One of the most common travel questions I get is how to pack sensibly for a trip that lasts several months. My advice is always the same: pack as little as possible. Your body will thank you, and your mind will be at ease as you’ll have fewer material things to worry about.
Don’t let this old photo fool you. I’m currently roaming around the African continent with a tiny backpack that weighs about 9 kg, which is about 20 pounds, or 1.5 stone to those of you following the odd British measurement system. 😛
I plan to be on the road with this bag anywhere from three to six months. And even now I feel like I don’t need a third of the things I brought with me! Goes to show that there’s no such thing as packing too little. You’ll always make do with what you have, and most things that you need you can also get on the road. After all, your home country is not the only place where people use clothes to cover themselves and shampoo to wash their hair.
Not that I was always such a travel minimalist – far from it! I have just learned from experience. Back in 2006 when I headed to Australia armed with the one-year Working Holiday visa, I even packed rollerblades with me! Can you believe that?? Nowadays my entire bag’s contents weigh less than those bulky exercise shoes did. Yes, I still love rollerblading (and nowadays also kangooing), but I have also understood that you can’t have it all. As I wrote earlier, this lifestyle is all about making sacrifices.
And while I haven’t seen anyone else hauling rollerblades around, not a day goes by when I don’t see little backpacker girls carrying rucksacks twice their size, or guys trying to look macho while sweating profusely under their ginormous pile of stuff.
So what’s the big deal about packing light, you may be asking. Well, for one thing: people are not ants. We are not built to carry eight times our own bodyweight. But really, the answer lies in these pictures. Here I am on my Asian tour in 2007, carrying the world in my bag:
And here I am today, on the streets of Rabat, Morocco:
(Yes, I realize I look ridiculous in my long Moroccan jilaba robe, but it gets chilly here so I had to get one!)
Picture yourself having to carry one of these bags around every day for, say, five months. Which one would you rather choose? Yep, I would definitely take the latter one too. And I’m so annoyed that I didn’t come to my senses earlier! It was only during my one-month trip to Mexico in the end of 2008 that I first thought about bringing just a small day pack with me. (I figured if I could survive a week with it, I could do a month too.) And WHOA, what a difference that made! Not only was it much easier for me to move around physically, I also noticed the five major benefits there are to packing light:
1) Saving Money
You know those outrageous fees that airlines charge for checked-in baggage? Well, they don’t bother me, as my mini-bag counts as a carry-on. I have even managed to avoid baggage fees on Spirit Airlines, which is notorious for charging $20 even for a carry-on bag unless it is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. And mine is! Also, buses in many developing countries charge about 50 cents to a dollar for each bag that is placed in the luggage compartment. I avoid that charge too, which may sound miniature but can mean savings of $50-100 over the course of a long trip.
2) Peace of Mind
Back in the day when I traveled with a huge rucksack, I constantly had to worry about it. Will my checked-in belongings make it onto the same flight as me? (Most of the time, no.) Will the bag still be in the luggage compartment of the bus by the time I get off? Has something been stolen from inside of it? Might someone slash the big bag open without me even noticing it? Those are not fun things to worry about, so I’m happy that I no longer have to spend time doing so. My little bag goes with me wherever I go, and is always at my sight. No more lost luggage worries whatsoever.
3) Increased Feeling of Security
Maybe this is not warranted at all, but I feel like I’m less of a target for potential robbers when I just carry a small bag (or at least I can run away faster!). If you arrive in a new town in a foreign country carrying a big rucksack, everyone can see that you are a newbie tourist. With a small bag, however, you can fool people into thinking that you have been around for at least a few days. For all they know you could be an expat walking around town with the day’s shopping in you bag, or a traveler going hiking, who has left most of his or her valuables in the hotel. Either way, big bag = much to steal, small bag = less to steal. The fact that I’ve never been robbed while traveling should speak for itself (knock on wood)!
4) More Room for Spontaneity
This one was the biggest surprise for me personally when I first started traveling light. I suddenly felt so FREE. Up until that point I hadn’t even realized how much my big backpack had controlled my life. Hauling the 20kg on my back like a mule had meant that my #1 priority in a new city was always finding a place to store my bag, which often meant having to book the night’s accommodation right off the bat. If it later turned out I didn’t like the town or the guesthouse after all, I just had to deal with it and stay there anyway since I had already paid. But now, with my tiny bag in tow, I can arrive in a new city, wander around for a couple of hours, and then hop on a bus to continue elsewhere if I feel like it. Perfect! This also helps with…
5) Saving Time
A prime example of how traveling light can save you time is my experience in Mexico: I arrived in Palenque in the morning, visited the Mayan ruins and a waterfall during the day, and then continued on a night bus to San Cristobal de Las Casas. I did all this while carrying my little bag with me. Thus I was able to see more in my one month in Mexico than the old heavy-traveling me would have in two months. And those hours that I used to spend huffing and puffing on the street desperately looking for a guesthouse to toss my bag in were now saved up and carefully spent on a beach instead. Not a bad trade off, huh!
Another time saver is being able to walk off an airplane and straight onto the taxi line without needing to stop by the luggage carousel to wait for your bag to arrive 30 minutes later (or worse than that, never). More often than not, this also means being first in the taxi line out of the people on your flight! Yay for traveling light!
So who is with me on this? What’s the silliest thing you have ever traveled with? I bet nobody else thought of traveling with rollerblades… More importantly, was I successful in inspiring you to travel light next time you go hit the road? If so, stay tuned.
Coming up: tips for how to pack light! Got any tips of your own to share?
I love these tips! Would have been great for the Maldives trip…. AND you look great in that Moroccan jilaba robe!!!
Hehe, well that’s only because you don’t see the entire robe in this photo… it looks pretty funny in full lenght. 🙂 Although some Moroccan guy just asked me if I live here, because I’m sporting local gear. So maybe this jilaba is a good thing to wear in order to fit in better, haha. 🙂 And yes, I definitely didn’t pack light for the Maldives trip but then again we weren’t moving around that much. Backpacking is a whole different ballgame!
The only thing I take with me when I travel that I can’t live without is my shampoo, everything else can stay at home. In the developing world, if I need clothes, I can buy them – and everything else can be found there. My only luxury item (a la Desert Island Disks) is my camera, as when I’m away – I’m away, no e-mail, phone calls, de nada.
Thanks for your comment! Funny that you take your own shampoo as that is the first thing I leave behind! Hehe. I guess we all have our own must-haves and I will get to those in my next post.
It’s only because I’m allergic to absolutely every brand of shampoo, conditioner, hair gel or anything that might come into contact with my scalp – so I have to use a coal tar shampoo (and have had to do since I was 14). Otherwise I’d leave that at home too – on the grounds that shampoo is dead easy to find anywhere. 🙂
Well that sounds like reason enough to bring your own shampoo!
The problem I have with this sort of pack planning(pack little, buy more) is that I dislike buying stuff I don’t really need. It’s about principle, not the money. If I already own them I can bring them with me.
Which leaves me in something of a packaging debate for each journey as I try to figure out what I’m likely to need on that particular journey. But the more I travel the less I realise I need to bring, without buying more stuff.
Mikael, my advice is definitely not “pack little, but buy a bunch of stuff on the road.” In fact, I buy as little as possible on my travels as I’m the one who has to carry it all! I’ll try to get around to sharing my packing tips soon! 🙂
I really really need those tips on how to pack light. It feels like i’m bringing nothing, but my backpack to the desert still clocked 10kg and was huge. Bah 🙂
Interesting article. I don’t think many people doubt the benefits of packing light, but *how* do you do it? What do you pack?
Haha, that is part II of this article, coming soon! I just need to post one more thing and then the next post after hat will tell you exactly how to get your bag to be carry-on size and contain everything you need! I just wanted to first write a post highlighting the many benefits there are to traveling light that people may not even realize.
Hey dear!! Just found your blog, great read! I totally agree with packing light – for me it depends completely on the type of journey I’m doing, whether I pack light or heavy. The longer the trip, the lighter the bag. The less urban the trip, the lighter the bag. The only thing always weighing on me, no matter how much of the stuff I leave out, is my camera gear, who themselves weigh 3-5kg even if I leave most of my lenses and even the tripod home. So I guess 12kg is as far as I’ll ever go. 😀 It also means a separate bag for my camera always hanging over my tummy, and it’s slightly annoying. My dream is to find the perfect backpack that works as a travel bag with an attachable camera case for one body and 1-2 lenses. The camera case could be carried as a separate bag, but when moving from one place to another, it could also be easily zipped to the bottom of the other. Anyone a designer here? Care to design the traveling photographer’s dream backpack? 🙂
Keep ’em coming, Mirva! 🙂
You are right – the longer the trip, the lighter the bag! So this post is mostly geared for long-term travelers. Sometimes I’ve packed more for a weekend trip than for a three-month trip! Hehe. I figure that in a weekend I won’t have time to get frustrated with carrying it all around unlike on a long trip.
Wow Mirva! I really commend you!
I just have to ask; do you have your laptop with you on your travels? I would love to see an inventory of that little bag!
Yes I have a laptop with me, but not the MacBook Pro that I normally use. Just a small Acer netbook! I may do one more post about packing that explains my tricks. 🙂
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