As the old adage goes, less is more. When it comes to traveling, more is unnecessary and less is your shoulders thanking you for not putting them through the gates of hell.
To my mother’s horror, I always set off with one 7kg backpack (nothing more because I’m too cheap to pay for cabin luggage) and one small hand-carry. I enjoy traveling light not only because the nature of backpacking calls for being mobile, but also because living minimally is the teacher of many valuable life lessons.
Why I travel light
I remember the shock of returning home to a room full of stuff after road-tripping across New Zealand for months with a backpack. With only a handful of clothes, I lived the dream and was at my happiest. Suddenly, the amount of excess clothing, toiletries and random shit I don’t need like 3 ukuleles and a bazillion bags was disgusting. I didn’t need most of those, and none of it fulfilled me in any way. After the thrill of the buy, they just end up cluttering my room and my mind.
Travelling with my life in one backpack but still being able to develop a new love for life reminds me that all the fancy toiletries crowding my dresser table are unnecessary excesses weighing me down. When I travel light, I can worry less about managing my luggage and focus more on living the moment. At the risk of sounding cliche, the experience of traveling light is my reminder to spend less energy and money on materialism because it’s the experiences and relationships that make life memorable. (Note: This rule does not extend to books; you can never have too many books!)
In a way, traveling light is not just for practical reasons, it’s a lesson in life as well. I travel with the same amount of luggage no matter if it’s a one-week trip or for months because you really don’t need more clothes if you are traveling longer, you just need to do laundry. Here’s how I pack light and 6 tips you can adopt to shed weight.
Firstly, here’s a snapshot of what’s in my bag
A copy of my backpacking checklist is at the end of this post.
Tip 1. Backpack: Pick one that fits your body size
Buying a backpack is just like buying a washing machine, you need to decide between a top-loader or a front-loader. Top-loading backpacks have drawstrings at the top like a rucksack and are more compact, while front-loading backpacks have zippered panels allowing you to open the backpack sort-of like a suitcase. I personally prefer front-loaders because you don’t have to unpack the whole bag just to retrieve that one thing at the bottom of the bag.
When purchasing your backpack, pick one that rests on your shoulders and waist comfortably, and most importantly, offers good back support. Consider the amount of compartments you need, whether the zips can be padlocked for security reasons, and the accessibility of your items.
What I backpack with: I use a 45-litre Jack Wolfskin Highland Trail XT that’s designed for hiking. It has several compartments that I use to separate my clothes from my other junk, and features both top-load and front-load access. My only grouse is that top-loading feature is just a couple of clasps and a drawstring that cannot be padlocked, so sometimes I get a bit jittery about leaving it unattended in the dorms.
Tip 2. Wash and wear: Bring quick-dry activewear
The trick to packing fewer clothes is to wash and wear. Bring a small bottle of laundry detergent and wash your clothes in the shower as and when needed. Leave it to dry overnight and ta-daa, you have clean clothes for the next day! This method will be trickier if you are staying in dorms where there are less space and privacy to hang your laundry, so you’ll want to take advantage of hostels with laundry and/or drying areas (or empty dorms) so you can hang your underwear without shame. Or don’t be a cheap-ass like me and just pay for laundry service.
The wash-and-wear method is quick and easy if you pack quick-dry activewear shirts! Anyone who has traveled with wet clothes in their bag will know that it is the worst thing ever, so always go for quick-dry materials. It’s also the best type of fabric to travel with because it wicks sweat easily and is great for adventuring to jungles and waterfalls.
What I wear: My favourite travel shirt so far is from homegrown activewear brand Fitgear. Their Wind series shirt is cheap and comfortable as heck at only RM45.00 per piece! They sent me a couple of their Wind series shirts to try on my Egypt trip and honestly, I was quite impressed after taking it for a test run in the desert.
The Fitgear Wind shirt is really light and the fabric is so silky smooth that I happily used it as pyjamas. The material is breathable as well, so it doesn’t get sticky under sweat. Most importantly, it doesn’t wrinkle and dries in a couple of hours which is perfect for the backpacking lifestyle. My only caveat is that the collar looks a bit narrow and it only comes in black. I’m a sucker for supporting local brands so shout out to the peeps at Fitgear for creating affordable premium products for broke-ass backpackers like me!
Tip 3. Clothes: Pack enough for 3 to 4 days
Believe me, 4 days worth of clothes is more than you need. Some hardcore backpackers will boast that they travel with even less. Packing is admittedly trickier for women because we need to be prepared for different situations like conservative clothing for places of worship and dressier pieces for nights out. Also, bras take up a lot of space! Nonetheless, it’s doable if you’re not packing for a fashion photoshoot for your Instagram.
What I pack: 4 tops (3 quick-dry shirts and 1 tank top), 4 bottoms (2 long pants, 1 swimming shorts, 1 knee-length exercise pants), 4 panties, 3 bras, 3 socks, 1 swimming suit, 1 jacket, 1 scarf/pareo/sarong.
A pareo or sarong is great because I also use it as a liner for dodgy hostel beds, as a cover-up when I need to dress conservatively, as a beach mat, and as a scarf on cold nights. I also pick neutral-coloured items so I can mix and match without looking like a total hobo.
Tip 4. Toiletries: All-in-one toiletries are your best friend
This is an important tip to note because toiletries are often the heaviest thing in our luggage. I’ve managed to reduce my toiletry bag to one small pouch thanks to argan oil. Instead of packing a face cream, serum, body lotion, make up remover AND hair conditioner, I bring one small bottle of organic jojoba oil or argan oil as it works for all of the above purposes. Argan or jojoba oil is moisturizing from head to toe and does not clog pores!
What I shower with: Face wash, toner, argan oil mixed with skin-loving essential oils, body wash, shampoo, deodorant, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, lip balm, contact lens and solution, toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb if I remember, and some cotton-buds and extra hair ties.
The face products are 30ml bottles and can last me a good two to three months. The body wash and shampoo are 30ml as well and I top it up with the free ones provided in the hostel when I run low.
Tip 5. Shoes: You only need two
I see some travelers bringing several pairs of shoes – one for hiking, one for walking, a pair of flip flops, and a pair of dressy flats. Shoes are so bulky, do we really need that many?
What I walk in: I bring two pairs – a light hiking shoe that’s suitable for the city, and a pretty pair of sandals that’s good for both the beach bar and dance bar.
TIP 6. Towels: quick-dry TOWELS ARE GODSENT
I love fluffy towels but they are also bulky and heavy. Quick-dry microfiber towels, on the other hand, are lightweight, fast-drying (so important!!) and roll down to the size of your fist. Get a good one with anti-microbial properties because some quick-dry towels aren’t absorbent enough, or can start to smell if it doesn’t dry in time.
What I dry myself with: I typically use a microfiber camping towel. On a beach holiday or diving trip, I’d use my Tesalate sand-free beach towel. These are great because it doubles as both a picnic mat and an absorbent quick-dry towel. At 500grams, Tesalate towels are a wee bit heavier than microfibre towels, but it’s light and compact enough. Its sand-repellent fabric tech actually really works, so I don’t mind that teeny bit of extra weight if it means no more battling with sand in my bags.
Tip 7: The mother of all tips: Versatility
If you haven’t already noticed a trend here, the trick to packing light is to carry versatile items – shirts that are comfortable as pyjamas, argan oil for head-to-toe pampering, footwear that are suitable for all occasions, etc. Here are a few more tips to look fancy without carrying extra shit:
- A pareo or sarong can also be doubled as a nice skirt. Or bring along one sundress that you can wear on the beach, around the city, and to dinners.
- Want to look made up without carrying all that makeup? A striking red lipstick will do the trick :)
- Use a pretty pouch as your gadget or cosmetic bag so you can double it as a dressy clutch.
- Lastly, always make sure your clothes respect local cultural sensitivities.
Mei’s backpacking checklist
- Passport, money, bank cards
- Sunglasses and spectacles
- A good novel, journal, pens
- Extra pens cause you’re gonna lose that shit
- Phone, camera, chargers, international adapter
- First aid kit, headlamp, and a penknife if you have check-in luggage
- Clothes and detergent
- Shoes, socks, and sandals
- Period things and panty liners to keep em’ fresh
- Neck pillow a.k.a a life saver on many bumpy overnight buses
And of course I’d pack additional stuff depending on whether it’s a cold country, hiking expedition or diving trip, but this is pretty much all that I carry.
I think the biggest problem that leads to people over packing is fearing that they don’t have enough of this or that, but you can always make do with what you have. Working with your resources and finding creative ways around it is also part of the art of backpacking! So don’t fret about not packing something you MIGHT need, just pack what you REALLY need and your body will thank you for not making everyday arms day.
Now go forth and travel light, you wanderlust soul, you.
This article was brought to you by Fitgear. All opinions here are my own and are not influenced by the company. I practice only endorsing brands that I believe in.
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