by Mike Shea on 22 September 2012
Last updated 22 September 2012.
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 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.
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 total.
I've tried a few different types of soap for sink washing clothes. Woolite is quite popular and works well. While I haven't tried them, these Woolite travel packs look like they would do the trick, though they're a little bit expensive. Still, it means not having to mess with little bottles that could break open. You might even wash your clothes with a bar of Ivory Soap letting you pack even less. A single bar of Ivory can wash your body, hair, and clothes.
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. If you're doing some writing or blogging, throw in a bluetooth keyboard and you're all set with a mini-computer. You don't even need to bring a Kindle - you can read your books right off the phone. Of course, I always like to bring a Moleskine and three good sketching pens wherever I go in case the phone runs out of juice.
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 middle. Travel becomes so much easier when you're not overewight. Thought I've lost 50 pounds in the past year, I could sure stand to lose 50 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.
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.
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 Reeefrunner shirt.
I've tried a bunch of other travel-light accessories. Some have been useful, some not so much.
Compression bags seem like a great idea but big ziploc bags work just as well for less money. Compressing clothes means they take up a lot less room in your bag. It also helps you separate dirty clothes from clean if you're traveling in the middle of a trip.
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.
I've tried the Rick Steves Travel Clothesline but you probably don't need it if you can hang your clothes in a closet or somewhere else. This can come in handy, though, if you're camping or not staying in a conventional hotel.
A lightweight hat is a must. I still swear by my Tilley Airflo hat. I've had it for six years now and love it more each year. It crushes down nicely and weighs next to nothing. It protects you front and back from the sun and looks marvelous.
I don't need it often but a travel towel can be very useful once in a while. For the price and the weight, it's something worth throwing into the bag.
A good collapsable rain jacket is a must. I'm using some Eddie Bauer one I've had for years, but this Marmot Precip Jacket would also do the trick and is rated well. 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 Merill Moab hiking shoes that I really wish I had had when I was hiking in Shenandoah. My Doc Martens just didn't hold up to three hours on rocky trails. These are lighter, tighter, rugged, and waterproof. They wouldn't hold up for a business trip, but look good just about anywhere else. If I'm headed to the beach, I'll probably still bring a pair of Tevas — not exactly ultra-light, but I can't see wearing hiking shoes to the beach.
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.
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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