I used to be your average, run-of-the-mill, over-packer, throwing most of my closet into a large duffel bag or suitcase. I mean, it's pretty 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.
But then, I started getting into minimalist packing a few years ago. I found myself packing and carrying too much shit and not even using half of it while traveling. Plus, I liked having everything I needed in a small backpack - it symbolized complete freedom. So I searched the internet for minimalist packing lists ranging from weekend-long to even multimonth-long trips. After much experimentation, gear reviews, and trial and error, I settled on my universal ultralight packing list.
Let's start with a few tips to guide our conversation on packing for ultralight travel:
- Get yourself a good backpack. I have an unusual disdain for rollaboards. Have you ever seen a small child wielding one? It's terrifying. The truth is that backpacks suit you much better for ultralight packing needs. If you're bringing a laptop or other electronics, you'll want to get a backpack anyway. And you'll need to fit everything in one bag, ideally one that can fit 30-40 liters. 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 helps, but you'll still be tempted to throw in everything you own. This is especially true if traveling through multiple climates. But trust being ruthless with your packing will pay dividends in the end – it helps to create a list of your travel clothes or invest in some lightweight options. 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.
- Get comfortable doing laundry on the road. 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 of a minimalist packing list. But if you find the right gear, laundry should be few and far between and much easier to manage. And, once you accept laundry might be in your future, packing for two weeks or one year doesn't change much.
- Layers are your friend. To pack for every scenario, with every climate in mind, you'll need to utilize layers. Clothing items that are modular and can be stacked on top of each other will help you go from the jungles of Guatemala to the Alps without an issue.
- Minaal 2.0/Peak Design Travel Backpack: I don't recommend going the hiking backpack route, I feel like I stick out as a tourist too much. Plus, they are just black holes and make it incredibly hard to access your stuff when you need it. So unless you have a dedicated trip or plan on doing a ton of intense hiking/backpacking, I'd leave the Kelty bag at home. I've tried a few different travel backpacks, 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; it makes you consider what you bring on your trip and only allows for the essentials. As much of a pain in the ass as it is to make those decisions when packing, you'll be thankful when you can walk through the city seamlessly. The Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack is fantastic if you need something bigger. Excellent materials and can even collapse to 35L, making it a decent daily carry 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: Find something lightweight and packs down to fit in your hand, so you can usually find a place for it. 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 the Matador Freefly 16 or the Peak Design Packable Tote. These double as grocery bags if you're doing some shopping.
- Macbook Pro: Many days are spent in coffee shops grinding away, especially when I'm traveling indefinitely. I currently 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. I'm too deep into the Apple ecosystem 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.
- Charging Cables: Whether it's USB-A, USB-C, or lightning cables, I can't recommend getting an extra-long charging cable enough - you never know when the plug or outlet will be inconveniently placed in the back corner of the Airbnb.
- Noise Cancelling Headphones: Ah yes, the great headphone debate. I'm not the biggest audiophile in the world. Don't get me wrong, I love music, but can I distinguish the technical differences between the Bose 700 and the Sony WH1000XM4? Sadly, no, I cannot. There are many audio-specific reviews to help you guide your choice, but I enjoy the Sony headphones and recommend them from a travel perspective. There's a new model out now, the Sony WH-1000XM5, so you can probably get the newer models much cheaper. If you're not taking a long flight, noise-canceling earbuds like the AirPods Pro might work pretty damn well and will save you some space.
- Travel Adapter: I like this one because it's pretty slim, but I've also been very impressed with this larger travel adapter. It's rather bulky but has multiple USB-A ports and a USB-C port.
- Kindle Paperwhite: "A mind needs a book like a sword needs a whetstone." – Tyrion Lannister. Like most, I prefer physical books, but the convenience is too nice. Alternatively, I've surprisingly enjoyed the reading experience from the Libby app if you don't like eReaders but still want the convenience.
- Power Bank: This one from Anker can charge your phone about seven times, depending on the battery size. When I first got this, my partner thought it was wayyyyy too big and unnecessary. On our following trip to Italy, I'm pretty sure she used it more than I did. It's a little large, but there's peace of mind knowing you'll be fine even if there's no outlet.
- eSIM: One of the best recent inventions for travelers. Many phone plans are exorbitantly extensive out of your home country, and getting local SIM cards is kind of a pain in the ass. Enter eSIMs. Companies like Airalo let you download an electronic SIM card for a specific country or region. The data might be marginally more expensive than an actual local SIM, but in my opinion, the convenience is worth it.
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- Pants (1-2): The Outlier Slim Dungarees are by far the most comfortable and versatile pants I've ever worn. They toe the line of chinos/jeans very nicely, in my opinion, and are bombproof. On a trip to Iceland, I accidentally sprayed myself with gasoline and was able to get it out of the Slim Dungarees. They are breathable to keep you cool in the summer but thick enough to keep you warm in winter. They come at a steep price point but are worth every penny. The other pants in my arsenal are the Proof Rover Pant and the Western Rise Evolution 2.0 – both are excellent options and can work in various situations.
- Underwear (x5): I usually pack five pairs of underwear. Depending on how long you're traveling, you'll probably do laundry in the sink at some point, so having some 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 the type and length of the 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, but Darn Tough makes some great ones as well. Also, if you're taking a long-haul flight, I'd recommend getting some compression socks, which help increase the circulation in your legs. 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 item might not need to come depending on the weather throughout your trip, but having at least one light layer is helpful. I lean on Merino wool for colder trips or ones where I'll be in a wide range of temperatures. Right now, I have a black Smartwool Quarter-Zip and a green sweater from Unbound Merino.
- Shorts (x2): Two pairs of shorts used for everyday wear, workouts, and swimming. I go with the classic Patagonia Baggies, but there are many options 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 of keeping 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 the most challenging part of packing, especially if traveling across multiple climates. The staple I'll always bring is a pair of trainers to run, work out, and walk around. I love the Vivobarefoot Primus Lite III – they pack so small and can be used to work out and walk around in. The second pair will usually vary dramatically. If I'm traveling in the shoulder or off-season and there is a good chance of rain/snow, I'll bring a pair of waterproof boots. Right now, I'm rocking with Lems Boulder Boot. These things are so damn comfortable.
This section can range pretty widely since many toiletries are very personal to how you take care of yourself. But this is an area that can end up taking up a lot of space in your bag, so really try to be as minimalist as you can. And try to go as generic as you can, avoiding brand names as much as possible - most of this stuff can be found at pharmacies or other stores around the world. Here are a few products I like:
- Toiletry Kit: The Matador Flatpack series is excellent.
- Deodorant: I love Native deodorant and essentially refuse to use anything else. It's the only natural deodorant I've found that doesn't irritate me and actually works. I actually have packed a few of these at a time, depending on how long I'm on the road.
- Melatonin: I'm a horrible sleeper, so occasionally I need something to help put me out for a night.
- Argan Oil: Got to take care of the hair and skin, right?
- 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 that resembles dirty water. The Aeropress is indestructible and makes the best damn cup of coffee. The one trouble is the filters, which you run the risk of running out of, but odds are you'll come across a hipster coffee shop that sells them. When buying beans, ask them to grind them for an Aeropress or "medium-fine." You'll save a ton of money on coffee. Also helpful if you plan on doing any outdoor backpacking/camper van travel on the road.
- Beanie: Only necessary if you're going to a colder destination. But again, we're planning indefinite travel here, so better to be prepared.
- Hat: Something packable and with decent sun protection.
- Gloves: The same rationale as above, don't judge me for the finger-less/mitten gloves. Those touch-screen-compatible gloves 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.
- Lacrosse Ball: For after your workout or long-haul flight when you need to iron out those muscles. I may be slightly behind on this trend, but it's a lifesaver.
- Turkish Towel: You want something that will dry quickly; there's nothing worse than putting a wet towel into your backpack. I used to go with the microfiber towels, which usually work well, but synthetic fibers tend to develop quite the odor. Turkish towels are made from long fiber cotton that dries quickly and doesn't stink.
- Pen: Because you never know when ideas will present themselves.
- Field Notes Notebook: These are great to keep in your back pocket while walking around.
- Sleep Mask + Ear Plugs: Undoubtedly the most underrated piece of equipment on this list. I've had my fair share of hostel experiences that were successfully remedied with these. Hell, even if you're not doing any hostel budget traveling, these things can come in handy.
- 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.
- Airalo: Affordable and reliable eSIMs.
- Maps.me: Sometimes Google Maps won't cut it (in places like Albania, for instance). Maps.me is a good option for offline maps, just try and download them ahead of time when you have reliable WiFi.
- Whatsapp: As much as I don't really love using Facebook products, everyone in the world, people and businesses, use Whatsapp.
- Google Translate: Pretty self-explanatory, just download the language ahead of time.
- Libby: A surprisingly great reading experience for ebooks from the library.
- Splitwise: If you're traveling with a group, this will be immensely helpful to track and share expenses.
- Overcast: The best podcast app around.
- CurrencyConverter: If you travel across multiple countries, it's hard to keep track of all the different exchange rates. I've had a decent experience with this app, and I don't think it's stealing my data.
Everyone is different, so what works for me might not work for you. It might even take one or two trips to find the right balance between how you travel and what you're comfortable with. That said, I've found the above sufficient for me to pack indefinitely (albeit maybe a laundry day now and then) across all climates. Hopefully, this gives you a place to start and the courage to venture into the ultralight packing lifestyle.
Am I missing something? What are your essentials? Comment and let me know!