What should you put into your travel bag if there’s a need for packing light?
Almost 11 years ago, I did a guest post for the once-mighty Gadling blog called What’s in your pack Tim Leffel? At the time I had been traveling through Europe for two weeks with just a large duffel bag and here’s a flashback to my younger self from that trip:
It’s fun to look back that far and see all the details of my wardrobe, gadgets, and toiletries. Too much information for some probably, but maybe interesting if you’re looking for a sample packing list or gadget/travel clothing ideas. I have to say I packed pretty darn well for that trip as a light traveler, so this one is kind of a case study on what actually worked. With no wheels and not much weight, I was able to move quickly through cobblestone streets and had no problem with small train overhead racks or budget airlines.
Back then I was trying out a lot of new clothing and gear: at the time I was doing two reviews a week on the Practical Travel Gear blog.
I sold that site a few years back and don’t have the UPS man showing up at my door a few times a week anymore with new clothing or luggage. The positive side of that is I have really learned which items held up and which haven’t.
What I Pack Now for Travel
Anyone who reads this blog regularly has seen the “My Favorite Travel Gear Brands” series I’ve had running for a while. If I’ve called out a brand by name on here, that’s because I’ve been using their gear for many years and it’s travel gear I couldn’t kill.
Back then I was likely to pack a Tilley hat, lots of Exofficio underwear and clothing, and a suitcase from Eagle Creek if I wasn’t using that $35 Mexican leather duffel bag or an Osprey backpack.
Those things are all still regulars today. I also usually have something from Columbia, Clothing Arts, or Craghoppers packed as well. Quality quick-dry clothing. I usually have several pairs of hiking socks, but from a variety of brands depending on what was on the clearance sale.
There are a few differences in what I packed 11 years ago and what I pack now, partly because smart phones have eliminated a few items: flashlight, alarm clock, and music player to name a few. As a pro travel writer though, I still carry a notebook, 14-inch laptop, real camera (Panasonix Lumix these days), mini tripod, and various chargers. I find I sometimes carry two sets of earphones or earbuds now, which is kind of annoying: one Bluetooth, one wired for the plane systems or video phone calls through the laptop. If it’s a vacation, I’ll wedge in a small speaker to play music in the hotel room or apartment.
Toiletries can be a big issue for some women especially, but get a good hanging toiletry kit and stick to small bottles that meet TSA guidelines. Remember that you can buy things later if it’s a long trip, especially simple items like toothpaste.
The good news on all this is that traveling light has gotten a lot easier. The bags, the clothing, the shoes, and the gadgets all weigh less than they did a decade ago.
The Keys to Packing Light
The guiding principle of packing light with a carry-on is to take clothing that fits a few criteria: 1) It all goes together okay, 2) You can sink wash it and it’ll be dry by morning, and 3) It doesn’t weigh much.
Obviously this can get complicated if you’re going to a cold climate, but layering will take care of most warmth issues and you can help things a lot by wearing merino wool items that won’t get stinky after a couple days of wear. These can be costly, but they’re worth it in the long run. The top brands are Icebreaker, Ibex, and Smartwool. Wear a hat, bring a good coat, and you’ll be set.
What kills both the bulk and weight for most people is the shoes. You should usually aim for two pairs, three if you’re doing something specialized like river rafting or jungle hiking. More than that and you’re going to have to check a bag. That’s fine on Southwest, not so fine if you’ve got two connections where your bag could get lost and you’re on a fee-loving airline.
I tend to have a pair of double-duty shoes along that will work for city streets and forest paths from the likes of Oboz or Lowa, but there are lots of other good ones in my closet. Get something that looks nice enough to wear to a restaurant, but rugged enough to take years of walking before wearing out. You might have to spend $100 unless you don’t need to try them on and can shop online at a good time for sales.
Pack things that go together and you won’t need so many items. So it’s packing light is easier. As in every pair of pants should be able to go with pretty much any shirt in your bag. This takes a little planning, yes, but it ensures you’ve got something clean to wear until you’ve worn everything. And remember, if there’s any business to be done, erring on the side of nicer clothes is better than the alternative. If you’re just backpacking or on vacation, however, one “nice enough” outfit will probably do it. See some more tips on this subject here .
For a few years now, the big trend in travel clothing has been “trail to pub” wear that looks nice enough to go to a bar in, but is loaded with the technical features and durability you need for travel and the outdoors. So it’s much easier than it used to be to find travel clothes that don’t make you look like you geared up for a jungle safari. Many of the items coming from the big brands look nice enough to wear to an office, to a nice party, or to a meeting. Yet they’ll dry quickly and wick sweat for when you can escape into the outdoors.
Remember, if you shop at the right places online, you can always find something on sale.
Please Pack a Water Purifier
Unless you don’t mind trashed beaches, roadside litter, and plastic in the fish you’re eating, carry a water purifier. There’s no excuse for buying bottled water every day and shoving more plastic that never breaks down into Mother Nature’s mouth. My favorite that has never let me down is the Steripen, but you can find other water purifiers for travel here.
Your turn. What’s in your travel bag that has helped you with packing light?