The Lady Traveler’s Guide to Packing Light
Four years ago I wrote a post detailing all the things I’d be bringing with me on my first open-ended trip: see Packing for an Unforeseeably Long Trip. As one could imagine, I’ve learned a few things throughout my years of long-term travel. Surprisingly many of the items I packed during my first trip, I’ve managed to keep and continue using. Not so surprisingly, I’ve ditched many items along the way.
During that time, as well as today, I swear by the 2 bag packing method–a carry-on sized backpack paired with a daypack containing my valuables. I wrote it BEFORE I left and all the items were compiled by me after researching; reading travel blogs, product reviews, etc.
Looking back on that post, I’m actually shocked (and impressed) by how little I was able to bring. Though I’m still carrying roughly the same sized packs, I’ve increased my overall weight by a few pounds due to the important fact that I now work on the road and must travel with more electronics; laptop, DSLR & camera equipment. Also, I’m no longer content running around like a living ad for REI or Athleta–I like looking nice and don’t want to scream, “American Tourist!”
No matter how long I plan to be gone, one-week to one-year–I’ll pack more or less the same amount.
My Big Tips for Packing Small:
- Shoes are vital.
Not only because you must protect your feet (duh), but because they will likely be your bulkiest items. If chosen wisely, you’ll free up your pack for other essentials (or luxury items). I bring with me no more than 4 pairs of shoes.
- One light weight running shoe or trainer for active days. I love Nike Free; they are cute, comfy and ultra light.
- One day-to-day city explorer shoe: I’ll be trying Ked’s for my upcoming 3 month trip to Mexico and Central America. They are light, comfortable, classic and look respectable with a variety of clothes from dresses and shorts to jeans or leggings. Ballerina flats are a good option here as well especially if you think you’ll need to dress up more (I’d go with these)
- One hiking sandal; I’ve been a fan of these Teva sandals. Though they aren’t as nice as Chacos, they are cheaper (I’ve gone through 2 pairs in 4 years) and significantly lighter. Perfect for hot, tropical places like Southeast Asia or Central America.
- One dressier sandal; I like something leather with a bit of a wedge that will look nice with dresses and for occasions when I want to look nice. In the past, I’ve had this one and this one and was pretty happy. I’ll be trying out this Teva wedge on my next trip.
- Research and Invest in a good bag
If you’re going to be traveling frequently, a good pack is worth it’s weight in gold. This will be your closet and the keeper of all your worldly possessions. Buy something durable and comfortable. I’ve been using my Osprey Porter 46L throughout all my travels and still love it. Though it’s not the most comfortable (not built for long hikes), it’s extremely tough, protective and practical. I appreciate that it’s top-loading so I can organize my things and find items easily without having to dig too much.
- Bring Leggings
- For hiking, running or warming up your favorite dress.
- Wear your heaviest clothes and shoes on travel days (if possible)
I will wear black skinny jeans, tank top, chambray shirt, duster sweater with my Keds. This tip is especially helpful for flights which you plan to fly carry-on only.
- Bring a reusable water bottle
Nearly every country I’ve travelled to has undrinkable tap water and in these places, you’ll notice pretty quickly large amounts of plastic waste. Even if you plan to travel in a so-called “developed” country, aim to reduce the amount of waste you leave behind.
- Don’t Forget Comfort Items
I don’t leave home without my sleep mask, earplugs and some sort of travel pillow. If you can sleep well anywhere and nap on buses, trains and planes, you be a much happier traveller. Trust me. This eye mask is life changing.
- Bring Jeans
Ignore what many people say and bring some jeans. Local people, wherever you go, will be wearing them. Bring your favorite, most comfortable pair of light weight jeans. I’m very into these and like them in a dressy black. Chances are, wherever you go, at some point, you’ll probably be glad you have them.
- Leave behind your accessories
I don’t tend to bring much jewelry, scarves, or purses because all these things make the perfect souvenirs for myself. It’s an excuse to buy from artisans in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Guatemala or Mexico, where you’ll find some seriously cool handmade items.
- Dresses are the bomb
They are light, comfortable, attractive and take up little space. You will want to look nice in your Instagram posts.
- Bring some old stuff
I like to strategically pack things that are old, or I’m tired of wearing, with the intention of “losing” them along the way. This is a great way to have something until you don’t need it, don’t want it or have found a nice replacement for it. Many hostels have lost and found boxes perfect for letting go of dead weight.
- Keep passport and important documents in plastic envelopes.
I keep all my important tidbits (photocopy of my passport, PADI card, extra credit cards) in a plastic zippy envelop I got at a office supply store in Vietnam (this one is similar), hidden safely in the depths of my daypack.
- Choose toiletries selectively
I’ll bring with me a travel size shampoo and conditioner, a small bottle of Dr Bronner’s, facial oil, sunscreen, travel size toothpaste & brush, comb, deodorant and mini bottle of hair oil. That’s about it. For makeup: just mascara, eye creme/concealer and eyeliner. If I’m traveling longer than a month, I’ll restock on bigger bottles of things I need on the road. Almost anywhere you go will have the things you need (other than certain makeup colors and good brands of deodorant). If in doubt, don’t pack it.
- Buy Carefully
You don’t need to buy the latest and greatest travel gear. Please don’t max out your credit card at REI buying all your clothes. There are a few items which I recommend buying carefully and high quality: your bags, your shoes, and a few clothing items:
- Underwear: I can’t recommend these exoficio undies highly enough if you’ll be traveling long-term, especially through warm climates or if you’ll be doing any hiking. They are light, comfortable and easy to wash in a hostel sink, after which they dry uber fast.
- A good merino wool base-layer. This will not be cheap, but if you choose well it’ll last you forever and you’ll be happy to have it. I bought two and both have held up beautifully through extended use. I don’t travel without one.
- Jackets: a microfleece + rain/wind layer. Much like the base-layer, you’ll be happy to have them and if chosen well, they’ll last you, while not taking up too much space. Pair these two up with merino wool, you’ll be warm almost anywhere. If you plan to travel to colder climates, a compactable down jacket may be a good choice (I have this one).
Withstood the Test of Time:
Items which have proven themselves useful or that I still feel are worth precious space (with me since 2012)
* My Osprey Porter 46L
* XL Travel Towel
* Money belt
* Packing Cubes
* Compression sack (for undergarmets)
* Kindle & iPod touch (though I’ve since traded it in for a smartphone)
* Teva hiking sandals (upgraded between Latin America and Asia; new pair of the same style)
* Keeper Cup (I’ve bought a couple new ones along the way)- AMAZING, do yourself and the planet a favor and get in the hang of using this thing.
* Plastic Envelopes
* Microfleece Jacket (not exactly the same as what I started with, but similar) & Marmott Rain Jacket
* Athleta Merino Wool base-layer
* Lululemon Sports bra & Exoficio undies
* Rain cover
* TSA Lock – I use one to lock the main zipper on my Osprey on travel days or to protect valuables I leave in a hotel/hostel/Airbnb
Lost Along the Way:
* Cocoon Sleep Sheet (used it a few times, but lost it in favor of more space for other stuff)
* Cocoon electronics organizer (never used it; got lost at the bottom of my pack)
* Bulky Hiking Shoes (unless you plan to do huge multi day treks)
* Pacsafe purse (ugly and excessive)
* Bluetooth keyboard (it broke + I’ve started brining my laptop)
* Traded in my small point and shoot for a DSLR
* Headlamps (not because they aren’t practical–I just can’t help but chronically lose them)
* Eyeglasses, contact lenses, and supplies (I got lasik eye surgery!)
* Books of any sort. Generally too heavy. My kindle makes up for it.
*All opinions are my own. All products were purchased with my own money, after doing my own research and testing.