Life from an outsider's perspective…

“The only baggage you can bring is all that you can’t leave behind” -U2

The ultimate guide to travelling light. Learn to pack your bags right!

Between 1999 and 2005, I was fortunate enough to travel to many foreign countries. In the year 2000 I bought a round the world ticket offered by Oneworld visiting more than 10 countries throughout my journey. In 2005, I went and did it again. This time there were 21 different countries on my itinery and I visited continents in both Winter and Summer.

Yet each time, I was able to travel with only a 23L backpack! I chose to use the Berghaus Freeflow 23L model. This weighed between 5-7kg, so I never checked in any luggage either. Many people I met were amazed at how I was able to manage this feat. Check-in staff were especially in awe when they inevitably saw all the places I was going. Some others thought I was just plain crazy. How is it possible? Well it’s suprisingly easy, if you know how and are prepared to make a few sacrifices…

If it isn’t obvious already, why should you travel light? First and foremost: realise that there are several heavy things which most travellers carry with them whenever they travel. Listed here are the main culprits:

  1. A second pair of shoes, or worse, heavy hiking boots.
  2. A beach towel.
  3. Clothes -and especially- multiple pairs of jeans.
  4. The backpack (or suitcase) itself!
  5. An accumulation of electronic gadgets.

Your first task is to eliminate these things. If you can do that, you too can enjoy all the benefits of travelling light. So here’s the remedy:

  1. Footwear. Choose your footwear very carefully. Heavy boots may not be the wisest choice, even in winter. If you intend to do a lot of walking around cities for example, choose one pair of comfortable walking shoes and WEAR them. Think about wearing your heaviest pair of shoes all the time. If you can’t fathom that, how on earth are you going to manage that 10 mile trek with a backpack weighing 15kg+ ???
  2. Towels. Question: How much time do you spend drying yourself? Answer: not much. Less than 3 minutes a day? Less? In other words, 0.1-0.2% of your total adventure time. How much time do you spend with your backpack on your back? More than 3 minutes a day, surely. So is it really worth taking that gigantic beach towel with you? You leave your towel in the bathroom when you go to the office, yet you want to take it to the other side of the world with you?! No. Towels, while reasonably heavy, are also extremely voluminous. The best, lightest alternative is to use a dedicated travel towel, or an even smaller towel designed for olympic swimmers. They actually dry quicker too. The latter one you can wring out, so you’ll never have to put up with a damp, heavy towel smelling of mildew.
  3. Clothing. Clothing selection is highly, highly important. Never underestimate it. It’s not limited to jeans, but they are the main offenders. Layering is the most important thing to remember here, LAYERING. It will keep you warm in Winter and cool in Summer. Synthetic clothes are the best for warmth, and have the added benefit of taking up the least room. If you don’t have the right clothes, spend a day in one of those clothing adventure stores… you’ll see what I mean. I can’t live without my windstopper jacket. Light, thin, perfect.
  4. The backpack. I mention the weight of the backpack itself only because if you travel light, you can further reduce your weight allowance by reducing the size of the backpack. Once you overcome the mental obstacle of packing everything into what is essentially a daypack, it then becomes easy to eschew the idea of using a giant-sized rucksack weighing up to 5 times more. Besides, if you carry a 100L backpack, even if you don’t start off with it full of luggage, you’ll be tempted to fill your it with crap along the way. That’s not the true idea of travel my friends. The secret, like everything, is to pick an appropriately sized container. Unless you’re confined to the pacific islands, choose a sturdy bag, ideally with a capacity of between 25 and 30 litres.
  5. Electronic Clutter. While they may be small, electronic appliances are relatively heavy & really add up when you consider their charging units as well. Take a men’s razor instead of an electronic shaver. Girls, leave the hairdrying equipment at home. If it has a plug, if it has a cord or needs batteries, forget it. Just leave it at home and do without. Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking already. We’re tied to electronic technology, so you’re allowed ONE exception! Just keep it limited to one device though. Laptops = not permitted.

 The only thing you need to know now is how to correctly pack the travel items you do decide to take:

  • In direct contrast with this ridiculous “bundle-wrapping” theory, YA FOLD!! Ya don’t roll or bundle. Geez. Rolling wastes valuable space. Just look at the valuable space wasted in this pretty diagram. Amateurs! I learned ALL about atomic packing factors when I did my undergraduate degree in Materials Science… suffice it to say that folding clothes saves much more space, not to mention time. And we all know that time is universally important. Creases? The best thing you can do to avoid creases is to go with synthetic wrinkle free clothes.
  • Start with the bulkiest clothes first. Fold them so that they match the cross-section of your backpack or suitcase. I’m talking exactly. Place these in the bottom of your bag & compress.
  • The important point to make is that you should lay your clothes inside the backpack or suitcase in layers. After you have packed several layers (say 5 T-shirts) compress this layer further. Fill the remaining gaps with socks and underpants, then continue adding layers upon layers… picture the best lasagna you’ve ever seen, one with many layers that fit perfectly in its container, with no gaps around the edges. That’s the ideal sort of structure.
  • Repeat this process of layering, compressing, and stuffing things that can be stuffed into any small space.
  • Towards the end of your travels, you’ll probably need to squash the layers down by standing on them. This is the reason you fit your clothes in first – so you aren’t standing on your camera hidden somewhere in the bottom of your bag.
  • Finally, contrary to what this “guru” says, skip all those well-intentioned “travel organisers” you see hanging on those accessory stands inside bag shops. These take up more space than they save, and add many extra grams of precious weight. And let’s face it… in the battleground of travelling light, weight is the enemy here folks, so use the pocket(s) sewn onto your daypack instead – that’s what they’re there for! Convenience is the price you pay for a light bag.

I’m an avid photographer, so the last time I did this, about 1/3rd of my backpack was allocated to film equipment (an SLR camera and 30 odd rolls of slide film). In today’s age of digital photography, it should be suprisingly easy to further reduce the amount of gear you need to carry.

Admittedly, due to security reasons, it’s more difficult now to get on a plane without being forced to check in that little bag you’ve spent so much time packing. It’s been a while since I travelled, but I believe the main hurdle to overcome is the new restriction on taking on board liquids in containers bigger than 100ml. I previously travelled with liquid shower gel (to avoid ending up with a soggy bar of soap in my bag). Use your imagination! Take soap flakes packed into a container for example. Then you’ll only need to take toothpaste, which is commonly available in smaller sized tubes of about 50ml. Once you reduce or eliminate the shower gel, it should be easy to remain within the 100ml liquid/gel allocation rule.

3 Responses to ““The only baggage you can bring is all that you can’t leave behind” -U2”

  1. The one issue I am finding is first aid kits. If I am travelling anywhere where it may be necessary I carry a first aid kit which includes a clean IV needle. This cannot be taken on as hand luggage and unlike a razor cannot be easily replaced when you get to your destination. This means checking in your one bag, defeating a lot of the point.

  2. I guess you’ll just have to wait for the new “Jet Injector”
    to be scaled down in size!

    Also consider that you’ll still be reducing emissions by travelling light if the same bag goes in the cargo hold or travels with you as carry-on baggage.
    Thanks, Les.

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