Packing & Traveling Light

I normally use a single carry-on size bag when traveling. I didn’t realize this was uncommon until my wife and I went on a multi-week trip in 1996 to Xinjiang China to help a non-profit organization. Both of us took a carry on sized travel pack which held everything we needed including clothing for sub-freezing temperatures. This permitted our two check-through bags to be filled with materials that we would deliver to the project without paying shipping charges. Our colleagues brought several bags for their own use. This post was written to answer their question “How did you managed to get everything into a carry-on bag?” The core content of this post hasn’t changed in the past 25+ years, but I have made updates for clarity, fix broken links, and removed references to discontinued products.

Advantages of Traveling Light

  1. By reducing material stuff you can be more focused on people and experiences. You will spend less time fighting with your bags, have less to keep track of, and less to worry about losing.
  2. You are able to take your luggage as carry-on: lower risk of losing your luggage, you bag doesn’t get thrown, dropped, and if you have a tight connection you know your bag will be with you, wherever you end up. If you really need to change your clothing (or get something out of your bag) you can.
  3. Transportation becomes simpler because you don’t have to find someone who can transport a number of large bags. For example, some remote towns use motorcycles as taxis. Imagine trying to hold onto a number of huge bags on the back of a motorcycle.
  4. By trimming what you carry down to the essentials you will spend less time on the trip thinking about “Is this the right outfit?” “Should I use X or Y today?”
  5. Packing light lets you use your check through luggage allotment for medical supplies and other items for service trips. Or, if you found a large, perfect gift for someone, you can bring it back as your check-through luggage.

I would encourage everyone to taking a trip that is at least a week long while limiting yourself to a carry-on size bag. I think you will find it’s enjoyable and freeing. For a bit of humor and inspiration, check out Lessons Learned from Luggage Lost. When you return home consider simplifying your life.

Remember the traveler’s motto: It’s better to bring half of what you think you need, and twice as much money.

Luggage?

Luggage which is 9x14x22 (45 linear inches) will fit under the seat in many commercial jets used in the USA and all overhead bins but there are several exceptions to this. First You should also be aware that it’s possible to overstuff soft side luggage to the point that it will not fit, even it the bag is theoretically the “permitted” dimensions. Second, electronics and infrastructures is intruding to what used to be the under seat luggage space on some planes. Finally, some regional / ultra budget airlines limit carry-on to even smaller dimensions and sometimes also by weight, for example RyanAir limit the size of your small ”personal bag” to 40x25x20cm (17x10x8in) and your carryon weight to 10kg. If you want to be sure your bag fits under the seat, the RyanAir dimensions have worked in every plane I have flown in. There is a summary of common carry one restrictions, and a exhaustive periodical table of carry on size limitation. When it doubt, check with your carrier.

I suggest staying away from wheeled bags. They cost more, add extra weight, and hold less than other options. I would generally recommend using a “travel pack” which is a cross between a backpack, and soft-side luggage.  Travel packs will have often have light weight internal frames to make them easier to carry, handles on the top and side to carry as luggage, and backpack straps that tuck away. There are also a number of outdoor oriented backpacks which can function as travel packs and are better suited to carry heavier loads. Just make sure your pack is carry-ons legal since many packs are too large! I keep a list of carry-on sized travel packs. I use a Tom Bihn Synik (30L) Backpack on most trips, or a Gossamer Gear Vagabond Packable Daypack when I don’t need to bring equipment for work or ”dressy” clothing.

All but the most minimalist travelers typically want a smaller bag for “daily” use when they aren’t in transit. Some travel packs have a zip-off daypack which I don’t recommend. The attached daypack typically makes the main bag too thick to be carry on legal and rarely has the characteristics I would want for my day use bag. If you thedaily carry is minimal, I recommend using a light courier / messenger / guide style bag because it’s usable when when a travel pack is on your back, provides easier access than a daypack during the day, and allows your back to breath. If you are carrying a significant weight or volume, I generally would recommend a backpack to spread the weight over both shoulders. Many of the “stow-away” or “packable” daypack aren’t that comfortable to carry, but when properly packed I found a number of the Matador packs (I primarily used the the Matador FreeRain24) and the Gossamer Gear Packable Vagabond were very comfortable, even when carrying 10lbs.

Clothing for the Journey

You should select clothing which can be mixed and matched: colors which coordinate and layers which can be varied for look and comfort. To minimize the amount of clothing needed, you should plan to wash your clothing during the trip. This works best when clothing are made from fast drying fabric such as light weight merino wool, polyester, or nylon. Fast drying clothing can be easily washed in the sink or during a shower at the end of the day and will dry over night in most conditions. When in a rush, you can squeeze excess water out of these materials and put them on wet. They will be uncomfortable for a bit, but movement and body heat dry them in around a hour.

You don’t necessarily need to wash clothing after one day of wear. The number of times a garment can be worn without washing varies depending on the type of fabric, your unique biology, environmental conditions, your activity level. I am normally comfortable wearing denim jeans two days in a row, but if sweating heavy from heat or high activity, I might want to change after just a few hours  On the other hand, I am happy to wear pants made from light weight Schoeller fabric treated with nanosphere three days in a row in warm weather and five days in cold weather. Likewise, I have found wool shirts resist odor build-up which can allow them to be worn comfortability for more than a week straight provided I don’t spill food on them.

There are a number of small companies which make clothing for men that is particularly well suited for travel including Outlier, Western RiseMakers and Riders, and Wool and Prince. Maker and Rider have finally released a women specific line. I know some women who really love the light and fast drying Lightheart Backpacking dress, the Infinity Dress because they can wear it in multiple styles and Macabi Adventure Skirt because it can be worn as shorts, pants, or a skirt. There are plenty of other travel friendly clothing for men and women from ExOfficio, Royal Robbins, lululemon, and many other companies that are associated with the “active life” and sold at stores like REI.

Layering of clothing can lighten your load while keeping you comfortable. Seasoned travelers and backpackers are very familiar with the idea of layering which combines a next to the skin base layer, with 0-several “mid” or insulating layers, and finally an shell for protection from wind and/or rain. I have found that the combination of long-underwear, normal “city” clothing, a wool sweater, a down-like insulating vest, light weight waterproof/breathable jacket, and hat keeps me comfort when active down to 10F. Yet I can mix and match the various layers so I am comfortable when it is 30F, 50F, and even 70F.  For a more thoughts on this, see my clothing page. Fleece are versatile outdoors, but a nice wool sweater can make you look more “dressed up” as well as keep you warm.

I always bring a light weight windshirt because they are so useful. If I expect rain and cooler conditions, I will bring a rain jacket, and rain pants if I am going to spend an extended period of time outdoors. If it’s going to be warm and/or dry, I will sometimes skip bring a rain jacket, possibly bringing a small umbrella which can protect me from rain and sun.

You should adjust the style of your clothing to the local sensibilities. For men, the level of formality typically drives clothing. In some situations slacks, a button up shirt, and blazer are normal and appropriate. Other situations it’s perfectly acceptable to wear flip-flops, boardshorts, and a tee shirt into a high end restaurant. Women aren’t so free. When away from “international class” cities women are often expected to wear skirts or dresses which go below the knee and blouses that at least cover the shoulders. Women not so clothed are assumed to be prostitutes or “loose” and could find themselves harassed by local men.  In many Muslim countries women are expected to keep their heads covered with a scarf or a hat.

Don’t forget to bring a hat. If you are going to be someplace sunny, you should bring a hat with a wide brim to reduce the risk of sunburn, keep your head cool, and protect your eyes from too much light. It is best to bring a hat which can be rolled/folded up and can take a lot of abuse. In hot, sunny conditions I would recommend the geeky, but highly effective hats from Sunday Afternoons, the classic Tilley Hat, or something like the compact OR Sunrunner Cap. If cold weather is at all likely, bring a wool or polyester stocking hat or a buff. It will take up very little room, and will help keep your warm. In modest conditions you only lose 10% of your heat through your neck and head, but the percent goes up to almost 50% when a person is so cold they are entering hypothermia. In other words, the colder you feel, the more important it is to protect your head and neck.

The best footwear to bring will depend on the local conditions and weather. In colder locales, insulated boots are wonderful. In hot climates sandals are great. In most cases I recommend bring a pair of trail runners. You should always bring one pair of shoes that you would be comfortable wearing for a whole day on your feet while walking several miles. If these shoes are not be appropriate for everywhere you want to go, then bring a second pair of shoes which would be appropriate. In the summer I bring a pair of Keen Sandals because they are versatile, with socks that match their color can be mistaken for shoes, and the toe guard has been very effective at preventing stubbed toes.  If I have to be dressed up I bring a pair of Vivobarefoot Gobi ankle boots if the majority of the trip is in cities. There are a number of minimalist shoes which others find effective: Soft Star ShoesLems ShoesXeno Shoes and Luna Sandals. In many international locales you will want to have shower thongs (or use your sports sandals) when you take a shower or go into the bathroom since the floors can be nasty.

Toiletries, First Aid, and Safety

One of our companions on the China trip said to us “There is no way I could fit everything into a carry on bag, my make-up would nearly fill your bag, leaving room for little else. My response was that I understood that she wanted to look her best and this could be accomplished with less than she was carrying. My wife Jackie is often noticed by others (in a good way) due to her unique style, her great smile, and her enthusiasm for life. Her inner life shines out. In the Bible, I Peter 3 says “But let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious”. Jackie brings make-up: a foundation to keep her skin health (and protected from the sun), and eye liner, a bit of lipstick, etc. It all fits into what used to be a eyeglass case. Most people over estimate what others notice, this is called the spotlight effect. Unless you have a very unusual condition or are a runway model, it is likely that only you, and maybe some over critical people will noticed a “perfect” make-up production.

I am a guy, so I don’t think about make-up. All of my toiletries, first aid, and repair items can fit into a quart size Glad BigZip plastic bag.  In recent years I have switched to a small nylon bag to avoid creating plastic waste. By switching to the 100sense body bar and using a flatpak soap case I no longer travel with “liquids”. Liquids often need to be taken out of your bag when passing through security and must be in containers no larger than 3 oz.  In the past I have been able to reuse containers made for samples and items provided by hotels.  If you can’t find containers to reuse, you could buy some from easytraveler, or use a matador flatpak toiletry bottle. Don’t take full-size items (normal size bar of soap or a tube of toothpaste), but use the travel/sample size, if not a smaller amount in an appropriately size container. Hint: try measuring the amount of toiletries you use for the duration of your trip when at home, and then pack that amount. For example, a full size (6.3oz) shampoo/body bar gets me through approximately 170 showers. In parts of the world, toilet paper is not common, nor are flush toilets. You might want to bring some toilet paper / wipes.

Dehydration can be an issue for travelers, especially when you are flying. Make sure you drink enough. Safe drinking water is extremely important. In many countries, the tap water is not safe to drink. These days the high-tech filters are small, easy to use, and extremely effective. Make sure whatever filter you get is able to remove or kill viruses. You should always have something to carry safe water in. I like the Platypus Water Bags because they are durable and collapse nearly flat and Zojirushi Double Walled Mug because it insulated better than any other double wall container I have tested and has a flawless design.

Pick-pockets are common in some locations, especially where travelers/tourists carry significantly more money than the average daily local wage. Naïve rich tourist (and that is how we are viewed most places) are often careless, and might have more than a month’s wages for the easy taking. Don’t be a victim. Carry your valuables in a travel wallet under your clothing. Note: the classic travel wallets don’t work well for all people. For example, short women who need to wear dresses might have problems finding security wallets which do not create an unsightly bulge not to mention being able to get to the wallet without undressing. I have found that the ankle security wallets work pretty well. There are also a number of the travel companies sell vests which are specifically designed for traveling. These vests have pockets inside which can be sealed against pickpockets. While some travel vests make you look like a foreign correspondent (lots of oversize pockets), there are a number of very fashionable vests which can add color to wardrobe and don’t make you stand out as a “tourist / photo-journalist”.

Extras

One of the best things you can bring back from your trip are pictures. Use your cell phone and/or bring a camera. Modern smart phones can now takes very respectable picture in daylight and acceptable picture when lighting is less than ideal. If you are on a trip focused on sporting events, wildlife, or night time activities I would strongly recommend bringing a camera with a high quality sensor and a lens with appropriate level of magnification. Take a look at the “How to Use a Point-and-Shoot” or read David Pogue’s Digital Photography: The Missing Manual before you go on your trip.

In the USA, especially in larger hotels, it is common to get clean linens every day. At a minimum you expect to have fresh linens when you get a room. All hotels are not like this, especially if you are far from mainstream tourist areas or in a budget hotel. Even if you don’t normally use pajamas, you might want something that you can sleep in. I know a number of people who bring a pair of silk pajamas because they feel nice and take up almost no room. Long underwear can double as pajamas if you need them to. Some people like using “sleeping sacks” (maybe treated with permethrin to reduce the risk of bedbugs). Having a clean pillowcase to lay your head on is also very nice.

Gift giving is very common outside the US. You might want to bring some small gifts. Especially if someone makes you a home cooked meal or shows great hospitality. Handmade items are always appreciated. A small needlework, a drawing, a small bag or pouch decorated by hand. Postcards from your home town, chocolate, small pins, LED lights, small calculator, or a key chain with something nifty on it. A great way to delight small children is learn to make animals out of balloons.

Cell Phones: If you want to use your cell phone when traveling internationally there are several options. People on T-mobile or Google Fi just go. International roaming is very reasonable, though data speeds won’t be great. For everyone else you have three choices. (1) Get a local SIM.  Typically if you are in a country for 1 week or more, this is the most economical option plus data speeds with be significantly better then roaming. (2) Enable international roaming on your existing phone plan. (3) Use a service like Gigsky or Airalo which gets you a eSIM on the go (4) Switch your phone to WiFi only, and just use your device when there is WiFi present.

Noise Reduction: Planes and trains can be quite noisy. Noise is fatiguing so it’s good to cut it down. There are a number of companies such as Bose that make noise reducing headphones which use active sound cancelling to reduce noise. Sound isolating in the ear monitors are able to deliver higher quality sound and are able to block more sound that active sound cancelling systems. Check out Etymotic, Shure, and JH Audio.

Other Technology: Many people feel compelled to bring technology with them. Tablets, computers, all sorts of electronic devices. There is nothing wrong with any of these objects. It is possible that each of them can enrich your journey. But before you pack your favorite electronic gear, ask yourself questions like Do I really want to bring this with me? What will happen if I don’t hear the latest news? Maybe I will relax more? Am I really going to use this laptop, or is it going to be a three pound weight around my neck? Make sure how you have a backup plan in case your electronic device gets broken or lost. I often need to do some work while traveling so that typically means I bring a work laptop with me. I recently started to bring an iPad Air as well. When working it is my second screen via Sidecar, and when not working it can be my personal computing device.

Mindset

Let your trip be a growing experience… be willing to be pushed beyond your day to day comfort zone.  You might find books like The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau & Huston Smith encouraging.

[The following text is copied from Eagle Creek Inc. “Responsible Travel” page published in the 1990s]

Travel can first and foremost be a learning experience. We learn about the culture and land we visit and we learn about ourselves. Traveling to remote and unusual places, far from the standard and well-traveled tourist destinations, can rekindle our adventure spirit and renew a sense of perspective in our daily lives. 

Such places are often very sensitive to outside disruption and exist in a delicate cultural or environmental balance. As travelers, each of us holds a responsibility to protect this balance. Eagle Creek offers the following suggestions for all of us: 

Understand and Observe Local Customs: Acquaint yourself with the culture and customs of the lands you visit and respect them. Other cultures may take offense to certain innocent and unassuming gestures. For, in some societies people do not wish to be photographed without their permission.

Support the Local Economy: Stay in locally owned establishments. It gives you better cultural exposure to the region and it is of direct economic benefit to the community. Avoid chain hotels, which often channel profits out of the region or country. Eat the local cuisine. Why waste your taste buds on totally familiar foods you have at home and are not indigenous to the area. Enjoy the provincial fare which supports the local eateries, growers, fishermen, wineries, etc. Buy local crafts. Avoid souvenirs mass produced in Chinese or Korean factories. Your purchases should support local artisans and help perpetuate their traditions, crafts and culture.

Be Patient and Positive: Remember that travel means strange languages and unfamiliar surroundings. Expect the unexpected. Try not to get frustrated and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Courtesy is usually responded to with kindness. Delays, detours, and other inconveniences will occur. Be patient, be positive, and remember to smile!

Before You Go

Find someone who will take care of your residence. You will want someone to pick up your mail (or have the post office hold your mail), water your plants, feed your pets, etc.

Pay all your bills before you leave. If important bills are likely to arrive after you leave, but come due before you get back, leave checks with the person taking care of your mail which have been filled out with as much information as possible and leave pre-addressed stamped envelopes.

Take care of any medical issues. Make an appointment to see your doctor at least three months before you leave. Discuss any health issues that you have been putting off dealing with, and find get whatever vaccinations you need. Likewise, make appointments with other medical practitioner such as your dentist or optometrist if you haven’t seen them recently. As long as you are taking care of yourself, go get your hair cut.

Learn the basics of the common dialect / language. I like Pimsleur and duolingo.

If you don’t have a passport and valid visa, start the paperwork. Passports used to take six-eight weeks to be processed which can grow to a number of months. Visa will often take a number of weeks. If you are unable to get a passport fast enough for your trip, contact you US congressman’s office since they can often speed up the process. There are a number of organizations that expedite visa if you are short of time. Make sure you leave someone with important documents such as your will, health information, copies of your passport and visa.

My Packing List

The following is my typical packing list. Items “*” are optional. For a more complete description of these items see my yearly gear for life list.

Luggage

  • tom bihn synik 30
  • gossamer gear daypack* – if doing day long back country hikes, or if on extended “digital nomad” trips where I am living somewhere and want a “shopping bag” for groceries.

Pockets/Wear

  • flowfold minimalist wallet w/ cards, cash
  • iphone 12 mini verizon / airalo (international)
  • Swiss-Tech util-key (fly) / Victorinox Rambler (otherwise)
  • uniball vision elite .5mm pen
  • garmin 935 gps watch
  • tickets* – if not on my phone
  • passport, vaccination certificate* – if traveling out of country

Daily Life

  • zojirushi travel mug
  • apple airpod pro
  • edc pouch: 3 usb-c cables, sharge charger, portable USB charger, adaptors
  • nitecore nu25 headlamp

Core Clothing (Wear & Carry)

  • western rise evolution pants
  • outlier slim dungarees and/or new way shorts (1-2 total depending on expected weather)
  • tri-shorts – for high intensity activities: swimming, running, cycling, gym, backpacking, etc
  • xenith polartec delta shirt* – if doing high sweat activities
  • icebreaker anatomica merino tee-shirts (2)
  • macpac alpha direct hoody
  • darn tough socks: 1 no shows: summer +1 no show, winter +2 crew
  • icebreaker anatomica briefs (2)
  • vivobarefoot gobi II
  • keens sandals if hot/wet*
  • gorewear h7 trail running jacket
  • zPacks rain pants* – planning extended outdoors in cool & wet locations
  • montbell umbrero hat

Toiletries

  • rei micro toiletry bag
  • toothbrush
  • floss
  • razor
  • folding brush
  • nail clipper
  • mini first aid kit
  • toothpaste (dawn mist .6oz perfect size for shorter trips)
  • 100sense body bar in matador flatpak soap

Dressy Required?

  • outlier amb merino wool button-up shirt and/or
  • blazer

Cold?

  • mountain hardware grub gloves
  • montbell plasma 1000 down vest and/or patagonia micro puff hoody jacket

Beach? – Items to be added if a lot of time will be spent at beach

  • “Hawaiian” shirt [or Montbell Dry Touch Button-up]
  • sun glasses
  • board shorts
  • rashguard long sleeve shirt
  • matador pocket blanket
  • ultralight packtowel
  • sun screen*
  • aloe*
  • neoprene socks* (protect heels wearing fins) if snorkeling
  • swim mask* (vision correcting) if snorkeling

Extras

  • sleep mask
  • heart rate monitor
  • 6ft long usb-c cable
  • macbook pro* – if working
  • usb-c to hdmi cable* – if working at a destination the provides an external monitor
  • portable 14″ 4k screen* – if working and destination doesn’t provider external monitor
  • ipad air* – when not bringing laptop and want a larger display, or need extra display for laptop
  • immersion water heater* – if staying place without microwave, coffee maker, or stove
  • bluetooth transceiver* – extended flights
  • westone 5es iem* – extended flight for noise blocking
  • international power adapter*
  • insect repellent*
  • gifts (handmade is nice)*

If a trip includes camping as well as travel in cities, my packing list will be based on my backpacking list which might be supplements by some of the items listed above.

Resources

Mark Verber’s Travel Information:  My other travel links. URL: https://verber.com/travel/

How to See the World on $25 a Day or Less: A wonder web site by John Gregory which suggests meeting people is the best part of traveling. URL: http://www.artoftravel.com/

Footloose and Fancy-Free in the Third World:  Great tips on adventure travel, especially in the 3rd world by Randy Johnson.  Last updated in 2008. URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20110527055428/http://www.ease.com/~randyj/rjfootls.htm

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts. Good advise for multi-week travel across the world. URL: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000FBFMKM/

Solo Guide: A simple site with around 180 brief city guides and some good recommendations on gear and packing. URL: http://sologuides.com

Joshua Project: Web site about distinct peoples (ethnic) groups of the world. List comes from a Christian perspective, but interesting to anyone wanting to discover different cultural groups. URL: http://www.joshuaproject.net/

Rick Steves’ Travel Tips:  Great recommendations, mostly focused on light weight travel in Europe.  URL:
http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips. Also he has a 45 minute video about packing light

The Compleat Carry-On Traveler: What to Take, What To Take It In, How to Pack It. by Doug Dyment. My packing list was influenced by Doug’s. URL: http://www.onebag.com

Leo Babauta has written a lot about a minimalist lifestyle which includes thoughts about traveling. URL: https://zenhabits.net

Tyman’s Recommended Gear: Tyman has a will curated minimalist list he updates yearly. There are a number of blog posts on the site related to minimalist travel. URL: https://tynan.com/?s=gear or https://tynan.com/gear20xx where xx is the current year.

James Clear’s ultralight packing list URL: https://jamesclear.com/ultralight-travel

Sierra Trading Post: Mail order catalog which has quality outdoor gear at 30-70% retail prices. URL: https://www.sierra.com

Magellan’s: Mail order catalog which has every imaginable travel gadget. Some of them are even useful. URL: https://www.magellans.com/

REI: The classic mail order catalog for backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts. URL: https://www.rei.com

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