Imagine going on a two-week vacation with only one small backpack or shoulder bag. Do you think you could do it?
Many people might say, “No way.” At first glance, it does seem a bit challenging, and perhaps not worth the trouble. However, paring down to one small bag or suitcase is a lot easier than it sounds. Moreover, packing light can save you money when you travel.
Traveling light is one of the best ways to travel during the holidays, when airports, planes, buses, and trains are crowded. If you’re taking a cross-country family trip with kids, packing light is essential for maintaining your sanity.
So, how do you do it? What do you pack, and what can you safely leave at home? Let’s take a look at the ins and outs of ultralight travel.
What Is Ultralight Travel?
You can call it whatever you want: ultralight travel, minimalist travel, freestyle travel – the idea goes by a number of different names. But the concept is the same: traveling to a destination with only a minimal number of clothes, shoes, and gear. Usually, this means carrying only one small backpack, messenger bag, or suitcase.
Ultralight travel is not difficult; it just takes a little more planning. It’s well worth the effort because it makes travel much more enjoyable.
I spent two weeks in Barcelona and a week each in London and Greece using only one small shoulder bag. I was able to zip in and out of airports, taxis, and public transit quickly and easily. I didn’t miss having extra clothes, and there was nothing that I needed that I didn’t already have with me.
With proper planning, ultralight travel can transform your traveling experience.
Benefits of Ultralight Travel
1. Ultralight Is Easier
One of the biggest benefits of ultralight travel is that it makes getting to and from your destination so much easier. Instead of lugging around several pieces of heavy luggage, you only have to carry one small bag. You can move with ease and put your focus on your surroundings, not on keeping track of all your luggage. This is a major headache-saver in busy airports and public transit hubs.
2. Travel Plans Are More Flexible
Traveling with only one bag gives you greater flexibility. For example, when most people travel, they usually have to check in to their hotel or hostel first in order to drop off their luggage. But if you only have one small bag, you can do some sightseeing first, or stop and grab some local fare.
3. You Save Money on Baggage Fees
Ultralight travel helps you avoid airline checked baggage fees. Your bag is small is enough to carry with you, so you don’t have to pay the airlines even more money. You also avoid the stress that accompanies lost luggage.
4. You Save Money Avoiding Impulse Buys
Another money-saving benefit is that packing ultralight can help you avoid those pre-vacation purchases that so many of us splurge on before we even leave. These last-minute purchases might be a new outfit or pair of shoes, new toiletries, a new purse, or a new book to read. Sure, it’s fun, but these purchases add up quickly.
Another unplanned expense that adds up is the shopping that so many people do while they’re on vacation. With ultralight travel, you likely won’t have much room for extras you pick up on your trip. You’ll spend less because you won’t have room to take a lot of extra items home.
5. You’re Less of a Target for Thieves
Ultralight travel makes you less conspicuous to potential pickpockets and thieves, both of which are common abroad. After all, you’re immediately pegged as a tourist when you’re walking down the street looking for a taxi or the Metro and you’re dragging a wheeled suitcase. However, if you’re weaving in and out of the crowds with only a backpack, you’re much less of a target.
Challenges of Ultralight Travel
Of course, ultralight packing does come with some challenges, and it’s all too easy to come up with reasons to load up your suitcase.
1. I Might Need That
When you’re new to this type of travel, it can be difficult to know what you’ll need when you’re gone. Many people are fear-based packers, even if they don’t realize it consciously. They pack extras “just in case” they need them. This impulse can be challenging to overcome at first.
However, look at it this way: What’s the worst that could happen if you run out of clean clothes? You simply need to wash them, either in your hotel room or at a laundromat. No big deal.
2. I Have a Huge Suitcase, so Why Not?
If you have an enormous suitcase, you’re going to fill it up with clothing and items that you might need “just in case” some imaginary scenario happens. After all, if you have the room, why not?
If this sounds like your packing strategy, it’s time to downsize to a smaller suitcase, or even a large backpack, for your travels. A smaller bag will naturally limit your choices. And like as not, you’ll find that you function just fine with a small bag.
3. My Plane Leaves in Two Hours
If you frequently procrastinate on your packing, you’re going to pack way more than you need to, simply because you don’t have time to make a plan.
Minimalist packing requires careful thought; if you wait to pack at the last minute, you won’t be successful. You’ll either pack way too much, or you’ll pack the wrong types of clothes for your journey. Start developing a packing plan well before your trip so you have plenty of time to plan outfits around your itinerary and expected weather.
4. This Time, I’ll Work Out on Vacation
How many times have you packed workout clothes and your yoga mat with the best of intentions, only to bring them back home without having used them once?
It’s great to plan on working out while on vacation (or bringing a fancy outfit for a swanky dinner out), but it’s important to be honest with yourself and really look at what you’re actually going to be doing. Do you really want to work out while you’re gone?
If your instant answer is, “Yes, of course!,” then by all means, reserve some space in your bag for your workout gear. If, however, you simply feel guilty because your workout routine will be derailed for a week, try relax and enjoy yourself while you’re gone. Your running shoes will be waiting for you when you return.
What to Pack for Ultralight Travel
What you choose to pack for your trip will depend on where you’re going, the time of year, and what you can’t live without. However, the point of ultralight travel is to make your trip easier, not more uncomfortable or stressful. Deciding what to pack (and more importantly, what to leave at home) is a highly individualistic choice.
Here are a few guidelines to help.
All of your clothes need to work together to create several different outfits, so the colors should be neutral or complimentary. Keep prints to a minimum, and if you do pack a print, make sure its color scheme works with your other pieces.
Next, focus on layers. Layers give you greater flexibility because you can quickly mix and match pieces to create a new look. They also save space since packing several light layers (such as a tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and thin cotton cardigan) still requires less space than one bulky wool sweater.
Here are several items you might not want to leave home without:
- One Neutral Scarf. A scarf gives you instant warmth on chilly airplanes and cool nights. Lightweight cotton scarves in a neutral color often work well. Turkish towels are a great option because they’re even more versatile; they can be used as a pillow on your flight, a beach towel, a blanket, or a sarong. Turkish towels are also a great gift idea for frequent travelers.
- One Warm Insulating Layer. A lightweight cardigan or sweatshirt works here. If you’re traveling to a cold climate, boiled wool is incredibly warm but not as bulky as regular wool. A warm layer is useful on most trips if you’re traveling by air.
- Five Tops. Pack t-shirts and button-ups that you love and will look good with your insulating layer and pants. If five tops seems too scanty, remember, you can always handwash your shirts wherever you’re staying and hang them up to dry overnight. A travel clothesline is definitely worth its weight here.
- Four Bottoms. The “bottoms” category includes pants, skirts, and shorts. For women, a pair of high-quality leggings, ideally in black, are a must. They’re comfortable (great for plane and bus rides), and the dark color helps conceal spills or stains.
- Two Dresses. Dresses can be worn alone or paired with a button-up shirt or jacket to turn it into a skirt.
- One Pair of Pajamas. You don’t need more than one pair of sleepwear when traveling. Again, you can wash as you go.
- Shoes. Shoes are bulky and heavy, so your pair needs to be comfortable and flexible for many uses. A pair of slip-on loafers will make plane travel more comfortable.
Tip: If you love the idea of ultralight travel, you might be interested in trying a capsule wardrobe, which applies the same concept of using fewer clothes for your everyday needs at home and work.
2. Luggage and Bags
What type of luggage do you need? There are several good choices here:
- Backpacks. Many ultralight travelers rely on backpacks because they’re easy to carry and they keep your hands free. They’re also comfortable because the weight is distributed evenly on your back.
- Cross-Body Bags. Cross-body or messenger bags are another popular choice for minimalist travel. However, keep in mind that the weight of this bag rests entirely on one shoulder, so they can get uncomfortable on long treks.
- Organizing Cases. Packing cases can help you compartmentalize and organize your luggage. Some brands, such as Eagle Creek, also make compression sacks that compress your clothes and give you even more room in a small bag.
Look carefully at a bag’s material and weight before choosing it for travel. A heavy canvas or leather bag might look stylish, but you’re the one who will be lugging around that extra weight. A better choice is a bag made with ripstop nylon.
It’s also important to look for a bag that’s, well, boring. Flashy, fashionable, or expensive-looking bags make you a target for thieves and pickpockets.
- Money Belt. Money belts are great for reducing your risk of theft because they keep cash and credit cards right next to your body. They’re one of the best ways to keep your money safe while traveling.
- Electronics. Most people aren’t going to leave home without at least some technology. Luckily for travelers, today’s electronics can help you save weight and space in your suitcase. E-readers hold hundreds of books in one slim device; cell phones do triple duty as camera, Internet device, and communication tool. One extra accessory that most die-hard minimalists swear by is an extra battery bank or solar charger.
- Toiletries. All you really need here is a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some cleansing face wipes for freshening up along the way. Everything else you can pick up at your destination, or get for free from the hotel; there’s no good reason to lug it around while traveling.
- Water Bottle. The humidity in a plane’s cabin hovers around 12%; that’s dryer than the Sahara Desert (around 25%). Staying hydrated will help reduce the effects of jet lag and give you more energy. Consider getting a foldable water bottle, such as this one from Nomander, to save weight and space.
- Earplugs and Eye Mask. Longer transit times make these two items essential if you want to nap along the way.
- Universal Sink Plug. Invest in a universal sink plug. It makes handwashing so much easier, and you’ll pack fewer clothes if you can wash them as you go.
Tip: One of the most useful accessories you can take with you is a screwgate locking carabiner, such as this one from Mad Rock. These carabiners will help you avoid theft two different ways. First, you can use them to secure the two zippers of your backpack or bag. This will deter quick-fingered pickpockets when you’re on the street or public transit. Second, you can use the carabiner to secure your bag to your chair at restaurants, avoiding those grab-and-go thefts that are so common abroad.
- Roll, Don’t Fold. Rolling your clothes will free up more space in your suitcase than folding them.
- Be Smart With Your Personal Bag. Airlines allow one carry-on and one personal bag. Instead of bringing a small purse, choose a larger purse or tote for essentials to keep under the seat in front of you.
- Pack a Few Empty Ziplocs. Ziplocs can help you organize toiletries (and prevent spills). You can use them to grab an extra biscuit from your hotel’s breakfast bar, or they can be used to store the shells your child finds on the beach. They’re endlessly useful while traveling.
- Lay Out Your Clothes. Before anything goes into a suitcase, lay out everything you intend to take. Then, take half away. Like as not, you’ll have enough.
- Pack Fewer Toys. If you’re flying with children, some toys are essential. But chances are, your kids won’t play with most of them, given the excitement of the trip. Instead, pack their most beloved favorites and leave the rest behind.
- Make Culturally Appropriate Choices. If you’re traveling abroad, make sure you research the clothing you choose to make sure it’s culturally appropriate. For example, temples in Asia will turn you away if your shoulders, knees, or cleavage is showing. Show respect for the culture you’re visiting and make adjustments to fit in with their expectations.
Most of us have arrived at our vacation destination at least once with sore arms and backs wondering, “Why on Earth did I pack so much?” Before I got into ultralight packing, this happened to me frequently.
However, ultralight packing has transformed my travel experience. The journey there and back is much more enjoyable. I feel light, free, and flexible moving through busy train stations and airports. And now that I have children, ultralight packing is even more essential to having a great experience and arriving at our destination without having a mental breakdown.
Do you pack too much when you leave home? If you’re into ultralight packing, what items can’t you live without?