The art of minimalist packing

Whether you’re on a six month backpacking trip or heading off for a week on the continent, it can be really, really easy to over pack. If you’ve ever found yourself taking multiple suitcases on holiday, or struggling around a bus station with aching shoulders under a backpack bigger than you are, it’s time to get better at minimalist packing.

When I set off for Vietnam last year, my backpack weighed 11 kilos. By the time I got to Cambodia it weighed 9.5. Just because airlines will give you a 20 kilo weight limit does not mean you should use it all – you might think that having a draggable bag with wheels on the base gives you the right to wave this rule, but it does not. Weight pulled behind you is just as heavy as weight on your back, you just end up aching in different places.

Aside from the fact that you won’t get tired as quickly and won’t get as many aches and pains, having a bag that is half the size and weight of everybody else’s also enables you to be the smuggest asshole around. Here are a few tips and tricks for packing like a pro.

  1. Never use a backpack bigger than 45L, or a suitcase that won’t fit in the overhead locker.

Hand-luggage allowances are bigger than you think they are. You know when you get on a plane with your teeny tiny bag and see some giant rucksack in the locker next to it, and feel cheated? You aren’t being cheated. You cheated yourself.

I’m not saying you should perpetually travel hand-luggage only – rules about liquids mean your suncream and mosquito repellent aren’t going to go in a carry-on – but you should set your size goals in this ballpark. If you don’t give yourself more space than you need, you won’t pack more stuff than you need. Easy. And before you say ”but I can’t fit all my stuff in a 45L backpack!” – if you can’t fit it in, you don’t need it.

2. Leave space.
Pack the bag. Unpack the bag. Pack it again. Unpack it again. Work out how best to fold things and arrange them to make the most of the space you’ve  got, and make sure you leave room for things you decide to buy on the way or lazy last-minute packing on your way home.

Leaving room in a bag that’s already small can be the bigger challenge but in an ideal world you want to have room to shove your day bag into your main bag, whether that’s a handbag, bum bag (fanny pack?) or a mini rucksack for lugging sandwiches around in. You don’t need the third pair of shoes, you don’t need all those outfit changes, sack ’em off.

sangkhlaburi thailand

Joanna, probably revelling in her freedom from a giant bag

3. Think about what you’re actually going to be doing
When I went to Ghana, one of the girls in my dorm room unpacked an iron, a pair of hair straighteners and two pairs of high heels when she was hanging up her stuff. I’ve literally never known of any backpacker who packs an iron, and those of you who favour hotels are hopefully aware that even Travelodge will lend you an iron if you ask nicely, so for goodness’ sake don’t pack an iron. Don’t pack high heels if you’re off to a rural area to explore nature reserves, either. Like I have to even say that.

Think about where you’re going and what activities you have planned – if you’re doing a mixture of beaches and trekking, you probably need flip flips and walking shoes. If you’re going on a city break, you probably don’t need any shoes other than the pair you travel in, so just pick a versatile pair and be done with it. When it comes to over-packing, it’s usually clothes and shoes that are the culprit.

Sure, it would be nice to have ten different beach dresses to pick from, but you don’t actually need that many and speaking from experience, if  you’re backpacking with more clothes than you need you’re just going to end up leaving things behind at hostels and giving them away to people you meet. Leave ’em at home instead.
mai chau vietnam
4. Check that your essentials really are essential
If you’re going somewhere with mosquitoes, take mosquito repellent. If you’re going somewhere sunny, take suncream. Adjust quantities depending on local price – if it’s going to be more expensive to buy these things abroad than at home, you don’t need to feel bad about cramming in spare bottles, but if you can pick them up for nothing then only pack the bare minimum and just replace things as you’re going along.

Shampoo, conditioner, body wash. Not all essential. You don’t need to pack three separate bottles of ooze that are a) heavy and b) likely to leak all over your stuff. Take a 2- or 3-in-1 instead and voila, you’ve just saved 2/3 of that space. Now you can fill it with first aid stuff and pants and other things you might actually need.

5. When you’re picking clothes, think about cultural appropriacy
You’ve packed two pairs of short shorts and three strappy tops and bam, you’re feeling pretty pleased with your super-light packing skills. So where are you going?

If it’s somewhere you’re going to need to cover your shoulders and knees in order to visit certain places of interest, make sure you either pack something that solves this problem or leave space to pick up something that does.

You can’t enter Buddhist temples in your daisy dukes, or a lot of continental European cathedrals and churches, but sarongs and cheap cotton trousers can be rolled down to minute size and will help you pretend to be a modest and respectable sort of thing. Swap out one thing that won’t work in all situations and replace it with one thing that will.

wat pho bangkok
To give you a bit of an idea, here’s an example of a minimalist packing list for a few months backpacking in mixed climates:

  • 1 pair of flip-flops, 1 pair of shoes you can hike in.
  • Three tops, including one that covers your shoulders.
  • Two pairs of shorts (cheap cotton ones in the style of the infamous elephant pants became my best friends while travelling – super comfy, super lightweight, also double up as pyjama shorts)
  • One pair of leggings or light trousers (even if you aren’t planning on visiting anything where you need to cover up, some places go from roasting by day to freezing at night, so make sure you’re prepared)
  • One or two sets of swimwear (only pack two if you’re going to be using it on a daily basis. Otherwise, just take one and wash regularly.)
  • One jumper or hoodie (only if you’re going somewhere that isn’t hot twenty-four hours a day)
  • 2-in-1 shampoo & bodywash
  • Deodorant
  • Face wipes or a flannel
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A travel towel (packing a regular beach towel or bath towel makes you a maniac. Get a travel towel that folds down to A5 size max, it saves space AND they dry out in record time)
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Hairbrush (if you need one)
  • Five pairs of pants (”panties” if you’re American) – to be honest, you don’t even need that many because you can wash them in the shower every day, but variety is the spice of life.
  • Three pairs of socks (admit it, you’re going to live in flip-flops, this is more than enough)
  • If you wear bras, three non-wired/sports bras, because underwires get real boring real quick when it’s a gazillion degrees outside. If you’ve got a lot that needs supporting, get an industrial-strength sports bra.
  • That sarong we talked about
  • A razor (if ya wanna)
  • Nail clippers (if you’re going away for a long time)
  • An adaptor plug
  • Sunglasses
  • Headphones

And obviously, your passport. I normally pack a notepad and pen, and if you’ve got a waterproof camera or general action camera then duh, pack that too. Anyone with ovaries, it’s worth remembering that tampons are not a cultural norm in a lot of places – if you want them, take them with you.

I’d also recommend taking a padlock if you’re hostelling, a money belt if you’re heading somewhere pickpocket-y and photocopies of your passport and insurance documents. Waterproof/super-tough phone cases are also a wise investment.

On paper, that actually looks like a really long list, but on your back it’ll feel satisfyingly light and even better, if you’re going on a sleeper bus it’ll be small enough to fit on with you instead of going out of your sight in the hold. Seriously, the opportunities for smugness will abound.

9 thoughts on “The art of minimalist packing

Leave a Reply