Sunday, 1 June 2014

How to travel light - a travel writer's guide to packing

As I write this, I'm preparing to leave Sydney and fly away north, to the warmer, European side of the world. But first, I have to pack. 

You might be surprised to hear that, despite being a professional traveller for almost 20 years, I don't have packing down to a fine art. In fact, it always sends me into a pre-trip tailspin, or rather a tug-o-war between two sides of me. 

Walter Mitty (aka Ben Stiller)
livin' large and packing light
On one hand, there's the me who wants to travel light - because it's eco-friendly (fewer emissions, and you can walk everywhere instead of relying on taxis or tuktuks) and it's liberating (no waiting at the baggage carousel! No heaving a bag through the streets of a new city!).

Only once have I managed to travel with carry-on only, unlike other travel writers I know who take just a daypack every trip (come on down, Tim Richards! Here's Tim's post on packing light). After watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last week, I now want to reduce my luggage even further, to a small canvas sack containing just my passport and, say, a sweater.

Then there's Nat Geo writer Rolf Potts who travelled the world for six weeks with absolutely no luggage (unless you count all the things he stuffed into the multi-pocketed vest he wore).

On the other side is my inner girl scout, who wants to take her Swiss army knife and be prepared for every situation which, on my latest trip, means: three months of travel, five countries, a 10-day sea kayaking trip, surfing and yoga in sunny Portugal, two weeks in a Swiss ski village, a few city days and a river cruise.

Add to this the fact that my inner girl scout is also a digital gypsy (who needs her laptop, although it is a sleek little 11-inch Macbook Air) too lazy to wash her clothes every night, and you can see how things start to get complicated.

Orange on the inside!
But packing for this trip, I've started to make peace with all this. I might never travel with just a daypack, but I feel as if I've come as close as I'm going to get, for now. 

The first step, I've discovered, is having the right bag. Much as I try not to buy new things (as part of the No Impact Girl credo), I couldn't resist this 60L Patagonia Black Hole duffel, which has three great features: 

It's super-light (weighs about 900g, because of its fabric and because it has no wheels or frame), has built-in backpack straps for when you get off the paved footpath, and is bright orange (not black!) inside, which makes it easy to find things in its dark corners. It also has three (small) pockets for things that can get lost in those corners. (Thanks Patagonia Manly, for the locals' discount!)

I've also realised that I've learned a few light-packing tips over the years, and this time I wanted to apply as many of them as possible. Here's my top 10:  

The contents of my bag
for this trip
1. Don’t pack at the last minute. Packing late on departure-eve usually means you're too tired to do the thinking that'll reduce your load. It's good to have a system too. I always lay out everything on the bed in three piles: essentials, nice-to-haves and take-only-if-I-have-space (the last two piles get ditched when packing light).

2. Don't roll your clothes. Tantamount to heresy in the packing-light world and yes, rolling your clothes does help you stuff more stuff in. But more stuff means more weight. If I’m travelling with a bag without wheels, as I am on this trip, I prefer to pack things loosely so there’s plenty of weightless air between them.

3. Go wheel-less. What? Forego the greatest travel innovation of our era? The problem with wheels is that they trick us into taking more than we can carry. When you have to pick up your bag and (gasp) carry it more than a few paces, there's a big incentive to pack light. Wheel-less bags are lighter before you even start packing. Not having wheels is also a big advantage where footpaths are non-existent or you're facing cobbled streets and lots of stairs (like at European train stations). 

A bag for everything and
everything in its bag
4. Pack like things together – not just to find them, but to see where you're packing multiples you might be able to cull before closing that zipper for the last time. I use lightweight (almost weightless) mesh bags from Kathmandu to store undies together, different coloured pouches for my medical kit and toiletries, and a Built neoprene pouch for chargers (that's it in the pic at left, top right).

5. Be tech-savvy. Some devices actually help us travel lighter, like smartphones (hello, paperless check-in!) and e-readers; I love my Kindle Paperwhite, which weighs just 206g, though I know people who read whole books on their iPhones, which brings me to my next tip... 

6. Consolidate and take only multi-functional items. The heaviest items I'm travelling with this time, aside from my laptop, are my two cameras - a digital SLR and a waterproof compact - but they're both Canon, so I can use the same cord for both chargers (but unfortunately still need two chargers). I also love things that serve more than one purpose: my Keen sandals are also walking shoes, my soft cotton Turkish towel doubles as a sarong (and is more versatile than a Tek Towel); my waterproof digital watch, which cost about $7 in Cambodia, has an alarm (great for remote, phone-free treks and sea kayaking trips). 

7. Keep toiletries to a minimum. Everyone knows this one, right? Decant your shampoo into small plastic bottles (it's best not to use hotel shampoos, to reduce waste – even half-used bottles are thrown out when you check out). Or go a step further and join the No Poo (no shampoo, that is) movement - to restore your hair's natural shine (I have yet to try this, and it still involves "cleaning" your hair with, I think, apple cider vinegar, which is tricky to travel with). 

8. Put your wallet/purse on a diet. Take a small zippered coin purse big enough for a credit card or pre-paid travel card (I've just started using Virgin's Global Wallet card), ID such as a drivers' licence and some cash. You don't need your library card and gym membership card overseas. You barely even need a printed eticket to fly these days, just your passport.

9. Keep valuable documents on a USB stick. Better yet, keep them in Dropbox or the Cloud (though you'll need wifi to access them). Having said this, I still take a printout of my passport front page and my travel insurance policy, for emergencies. I also use TripIt, a great app for keeping booking references and flight details together (no more printed itineraries!).

10. Invest in lightweight stuff. It's all about prioritising weight, or lack of it. When I had to replace my old head-torch last week, I opted for a lightweight one. I've also just discovered microfibre undies, which are light as a feather, uber-comfortable and quick drying after washing them in the hotel/hostel sink, when I have to.

Last words: Packing light is a process, I've discovered, not a destination. It's also addictive. I've become slightly weight-obsessed while packing.

And achieving the Holy Grail of carry-on-only depends so much on how you travel, where you're going - and how long you'll be away. I noticed myself slipping a few non-essentials into my Patagonia bag at the last minute, keepsakes to remind me of Manly (my home beach) while I'm away, and clothes I like wearing (not just practical travel gear) because, well, I'm living, not just travelling, on the road.

It's an interesting exercise noticing what you need, and what you can do without. How simply can I travel? (My answer: not as simply as I'd like, but I'm working on it.) One day I'll go around the world with nothing but an iPhone and a hankie. 

How low can you go? (A footnote.) Checking-in at Sydney airport, my bag weighed 11.3kg – well below Etihad's 30kg economy class limit but still too much, I think, particularly when my carry-on daypack is pretty heavy (with the laptop, Kindle and two cameras). A week into the trip my bag has managed to shed half a kilo - it's now closer to 10kg - but I'm already planning to send some stuff home in a few weeks, or toss it out en route. What's the lightest bag you've taken overseas? Have you travelled with carry-on luggage only? What's your secret?


  1. Wow, I am so impressed with the ideas here, you go girl!

  2. Thanks! Glad to be of service :-) Still got a long way to go before I can forego a few non-essentials, but I'm getting there. Happy (light) travels!

  3. I'm with you on travelling light. I learned the lesson in 2008 when travelling for four months. After a couple of weeks I realised I wasn't wearing some of the clothes I'd packed. Slowly and steadily I left the unused clothing behind for the benefit of fellow backpackers. Clothing wise I travelled to China recently with two pairs of jeans, two pairs of shorts, four polo shirts, three collared shirts, four pairs of socks/jocks (overnight wishing) means this is more than enough, even packed a rain jacket. More than enough clothing. Best of all? My bag was small enough to be carried as hand luggage.

    1. Thanks for your tips, James. Yes, great idea to keep clothing to a minimum - I also travel with clothes made of natural fibres like merino, cotton and even bamboo (so soft!), which don't need washing as often as synthetics (though cotton can take longer to dry).

  4. Good post, Louise. I spent a week in Jordan and 3 weeks in France/Holland/Taiwan just with carry-on. It's achievable, and liberating, but it can also be a pain because of the restriction on liquids & other things you can't take on board (eyebrow pluckers, nail scissors etc). Also, many airlines are enforcing the 7kg rule for carry-on and it's hard to comply with this when you consider the weight of all the cords, chargers and power adaptors that you need to carry. It would be so much easier if there was one gadget that did everything ...

    1. Thanks, Christine! Yes, travelling light is so liberating, but does require a bit more organisation and I hate not being able to take my Swiss army knife! Haven't had my hand luggage weighed lately thankfully, which is good because even though my daypack is small it's become pretty heavy with laptop and DSLR camera... So many tricks to this packing light caper...

  5. For most of my trips, I try to fit everything into a carry-on bag. Wheels, though. "Travelling small" is one thing, "travelling light" is another, and I try to go for the former rather than the latter. Your advice about multifunctional devices is interesting: I now actively avoid products without a micro USB charging socket, so I can aim to only carry one charger/adaptor.

    1. Great point, James, re travelling "small" rather than "light" - so often they're not the same thing, despite our best intentions. I also can't stand having more than two bags - always afraid I'll leave one behind somewhere! And great advice about buying devices that have micro-USB charging sockets, thanks!

  6. Since my packing challenge for next month starts with a 17kg Surly Disc Trucker touring bicycle, then adds tent, sleeping bag and mat, stove ... ;-)