It’s taken a few tries, but we travel with just a 40-liter backpack almost everywhere we go - regardless if it’s a weekend or a month, summer or winter. Its cheaper for flights, easier to get around with, and forces you to be more thoughtful about what and how you prepare and pack. It is definitely not without some initial challenges, but once you figure out how, it feels revolutionary. This may not be for everyone, but when you’re skipping literally hours of luggage lines at the airport, standing on a crowded train, running to your hotel in the rain, or climbing in and out of transportation with just a bag on your back, the payoff in convenience is so worth it.
Whether you want to pursue it 100% or just apply some tips here and there, here’s some things we've learned about how to travel lighter.
1) Use a Backpack
This is the most important aspect of minimalist travel. An investment in a proper, durable and well-designed travel pack saves you time and money for years to come. And specifically, this does not mean a roller suitcase or a duffle bag - the idea is to be hands-free. And it definitely is not some basic Jansport, but something engineered for carrying your life on your back. It will hold 20 pounds of gear, with enough thoughtful compartments to easily organize and quickly access anything. IMO Osprey and REI make the best bags (although there are kickstarters and startups with some killer products worth investigating). And as it goes with most critical possessions, you get what you pay for. Expect to pay $150-200 full retail, but by all means find those sales. Just don’t try to save money with some no-name TJ Maxx find, only to have a zipper bust on the road or discover some bad design flaws on day 1 of 30. Because that sucks.
Here’s some tips on what to look for in a good travel pack:
Make it carry-on compliant - Optimal bag specs to meet most domestic and international carry-on limits are 40-44 liters, around a 22 x 18 x 10 inch dimension, and under 22 lbs when packed. Always check your airlines policy, because their limits not all the same. In fact, some budget airlines like Wow Air will still charge you for a carry-on of this size. Unfortunately, it’s the way things have been going for cheaper airlines, but it doesn’t negate the backpack approach at all.
Have it fitted at REI - They come in sizes based on your body and the belt needs to hit your hips right
Get a pack with a well-fit hip belt - It makes a big difference in distributing weight comfortably, and I’d consider this a total must.
Use packing cubes - They will organize your stuff and compress it to make it fit much more easily. They are the secret weapon for squeezing a lot into a small space. Use several cubes, each dedicated to a type of clothing (tops, pants, underwear, etc.). Roll each article before packing it into a cube, since folding takes up space and wrinkles more.
Bring gallon ziplock bags - I use these in addition to cubes. They are awesome to have on hand to compartmentalize dirty/wet clothes or things that snag easily, but they can save the day in many ways along your journey. They don’t replace cubes because they don’t fit much nor do they compress clothing.
Brands we use and LOVE:
Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack (seriously THE best)
Eagle Creek Pack-it Spector packing cubes
2) Pack for 3-4 days
So this requires planning, and necessitates a full post, but here’s the sum of it in advance: We plan for 3-4 outfits, regardless of how long we’re traveling, and wash them on the road.
This means packing 3-4 full outfits, with the intention of mix-and-matching it all - this should extend to 1 week+ of outfits. Then you will probably re-wear some clothes 2-3 times before washing, which you can expect to do once every 1-2 weeks. Depends on how messy you are when you eat (in our case), and how well your deodorant works tbh. The luxury of fresh, unwrinkled clothing is lost on the road. But you don’t care because you’re a road warrior.
Some tips on what to pack:
Since winter is the hardest to pack for, here's an example below for what we wear/pack for 10-25°F temps. Regardless of temps, choose a neutral color palette with a couple accent pieces. Plan to do laundry on the road at hotels/Airbnb's/laundry centers and only sink-wash / air dry small items.
Pants: Fleece lined leggings or pants - or - thermal base layer + regular pants [Qty 2]
Base layer top: ideally wool [Qty 4]
Mid layer top: flannel, light zip-up fleece, etc [Qty 2-3]
Mid-layer jacket: puffy jacket, ideally water resistant [Qty 1]
Hardshell top layer: waterproof/windproof jacket with moderate insulation [Qty 1]
Underwear: enough for 7 days, but more if you have space
Bathing suit: just in case! Never know when you'll need it, even in cold weather
A note on colors: we consider the landscape and choose colors that contrast in a nice way so we stand out in photos, like a pink jacket against a green forest
3) Bring smart clothing
If you’re packing less, the clothes need to work harder - stylish yet versatile high-performing fabrics that can be worn on trails and in the city. Tech clothing is more expensive, but readily available on discount.
Wool and synthetic blends are odor resistant, sweat wicking, and dry fast (unlike cotton)
For those reasons, wool socks are HIGHLY recommended
Jackets (and at least one pair of pants) should be water resistant
Jackets should be packable (can fold/compress into their own pocket)
We limit shoes to one pair, versatile weatherproof boots that we can wear on trails or the street
Pack flip flops if its warm enough to wear them, or staying in a hostel (for showers)
Brands we use and love:
Activewear: Eddie Bauer, The North Face, Columbia, Uniqlo, REI, Nike
Shoes: Danner, Kodiak, Palladium
4) Simplify Toiletries
You need to maintain the 3 oz./quart bag carry-on limit if you're flying, but in any event there's always more economizing that can be done.
If you have a stout beauty regimen like me, consider paring it back to just the basics (wash+lotion).
Try out 2-in-1 products like conditioning rinse (vs. shamp+cond) or face lotion with high SPF (vs. separate lotion+sunblock). I LOVE marula and argon oils - they are great for face, hair, body and hands!
Better yet, share shampoo/soap/lotion/toothpaste/etc with your travel buddy.
For makeup, I limit it to one “look” - Bare Essentials, mascara, blush, 1 eyeshadow, 1 or 2 lipsticks.
Don't pack hot tools, try to stay at places that supply hairdryers, or learn air-dried hairstyles.
5) Resist souvenirs
Over time, I've learned to not buy gifts for myself or others for the sake of just getting something from that place. It's the moments months or years after a trip and I've got this thing that I don't need or particularly want, but feel obligated to keep because it’s from that one said place. It's kind of like opting out of an unwanted emotional commitment before it begins.
With that said, sometimes stuff in the street markets or shops is so much better than at home. So if it’s a staple object that will get some use, go for it. I've bought leather purses and wallets in Italy and hiking boots in Canada, all of which I used a ton. I will admit I buy a small christmas ornament from most new places I visit, but that's the only way an ornament gets on my tree, so it's very meaningful. Main point here is don't buy junk for your shelves or trinkets for coworkers out of some nonexistent expectation that this is what you should do on vacation.
Packing and traveling light takes practice and naturally pares down over time. You inevitably will discover what concessions you can live with and what you cannot. It's all about negotiation!