 60 more and it's the most efficient weight I can cut to travel lighter. If a million health reasons aren't a good excuse, consider the efficiency gained in travel and leisure activities.

What do You Absolutely Need?

Traveling light requires a change to our mental state as well as the crap we bring with us. Instead of preparing for all contingencies, we should instead accept that there will be circumstances out of our control and we'll just deal with it. If we forget something, we can buy it there. If it isn't vital, leave it at home.

Favorite Travel Clothes

Good travel clothes are light-weight, versatile, and durable. They're also usually expensive. Many items should be dual or multi-use. Convertible pants, shirts with sleeves that roll up and work well both buttoned and unbuttoned are examples.

The company Exofficio carries excellent travel-light clothes including shirts, pants and underwear. Their stuff is expensive, however. Yet, when you consider that you will only need two pairs of clothes, the price doesn't seem that bad.

Here are a few specific types of clothes I've found incredibly useful when packing light:

Exofficio Pants These pants come both normal or convertable to shorts. They're super lightweight, very comfortable, and easy to wash and dry. Like everything Exofficio makes, it costs a bit more, but its worth it for such great travel pants. These pack extremely well.

Exofficio Reefrunner shirt My favorite overshirt from Exofficio, the Reefrunner has some excellent useful pockets without any of the crazy vents of the more popular Airstrip. It looks great either loose and untucked out on the trail or buttoned up and tucked in for a bit more formality. Wear one on your travel day and pack one in your bag and you're all set for as long as you need.

Exofficio boxers: Rotating two pairs of boxers on a trip can keep you going indefinitely. They pack small, wash easily in a sink, dry overnight, and feel great. They're a bit expensive, but worth it.

Tilley Travel Socks: Like Exofficio underwear, these socks pack lite, wash in a sink, dry overnight, and feel awesome. Two pairs of these rotated each day can last indefinitely on the road. They work well for both dress shoes and hiking shoes.

Exofficio Exo Dri Tee Shirt: These shirts cost a lot at about $40, but they're worth it. They feel like cotton but dry like a synthetic. You can wash one of these in a sink, hang it, and wear it the next day. I have two, one I wear and one I pack, for any trip. They work perfectly as a layer beneath the Reefrunner shirt. If you're going somewhere cool, a long-sleeved version works well as a layer below the Reefrunner shirt but I've never used mine so I don't pack it anymore.

Other Travel-Light Accessories

I've tried a bunch of other travel-light accessories. Some have been useful, some not so much.

Compression bags work great to compress your clothes into a much smaller pack. It won't save you any weight, but it will make your bag a lot smaller.

Zip-loc bags of a few different sizes work really well for storing toiletries, wet things, or dirty clothes. Bring a few small ones and one or two big ones even if you don't compress your clothes.

A lightweight hat is a must. I'm trying out the ExOfficio BugsAway Adventure Hat. It's extremely light and flexible with a nice wide brim for sun protection. Some travel sunblock is also a must-have.

A good collapsable rain jacket is a must. I'm using a Columbia collapsable rain jacket. It's not the lightest jacket you can get, but it's very well reviewed and light enough to take anywhere. The Marmot Precip also comes highly recommended. I saw both of these jackets all over Ireland on our trip. Traveling light is all about layers. If you're in cold weather, this jacket with a long-sleeved Reefrunner underneath and a Exo Dri longsleeved t-shirt under that should keep you warm enough. If that isn't warm enough, go someplace warmer.

For footwear, I have a pair of Merrell Jungle Mocs. They're light-weight, all traction shoes that work well with shorts or long pants. The no-lace style won't help you for serious hiking, but they'll do for most conditions. They're also easy to slip on and off at security lines which helps and can even be worn without socks for a more sandal-like style.

The complete packing list

With the details out of the way, let's look at my breakdown packing list:

If I'm traveling for business, add a blazer instead of a suit and pack polyester shirts and pants instead of the pants above. Some dress shoes or boots would replace the hiking shoes.

Good resources for traveling light

Here are a few good links if you're interested in learning more about traveling light:

Note: This article is an update to my original travel-light articles written in 2008 and 2009. Those article URLs now redirect here.

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