Watching people drag their wheelies through a weed-infested field after a three day tour of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam was comical, while I just shouldered my day pack and skipped over to the bus from the boat. In Amsterdam a narrow, twisting staircase to our room would have presented a challenge had we been toting large, cumbersome bags instead of our small wheeled bags.
You see it everywhere tourists are—people dragging heavy suitcases, bumping their roller bag over uneven cobblestones and pushing overstuffed bags into airplane overhead bins. It’s not difficult to pack light, but it does take some planning and concentrated effort, which is impossible if you’re throwing random items in your suitcase at midnight before your pre-dawn departure.
A packing checklist can help a lot, either one you find on the internet or that you construct from past omissions, like the time you forgot your bathing suit on your tropical beach vacation, or your ski pants on a skiing vacation. But what helps even more is to start packing several days in advance of your trip. Think of it like an extension of your vacation—you can start dreaming about that Mai Tai on the beach as you’re planning what to wear.
Lay everything out on a bed or large table (preferably in a place where you can leave it for a couple of days). Feel free to go wild and put all your favorite items in a big pile. You’ll probably recognize right away that there is too much stuff. Start putting things back that are optional. Leave the pile alone overnight and come back to it the next day. Now examine each item critically and evaluate its value. Try to stick with one or two color schemes, i.e. black, so you can limit the number of shoes and accessories. Aim for a look that blends in and don’t try to be too fashionable unless you can pack a steamer trunk.
Pack quick-dry clothes that can be rinsed out and dry by morning. Carrying a small zip-top bag of powdered detergent, a travel clothesline and universal sink stopper makes washing clothes simple. Roll wet clothes in a towel before hanging to remove excess water and they will dry faster. Every so often send your clothes out to be washed.
Products that make it easy
Here are some tried and true products that I used to travel around Southeast Asia for five months. Brand names are included for your convenience (I do not receive any endorsement fees—these are just my tried and true favorites).
Osprey Porter 46 backpack. It has a neat appearance and the straps can be tucked away if you want to use the side handle. The whole front zips down so you don’t lose items in the bottom of the pack. Compression straps keep everything tidy.
Northface Recon daypack. This daypack has a laptop sleeve in the main compartment, a smaller compartment, a large mesh pocket in front and two water bottle sleeves on the side. A small pocket on top can hold an MP-3 player or small items like lip balm and sunscreen.
Royal Robbins Discovery skirt (black). A great travel skirt made of sturdy material with 3 pockets (zipper, snap and Velcro). The cute flounce softened the look nicely.
ExOfficio travel dress (black). Lightweight, doesn’t wrinkle, dresses up or down with accessories and colorful silk scarf. Essential.
Tilley hat. This hardy hat, the Endurable T4-MO, packs flat, which is critical for travel, floats, has a secret pocket under the crown, lasts forever and comes in many styles, some offering ventilation to keep cool in the tropics. Their socks are great too, and really do dry overnight–the only ones I’ve found so far that dry. Kind of pricey but worth it for the quality.
Kindle or other e-reader. Holding more than 1,500 books it has made carry multiple books on long trips a breeze. I still carry a print guidebook though.
iPod/smart phone or other MP-3 player. In addition to music, podcasts of your favorite shows can relieve the boredom of long bus rides in a foreign country. Many free language instruction podcasts are available on iTunes so you can learn the language. My favorite is the Survival Phrases series on iTunes–just 10 phrases that can make all the difference, and the Survival Phrases website offers text.
Baggalini Wallet Bagg. A zippered pocket in front can hold passports, while 3 zippered pockets inside keeps money safe. It can accommodate a notebook and small camera. A sturdy strap is long enough to wear across the chest for extra security.
Katadyn MyBottle water purifier. Makes unpotable water safe to drink, filtering bacterial, protozoa, and viruses. We use this often and have never gotten sick from drinking water in Mexico, Costa Rica or SE Asia, though I don’t like the new design as much as the old one.
My packing list
If you’re really interested in the nitty-gritty, here is a list of what I took on my five month sojourn. I had a few more things in my bag since it was such a long journey, but really, once you pack light for one or two weeks, that should be able to take you around the world, unless you’re going to some extreme climates, like Everest. Ardent subscribers to the pack-light philosophy will find many extras on my list. I did want to look appropriate for a few different occasions, and I did have a few luxuries, but this is what works for me. Despite my rationalizations I felt over-packed by about a third. I’ll be critically evaluating my load next time and will start shedding some extraneous items (noted in parentheses).
- Travel backpack-Osprey Porter 46
- 5 blouses/T-shirts, mostly quick-dry fabric, including long sleeved white shirt (REI Sahara), used to ward of chill from air conditioning. Bring a variety of colors to ward off boredom.
- 1 travel dress, black (wore this more than I anticipated)
- 2 skirts (only needed 1–the Royal Robbins skirt)
- 1 pair of quick-dry pants (I found I missed my jeans, even though they take forever to dry)
- 2 pairs shorts-1 for hiking, 1 nicer pair (could have gotten away with 1 pair)
- 1 pair of cotton capri pants (I wore them but didn’t need them)
- 4 pairs of shoes: light hiking boots, flip-flops, black water sandals, brown sandals (wore them all but could have left brown sandals)
- 5 pairs of socks (would bring more Tilley socks next time)
- 5 pairs of underwear
- 2 purses: backpack purse and tiny going-out purse
- PJs-tank top and sleep shorts
- Sarong-can use as beach towel, cover-up, sheet, skirt (essential)
- Toiletries-dry, includes travel prescriptions
- Makeup bag-very small
- Laundry supplies–powdered detergent, universal plug and travel clothesline
- Katadyn Exstream water filter–the new product is called Katadyn MyBottle Purifier
- Hat-Tilley Endurable T4-MO-packs flat, has a sun repellent brim
- Down vest-compressed in a small ditty bag (wouldn’t bring again unless going to very cold climate)
- Nylon jacket-folds into its own pocket, acts as a rain jacket, windbreaker, and with vest, provides warmth
- Poncho-very lightweight, for rain
- Daypack-Northface Recon
- Laptop-lightweight Toshiba Portege (was not reliable and went to the shop 3 times; after that it was ok). I do a lot of writing but if you’re consuming content you can get away with a tablet.
- Camera-Canon SX 110, great quality in a reasonable size
- Travel documents
- iPod Classic-160 GB capacity (40,000 songs)
- Liquid toiletries- packed in TSA-required 3 oz bottles packed in a quart size zip-top bag, so I can get at them easily when passing through security
- Separate bag of liquid medications (including contact lens solution)-allowed by TSA, marked “medical”.
- Baggallini Wallet Bagg
The Travel Independent website provides a comprehensive discussion about all aspects of backpacking and traveling light, and has useful information even if you’re not using a pack.
See Ten Tips for Packing Light for Overseas Travel at Examiner.com
Top photo: I Aksamit