My Secrets To Minimalist Travel Packing

Mar 2, 2020

I’m no Marie Kondo and I confess I have never read her books, but I have frequently been asked how I manage to travel so lightly. I sometimes manage to travel for up to three weeks with just a carry on backpack and those trips are so liberating. Having less definitely makes me feel very free, gives me added flexibility and less stress. So with a day in transit on my way to Australia for a month, I have time to finally lay it all out in a post.

I was not always a ninja minimalist travel packer, I learnt from experience. In 2008 I embarked on a year long backpacking trip with a 30kg rucksack with lots of shiny new gear I thought I would need. Back then we also relied solely on Lonely Planet travel guides so I had 3 of those heavy guide books as well. Within a week of arriving in South East Asia, I sent half of it all home, 3 months later another half again. Not only was it literally a pain to constantly carry so much gear from here to there, I was tired of having to pack and unpack things when really I was only using the same few things all the time. Travelling light also means you get less hassle wherever you go, for some reason the more baggage you have, the more of a target you are for touts and you just don’t have the flexibility to get around as easily.

I try to make environmentally friendly decisions in my packing, it is very important to me and I will avoid disposable products as much as I can. I buy high quality items that will last me at least 10 years and that I wear or use regularly. I do not replace my clothes with new fashions, I always choose classic styles and colours. My full wardrobe is actually just a small extension of my travel wardrobe, there is nothing I don’t wear regularly.

My packing is by no means perfect, so if you have any advice where I don’t have an environmentally friendly solution, please can you suggest in the comments because I’d like to consider improvement wherever I can.

MINIMALIST TRAVEL PACKING TIPS:

CHOOSE YOUR WARDROBE FOR VERSATILITY : Choose colours and items that mix and match easily. Neutral colours are best for this, I have a largely black wardrobe and save colour for tops or scarves only. Items that can be both dressed up smart or casual, again neutral colours help. Simply accessorise with some jewellery to create a smart and stylish look.

TRY TO REDUCE TO 1 OF EACH ESSENTIAL: Where possible, try and carry only 1 jacket, 1–2 pairs of shoes, 1 set of each necessary bottom (ie. skirt/shorts/trousers). Choose a few good tops that can be worn with more than one bottom.

SHOES: These are such space wasters, so choose comfort above all else so that you always have something you can walk in. I only ever travel with maximum 2 pairs, usually a smart sandal and covered foot option. My current favourite shoes are my Vivobarefoot lightweight trainers, they are the only shoes I can walk in all day, every day — and I walk a lot. I also have a pair of plain Vivobarefoot plain ballet slippers for smarter occasions.

QUICK DRY & NO IRONING: Choose items that do not require ironing. I have clothes that are also quick dry/synthetic in case I need to hand wash overnight.They are often lighter to carry as well which is a bonus.

MULTI-PURPOSE JACKET: I have smart black North Face rain jacket with hood that is perfect for many climates. It’s lightweight and good for warm climates, just add layers underneath when it gets slightly colder.

WEAR YOUR HEAVIEST CLOTHES IN TRANSIT: By wearing your heaviest items on the plane you reduce your luggage weight allowance and often it’s cold in the plane/train anyway so they will keep you warm. These items include jeans, boots, jackets etc.

Left: My painting equipment is the biggest extravagance in my baggage on this trip. Middle: Two grey mesh clothing bags from Muji, Grey toiletry case from Kathmandu, Vivobarefoot trainers, sun hat. Right: Shoe bag with spare slip on shoes and cables, Northface rain jacket, Muji travel bag, eco-friendly foldable travel yoga mat.

TOILETRIES: Get some refillable/reusable toiletry bottles for shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser. I bought mine from Muji with most of my travel accessories. Refill them from your hotel/accommodation if they have large refillable bottles. I avoid using disposable hotel freebies, if a trip is longer I buy them at my destination. I haven’t yet found a solution for reusable toothpaste/deodorant, the ones I have in my picture were purchased on a previous trip where options were limited. Simplify your beauty routine so you need less. For example, I use the same moisturiser for face and body when travelling to keep the baggage light. When I travel with make up, it will just be a small moisturising foundation, lip gloss and mascara. I have long hair so I can just brush it into a neat pony tail or leave natural and wavy, but I don’t style. I will switch to a bamboo toothbrush when I next need to replace my current one. I use a Mooncup so I never have to worry about tampons or pads, I carry a sterilising tab to clean after use. My nail file is metal so it lasts me forever. I forgot to pack it this time, but I have a small perfume diffuser from Muji which is the size of a lighter and I just refill from my bottle at home. If items don’t all fit in this toiletry bag, I prioritise and leave things I can survive without at home. 

CARRY ON/AROUND BAGGAGE: Because we all usually travel with laptops these days, I find having an ergonomic backpack is very important. I avoid suitcases for carry on, because there is never a guarantee you can put it in overhead compartments and soft shell bags fit easily under the seat which saves you time stowing your baggage. I have had back issues for much of my adult life so I have learnt the importance of choosing a bag that is good for your back and comfortable to carry for long periods of time. It is 100% worth spending on a good quality bag that FITS YOU WELL. I tested a lot of bags for best fit before choosing my North Face one. It has padding and structure to support your back well, the construction is strong while remaining lightweight itself. The design is brilliant, with so many clever compartments, carry handles and even soft fleece lining to protect electronic items. It fits a surprising lot into it but doesn’t look big. My backpack weighs 7 kgs when full of my travel essentials (as photographed) which is the carry on limit for many airlines. I would normally have bought it in black, but my partner has the exact same bag so I didn’t want to get them mixed up at home.

HANDBAG/MAN-BAG: When at your destination it’s always useful to have a smaller bag option that you can use if you don’t need all your stuff. I have had my Muji cross body travel bag for around 15 years, sadly they discontinued it , but it’s stylish and fits so much into it! It’s also easy to clean and I just love it.

ELECTRONICS: We are so lucky that technology now means that you no longer need to buy the biggest for best quality. Speakers, cameras and entire libraries of books can be carried in your handbag now. My minimalist (and somewhat nomadic) lifestyle means E-Readers are the most practical option for me. The main consideration to be made these days is in what plugs and cables to pack. I have one travel adaptor with USB sockets and also use my laptop to charge multiple devices at once to avoid having too many plugs.

REFILLABLE WATER BOTTLE & REUSABLE CUTLERY: When travelling one of the most wasteful things we can do is buy disposable convenience food and beverages. Most airports have refill stations even if not advertised, the REFILL MY BOTTLE app is brilliant if you need to track one down. My Camelbak Eddy bottle is 5 years old and I carry it with me every day. It’s the best bottle I’ve come across, because you don’t need to unscrew a lid to drink from it, with one hand you can flip the mouthpiece up and drink. The best thing is that it does not leak in your bag, even when upside down. In colder climates I would carry a thermos for my hot beverages, but if I don’t, I simply don’t get takeaway coffees.

IF YOU CAN HIRE, BORROW OR USE ITEMS AT YOUR DESTINATION THEN DON’T TAKE IT: Obviously you need to make a judgement call on this, but as baggage allowances become stricter, it is increasingly difficult and expensive to carry a lot of luggage now anyway. For example, I am a scuba diver and have been used to taking all my own gear with me on diving holidays as sports gear used to be free on many airlines and it saved me money on hire costs. But that is no longer the case. It is now often cheaper and more convenient to just hire from a dive operator and saves you the hassle and stress lugging the extra gear around. If you are only going to use items once, find out if you can just borrow it when you get to your location. For example, don’t carry a hairdryer or portable speaker if your hotel provides it already (though it’s not always a given so check).

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