Whether you think I’m a minimalist or maximalist isn’t important to me. In some ways I am quite minimalist, but in others I’m the opposite. I have a lot of teaware, for example. Way more than I really need. But when it comes to packing, I don’t think there’s much debate. I pack very lightly.
My bag currently hovers right at ten pounds. It’s actually at ten and a quarter, which is essentially ten, but doesn’t allow me to claim single digits, which would be exciting for no good reason at all.
I pack lightly not because I am a minimalist and must conform to some set of ideals, but because packing lightly is objectively a better way to travel. Almost everyone agrees with this, including heavy packers who “should really get rid of some of this stuff.”
Packing lightly is better because it enables you to do more, and traveling is fundamentally about doing. If you don’t have checked baggage, you can abandon legs of your flight, which gives you more flexibility. If you have only one carry-on, your hands are always free. If your bag is under twenty pounds or so, you probably won’t mind carrying it on long walks or even hikes. If your bag is around ten pounds, you barely notice that it’s there anymore.
If you only do single-destination trips, you take a taxi from the airport, and stay at one hotel, it doesn’t really matter how you pack. I might even take a trunk in that case. Having more stuff while traveling is great– it’s just not worth the tradeoff in most cases.
If you do an autopsy of someone’s bag, clothes are likely to take up the largest amount of space. If you wear normal clothes like jeans and sweatshirts, you will need a huge bag. There’s just no way around it.
Luckily extremely light and versatile clothing exists. You can get one pair of pants and one shirt that only need to be washed every week or two. Sounds crazy if you wear cotton, but it’s normal if you wear wool. Two pairs of underwear can be alternated if you wash one at a time in the shower, which quickly becomes habit. You can get a jacket warm enough for skiing that packs down to the size of a coke can. Same with a shell to keep wind and water out.
People like to look good. I do too, and I’m grateful that travel companies like Wool and Prince are making fashionable clothing that performs. Your complete ensemble will never look as good as it could if you chose from all available clothing, though. There are just too few brands making attractive high-performing clothing. It’s important to put aesthetics in perspective, though. Do the best you can to look good, but focus on other people and places when you travel.
Apple really kicked off a revolution when they created the Macbook Air. It was the first truly tiny laptop. Since then other companies have made even better and lighter laptops. You can get a top-of-the-line machine that will handle everything that weighs two pounds.
If you aren’t willing to pay the premium to get a laptop that weighs 2-3 pounds, consider getting a bluetooth keyboard and using your phone or a tablet instead. If you absolutely need a computer, as I do, it’s probably worth the cost to buy a light one.
Some of the best moments in travel are those for which you’re unprepared. Your goal with packing should be to be totally prepared for your daily routine while traveling, and most likely scenarios that you’ll encounter. If it’s going to be cold, you should have a jacket. If you’re going anywhere that’s not a desert, bring a rain shell. But you don’t need to prepare for everything. You aren’t prepared for everything at home, either. I used to travel with rain pants so that I could be totally waterproof, but then I realized that I never wore them at home, and that my legs getting wet occasionally is okay.
People get nervous about travel, and a coping mechanism is buying too much gear. Every single first time traveler I’ve ever known gets rid of most of their stuff on their first trip.
I think it’s fair to bring one “luxury item”. Partly this is a trick, because most people bring a lot of luxury items. If you give yourself one freebie, you’ll be forced to evaluate, and hopefully cull, the others. My luxury item is a small tea set. It allows me to make tea for myself and others, which helps me be a bit more productive and connect with people. I use it just about every trip.
One friend brings a tiny watercolor set around. She likes to paint, so it helps her collect memories and connect with people when she gives them paintings of themselves. My friend Kai brings this enormous curved piece of plastic that he can massage his back with. When I first met him and saw it I assumed he was a terrible packer, but then realized he had a small bag and that was his only indulgence.
You don’t have to have a luxury item. You can be even more hardcore than me and only have the essentials.
If you already pack lightly, none of this is new to you. I doubt any bit of it is an original idea that I’ve brought into the world. Once you travel enough, you realize that traveling very light is much better, and you go after the low hanging fruit like clothes and electronics. If you’re just starting out, or if you pack a lot, I challenge you to take one trip with under twenty pounds of stuff.
Even if you have a big bag, you can just leave it mostly empty. It’s the weight more than the size that matters. I travel for months sometimes, and I never use a bigger bag, so if I can do it, you can too.
For more info on what I pack, check out my 2016 Packing Guide.
Photo is me with my small Minaal backpack in Oman. Great walking signs here.
Currently on a two month trip through everything from NY Winter to the desert here in Oman. Just one tiny bag…