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.
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.