Better Packing Part 2 -How to Pack Light, Pack Less

Better Packing, Better Travel -Part 2. Click here for part one.

How to Pack Light, Pack Less

Walking in Rome

Today’s scenario: You get to a town and you’ve gotta cover a lot of ground. The hostel is a mile from the station, but you’re on foot;  in this town, taxi drivers are known to rip off tourists.

So you start walking, your fifty pound pack weighing you down like Jacob Marley’s chains. The day is hot, and you’d love to be sitting at a cafe sipping a cold beer, but the cafe is so crowded and your pack is so big and awkward, you know you’d be whacking people with every step.

Now…imagine your pack is half that size, really just a large student backpack, maybe twenty pounds. Now you can be like the wind as you deftly maneuver your way through the crowd, order your beer, and set your pack in the chair next to you. Even better, when that loveley lady you smiled at walks
over to your table,  you won’t have to strain when you pick up your pack to place it on the parquet.

Ahhhh, the benefits of packing light and packing less.

Shall I continue? Okay, then, here are a few more, in convenient, interweb-friendly list form:

  • Travel becomes physically easier. Less fatigue on your back and feet.
  • You can walk farther with your gear = more freedom, more options for lodging and recreation.
  • Less stuff to worry about being stolen, lost, or damaged.
  • More room for strange souveniers.
  • Keep your backpack in bed with you (I use mine for a pillow).

And my favorite…

  • No checked bags means no waiting at the luggage carousel and no more lost luggage!

Why do people overpack?
Fear of the unknown. I think this is the biggest reason. When going to a new place, travelers understandably want to be ready for every contingency. That means tubes of sunscreen, bugspray, extra underwear, too many shoes, big bottles of shampoo, shoe inserts, a huge poofy towel, on and on.

What most people forget is that these items are available almost everywhere in the world. In short, they want to be sure they have everything they might need.  Of course, some things are necessary, irreplacable, or difficult to find: medical supplies, journals, travel guides in English, etc., but most things are easily procured abroad.

Or, maybe people over-pack  because they’ve never really thought about it.  Imagine a bactrain camel suddenly becaming a dromedary.They’re used to the extra weight and they’ve never experienced the joy of not having to schlep fifty pound bag across a swath of desert.

How to Pack Less

What is the lightest, cheapest, and most functional thing you can take with you?


Knowledge of packing best practices. Knowledge of your destination’s climate and local dress standards. Knowledge of yourself and how you like to travel.

Well before you leave, you’ll need to make a packing list that works for you. I’m loathe to supply a one-sized-fits-all packing list as Everybody’s tastes are different. However, here are some tips and tactics for lightening your load.

  • Pack only items that you’ll use at least twice on your trip. How do you find out what you’ll use on your trip? A couple weeks before you leave, make a list of stuff to pack, fill that list, and spend three days living out of your backpack. Now, have a look back at your list. What didn’t you use at least twice? Take it out.
  • Leave it behind. Have faith that anything people sell in your town, a close approximation can be found almost anywhere else in the world.
  • Repackage everything you can. Product packaging, while not heavy, is bulky and takes up a lot of pack space. Anything you can repackage into ziploc bags, do it. Just be careful with liquids. If you’re going to fly through TSA lines (pun intended), best to keep your bomb-making materials hand sanitizer and toothpaste in the original containers.
  • Modify your gear any way you see fit. Cut off tags and useless straps. Some people recommend drilling holes in your toothbrush, but I’m not that extreme; I just cut mine in half so it fits in a small ziploc bag.
  • Remember, clothes are heavy and laundromats are everywhere (except Korea; consider yourself warned). To make the most of the clothes you do take, take stuff you can mix and match. Remember to select quick-drying clothes; this way you can wash your stuff in the sink at night and have it dry by morning.
  • One pair of shoes and one pair of lightweight flipflops or sandals. Do you really need two pairs of shoes?
  • Travel guides are cool, but they’re bulky. If you know exactly where you’re going, just make copies of relevant sections. Put the copies  in ziploc bags (Don’t forget the language section!). Even better, put the entire travel guide on a 16GB USB thumb drive. You can print pages off as you need, and the thumb doubles as backup storage for photos and passport scans.
  • Keep everything organized with nylon or sil-nylon stuff sacks. I usually use three: one for my journal, compass, toiletry bag, camera stuff, copied sheets, book, and other gadgetry. Another holds socks and underwear, and a third holds shirts and pants. Dirty clothes go in a plastic bag.
  • If your pack starts getting heavy, don’t be afraid to ditch stuff while you’re on the road. Whatever it is, it’s just stuff and probably replaceable. If possible, give it to someone who can use it.
  • A small pack makes over-packing that much more difficult. I use a 3600 (59liter) pack, but I usually have a lot of extra room. My pack is expandable/compressible and falls well below carry-on size.

I want to end this with a challenge: apply these techniques before your next trip, tell me how much weight you’ve saved, and let me know how things worked out with that girl from the cafe.
If you’ve got any tips you’d like to share, don’t be afraid to drop me a line.

Addendum: Check out this photo on flickr for Seth’s visual packing list.

Addendum 2: Packing light is a key skill for a nomadic lifestyle.

Photo credit: Pensiero

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