Pack Light for Travel: a Guide


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Why travel light?

Whether you decided to pack light or to carry a heavy backpack when you travel is your personal choice. Some people feel some kind of pride in carrying a great deal of stuff. Some have fears and insecurities that compel them to over-pack. On this page I'm assuming you're in agreement that one should pack light for travel, that one should not be distracted or burdened by one's stuff.

How to pack light and stay light

What I will describe for you here is how traveled light, mainly focusing on my gear. I applied some principles that I've learned over the course of traveling. Some of these principles can also apply to life at home.

Principle 0: Psychological Baggage

You should travel to seek out not cheap thrills but rather the successes:
  • The happy people (not fake happiness brought by mere status).
  • The refined cultures and traditions (not in the sense of monetary wealth).
  • The pretty places (not the whitewashed tourist traps).
  • The clever ideas (small and large innovations).

To even be traveling, enjoying your freedom on the road, you must have had to navigate past unhappy, envious losers and shabby predicaments at some point: In the workplace, at school, among your friends, in your community or with your family.

If it does anything, travel proves to the traveler that failure, such as shabby situations, desperate schemers, dysfunctional people, and broken cultures, is everywhere and unrelenting. Every city has a bad side of town and has some corruption. Every period of history has had these things. Every place also has the worthless greedy shallow people, be they rich or poor, who can't rise above mere money and possessions.

Don't give such situational failures or failing people an ounce of time or honor. They don't deserve it. You can find losers and losing situations anywhere: They're practically interchangeable, although in some places the destruction to lives is more intense.

You aren't responsible for the loser's transformation into someone worthwhile, any more than you're responsible for cleaning the toilet at a restaurant that you visited, or cleaning the streets of a dirty village. You can move on. Perhaps by traveling you were escaping a shabby situation at home. It's the same principle.

In short, when you drop the baggage of others' failures, and even your own, your psychological load is lightened immensely.

Principle 1: Old / Present / New

Travel is about experiencing new things without being distracted or annoyed either by old things or even by present things.

* Under the "old" heading you have:

  • Objects that you packed or collected before now.
  • Situations that arose in some place you visited before now e.g. someone stole from you at a hostel but you adapted as best you could.
  • Situations from before you left home e.g. your boss at work or your car payments.

* Under the "present" heading there is a myriad of minor things and problems that you encounter while traveling, such as:

  • Objects that you have on hand such as food, a bus schedule, a camera, an umbrella.
  • An uncooperative hostel or hotel employee
  • The confusing route to a tourist site
  • A bus that is late
  • A night spent at a train station
  • The high cost of a taxi at 2AM

Many present things and problems result from either packing too much at the start or accumulating too much stuff as you travel.

Old problems can cause present packing problems, for instance:

  • If you agreed to deliver something for someone while traveling
  • If you agreed to buy something for someone and transport it back to them while traveling
  • If you agreed to take photos or write about something while traveling

Your goal should be to disconnect from old things and situations and minimize present stuff.

Principle 2: Buy Things at the Destination

Don't collect and bring too much stuff for future needs. For instance:
  • Don't bring 4 bars of soap, when you need only 1.
  • Don't buy heavy batteries until you need them.
  • Don't bring lots of clothing for ten possible situations.

If you can buy any item in future, when you need it, without causing a major problem, then absolutely put that off until them.

It usually won't cost much more to buy something later -- unless it's something that requires a little planning like a rail pass or an international driving permit, or unless you're going to be in a tourist trap.

Principle 3: Making Do

Think and rethink whether you need each and every item. Weigh everything. Remember, ounces add up to pounds very quickly (or grams into kilos...).

For instance, if the summer will be hot, you probably won't need a jacket 90% of the time and can instead layer your clothing during the other 10% of the time.

Principle 4: Shedding

Constantly get rid of things you no longer need. For example:
  • Sections of a travel book for places you're not going to visit or will not return to. (Never treasure a travel book.)
  • Brochures and junky maps.
  • Receipts for minor items.

Principle 5: Your Travel Kit

Recognize that some items are vital and are just basic equipment. But also know that you can probably find lighter versions of these basic items. Examples of basic equipment (your travel kit) include the following.
  • A lock for your luggage
  • Lockable luggage!
  • A passport & airline ticket pouch.

More portable forms of basic items can include:

Principle 6: Share With Others

You can cut costs and avoid being burdened by stuff if you share with fellow travelers.

Examples:

  • If you have to buy a big item like a pack of 6 bars of soap from a supermarket, then give 5 away or arrange to share the cost with other travelers.
  • If you finished reading a novel, rather than lug it around until you're back home, give it to another traveler. Or if you really treasure, mail it to a friend back home.
  • And always share that lightest but most valuable item: Information.

Principle 7: Mail It

You may have bought something valuable and it would be as ridiculous to throw it away as to carry it around.

So just mail it home, e.g. to your family.

Compare the cost of repurchasing it at home versus mailing it. Often the "slow boat" shipping cost is not so bad.

Make sure that you don't start compulsively throwing stuff out, even valuable stuff, just because you're tired of carrying stuff. When you get back home again, these heavy items you came to despise while lugging them may actually become cherished souvenirs.

Examples:

  • Important books
  • Photographs that you had developed overseas
  • A camera that needs repair
  • And all the extra gear that you shouldn't have brought with you.

Principle 8: The Heaviest Item Is Often Clothing

Bring less clothing. Wash your clothing often. Wash it by hand if possible and learn where the laundromats are.

A key point: Don't leave clothing hanging to dry in the hostel during the day. It's ripe for theft.

Principle 9: Highly Useful Items

If an item has high utility value versus its weight, you'll have to lug it.

Examples of highly useful items:

  • If your camera uses regular batteries: A battery charger and a set of good quality rechargeable batteries.
  • A GSM mobile phone.
  • Possibly an iPad or similar light computer.

My gear upon beginning travel in 2006

In 2006, I undertook my fourth major travel sortie, and I took less than what most people might think is needed. But I managed just fine.

Digital camera with four AA batteries 11 oz
Flash memory & reader 2 oz
Small pad of paper 6.5 oz
Fanny pack -- looks hideous but very useful. 2 oz
Compass & thermometer 1 oz
Pocket dictionary 5 oz
Bar of soap and plastic holder/dish 4.5 oz
Combs 0.5 oz
Shampoo (new full bottle the good organic stuff) 12.5 oz
Electric shaver without power cable since I bought a new cable in France. 6 oz
Vitamins / aspirin / toothbrush / other minor stuff 9 oz
1/3-used toothpaste tube 4.5 oz
Long-sleeved polo shirt to also be in combination with T-shirt in lieu of jacket. 13 oz
Towel 8 oz
5 pairs underpants 9 oz
Pair of shorts 11 oz
5 pairs socks 11.5 oz
2 short-sleeved polo shirts 18 oz
T-shirt 5.5 oz
Travel book (but I ended up using the Internet mostly) 18 oz
The backpack itself 2 pounds
GRAND TOTAL 12 pounds or 5.5 kg

Comments

Notice there are no jeans listed. Each pair of jeans weighs 2 pounds, so I only ever take 1 pair, which I wear most of the time unless it's too hot out.

In a supremely weight-conscious situation, like if I'm doing long-distance bicycling and every ounce is important, I will cut the legs off my jeans to make them lighter.

You might be asking, what about the clothing I have on? That's not included in the tally. I'm measuring pack weight.

Notice also that a hat is not included in the list, simply because its normal position is not in the pack, but on the head.

Travel Book Country Removals: Weight Saved

In 2006, I bought the cheap $15 Let's Go Europe Q(On a Budget) edition. Then I cut out the stuff I knew I wouldn't need. There is a certain pleasure in chopping out Let's Go sections because the writing is so awful. Fellow travelers have agreed that you only buy Let's Go because their data is reasonably good, and the paper is lighter than Lonely Planet.

I ripped out many sections of the book.
Total removed: 9.5 ounces.
Book weight remaining: roughly 18 ounces.

I ended up not using the book most of the time because I was based in Paris. If I had ventured out to other areas then it would have been essential.

The towel

One refinement that I discovered in the 1990's was the Speedo swimmer's towel. These are small, rubbery-feeling towels that soak up water like nothing I've ever seen except perhaps a water Shop-Vac. They weigh about 1 ounce and cost maybe $15 or so but they are well worth the cost.

See here: Speedo towel.

The bicycle

A great potential money-saver while traveling is a bicycle. You can buy one new or used for less than 100 €. Bicycles are however very heavy.

You generally can't take a bike on a bus unless it's in a box, and some trains (e.g. international trains and the TGV) don't allow bikes. My preference is to bring or buy a bike anyway, but you may be happy with renting. Getting exercise while traveling improves the experience.

Results

During my 2006 trip, I ended up subletting an apartment. As such, my circumstances changed somewhat but the essential theme of packing light has remained.

When I was in France I got a bike on Freecycle, which I brought back with me on the plane. This was cumbersome because it had to be boxed and disassembled but it wasn't too bad.

A tip: At Charles de Gaulle airport, Air France sells bike boxes for 20 €. But they can run out of them. Call bike stores for a box.

I have found that I have regretted bringing a number of small things that I have not needed, which constitute about 2 pounds of the original 12 pounds. These have included things like

  • aspirin -- medication is cheap in Europe
  • electric shaver (lightweight razors are good enough)
  • the travel book itself since I have done most of my research on the Web.

I regretted not bringing some things that have proven to be expensive or hard to find overseas. These include:

  • Blank DVD-R/W disks
  • A good pair of sports sandals
  • More non-white T-shirts for the summer months
  • Paperback books

On the Continent books in English are $20-$35 unless you buy them used or get them from a public library.

One last point about electric shavers: They are quite lightweight these days, but you could potentially save additional ounces by getting the two-head shaver, which in theory has a smaller battery. An example is the Philips HQ802.

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