Ultralight Packing Tips
If you’re not familiar or new to ultralight packing, then this might be a lot to take in. I used to be your average, run of the mill over-packer, and just threw most of my closet into a large duffel bag. And when you’re packing, it’s natural to want to account for every situation you might encounter, “what if I end up going ice climbing, I obviously need to bring my ice pick”… I have never gone ice climbing. Maybe that’s extreme, but you get what I mean.
A couple of years ago I started getting into minimalist packing to make traveling easier on myself. I searched the internet for minimalist packing lists ranging from a weekend trip packing list, to what to pack for a 3 day trip to even a month long trip. All of this helped me create my own universal packing list.
So, let’s start with a few tips to guide our conversation on packing for ultralight travel:
- Ditch the rollaboard. I have an unusual disdain for rollaboards. Ever seen a small child wielding one? It’s terrifying. The truth is that backpacks are going to suit you so much better for ultralight packing needs. If you’re bringing a laptop or other electronics, then you’ll want to get a backpack anyway, and odds are you can fit everything you need in that alone. You’ll need the right bag, but more on that later.
- Be ruthless with your packing list. You’ll have some tough choices to make when packing light. Maintaining a flexible and modular wardrobe definitely helps, but you’ll still be tempted to throw in everything you own. This is especially true if traveling through multiple climates. But trust me on this one, it will absolutely pay dividends in the end – it helps to create a list of your travel clothes or invest in some lightweight clothing. And, if you end up forgetting something, it’s usually easy enough to buy it at your destination. That’s not ideal, but we’re talking worst-case scenario.
- Be comfortable with doing laundry. I know laundry is probably the last thing you want on your mind when you’re traveling. Unfortunately, this is one of the trade-offs with a minimalist packing list. But if you find the right gear, laundry should not only be few and far between but also much easier to manage.
- Fit everything in one bag. Yup, you read that correctly. The goal of ultralight packing is to fit all of your gear and clothing into one bag, ideally between 30-40L in capacity. If you follow the first three tips, this shouldn’t be too daunting.
- Minaal 2.0/Peak Design Travel Backpack: I’ve tried a few different travel backpacks at this point, and so far, I love the Minaal 2.0. This bag’s official capacity is around 35L, but if you ask the crew that makes it, that doesn’t mean much to them. The small capacity is aggressive in that it really makes you consider what you’re bringing on your trip and only allows for the essentials. As much of a pain in the ass it is to make those decisions when you’re packing, you’ll be thankful when you can walk through the city seamlessly. If you need something a little bigger, the Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack is fantastic. Great materials and can even collapse to 35L, making it fantastic as a daily cary bag at your destination.
- Packing Cubes: These things will help so damn much. Both Minaal and Peak Design make packing cubes designed for their backpacks. I use the two medium-size cubes as my allowance for what clothes I can take. Once I fill up these, that’s pretty much it for clothing.
- Packable Bag/Backpack: Lightweight and packs down to fit in your hand, so you can usually fit it in your pack somewhere. I’ve used the Minaal as a daypack before, and although it is doable (and necessary if you want to bring a computer), it’s not the best experience. I prefer something like the Matador Freely 16 or the Peak Design Packable Tote.
- Macbook Pro: Many days are spent in coffee shops grinding away, especially when I’m traveling indefinitely. I have the 14″ Macbook Pro M1 Max. I went with a more powerful MacBook this time around to give a little help with editing photos and videos. If you don’t do any of that, an iPad or MacBook Air would suffice. Plus, I’m way too deep into the Apple ecosystem at this point to opt for anything else.
- iPhone: Probably whatever the newest one is. I wish I didn’t rely on my phone as much as I do. But for travel, these things are just so damn helpful from navigating the streets to translating foreign languages. Plus, for someone like me who relies on the camera for photos and videos, it’s become essential to my workflow.
- Lightning Charger: Nothing fancy here. Bring a one or two just in case.
- Noise Cancelling Headphones: Ah yes, the great headphone debate. To be entirely honest, I’m not the biggest audiophile in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I love music and listen to it pretty much constantly when I’m traveling. But can I distinguish between technical differences between the Bose 700 and the Sony WH1000XM3? Sadly, no I cannot. There are a ton of reviews out there to help you guide your choice, but I do enjoy the Sony headphones and would definitely recommend them.
- Travel Adapter: I like this one because it’s pretty slim, but one with built-in USB chargers is nice too. It’s pretty bulky, but a necessary evil.
- Kindle Paperwhite: “A mind needs a book like a sword needs a whetstone.” – Tyrion Lannister
- Portable Charger: This one from Anker can charge your phone about 7 times, depending on the battery size. When I first got this my girlfriend thought it was wayyyyy too big and unnecessary. On our following trip to Serbia, I’m pretty sure she used it more than I did. It is a little large, but it’s been a life saver when a reliable power outlet hasn’t been available.
- USB Cables: Can we just get to USB-C already?
- Pants (1-2): The Outlier Slim Dungarees, are by far the most comfortable and most versatile pants I’ve ever worn. They toe the line of chinos/jeans very nicely in my opinion and are basically bombproof – on a trip to Iceland I accidentally sprayed myself with gasoline and was able to get it out. Pretty breathable, to keep you cool in the summer but thick enough to keep you warm in the winter. They do come at a steep price point, but trust me they are worth every penny, you won’t be disappointed. The other pants in my arsenal are the Proof Rover Pant and the Foehn Brise 2.0 – both are great options and can work in a variety of situations.
- Boxers (x5): I usually go with about 5 pairs of underwear. You’ll probably end up doing laundry in the sink at some point, depending on how long you’re traveling, so having pairs that dry fast will be very helpful. Take a look at ExOfficio Give-N-Go boxer briefs, they’re a little pricey but by far the best out there.
- Socks (x5): This can depend on type and length of trip, but I usually stick to about 4-5 pairs. A nice mix of heavyweight wool and lighter will get the job done. All of my socks are from Smartwool. Also, if you’re taking a long-haul flight, I’d definitely recommend getting some compression socks, which help increase the circulation in your legs. Yeah, you might not feel like the coolest cat in the world, but you’ll feel infinitely better.
- T-Shirts (x4): I take about four t-shirts with me, most of them are Merino wool, which are great wrinkle free travel clothes options. I’ve been really happy with the ones from Unbound Merino. I stick to traditional colors like navy, black, grey, and white to keep it simple and easy to mix and match. They are also great hiking and backpacking clothes.
- Long Sleeve Shirt/Sweater (x2): This is another item that might not need to come depending on the weather throughout your trip. For colder trips or ones where I’ll be in a wide range of temperatures, I lean on Merino wool. In my bag right now is a black Smartwool Quarter-Zip and green sweater from Unbound Merino.
- Shorts (x2): Two pairs of shorts used for everyday wear, workouts, swimming. I go with the classic Patagonia Baggies but there are a ton of options out there for lightweight hybrid shorts.
- Insulated Jacket: Patagonia Nano Puff, hands down the most comfortable jacket I’ve ever owned. It also does a great job keep you warm and works well under another shell (for wind or rain).
- Rain Jacket: I have a simple, REI rain shell that I travel with. Pretty cheap, no fuss, and easy to pack down. If you’re looking for something a little more durable, try the Patagonia Houdini. The important part is that it can pack down to almost nothing.
- Shoes (x2): Shoes are by far the hardest part of packing, especially if you are going to be traveling across multiple climates. The one staple I’ll always bring is a pair of trainers I can run, work out, and walk around in. I really love the Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III – they pack down so small and can be used to workout and walk around in. The second pair will usually vary dramatically. If I’m traveling in the winter and there is a good chance of rain/snow, then I’ll bring a pair of waterproof boots. Right now I’m rocking with Lem’s Boulder Boot. These things are so damn comfortable.
- Beanie: Only necessary if you’re going to a colder destination. But again, we’re planning for indefinite travel here so better to be prepared.
- Gloves: The same rationale as above, don’t judge me for the finger-less/mitten gloves. Those touch screen compatible gloves literally never work well.
- Sunglasses: Keep it classic with the wayfarers. Knockarounds are cheap enough to thrash around but offer some serious protection.
- Jump Rope: Even when you’re not traveling, jump rope is one of the most effective cardio workouts you’ll get. It weighs practically nothing and can pack anywhere.
- Aeropress Go: If you require coffee to function, which I assume you do, this will save you so much money. Never rely on the coffee machines from the hotel, hostel, or Airbnb. Most of the time, they'll be garbage and make coffee the mostly resembles dirty water. The Aeropress is indestructible and makes the best cup of coffee you can have. Odds are you'll come across a nice coffee shop and extra filters. Just ask them to the beans for you and you you'll save a ton of money on coffee out. Also helpful if you plan on doing any outdoor backpacking/camper van travel on the road.
- Lacrosse Ball: For after your workout or long haul flight when you need to iron out those muscles. I may be a little behind on this trend, but seriously, it’s a lifesaver.
- Turkish Towel: You want something that’s going to dry quickly, there’s nothing worse than having to put a wet towel into your backpack. I used to go with the microfiber towels, which usually work pretty well but synthetic fibers tend to develop quite the odor. Turkish towels are made from long fiber cotton that dries quick and doesn’t stink.
- Pen: Because you never know when ideas will present themselves. Realistically any pen works, but this one writes upside down.
- Field Notes Notebook: These are great to keep in your back pocket while you’re walking around.
- Sleep Mask + Ear Plugs: Undoubtedly the most underrated piece of equipment on this list. When budget traveling with hostels, you’re going to quickly appreciate the world of a difference these make. I’ve had my fair share of hostel experiences that were successfully remedied with these.
- Water bottle: I go with the 32 oz Hydro Flask. I dig this water bottle but feel free to go with whatever bottle you have.
Each person is different, so what works for me might not necessarily work for you. It might even take one or two trips to find the right balance with how you travel and what you’re comfortable with. That said, I’ve found the above to be entirely sufficient for me to pack indefinitely (albeit maybe a laundry day every now and then). Hopefully this gives you a place to start and the courage to venture into the ultralight packing lifestyle. After that, there’s no going back, you’re going to be an ultra-minimalist traveler any day now!