What exactly is minimalist travel and why you should embrace it

What exactly is minimalist travel and why you should embrace it
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

When is the last time you went on a trip and didn’t over-pack? Odds are, maybe never. With the excitement of the journey and all the endless possibilities of shenanigans that could happen, you must plan for it all!

The next thing you know, you’re hauling a gigantic, awkward to carry duffel bag around with your shit almost billowing out. This might not be as much of an issue if you’re road-tripping, but this duffel quickly becomes a pain in the ass during air travel. Ok, so maybe you don’t have a duffel bag but instead a roll-a-board, but do you really want to be that person with wheels on their bag?

In any case, if you’re anything like me, you probably don’t even use half the shit you packed.

Well, a few years ago, I got hooked on this concept called minimalist travel (often referred to as one-bag or one pack travel) that just about changed my life. You might think that’s hyperbolic, but I really am that obsessed with it. Be warned that there might not be any coming back if you start down this road of minimalist travel.

What is minimalist travel?

Like most modern minimalist principles, minimalist travel isn’t precisely about taking less stuff but rather about eliminating the unnecessary. Like, do you really need to pack your entire closet into one suitcase? Probably not. What about your shampoo and conditioner? Maybe. Determining what is actually necessary can be a personal decision and will depend on the person. For me, I like minimalist clothing and it’s important to travel light, for you it could be something else!Another big, but not strictly necessary, tenant of minimalist travel is only using one bag, typically a carry-on-sized backpack (something that will fit in those 22 x 14 x 9 bins), to fit all of your travel gear. Sound crazy? It’s actually surprising how far it can get you. The “maximum legal carry-on size” for most airlines is typically around 45 liters in volume, which is a good amount of space. This can vary widely though, many budget carriers (Spirit, Ryanair, EasyJet) have stricter size regulations.

Budget Carrier Carry-On Bag Policies
Norwegian Air
Wizz Air

Admittedly, this principle kind of breaks down when you need to bring gear that really won’t fit into one bag. We’re talking ski/snowboard, camera, camping, etc. But that gear may still be necessary for your trip, which is why fitting everything into one minimalist backpack won’t really work.

For most of us, outside of specialized equipment, we can probably get rid of at least half of what we were planning on bringing.

What are the benefits of minimalist travel?

The obvious question that comes to mind is, “why would I ever do this?” And… it’s a fair question. At first glance, it seems like there isn’t a ton of benefit to intentionally limiting your packing so drastically. But trust me, there are almost too many benefits.

No checked bags

It might not seem like a big deal, but if you’re traveling with a budget carrier like Ryanair, sometimes you’ll pay more for the baggage fees than the actual flight. And if you’re hopping around to a few cities, those fees start to add up.

A small travel bag means not having to show up two hours early to get your bag checked, not waiting for bags after your flight, and not losing in the 25 connections it takes to get to Bora Bora.

And you know that pre-flight anxiety where everyone is standing in front of the boarding gate waiting to get on first to make sure there is overhead space for their “carry on”? Yeah, not you.  If you travel minimalist, you’ll be sipping martinis at the airport lounge cool as a fucking cucumber.

You’re more flexible with your travel plans

Sometimes you have these awkward moments in your travels where you have to check out of your hotel at 10am (10:00), but your flight or train isn’t until like 8pm (20:00)? If you have a few bags, you’ll probably have to figure out a way to store them and eventually pick them up or lug them around all day. With minimalist travel, you have your backpack, and you’re ready to go.

You’re faster through the city

Have you ever taken a roll-a-board on cobblestone? If you have, I know why you’re here. If you haven’t, just save yourself the pain. But in all seriousness, sometimes you just have to weave through small streets and crowded cities when you’re in transit. If you travel long enough, this is virtually unavoidable. With a small, minimalist bag, you can travel light and you don’t have to worry about this as much. You’re nimble, agile, and can take the cobblestone on like the champion you are.

Packing is easy – eventually

At first, packing will be a challenge. The first few times, you’ll have to decide how much you can actually fit comfortably in your backpack. And it’ll be a struggle filled with tough decisions. But eventually, probably after a few trips, you’ll get to know your bag – and yourself – a bit better.

You’ll start to realize you don’t need 10 pairs of t-shirts. Instead, you’ll likely begin to reach for those core pieces of clothing and gear that you go to time after time. Eventually, you know exactly what to pack every time, reaching for those minimalist clothes; you won’t even have to think about.

At the end of the day, some people won’t really care about minimalist travel benefits. And that’s fair enough. But odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of those people. And you likely travel differently.

How to pack minimally

Another question that likely comes to mind is, “how will I ever fit all my shit into a single backpack?” Like we just talked about, it’ll take a bit of practice. That said, there are a few rules you can generally stick to.

Find a good backpack

I may have beat this horse to death already, but find a good backpack and if you’re thinking all backpacks are made the same, I’d say no. There are many different types of backpacks, in fact, there’s a whole industry of backpacks that are made for minimalist travel. And I’m not talking about those hiking backpacks with 30 straps and neon colors. I’m talking sleek, aesthetic backpacks that look good and feel good when you wear them. I always find that I feel a bit awkward when I bring a hiking backpack with me. Sure, they have their time and place, like if you’re going on a backpacking trip. But they can also make you stand out and look like a tourist. Which isn’t a bad thing. But sometimes blending in and being a bit less conspicuous is a definite bonus. Nowadays, an entire industry around minimalist backpacks has evolved and created some really excellent options.

I’ve tried a few backpack brands out, including Matador, Aer, and Minaal (my personal go-to). If you’re wondering “how do I pick a backpack or what are the best backpack brands,” I got you covered.

Create a travel capsule wardrobe

Capsule wardrobes are popular in the broader minimalist community. And by no means do you need to go that far in your everyday life, but having one for travel can be incredibly useful. If you’re not familiar, a capsule wardrobe is basically a modular set of clothing that can mix and match to create almost infinite outfits. Think neutral colors (blues, blacks, grey, white, etc.) that can be used interchangeably. One of my favorite minimalist clothing brands right now is Unbound Merino Wool, another good one that’s a little cheaper is Uniqlo. Personally, I prefer merino wool, but that’s up to you.

Use packing cubes

This is a pro move that many people don’t realize or even think about, but packing cubes will change your life. Not only do they help with organization, but they’re an essential part of a modular packing system and making all your shit fit in your new minimal bag. Typically I use two packing cubes that limit what clothes I can bring; whatever fits in the packing cubes is what gets to come on the trip. This gives me a bit of extra room for those pesky miscellaneous items that I still need to bring (electronics, shoes, toiletries, etc.). Not only that but whenever I open my backpack, I don’t have clothes billowing out of my bag and spilling all over the floor. Get a few packing cubes of all sizes so you can mix and match as needed.


So there you have it, a primer on minimalist travel. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I’ve found that the freedom and myriad of benefits are absolutely worth it. If you’re ready to take the plunge, check out my minimalist, ultralight packing guide to get started.