“That’s ALL you’re bringing?”
I’ve heard that at least a hundred times. I travel light. Very light. Carry-on light. It really throws people for a loop.
My litmus test when packing for a trip anywhere is simple: can I carry everything I bring, for an entire day, without hating life in the process? To do so, I have trimmed my gear down to a comfortable 40L or less (usually under 30L). If you’re not used to visualizing a pack that size, it is a little bigger than a high-schooler’s backpack.
In that pack, I have everything I need for MOST situations. No, you can’t be prepared for everything with that amount of gear, but here’s the thing: you can’t be prepared for everything with ANY amount of gear. So my kit focusing on the things I can control and leaves room for a few niceties. If something comes up that I’m not prepared for, I can figure it out then.
Covering the Basics
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological needs come first. These include things like breathing, water, food, sleep, clothing and shelter. Safety needs come next. Thes include things like personal security, financial security, and health. If I can cover those (within reason) I can be pretty certain that the rest of the trip is about wandering and having fun. So here’s how I break it down.
Food and Water
Water is essential. So I always have a way to carry some. Sure, you can get a bottle of water almost anywhere, but why? You just add waste and risk contamination from re-bottling. Depending on where you are traveling, you may be able to drink straight from the tap. Check with the CDC! They have a great resource for all kinds of safety information, including water safety, here. Although I often travel to places on the “safe” lists for drinking water, I still always carry a handful of chlorine dioxide tabs, just in case.
Chlorine dioxide will purify all but the nastiest water. There are some drawbacks. First of all, the process can take four hours, so you need to plan ahead. Also, the water can taste like you’re drinking from a swimming pool. That can be minimized, by leaving the water uncapped (after the purification period) for a few hours. But, that means a longer wait. Luckily, the human body can go approximately three days without water, so a few hours is doable.
When it comes to food, we humans can go three weeks, so we have even more time to play with. But, I’m a bear when I’m hungry, so I always have a full days supply of calories along for the ride. That also means that I can ration it for a few extra days if things go south. When it comes to calories, in my pack, they have to be something I’d eat even if it wasn’t an emergency. I like these:
RX Bars are super tasty, healthy, gluten free, and they pack extremely well. On a given trip there are at least three in my bag, plus a few packs of cashews, a few hard candies, and three packets of an Ultimata electrolyte add-in for my water. Depending on the locale, I also may be carrying a few Starbucks Via instant coffee packets. That small assortment fits easily in a small stuff sack.
This stuff sack is blue and it is easy for me to grab at any moment. If I suddenly have to check my bag (which rarely happens) I can grab my food bag and have snacks for the journey, my chlorine tabs (to purify that questionable bus depot water) and a few hard candies to keep the dust out of my throat on the ride. It’s the only way I travel.
I learned how to sleep just about anywhere when I was young and traveling as a sound engineer. Give me a flat surface and I’m out. However, that doesn’t mean it’s good sleep. And, depending on the surface, there can be a lot of other factors to consider, like bedbugs, dirt, etc.. For that reason, I always carry a silk sleeping bag liner.
Why silk? So glad you asked. First of all, and this is important, natural fibers like silk and wool are comfortable to sleep in when it is warm or when it is cold. Since they both wick moisture to the center of the fiber, they almost always feel dry. And, because they move moisture so quickly and because they are naturally antimicrobial, they don’t hold on to smells. That’s a big plus when you end up sleeping in it for days on end. Make sure that your travel sheet has enough space for a pillow too. The pocket on mine allows me to stuff a jacket in and have a pillow without having to carry anything extra.
This is a new one for me, but a sleep mask blocks out the overhead lights of an airport terminal you just got stuck in and the annoying streetlights outside your hostel window. For some reason, I don’t sleep very well with any light in the room. This little addition helps me get some shuteye no matter where I crash. Add some silicone earplugs and you have a quiet environment too. A good night’s sleep is an essential part of the wanderers journey. Don’t sacrifice in this area.
This is where most people go WAAAAY overboard. If they’re traveling for two weeks, they pack fourteen outfits, or more. But, if you pack wise, you can make fourteen outfits–or more–out of the following list:
- 2 Wool Tee Shirts
- 1 Wool Polo Shirt
- 3 Pair of Underwear
- 3 Pair of Wool Socks
- 1 Pair of Pants
- 1 Pair of Swim Trunks
- 1 Insulation Jacket
- 1 Waterproof Breathable Shell Jacket
- 1 Hat
That’s it! All of it fits in a single packing cube. More on that in a moment.
Don’t overthink this one, but don’t forget it either. I once got stuck outside without a place to sleep because of some poor planning. One simple item made the rainy night bearable. It’s cheap, it’s light, it has a million uses. Pack a 100 gallon leaf and garden trash bag.
This one is not completely in your control, so the rule here is simple: don’t make yourself an easy target. This includes some basic items, but most important it requires awareness.
Lock the zippers on your bag together when you’re walking through unfamiliar parts. Will it stop an adept thief? Probably not. Will it make them seek an easier target? Maybe. Again, the trick here is to make yourself a less appealing target. TSA approved locks are a must. That way if you HAVE to check your bag (again, I never have) you don’t need to remove them ahead of the baggage check.
While you’re packing, make sure you also carry two color copies of your passport. Keep one on your person and one in your bag. If you check into a hotel, lock the one in your bag in the safe. If your lose your passport, or if it is stolen, a copy will go a long way in line at the embassy.
RFID theft is big business. Someone walks past you and BOOM, they have all your credit card and passport information. Putting your cards in these simple sleeves makes that much more difficult for would-be thieves. Some people opt for an RFID proof wallet or travel organizer, but in the interest of saving myself some trouble if I’m pickpocketed, I carry my cards in these and spread them throughout my bag and on my person. It’s easy to lose one wallet or card is easy, but losing all of them makes me less prone to total financial loss.
Cash is still king. There are very few places in the world left where credit cards are not accepted, but I have yet to find anywhere where a little cash won’t get you out of a bind. Taxis, tuk-tuks, and coffee shops all take cash. For that reason, I always keep a days budget worth of cash stashed in my bag. That is in addition to some walking money (which is what my grandfather called it) that you can use when you don’t feel safe using your card.
This one is important! For the love of all, please carry a small first-aid kit. A few bandages, some antibiotic ointment, a few steri-strips, moleskin, and some basic medications will get you through most situations. Anything more serious probably requires a hospital visit anyway.
Don’t settle for what’s in your store-bought kit. Go through it and add a few extras. I always opt for a few extra doses of ibuprofen and an anti-diarrhea medication. I also make sure I have an extra week of my prescription medications.
In addition to my medical kit, I carry enough multivitamins to have one daily throughout my trip. It helps me fill in the gaps in my diet when eating on the run.
Packing Cubes and Stuff Sacks
Packing cubes are essential in my mind. By organizing my gear into packing cubes, I can quickly find what I need wherever I find myself. Additionally, when I get pulled out of the airport security check line for a “routine” inspection, my packing cubes make unpacking a repacking a snap. One of the most important things about traveling, for me, is limiting hassle. Packing cubes and stuff sacks do wonders in that regard.
While I usually travel with one bag, there are occasions that I bring a second smaller bag to carry my daily essentials in. That way, I can leave the bulk of my gear in my hotel and still carry everything I need for the day on my person. The feature image of this post is my favorite second bag for the job. The Tom Bihn Copilot is a constant companion of mine.
Packing light is a great way to introduce yourself to a more speedy and hassle-free travel experience. Remember that everything in your pack should serve multiple purposes. Single use items should be minimal. For me, these include a camera and my kindle. Everything else pulls double or triple-duty.
So, how do you limit your travel gear? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.