Travelling Light, and How I Haven’t Managed It

Updated: April 11, 2017.

Pssst. Over here. Come a little closer, for I have a terrible secret to admit.

I was once one of them. Sometimes I even still am. If you’ve spent time in a train station in Europe, or various tourist destinations around the globe, you’ll know who I’m talking about. Remember the girl who was struggling gamely to lift a pack bigger than she was? That guy swearing and cursing as he hauled a massive suitcase up another flight of stairs?

They were fully paid up members of the ‘kitchen sink’ club — the people who just don’t know when to stop putting things in their luggage. Everything but the kitchen sink goes in.

I’ve been as guilty of this as anybody else, but I only realised it after purchasing a new backpack recently. My old pack had finally given up the ghost after a decade of being dragged around the world, and as I laid my shiny new one on the bed to fill it up with the ‘essentials’ it suddenly occurred to me how just how much I was putting in.

That third pair of trousers. Half a dozen travel guides and other books. A toiletries bag so full, I had to start putting things in plastic bags.  Here was me, supposedly an experienced traveller, fighting with the zips on my backpack. Every item had a perfectly good justification for why it was included, but unless I also planned to pack a donkey to carry it all for me, I just couldn’t take it all. And yet I still tried.


So now it’s decided. For my next trip, I’m travelling light. Very light. Hopefully, carry-on only kind of light. Although I haven’t quite decided where I’m going as yet, I do know it’ll be warm. So on that basis, here’s what I’m going to be taking:
  • A few pairs of active underwear and merino wool socks (they’re small and light, and everyone notices when they need a wash…)
  • Three quick-dry t-shirts, one short sleeved shirt (and a long sleeved t-shirt if I’m going somewhere where mosquitos and other bugs are an issue. Malaria, dengue fever etc aren’t fun.)
  • Two pairs of shorts, and some board shorts for swimming.
  • One pair of good walking shoes that are dressy enough for a night out, and a pair of flip-flops for dodgy hostel showers and avoiding third degree burns to my feet on the beach.
  • A pair of trousers, most likely jeans. They’re heavy, bulky and hard to dry, but I’ve never found anything as versatile.
  • Laptop (have to keep this site up to date somehow!), unlocked cellphone, noise-isolating earphones, camera and chargers.
  • A guidebook if I’m using one, and a Kindle Paperwhite for reading.
  • Shower gel (doubles as shampoo and soap), roll-on deoderant, razor, and a few other small (small!!) bits and pieces.
  • A basic first aid kit, the smaller the better.
  • A good quality, lightweight jacket that’s wind and rainproof, but breathable (just because it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s cold).
  • A long-sleeved merino wool top, for air-conditioned buses and unexpected cold snaps.

There’s a few other little things I’d put in if there was room –- travel umbrella, washing line, etc — but I think the above is pretty much my minimum requirements. Given pretty much anything can be bought at your destination, even in some of the most remote parts of the world, and packing for six months is really no different to packing for a week, I’m trying for the ‘less is more’ approach.

I’m sure not everyone’s needs will be the same as mine, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the list above. Still too much? Too little? What have I forgotten, and what can I live without?

7 Responses to “Travelling Light, and How I Haven’t Managed It

  • Agreed, travelling light is absolutely key. I remember standing in a Shanghai subway on my way to the MagLev on Christmas day, Santa hat on, stumbling around when the train sped up and stopped as as I carried literally 40% of my own body weight on my dodgy back and coathanger shoulders. Not an experience to be repeated if I can help it.

    I personally wouldn’t carry a torch, I’d just use my cellphone. And I guess it depends on your language proficiency, but I always carried my Chinese dictionary — when I have to explain that a fuse is blown, that I need a wireless key for the local WiFi, that I want to try snorkelling but don’t know how to keep away from the jellyfish, or whatever it is, I know that I should be able to get there as long as I have my small dictionary.

  • I haven’t bought my backpack for my RTW trip yet, but I know packing light is going to be a challenge. I’m still in the process of figuring out what stuff to get rid of entirely, and what stuff to store.

    I’ll likely be buying stuff that I didn’t realize I needed as I go along. Not to mention throwing out the items I didn’t really need. As with everything else regarding long-term travel, it seems flexibility is key!

  • Hi Adam,

    Thanks for posting!

    Yeah, it’s not easy to travel light – I’ve been trying and failing for over a decade! I think one of the secrets is trying not have an attachment to too many of the things in your pack, so that you’re happy to give it away or throw it out once you’ve got your use out of it – or realise that you’re never going to use it. Flexibility is definitely the key…

    Your site looks great, btw – good luck in your RTW travels! Feel free to drop me a line with any questions that crop up 🙂

  • I usually travel very lightly (a small daypack for 2 weeks in a warm climate is perfectly doable); the key is to avoid “what ifs” and “this could be fun to have”‘s. Very few of us are going to a truly remote village in the Congo, the kind where your arrival is probably fulfilling a 2000 year old prophecy. Because of that, if you truly need something, you can buy it locally.

    For example, bring a couple of bandaids, but a full first aid kit is overkill — if you need to, you can pick up a bottle of iodine and a roll of gauze at the drugstore, even if it is a 20 minute scooter ride away. If you’re hemorrhaging blood, a first aid kit isn’t going to do much anyway.

    I tend to pack lots of socks and underwear (at least a weeks worth for a warm climate), and very few outerwear pieces. I don’t mind if my jeans have a stain or two on them, but re-using the same pair of underwear or socks in hot weather is asking for problems.

    I wouldn’t bother with the netbook personally; it falls into the “this could be fun to have” category. It’s relatively fragile and in some places says, “Rob me!” I’d substitute a small camera. I’ve had really poor luck with Wifi availability while traveling, anyway, so usually just end up using an internet cafe.

    My big temptation is to bring along my Pentax SLR and photo bag, but I’ve pretty much stopped doing that. It’s another thing to worry about getting damaged or stolen or forgotten, compact cameras have gotten much better, and if you really need the picture postcard photo, buy the picture postcard.

    I’d add a pen or two to your packing list. It’s frustrating to need to fill out customs forms on the plane or at a border crossing and having to scrounge one of someone else (if you can, people can be incredibly tight-fisted with pens, for some reason. It’s just a plastic pen!). I’m guilty of always forgetting this one, though.

    Photocopy of your travel documents, to keep separately from your passport.

  • Personally when I travel I try to sobstitute bath gel and shampoo with a common marseille soap: it will wash me, my hair and my clothes saving room and waight in my bag…furthermore it can be also carried in flight handbaggages, that is quit useful if you are travelling just for a short week end. As a woman I also would carry a coples of female disposal (you know, you always get your period when shops are closed or when you are in the middle of nowhere!!).

  • My brother showed up for a 2 week jaunt through Norway with myself and our Mom carrying just a messenger bag! How did he do it? He had an Ipod with solar charger, a tooth brush, one t-shirt, and one extra underwear, and one pair of socks.
    and a 6 pack of beer. (minus the two he had already enjoyed.)
    He was wearing the rest of his clothes, which did include about 3 layers, so that’s a hint right there.
    Toiletries are available everywhere, so you don’t really need those.
    He wore the same pair of Teva sandals the whole trip, and didn’t swim.
    No computer, no guidebooks, no camera.
    and he sure got around much easier than us with all our baggage.
    I learned a great lesson and have always remembered his example whenever I am packing.

  • Do it Dave, you will not regret it. I now travel with a 35L backpack, and I carry an SLR, two lenses AND a tripod. I’ve just upgraded to a Macbook Air and my next trip I’ll be taking that so I may not keep under the 7kg carryon limit, though I guess I could ditch some more clothes. Since I’ll be taking a Kindle maybe I can save the weight on books as well.

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