Experimenting with ultra-light packing: How I packed light for 20 days on the road

Experimenting with ultra-light packing: How I packed light for 20 days on the road

Hello from Portugal!

Last Thursday, I returned to Europe for the fourth time in the past ten months. This time, I'm here for work. I'm speaking at yet-another chautauqua about financial independence and early retirement. As always, it's fascinating — and the people attending the event are amazing.

For this trip, I decided to experiment with ultra-light packing. I am not a minimalist, but I like minimalist travel. I wanted to see if I could carry everything I needed for 20 days of travel in a single small backpack.

After traveling to thirty countries in the past twelve years, I've learned that “more is less” when it comes to packing. It's senseless to carry things you're not going to use. And most of the time, you don't need to pack items you'll find (or can buy) at your destination.

It costs less — physically, mentally, and financially — to travel light.

Here's a quick look at my current ultra-light packing experiment (and how my packing habits have changed over the past decade).

Packing for Africa

Since my first overseas trip to England and Ireland in 2007, my packing has…evolved. Twelve years ago, I carried far too much. I brought along anything I thought I could possibly want or need. It was crazy. Then, to make matters worse, I bought a ton of stuff as the trip went along.

By the time I flew home, I was overloaded.

Trip by trip, I've learned to pack lighter. By February 2011, this is what I packed for three weeks of travel to southern Africa.

Holy cats! years earlier, I was still carrying all sorts of stuff I didn't need. My mind is boggled. A radio? Binoculars? $500 cash? Tons of books? What was I thinking?

By the Africa trip, though, I was starting to pack for function rather than form. I still carried some items (including my bags) that I thought looked cool, but in the back of my mind, I'd begun to grasp the concept that fun, efficient travel has little to do with what you pack and everything to do with your experience in the moment. And when you're burdened by baggage, it's tough to be in the moment.

Packing Light for Ecuador

Fast-forward three years. Here's what I packed for fifteen days in Ecuador during late summer 2014. Although I still carried items that went unused, my choices were mostly functional by this point and had little to do with form.

The system I show in this video is still my standard system. In fact, for our trip to Italy and Washington D.C. last month, I used these exact bags. And the items I packed inside the bags were similar to what I was carrying five years ago. (The major difference? I rarely use zip-off pants anymore. I'm not nearly as paranoid as I used to be.)

For my current trip to Portugal, I decided I wanted to experiment with ultra-light packing. Could I compress everything for 20 days of travel into a single “personal item” that fits under an airplane seat? Would I regret taking so little?

Ultra-Light Packing for Portugal

Here's what my ultra-light packing attempt looks like for my current trip to Portugal and California.

My bag for this trip is a Synapse 19 from Tom Bihn. It's roughly 11-1/2 x 8 x 16 inches tall. As the name implies, it holds 19 liters of stuff. What kind of stuff?

For this trip, I'm carrying:

  • My laptop (a 13″ MacBook Pro) with associated cables and adapters.
  • My phone (an iPhone X) with associated cables and adapters.
  • A small notebook with pens and pencils.
  • An envelope containing various travel documents.
  • Two ziploc bags with travel-sized toiletries. (One bag contains liquid items for TSA.)
  • A packing cube containing one wool t-shirt, one button-down travel shirt, three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and a pair of shorts. (I'm also wearing similar socks, underwear, a pair of pants, a wool t-shirt, and another button-down shirt.)
  • A pair of sweats that I rolled up and secured with a rubber band. This was a last-minute addition, but I'm glad I brought them.
  • Three “pouches”: one with electronic stuff, one with sleep stuff, and one with outdoor stuff (like mosquito repellant and sunscreen).
  • A few miscellaneous items, such as gum, my European power adapter, my retainer, my Kindle, and my reading glasses.
  • A ziploc bag for my cash and change, plus a ziploc bag with my passport and other travel info.

I've been on the road for five days day now. It's been very easy. My biggest complaint is that I don't have a second pair of footwear. I like to have flip-flops or Birkenstocks with me, and I don't have those for this trip. (Plus, I had to wash my underwear last night because I'm only traveling with four pairs. Only a minor inconvenience, though.)

My bag is full, but there's still a little room for me to pick up stuff along the way. That's good, because I've already been given two t-shirts!

Whereas there are often items that go unused in my luggage, this time I've used almost everything. I haven't used my collapsible chopsticks yet (I rarely do, but they don't take much room) and, surprisingly, I haven't used my reading glasses. I haven't used my Kindle yet either, but I suspect I will during the latter half of the trip.

Final Thoughts

So, that's my experiment with ultra-light packing. Will I do this again in the future? Yes, I think I will. But only selectively. Ultra-light packing is a terrific option for trips where my environment is relatively constant (I'm mostly in hotels, for instance) and I have no companions.

But on last month's vacation to Italy, Kim and I had to pack for hot and humid weather, for air-conditioned hotels, for hiking, for business meetings, etcetera. There's no way I could have fit everything in one small bag. Besides, when I'm traveling with other people, the advantages of packing light are reduced somewhat.

Ultra-light packing is a terrific tool to have at my disposal. It's easier than you might think. After five days, I'm certain this system will work for the entire twenty-day trip. And I'll bet nearly anyone could make this work for a weekend.

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Treo
Treo
1 year ago

This is awesome! We’ve been in the ultra-light travel game for a while now, and it’s well worth it. My wife, our son (7) and I did a 4.5 week tour of Asia, Australia and Europe with just one carry-on each. We had about 6 days of underwear with us, 3 shirts each and two pairs of pants each. It is very freeing to not bring a bunch of extra stuff you likely don’t end up needing. My wife does usually bring a “collapsable” bag that can be used to check anything we may acquire during the trip, but even… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  Treo

re: laundry with the right fabrics (no denim, no cotton) you can wash as you go in the sink or a wash bag. i like a portable wash bag because it’s more efficient than the sink, rolls up to a small size, and a few drops of sal suds in it will wash all synthetics + merino with no damage. that plus a piece of paracord and/or inflatable hangers for drying and you’re set. see: scrubba: https://www.thescrubba.com/ allurette for delicates (we have this one actually, use it at home) https://www.myallurette.com/ sal suds: which is crazy good https://shop.drbronner.com/sal-suds-biodegradable-cleaner just wash as… Read more »

zzzzzz
zzzzzz
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

ITA agree about choosing the right fabrics. Fabrics that launder easily, dry quickly, and don’t wrinkle lend themselves to frequent washing and reuse.

Conveniently, many such fabrics are also used to make clothes that are light and not bulky.

I like to bring along some string, a few clothespins, and some woolite to facilitate laundering.

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

Wow, that’s a tiny bag. Nice job with ultralight packing. My bag is a bit bigger. I think it’s as big as the carry-on bin. 30L? We pack almost as light, but bring more underwear. I need a bigger bag because I’m carrying my son’s clothes too.
Have you tried shaving oil? It’s in a tiny bottle and much easier to carry than a can of shaving gel. I see a can in your bag.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
1 year ago
Reply to  Joe

I haven’t put a blade razor on my face in a few years, but I always used the small bottles of conditioner or lotion provided by the hotels when I was traveling for work.

Sabrina
Sabrina
1 year ago

Great inspiration for packing light. But I am curious — what kind of mosquito repellant and sunscreen do you use if they are not liquid or gel? I would think they would have to be in the quart bag in 3 oz sizes. Thanks.

Mike in NH
Mike in NH
1 year ago

There’s a standard piece of advice in the hiking/backpacking community: “Don’t pack your fears.” Of course, that comes with the added motivation of knowing that if I don’t put it in the bag I’m rewarded by not having to carry it over 20 miles of a backpacking trip. Either way, I’ve yet to be in a situation where I left something behind and ended up regretting it. And that’s in the woods/mountains…in real life it’s a little bit easier to just pick something up during your trip if it turns out to be an absolute necessity. Good on you for… Read more »

Bethany
Bethany
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike in NH

“Don’t pack your fears” is so accurate. Anxiety runs in my family, so I was taught to pack everything and the kitchen sink! But after a decade of hauling huge bags around, I finally started to put more trust in my resiliency than my ability to create a 2-page packing list. I’ve also been able to move from the scarcity mindset (We MUST bring everything because we can’t afford to buy anything) to an abundance mindset (We can easily buy more floss if we run out.) The intersection of psychology and finances continues to fascinate me!

William Nichols
William Nichols
1 year ago

Along with this, consider buying undies and t-shirts while on travel. It can usually be done as part of shopping for other items, and extends the life of clean items pretty seriously.

For example: We were in Europe for a week, and I ran out of necessaries. Not wanting to do laundry right then and being in Koln, it was easy to get a few extra pairs so I didn’t need to worry about it.

It’s a few dollars (tear wear is great for this!), and makes travel more pleasant while not making you pack more.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago

I used to think ExOfficio and other travel undies were overrated, but no—they’re great. They’re comfortable, durable, and smell resistant; they keep you dry and wash easy.

In theory you just need 2 pairs: the one you’re wearing plus a fresh change.

You wash the used one in the shower, then wear the fresh one while the washed one hangs dry and catches some rest.

Doesn’t get any easier in that department other than joining a nudist colony.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

Well done! I grew up taking cross country trips where I literally couldn’t put my feet down because the car was packed to the gills. My sister would pack her whole CD collection! I am not quite a minimalist yet, but I am definitely the lightest packer in my family. My biggest concern tends to be footwear. Between hiking boots, sneakers, and sandals I don’t really have a solution. If the weather allows I usually prefer sandals (also saves on how many socks to pack), but if I’m doing a lot of walking I want proper sneakers. And if I’m… Read more »

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  S.G.

Re: sandals: Chacos are the gold standard. They are sandals, sneakers, and hiking boots all rolled into one. Get over to REI, S.G.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago
Reply to  dh

They’ve never really done it for me.

Eileen
Eileen
1 year ago
Reply to  S.G.

I’m on my second pair of Salomon trail running-like shoes. They can definitely cover for hiking and sneakers, which only leave you with sandals. I like this 2nd pair so much that I pretty much don’t use my sneakers very often (last time I did, THEY ended up giving me a blister!?).

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
1 year ago

I just got back from three weeks in Vietnam. I brought a chrome messenger bag [like this](https://www.chromeindustries.com/product/mini-metro-messenger-bag/BG-001.html?dwvar_BG-001_color=ALLB&dwvar_BG-001_size=NA&cgid=heritage_collection) that I think I’ve had since about 2005, and a little laptop bag [like this one](https://www.tomtoc.com/products/13-inch-laptop-shoulder-bag-case-sleeve-cover-gray).

That was fine. I didn’t need more than that. Though often I carry a whole bunch of heavy shit around with me when traveling when I’m bringing kitesurfing gear, so I see both sides of the picture.

But if you don’t have any specialized requirements (like sporting equipment), I don’t understand why people find packing light to be such a challenge.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
1 year ago

Oops, well, I guess markdown doesn’t work here. 🙂

zzzzzz
zzzzzz
1 year ago

Minimizing what you pack also minimizes the environmental impact of your travel.

GH
GH
1 year ago

We’ve done some longer-term travel (up to 8 months in Australia and New Zealand, a month in Europe) where we’ve limited what we brought to a single backpack. For these longer trips, we bought things we needed (e.g., bed linens, additional clothing) in second-hand stores (Goodwill-type places, known as “Op Shops” in New Zealand). Cost is minimal, you can find clothing that fits in well with your local environment (instead of screaming, “I’m an American tourist!”), and items can be donated back at the end of your travels, if you don’t have room to take them home. For shorter trips… Read more »

Mike
Mike
1 year ago

Yet one more reason I enjoy reading your blog – Tom Bihn. I’m a huge bag geek and have far too many Bihn bags. In fact the synapse 19 is my go to bag for travel but I usually also bring a co-pilot for electronics, note pad, cords, etc. on the plane. The synapse goes in the overhead. For trips when I need more stuff with me due to the nature of the trip I bring a Aeronaut bag from Tom Bihn, again with the co-pilot.

JoDi
JoDi
1 year ago

Great videos! Ithought that was a T. Swift pin on your bag but couldn’t figure out what the other one was so I appreciated the caption! 😉 I am headed to Italy for a week next summer, and I’m planning to get everything in a carry-on which I think will be pretty easy. There were some great tips in these videos for packaging different categories of things together that I will definitely be using!

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