How to Pack Light, Very Light

One of my earlier trips involving unicycles (ie. heavy metal objects) was to New Zealand. I still have no idea how I managed it but I guess that’s what youth does. I travelled with a trolley luggage to Wellington via Auckland with not just one but TWO unicycles – a 20″ trials and a 29″ cross-terrain uni – and I wiped most of the details of how I got from point A to B from memory. It was an amazingly fun trip and to make it more challenging (cos, youth), one of my pals managed to convince me that the key to surviving a 20h flight back is to get drunk and sleep through your flight. It’s not a bad idea EXCEPT the part where you have to make your way, drunk, from your hostel with all the above crap you’re lugging around to the airport. I can assure you I’ve never been more sober in a shorter time as when I was chasing down the bus.

Never again.

I got myself a 35 liter backpack on my next trip and have used that since. It’s been almost a decade so I can safely say it’s the best sized bag for backpacking. It’s just small enough to fit as a carry-on to avoid excess baggage charges and large enough to compartmentalise your clothes from your scruffy necessities like toiletries and flipflops. If there’s any fault I can find about it – and that’s what my next backpack will have – is that it lacks enough side pockets and straps to tie down sleeping mats or to hang bulky (but light) pots and wet clothes from if you ever decide you like to camp.

Ok now back to the topic. With every trip, I try to streamline a little bit more of what I should bring around. I travel mostly solo and I’m not attending any fashion shows so I don’t really care if I look ugly – I make an effort to look clean and presentable though which really should be a basic requirement because have you smelled some backpackers???

For a short trip (ie 1 week-ish), I would go with something like this:

  • 2 tees
  • Night-time shorts
  • Underwear
  • 1 pair socks
  • Toothbrush
  • Small toothpaste
  • Shampoo and soap in a travel bottle
  • Laptop
  • Travel adapter and cables
  • 1 hanger
  • Camping towel

On my back I’d be wearing

  • Jacket (if necessary)
  • Tee
  • Jeans
  • Socks + comfy shoes

That’s it. I wouldn’t bring facial foam because a week of using soap on your face probably wouldn’t kill you. Likewise with other facial products. I’d even skip the flip flops because it’s not enough time abroad to be feeling the inconvenience. If I DID have check in though, I’d be bringing all of that.

Now to the more complicated bit – longer term travel. For anything over 2 weeks, my backpack would contain

  • flip flops
  • 1 extra pair of socks
  • 2 tees, 1 long-sleeved if it’s likely to be cold
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of pants (if you’re likely to be in some rundown place that might have bedbugs)
  • Underwear
  • Toothbrush
  • Facial wash
  • 1 foldable and light day bag
  • Laptop
  • Travel adapter + cables
  • Extra shoes (if it’s likely to be wet)
  • Powder (optional)
  • Nail clipper
  • Carabiner / paracord bracelet
  • 2 hangers
  • Camping towel

And on my back I’d have

  • Jacket
  • Tee
  • Jeans

That’s it. My backpack was sub 15kg including my unicycle when backpacking South America and my recent Balkans trip (3 weeks) weighed sub-5. The idea is in utility – you don’t want to be lugging around weight that you won’t use through your trip because it’s not very fun to trot around with extra weight on your back and you’ll end up having to do extra laundry or packing when home on those same stuff you never used.

I don’t bring around toiletries mostly because there’s a liquids restriction on a lot of budget flights or I prefer to not have to check in on arrival at a destination so I can be the first out to see the country. You can buy everything you need on arrival anyway. On that note, I’ve also recently learnt that bar soap is a godsend for travelling. Instead of carrying around liquid soap that can burst during transit, you have a quick drying, lightweight, cheap bar of soap that you can use forever.

Another thing I do appreciate a lot of and that not a lot of people seem to do is to invest in a camping towel. These are microfiber towels that fold into palm-sized units and that dry in an hour. Why would anyone not buy these things to travel with???

I do travel with relatively little clothes. I’m a little fastidious with regards to laundry and I tend to wash my stuff on a daily basis so that I don’t end up with the risk of having nothing to wear if it’s rainy and my clothes don’t dry fast enough. On that regard, I may carry around a bit of powdered detergent although, depending on where I’m going I might also buy that on arrival together with the rest of my toiletries. For heavier clothes like jeans or jackets, they usually do fine with 2-3 weeks on the run since you have a base layer and it’s not like you’ll sweat and stink up your jacket in days anyway. When they start feeling icky, I’d run by an actual washing machine.

From all of this, what I’ve really learnt about travelling light is this – it’s not difficult. The only obstacle is how willing you are to put aside 5-10 minutes a day to scrub your daily wear and hang them out to dry.