The Art of Traveling Light

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five unexpected benefits of traveling light, and in the end promised that I’d share my own packing tips with you soon.

My apologies that it took a while for me to get back to you on that, but here I am, ready to address all your questions and packing concerns with:

 Mirva’s Ultimate Guide to Traveling the World with a Carry-On

Before you get started, here’s my disclaimer: this information may not be suitable for mountaineers, hikers, skiers, winter enthusiasts, campers or globetrotting opera singers.  This advice is geared for typical travelers who are heading to those predominantly warm destinations – Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean  – and who plan on mostly sleeping in hotels, hostels or private homes, not outdoors. Also, some of this advice may not apply as well to guys as it does to girls. Sorry about that.

Still, this post will include information that may also benefit those above-mentioned groups and several others. Just remember that anything you read here should not be taken at face value – what works for me may not work for you – and is best used as a guide that can be modified to suit your needs.

Everyone has their own “must-have-items” while traveling, so please do not get offended if I have left out the one item without which you absolutely cannot live. For each his own! That said, here is my advice that comes from 10+ years on the road.

The Three Things You Think You’ll Need, but You Really Do Not

1)      Jeans

This may come as a shock for you blue jeans lovin’ folks out there but these heavy, cumbersome and hard-to-dry pants are the first absolute no on my packing list. You know how much space those take out of your little bag? And you know how much they weigh? A lot. Let’s face it, you plan to chill on the beach for the majority of your vacation anyway and jeans do not belong in that scene at all.

I realize you may want to bring a pair with you ‘just in case’, but I am telling you – it’s not worth it. Instead bring a few of the following: light-weight khakis, a thin pair of black pants, capris, shorts, sweatpants, skirts, dresses, leggings or even jeggings –basically anything is better than a pair of jeans. And if you are one of those countless people who just cannot imagine life without jeans, then fine, bring one pair. But make sure that it is of the lightest fabric you can find and be prepared to wear it whenever you are on the move: changing cities, flying somewhere or sitting in a bus for 30 hours. At least that way the jeans won’t take up precious space in your bag. Just don’t come complaining to me that you’d rather be wearing shorts or a nice dress in this heat! In all my travels around Asia, Australia, Latin America and now Africa I have never once wished I had brought jeans with me. Instead, long skirts are my staple travel wear (perfect also for countries where you shouldn’t show much skin). Whenever I get cold, I just wear leggings underneath.

2)      Sleeping Bag

I used to travel with a sleeping bag at all times though I wasn’t planning on doing any camping. I just brought it along in case the blankets in my hostels would not be warm enough or I’d take a night bus where the AC was on full blast. How many times did I actually roll the sleeping bag out of its case? A handful, at the very most, and even then I used it mostly just to get at least some use out of it.  Thus hauling a sleeping bag around for months just in case was hardly worth it. Nowadays I travel without one and have never regretted it. Every hotel gives you a blanket, and hostels too. When I have gone Couchsurfing, every host has offered me a duvet or a blanket or at least a sheet. And should you ever find yourself really needing a sleeping bag – well, just deal with it somehow. Wear layers, cuddle up with someone, tear down the curtains of the hotel room, use a scarf as a blanket… Be creative.

(The only time my sleeping bag came in handy in Australia in 2006 was during a visit to Byron Bay with my friend Kaisa, pictured here. The bus dropped us off at 4.30 a.m., and we didn’t want to splurge on a night’s accommodation when the night was almost over anyway.)

Nowadays I’d rather experience a chilly night once or twice during my trip than haul extra weight around for months. If you absolutely want to bring something to calm your nerves, get one of those slip-in silk sleeping bags that weigh nothing (and are meant for avoiding contact with dirty sheets) or “borrow” one of those handy, light airline blankets.

3)      Towel

While I started off traveling with a fluffy normal towel, over the years my towels just got smaller and smaller, until I finally was down to a tiny kitchen rag. You really do not need much more than that to pat yourself dry. Air-drying is so underrated! And if you love wrapping yourself in a big towel after taking a shower, don’t worry. Many guesthouses and hotels will supply you with one. Also, being deprived of a real towel for a while will help you appreciate the luxury when you come across it. For me that is part of the point of travel – learning to enjoy things you used to take for granted.

(Here I am, loving my most recent borrowed towel in Senegal’s Casamance region)

On the other hand, here are the…

Three absolute  must-haves for a traveler

1)      Sarong

If I could only take one item with me on my trip, a sarong would be it. If you are not familiar with the term, a sarong is a thin, colorful piece of fabric that is sold pretty much in every beach town worldwide.

If you do not already own one, make sure to buy one when you hit the road. You can rest assured, there is not a single item in this world that is more multi-functional than a sarong. I use mine as a towel for the shower and the beach (which is why I often do not even bring the little kitchen rag with me anymore), as a blanket in chilly buses and planes, as a sheet or a pillow case in one-star hotel rooms. I wrap it in my head like a turban or around me like a dress.

I even wore a flowery sarong to a Cambodian wedding once! I sometimes carry things inside my sarong, or hang it down from my hostel bunk bed to create an illusion of privacy. I use it as a curtain or as art on the wall. The sarong simply cannot be beat! I usually buy a pretty one from every trip and keep it as a multi-functional souvenir.

2)      Bolero

As with jeans, many people feel the need to bring a bunch of long sleeve shirts along just in case. But unless you are going to a Muslim country, a place with an abundance of malaria or some chilly high altitude towns, you will not get much use out of long sleeve shirts. But since you’ll still want to be prepared for chilly days or nights, the best solution is to bring a bolero or two. A bolero refers to those add-on sleeves that were trendy some five years ago, and are still super trendy in my books as the ultimate travel accessory (hence I’m wearing a bolero in the sarong photo above!). Just throw on a bolero and voila – your sleeveless top has turned into a long sleeve shirt! The best part is that you can wear the bolero with any of your tops, and it weighs much less than a full long sleeve shirt. So even if you never end up needing to wear it, it’s not a big loss weight-wise. The only thing is that boleros are a bit hard to come by these days. So if you see one sold, grab it right away! In fact, I just spotted some in a store in Dakhla, Western Sahara, if anyone is heading that way…


3)      Mini-size shampoos and other beauty products

You know those mini-size shampoos and conditioners that you get at hotels? That is what you should be traveling with too. There is absolutely no reason for you to haul around full-size lotions and potions that take up half of your luggage (yet many people still do!). I bring just a tiny shampoo bottle with me – well, everything I bring is tiny in fact! Here’s a half-liter water bottle as a size comparison.

This black miniature shampoo bottle in the middle lasts me a couple of months, easily.

“How?” you may ask. Well, for one, I have trained my hair so that it only needs to be washed once or twice a week. Other days I just take a shower without washing my hair, which is a great time and shampoo saver. Secondly, I’ll refill the little bottle from time to time from the big bottles that other travelers are hauling around – they are usually more than happy to get rid of a few extra ounces of weight. Or if need be, I’ll buy a bigger bottle to refill from and give the rest to another needy traveler or a local.

(Note: If you think that your hair cannot be trained not to get greasy every day, you are wrong. It definitely can – you just might not want to be seen in public during the training period as it takes a few weeks. Getting braids makes the process a whole lot easier. Your hair doesn’t need to be washed more than once a week after it is braided, and you can continue on that path even after you take the braids off.)

  (Braids are also a great ice-breaker when traveling. People cannot wait to touch your strange hair, at least when you have partly pink braids…)

 

What did you think about these tips? Were any new to you? I still have a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned…

Five Surprising Reasons to Pack Light

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?