Packing properly is hard. But it’s totally worth it! Once you force yourself to pack smarter and lighter, your life on the road becomes so much easier. Finally you’ll feel like a bird, not packed like a mule.
A minimalist approach to packing will make you more comfortable and more mobile. By keeping things carry-on size, you can even save a lot of money by avoiding extra check-in fees. And did I mention you can skip the wait at baggage claim?
Sounds nice, but I know it’s still all too tempting to overpack. I’ve met some people hauling up to 30 kg (66 pounds) worth of stuff in their way-too-huge backpacks. This is nuts! They sweat, they curse, and finally swear they’ll never pack so much again. It’s not a fun lesson to learn.
I went through different phases myself. Back when I first started traveling, I was a little clueless and maybe a little scared. And so I packed like a doomsday prepper, filling my bag with completely unnecessary gear. These days, I travel with one carry-on bag weighing about 11kg or 24 pounds. It makes for light and easy travel — and I don’t miss a thing.
Intrigued by the minimalist one-bag approach? Then read on as I show exactly how I pack, and share with you some of my best packing tips and tricks.
Choosing the right bag
Wait. Hang on a minute.
One does not make a great burrito without a good tortilla. By which I mean: you can’t pack that well if you don’t have the right bag.
The best way to avoid overpacking? It’s to get a smaller bag. It will reduce the temptation to keep adding more things, and it will force you to prioritize.
Most carry-on size bags have a capacity of around 40 liters. For me, this is a perfect size if I’m staying in hostels or hotels (and not camping or anything). This size works amazingly well for a shorter trip, but even for full-time nomadic travel I found it pretty do-able; I traveled with just a 45-liter carry-on for two years straight without major issues.
If you’re not sure what bag to get, check out my list of best backpacks as I regularly update it with the latest reviews. Right now I travel with the Tortuga Setout, which is a totally amazing 45-liter carry-on backpack.
So why a backpack? And why not just get some wheeled luggage?
That’s certainly fine for a stationary holiday in a resort. But if you’re going to be traveling around, those big rolling bricks get real awkward real fast. They’re especially awful on cobblestone streets, old windy stairs, dirt roads, sandy beaches, and so on.
A backpack is a lot more versatile. You can easily swing it onto the back of a tuk-tuk or a pick-up truck. Or you can tuck it under your seat in a bus, or easily secure it inside a locker. And if you need to run to catch that last train, you’re still light on your feet and might actually make it.
Many travel backpacks also come with clever features not usually found on suitcases that can make packing and organizing a lot easier.
3 rules for minimalist travel
You can pack light by following a few simple principles:
- Pack the must-haves, not the nice-to-haves
Lay out all your gear. Think long and hard about every item, then eliminate anything you don’t absolutely need. If it’s your first big trip, you might end up packing more things just because ‘more stuff’ feels somehow comforting and safe. But resist this urge to be overprepared. Many first-time travelers wish they’d packed half as much.
- Don’t pack more than 1 week’s worth of clothing
It’s simply much easier to do laundry than to carry weeks worth of clothing. Pick some versatile favorites with a simple color palette so that you can easily mix-and-match every item.
- Bring versatile instead of special-case items
Focus on items that will be useful to you all the time (or have multiple uses), and think twice about anything you’ll use only on unique occasions. Keep in mind you can often rent gear locally, or find a cheap temporary fix instead of carrying something for a one-time use.
Remember that there are shops all over the world, even in seemingly remote places! If you forget something, you can usually still buy it there. Yes, they do have toothpaste on Borneo.
Oh, one more good rule: try to keep a quarter of your bag empty. It makes loading and unloading easier, and can be used for storing souvenirs or gifts.
So here’s how I pack…
Having covered a few general tips, let me show you exactly how I pack in a step-by-step way.
So… this is my main 45-liter backpack, a Tortuga Setout. I love this bag as it’s highly versatile and can be used for different types of trips. I use it to store everything apart from just my camera and a couple of other items (I put these in a small day-pack, but more on that later).
Anyway, let’s open it!
The main compartment
In my bag’s main compartment I mainly keep my clothing. The Tortuga backpack is side-loading which gives better access than a top-loading backpack.
It’s often better to roll clothes instead of folding. Fewer creases, more space-efficient. Rolled up shirts (when stacked) are also easy to see at a glance.
I use packing cubes mainly to store my socks and underwear. For a long time I just kept my stuff in plastic shopping bags, but I’m glad I saw the light and bought a 3-piece set of slim packing cubes by eBags. They cost only $15 and makes organizing my clothes a lot easier. They fit perfectly and have little windows in them letting you see what’s inside.
I typically travel with two pairs of shoes. One to wear, one to carry.
I keep a pair of Merell low-top hiking shoes in a plastic bag for when I go hiking or walking a lot. For my everyday shoes, I like to bring low-top canvas sneakers such as Converse All-Stars as they fold up easily and take up very little space. In a tropical climate, you could substitute these for sandals, though I personally like to chuck in a pair of flip-flops instead. Girls can easily add a pair of flats, as well.
For clothing, I usually pack the following:
- 6 or 7 shirts or t-shirts, ones that I know I’ll be happy to wear regularly
- 7 pairs of underwear. Some advocate bringing as few as 3 (one to wear, one to wash, and one to dry), but I prefer having fresh underwear every day and washing only once a week. I’m just a little weird like that.
- 3 pairs of pants/trousers; if I’m going somewhere hot, two of these will be shorts
- 3 pairs of socks for tropical climates, more if temperate.
- One sweater or hoodie
- Swimming shorts
Since I often travel in hot climates, I usually won’t bring any nightwear. I’ll just sleep in boxer shorts and a tank top. But if I’m going somewhere cold or temperate, I might add a pajama or jogging pants/trousers.
If you’re a bit of an adventurer, you may want to invest in some merino wool clothing. Merino wool costs a bit more, but it provides warmth when it’s cold, keeps you cool when it’s hot, has the amazing ability to stay warm even when wet, and even dries much faster than cotton. Gee whiz! Seriously though, this stuff is made of miracles. Merino wool socks can be used for days on end without getting stinky, making it perfect for trekking.
I put my dirty clothes in this polyester laundry bag with a drawstring. This keeps the stinky clothes nicely separated, and I like the world map printed on it too. Maybe I should start marking where I’ve been?
What about rainy or cold weather?
I most often travel in the tropics or in summer, so I don’t bother packing a jacket or more than just one hoodie or sweater. If you’re packing for a cold or wet climate then this will obviously add more weight, but not so much as you might think. Your winter jacket, jumper, etc. will be on your body anyway, so won’t add to your luggage weight. For rain cover, you can just get a packable lightweight raincoat, as these can compress down to about the size of an apple. If you need to pack for multiple climates, consider bringing a compression bag for storing your winter items when you no longer need them.
The front compartment
Moving on to the front compartment, this is mainly where I store my toiletries and a few other handy items.
My toiletries bag is pretty small (it’s the little blue sleeve on the left). I like to keep things simple, so it’s just a toothbrush + paste (travel size), a small roller deodorant, some matt clay for my hair, and a beard trimmer (only for long trips).
If you’re going to stay in hotels, you might not need to pack a towel or soap or shampoo as these will already be provided. But I often stay in hostels and guesthouses, or I travel to developing countries where these aren’t provided as standard. Even in developed (Eastern) Europe, a lot of places don’t give you these basics.
That’s why I always bring a lightweight microfiber travel towel. These weigh at least 10 times less than the average cotton towel. Some people don’t like their velvety texture, but you are not supposed to actually rub this type of towel on your skin. After showering, use your hands to remove most of the water first, then just gently pat yourself dry. Microfiber travel towels dry much faster than cotton ones, which is great if you’re traveling around a lot.
Remember that liquids can’t exceed 100ml if you want to have them as carry-on items on a flight.
My preferred solution is to not use liquid soaps at all.
I have these two soap containers, one containing a soap bar and the other a shampoo bar. As solids, they’re always accepted as carry-on. They’re also lighter and more compact than shower gel or shampoo bottles. Fun fact: 70% to 90% of the weight of shower gel is just water!
A shampoo bar works just like a soap bar: simply rub it in water and you’ll get some lovely foamy shampoo. This 100ml shampoo bar will last just as long as three normal size 250g bottles of liquid shampoo. Assuming you wash your hair every 3 days or less, it will last you a whole year.
But what if you don’t like solid soaps? Or what if you’re way too attached to your favorite brand of artisanal gluten-free quinoa pomegranate shampoo? Don’t worry, there’s an alternative solution: just pour some into a 100ml travel container. These are often sold at drug stores, or you could re-use some containers from a hotel. Of course, these won’t last quite as long as a soap or shampoo bar.
Wait… where were we?
Oh yeah! I was explaining what’s in my backpack’s front compartment.
I also have here a lightweight packable rain jacket and a compact inflatable travel pillow.
I love having a travel pillow, but I always hate how much space they take up. The inflatable travel pillow is an incredible solution as it stays super compact. You blow it up with a button (not with your mouth) and it’s super soft (not rubbery like other cheap inflatables).
Finally, because I tend to be in and around the water a lot when I travel, I now bring a waterproof bag. It lets me jump off a boat and swim to an island and still bring my camera, or it lets me keep my dive log and other stuff dry when I go scuba diving. It’s perfect for the beach as well.
The back panel
One-bag travel purists be warned: this is where I’ll be diverging from total minimalism just a little bit.
Since I’m a blogger, I almost always travel with a laptop. I do have a fairly lightweight ultrabook, but that’s still an additional 1.3kg (or 2.8 pounds) I need to carry. If I wasn’t blogging, I’d probably stick with just a tablet or a smartphone.
I used to travel with a MacBook Air but it got stolen. Someone snatched my old daypack from a restaurant patio in Lisbon (booo, shouldn’t have dropped my guard!). Now I use a relatively inexpensive Acer Chromebook R13, which also doubles as an (oversized) tablet. By the way, I have a separate guide to the best travel laptops.
I always bring a universal travel adaptor with two USB ports. This means I never have to worry about all the different electrical sockets used around the world. It also lets me charge my laptop and two other devices via USB at the same time.
I also often pack a — gasp! — physical paper book. Sometimes it’s a travel guide, sometimes some paperback fiction (or both). I know that’s not ultra minimalist, but in this case I don’t mind compromising a bit. I tried using an e-reader for a while but I hated the ergonomics and terrible typesetting. Ugh, I’m such a snob. Somehow it’s also just satisfying to read from thin sheets of dead tree.
The back panel is also where I keep some emergency money, receipts or notes, and my backup bank cards.
These internet banks don’t charge ATM fees and let you save a ton of money on currency conversion. They also have apps that let you monitor any withdrawals and freeze the card with one tap. They’re awesome about sending you a replacement card if needed while you’re still on the road. I’ve struggled enormously with legacy banks when traveling but these new startups online banks are amazing.
What I keep in my daypack
Besides my main 45-liter bag, I also carry a small Lowepro 150 AW Slingshot camera bag.
This counts as my additional “personal item” when I’m flying, and I use it when I’m out and about and sightseeing.
I love photography so I always bring a bigger camera with an interchangeable lens system. The most lightweight option is obviously to use a compact camera or a smartphone. But I diverge from the maximum minimalism here (uhh, is that a thing?) simply because I love having a fully-featured camera.
I used to have a bulky Canon DSLR, but I replaced it with a much lighter mirrorless camera. My Panasonic Lumix GX8 has been a real game-changer. It’s so light and portable that I now take it everywhere I go. If you want to read me gushing uncontrollably about this camera, check out my full review of the Panasonic GX8.
The Micro Four Thirds format used by Panasonic and Olympus is amazing for travel photography, as the lenses are just so ridiculously lightweight. Inside my small camera bag, I can easily pack my Panasonic Lumix GX8 with a 12-35mm f2.8 walkaround lens, a 35-100mm telelens, a 25mm f1.7 prime, and a Laowa 7.5mm f2 wide angle lens. All this combined weighs only 1.3kg (2.9 pounds). My mind has still not finished being blown over this.
By the way, the cool thing about using a sling camera bag is that, well… you can sling that sucka around and always instantly access your camera! #Blessed #Grateful #HoorayForCameraBag.
Inside it I also keep a GorillaPod Action ultra-compact tripod. If I’m going somewhere hot, I also have some mosquito spray and sun lotion in there, always ready for action.
Finally, I keep some first-aid plasters/gauze and basic medicines in my daypack. I also attached a safety whistle, in case I get lost in the woods and chased by a yeti.
Other than that, there’s a bit of room left here for some snacks or a water bottle, or for my passport when in transit.
A few more handy items
There are a few other smaller items I want to tell you about. I usually put these in my backpack’s quick-access pocket. They’re not strictly essential, but they have made my life on the road consistently easier.
Firstly, a number padlock often comes in super handy. I stay in hostels and budget guesthouses often, which means having to lock your bags in a locker. With a number padlock, you don’t have to worry about losing the key.
I also have a wire lock, which lets you secure a backpack to a pole or fence, to prevent opportunistic theft.
An LED headlamp comes in handy when you have to find your way through a dorm room at night, when there’s a power cut (not unusual in developing countries), or when you’re hiking at night or going on a caving adventure. A regular torch works too, but having a light strapped on your head keeps your hands free.
A portable backup battery gives my phone and other electronics a bit of extra charge in a pinch. A cool bonus is that I can leave my phone to charge inside a hostel locker or hotel safe, instead of leaving it out in the open.
Finally, I bring this piece of multifunctional headwear by Buff, made of a special seamless stretchy material. You can easily use these to create a bandana, sweatband, scarf (great for motorbiking), sleeping mask, or sun guard. It’s amazingly versatile and I think it looks kind of cool too.
But… but… you’re a guy!
Whoa. Does that even matter?
Girls on the backpacker trail have sometimes commented that I can only pack light because I’m a guy. I guess the implication is that I can go full Bear Grylls style and be a total scuzzy dirtbag with only one t-shirt to wear (not true), while girls always need a huge wardrobe.
This seems silly as I’ve seen countless female travelers pack just as light. It’s totally possible, regardless of gender, to put together a functional and fashionable travel wardrobe without overpacking. As long as you can do the occasional laundry, I think you won’t have to compromise that much.
It’s true that as a woman you’re likely to bring a few more toiletries, cosmetics, and other items, but many women’s clothes are also smaller than men’s versions. The total volume ultimately might not be all that different.
Of course, my packing example does totally come from a guy’s perspective. But other women travel bloggers have offered their own examples of packing light. I’m going to go out on a limb here though and say that the general approach can work for anyone.
The full list of all my gear
I hope this post has been helpful! Packing is a pretty personal thing so everyone does it differently, but maybe my example has given you a few ideas. Any specific products mentioned are simply ones I like to use — there’s no influencer marketing or sponsoring here.
Below are links to all of the gear that I use, which lead to your local version of Amazon (US, Canada, UK, Germany, etc.). If you do decide to buy something from Amazon feel free to use these links, as they earn me a small commission. This helps me write more in-depth posts like this one.
By the way, I also recommend these other backpacks.
Packing and organization
- eBags slim packing cubes (3 piece set)
- 5L Water proof dry bag
- Kikkerland Polyester travel-size laundry bag
- Waterproof drybag
Misc. travel gear
- Small microfiber antibacterial travel towel
- Number padlock (TSA approved)
- Wire lock for fixing my daypack to a pole or bar
- Survival safety whistle
- LED Head Torch with multiple brightness levels & red setting
- Small carabiner
- Natural Handmade Shampoo Bar
- Merino wool socks
- Buff flexible headgear
Tech & camera
- Acer Chromebook R13 (see also my list of best travel laptops)
- Universal Travel Adaptor with 2 USB ports
- Panasonic RP-HJE120E-K headphones (great sound, low price)
- 1TB portable hard drive for backups
- Motorola Moto G – Unlocked cheap phone with 2 SIM slots
- Panasonic Lumix GX8 – lightweight travel camera
- GorrilaPod Action – for doing long exposures, self-portraits, or timelapses
- Portable backup battery