As I think most longer-term travelers do, I have become almost obsessed with packing as small and as light-weight as possible while having everything I could possibly need. It becomes a challenge between friends ... "How much does your bag weigh?" or "Wait, do you need one of those? I have one in my bag!"
Depending on where, how long, and often you travel, you can take or leave as much of this advice as you'd like. I actually pack WAY less for a month in a foreign country than I do for a weekend in Vegas! LOL
I firmly believe in high-tech performance gear. This goes for your luggage, your flashlight, your clothing, your organization. Why? It typically weighs less, is more comfortable, is durable, and has features created by experienced travelers. Of course it depends on if you are going to be traveling regularly but if you are, it's worth investing in this stuff as it will last you forever.
You really do need very little
When you're moving around on buses, or finding your hotel, or even in the airport, you'll be happy to have one small light bag.
You can wear the same thing over and over and nobody is even going to notice!
Leave the entertainment items at home. Other than maybe a book or a journal and your smartphone for internet, you will be plenty entertained by everything else around you. If you go through any substantial sized town, you'll be able to buy anything you need.
Do I need to bring a backpack?
No, you don't. I have traveled with people who bring a rolly and get by just fine.
Here's the main difference between bringing a backpack and a rolly.
- Rollies themselves are usually heavier.
- Backpacks are easier to maneuver in non-smooth areas (cobble or poorly maintained roads).
- You can take a backpack hiking.
- Backpacks are easier to grab-n-go or run with if you're catching a bus.
- Rollies are obviously easier on your back, but a good bag won't pain you too much.
- It's usually easier to stuff a backpack at your feet in a bus or under the seat.
- You might be rolling your wheels though some nasty stuff.
That said, now that I have started working while I travel, I am considering my first rolly trip. Even bringing the most minimal computer gear has made my bag so heavy. :(
So it all depends on where you're going, what type of trip you are planning, and how much you will be moving around. In Italy I brought a fancy rolly and about 50% of the time I wished I had a backpack.
Keep the total weight under 20 lb.
I know some long-term travelers that get down to 15 pounds! I am at about 18 lb and my bag itself is about a pound or two heavier than newer models. Seriously. This includes everything. Your purse, day pack, large pack.
Consumables - only bring the amount you need for this trip
Don't bring 16 ounces of shampoo if you only need 2. That weight adds up! Either buy travel-sized items or simply get a few travel-sized reusable containers and fill them up with your soap, conditioner, sunscreen, liquid soap, etc.
Get rid of all packaging materials
Packaging materials have no place in your bag. Picture your first-aid kit. If you have a box of ibuprofen, a box of imodium, a box of bandaids, and a box of motion-sickness pills, that's pretty big. Take all those things out of their packaging and put them in a ziploc bag. Voila - you just took up about 1/4 the space!
Ladies, this also goes for tampons. Bringing OB or a Diva Cup instead of regular 'pons will save you a ton of room.
Clothing - find a balance between form and function
You want your clothing to be lightweight (actual physical weight) and quick-dry. You will probably be doing laundry in your sink and you don't want damp clothes hanging around for days. Even if you send out to have your laundry done it's probably line-dried. Not to mention if you are in a sweaty climate - dry dry dry!
Some people travel with jeans but for me that is a huge no-no. They don't dry, they are heavy, and they take up a lot of space.
I really love performance clothing (the type you get at REI). I know you all might be picturing the Steve Irwin look, but it's possible to get somewhat cute stuff that is also high-tech. You will be much happier with something that allows you to be comfortable and doesn't cause you problems. If you are traveling somewhere that is either very hot or very cold, performance is particularly important. There is a huge difference between a regular cotton t-shirt and a wicking performance tee that will make you feel so much cooler in a hot climate.
The same goes for for underwear. So far ExOfficio Give-n-Go is the best; they don't even have a cotton crotch. Yes, this stuff matters.
Do your best to make your clothing items mix-n-match and you'll end up with a bunch of different outfits with very few pieces of clothing.
Clothing - be respectful to the local culture
Another big thing to consider when choosing your wardrobe, is how conservative the areas are where you'll be going. I pack very differently if I'm heading to SE Asia vs. a touristy beach in Mexico. Some tourists say "Oh, they're used to seeing tourists in tank tops and short shorts so it's okay" but no, that is not a good attitude.
This particularly goes for women. If the local women all wear long skirts and pants, a short skirt or shorts would be completely out of place. Picture if there were a woman in a bikini walking around a Nordstrom store. It might be totally normal where she lives, but trust me that everyone where I live would stare and think it's inappropriate.
It sure becomes an extra challenge when you are visiting a hot and humid climate! OMG it was so difficult to keep cool in India and Comoros!
Clothing - bring something "normal"
Although I lean more toward function than form, there are times when I want to go somewhere and not feel like a grubby backpacker. Bring one outfit that you would feel comfortable in going to a fancy mall, or a decent restaurant but is functional enough to wear any time. Maybe a little dress or skirt and top.
Shoes - you might just need one pair + rubber flippies
It's pretty safe to bring a pair of rubber flip-flops wherever you go. Sometimes I end up wearing those more than anything. You can use them at the beach, in a shared shower, and they are easy to take on and off if you are in a culture where you take your shoes off to go inside.
Other than that it's pretty much personal preference on what you like to walk/hike in. I personally hate closed shoes so I either bring a rugged sandal (Teva type) or a more rugged flip-flop like Reef Fanning that's great for walking.
Purse & Jewelry? No.
Well, maybe a travel version of each.
Decide if you want to bring a small cloth purse to carry a bit of money, sunscreen, and your cell phone. Sometimes I just opt for using my daypack as my purse, or sometimes bring a larger packable sling that I can use as a purse and grocery bag and day pack!
100% leave any expensive-looking jewelry at home. You will just make yourself a target. If you have jewelry you really do like to wear even when "roughing it", then of course bring just one or two things along..
A few important things to bring
There are a lot of little items that can come in handy. Some of my favorites are a cable lock, plastic utensils, ziploc bags, a bit of duct tape, and an inflatable pillow. A flat sink stopper and laundry line will save you time and money being able to rinse out your clothing in the hotel sink every few days. And since all your stuff is quick-dry, it'll be dry within hours! A copy of your passport and emergency stash of cash in case you get robbed. A sarong is great for both men and women to wear or use as a towel, blanket, etc.
See my My Favorite Gadgets / Stuff for more ideas on what to bring.
Use packing cubes & folders
Packing cubes - a packing epiphany. I started using these back in 2000 and have never looked back. They are like dresser drawers for your backpack. They not only help keep you organized, but they help compress clothing to save space. You can fit almost your entire wardrobe into a small packing folder which really compresses it and also helps keep your clothes wrinkle-free.
Wait for sales to buy any specialty items
I rarely buy anything full retail. Last year's items go on sale, or maybe you can find something used on EBay. Even Costco has some performance clothing sometimes for amazingly low prices. I just bought a 2-pack of lightweight wicking t-shirts for $8 and a pair of Columbia capris for $25!