I once asked a German girl who I came across in Vietnam what was in her backpack. It was large, much larger than her 5’1” frame, and seemed to loom over her like a stolen statue.
“Well, let’s see. I’ve got four different guidebooks, one for each of the countries I’m going to, two novels, a pair of leather boots I had made for me in Saigon, a hat for my sister, a dress I had made in Saigon. Oh, a few t-shirts and three pairs of shoes.”
“Wow,” I said, “That’s a lot of stuff.” No wonder the bag loomed.
I never understood the need for a big backpack like that. It seemed like it would be quite painful to carry all that stuff. So, in order to avoid this issue, over the past five years of living abroad and traveling intermittently, I’ve used the same set of packing essentials. While the set has changed slightly based on destination (cold weather versus tropical climates, for example), the base is usually the same and hasn’t led me astray yet. So here are all my hacks on how to pack minimally.
Here’s a quick list of the things I usually take with me on a trip, no matter how long:
Carry on essentials
*I’ve stuck to this template pretty closely, and have found that even this list is overpacking.
10 pairs of underwear (Embarrassing confession: I only own 10 pairs of underwear. But it keeps things nice and simple. I do laundry every 7 to 10 days and I don’t worry about my underwear drawer overflowing.)
3 pairs of socks (or a pair for every day I’m out)
2 pairs of leggings (usually black)
3 or 4 t-shirts/tank tops
1 skirt (for “nice” places)
1 pair of sneakers/hiking shoes (I use these, which are good for both running and hiking. Versatile and light, just how I like things!)
1 bathing suit (yes, even for cold weather destinations. You never know! And it’s light. Well, at least for me. For beach destinations, I bring two.)
Contact case and solution (travel size)
Toothbrush and natural toothpaste
Mascara (I don’t wear much else.)
Tips and tricks for packing lightly
These are some basic rules of thumb I go by when packing. They’ve taken a lot of the anxiety out of what was once a mundane task. I’m by no means a professional, and still, tend to overpack. For more information on how to pack (and live) minimally, check out Leo Babauta at Zen Habits.
If you look at my list, I don’t really bring too many clothes. This is because most of them are basics. They can be mixed and matched. T-shirts can be worn under a sweater under a jacket. If it’s colder than anticipated, the leggings can even be layered onto each other. My clothes aren’t exactly the highest quality, but I don’t travel to colder places too much. If I did, I would invest in higher quality cold-weather clothes that I could layer as well.
My sarong is probably my favorite multipurpose item. It gives me a sense of home when it’s used as a pillowcase, warmth when used as a scarf. It acts as a towel, a blanket, a beach cover-up, and even a skirt if I really want it to.
The essential oils also keep me healthy while traveling. I sometimes add a bit of my ginger oil to my food or water to digest better. I sniff peppermint when I’m motion-sick, lavender when I want to relax on a long bus/plane ride or need a bit of home.
Carry a small pack
The larger the pack, the more likely you are to fill it with things you don’t need. Note the German girl I met in Vietnam. It will cause harm to your poor back. Not to mention it’ll slow you down if you need to run to catch a plane/bus/ferry, it takes up more space, and it takes more time to pack when you have more stuff.
Just keep the thing small and you won’t have to worry about it.
Buy less essential items at your destination
This is a trick I learned from The Minimalists. I will say, however, that if you’re going to do this, you’ll have to factor it into your travel budget. And if you’re anything like me, that is minimal and you might want to spend it on something more valuable like, say, a cup of the delicious local coffee (which, by the way, can get expensive. In Korea it was $6 a cup!).
I prefer using natural items, especially for my skin, and since they’re compact enough, I usually take them with me. But if I run out, soap usually hovers around a dollar or I’ll use the complimentary soap/shampoo set in the hostel/hotel/AirBnb.
Wear bulky items
I like to travel in boots even in hot weather because they’re comfortable, quite versatile, and have protected my feet well so far. They work well for me, but they are bulky. So I wear them on the plane/bus/train/boat instead of packing them.
I also wear the only jacket I pack because it saves room. I will say, however, that wearing bulky items through an airport slows my airport security game down. But sometimes it’s worth it.
This is essential if you’re on the road for more than a week. I usually aim for a set of clothes that will last me 4 to 5 days without a wash. Luckily my trips aren’t usually longer than this. But when I’m traveling for longer, I make a mental note to block off time to wash my clothes or have them washed.
You can also sink/shower wash them if you feel comfortable doing that. Some hardcore minimalists only pack for two days and wash their clothes sink-style.
Making everything electronic and available on your phone or tablet will help cut down on things you pack. Guidebooks, for example? Use the internet. I’m still a sucker for a good paperback book and pencil and paper. I hardly ever sacrifice these in favor of electronics, but if you want to go hardcore, e-book, e-ticket, e-life.
I try to stick to minimalist principals throughout my life, but especially so while I’m traveling. A few of my favorite things are compact items that fit neatly and quietly in carry-ons. When you pack lightly, you move lightly. And the less you have to worry about what you’re carrying, the more likely you are to enjoy both the act of travel and what’s around you.