Five strategies for travelling light
Carrying a lighter load makes travelling better for many reasons, including comfort, mobility, flexibility, security and economy. But how can the average over-packer reduce the burden? Here are the five strategies which best sum up how I’ve put my own luggage on a successful diet, and made my travels more enjoyable.
1. Use a packing list
This may sound like a mundane and time-consuming chore, which could be why so many people don’t bother. However, if you’re serious about reducing weight by travelling with as little as possible, it is perhaps the most important tip of all.
Having a packing list:
- ensures that nothing important is forgotten
- ensures that nothing unnecessary is packed
- makes it easier to evaluate items thoughtfully and learn from experience
- once established, makes future packing much easier
To really benefit from a packing list, it needs to be evaluated at the end of each trip - adjustments made, unused items crossed out, and notes made for future improvements. This need not take long, and a good time to do it is during the journey home (eg. waiting at airports) when details of the trip are fresh in your mind.
Reducing luggage weight is usually a long process of trial and error, with incremental improvements. An editable list can represent the sum of all your packing experiences and lessons learned so far. If you keep your list electronically - spreadsheets are good, but simple text files will do - then you can easily edit and improve the list you have just used, so that next time all you need do is print it and start packing.
Without lists, you'll be tempted to throw things in "just in case" because it is hard to remember all the small details of packing wisdom you learn over the years. Creating packing lists may take some time to set up, but starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel each time you pack probably takes more time in the long run.
2. Leave stuff behind
My biggest weight reductions have been achieved by leaving things out altogether. If you're anything like me, you may have carried a lot of items "just in case" and ended up not using them. It's a common mistake, but one which need not be repeated.
This is easiest when you have a packing list, and for each item on the list you ask yourself “can I do without it?”, or "what is the worst that could happen if I didn't take it?" After a trip, the list can be reviewed using questions like "what didn't I use?", or “what could I have done without?".
For cooking on camping trips, do you really need more than a single pot and spoon? Plates, bowls, knives and forks can all be left at home if you plan meals differently. Do you need to take a heavy guidebook, or can you just borrow one from a library before the trip and make notes? Do you need to carry spare toiletries, or can you just go shopping while away - like the locals do?
How likely are you to need the shorts, raincoat, spare jumper, tin opener, or whatever? If you didn't use it last time, do you have good reason to believe this time will really be different? It may pay to err on the side of caution if paddling up the Amazon or hiking in the wilderness, but if you're going somewhere that has shops, perhaps you don't need to be prepared for every unlikely eventuality.
3. Substitute lighter alternatives
If you can't avoid taking something with you, which is preferable, then the next best thing is to look for something which weighs less.
Many common travel items have lightweight equivalents. If you need to take cutlery, use Lexan plastic utensils instead of stainless steel. Specialist camping shops sell small quick-dry towels that are much lighter and less bulky than what you use at home. Modern LED torches are a fraction of the size and weight of those containing incandescent globes. A standard umbrella can be replaced with a small travel umbrella that fits in a back pocket.
You name it, there is probably somebody selling a lightweight equivalent ... for a price. That's the main pitfall - getting carried away with buying lighter alternatives can get expensive, which is why omitting things altogether should be considered first.
4. Take reduced quantities
If you can't omit something, and there isn't a lighter equivalent, can you take less?
Instead of throwing in full sized containers of travel supplies, give some thought to how much you will actually need and transfer the appropriate amounts to smaller containers.
For example, don’t take a full 200ml bottle of shampoo if 50ml of shampoo transferred to a small plastic container will suffice. Find a miniature soap or a half used bar rather than a full sized bar of soap. Take a partially used tube of toothpaste that contains enough for your trip, rather than a full tube. If taking a guidebook, and it’s your own copy, consider removing the sections you will need and leaving the rest at home. Do you really need as many shirts/socks/whatever as you think? If travelling with others, there may be items you can all share, rather than each carry their own.
Reducing quantities can take a bit of thought and planning, but a lot of small weight savings can really add up.
5. Use quick-dry easy-care clothing, and keep it to a minimum
Specialist camping and travel shops boast an abundance of modern easy-care clothing which can be rinsed in a hand basin (or under the shower) and dried overnight without creasing. Using such clothing minimises what you need to take, as you don’t need a supply of fresh clothes to sustain you between laundromat visits. In fact you may not need to visit a laundromat at all, which is a big timesaver.
I've survived trips of up to eight weeks with only two pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, two sets of thermal underwear (it was winter), two shirts, and one pair of long trousers. Plus a couple of warm outer layers which didn't need to be washed. It did mean almost daily rinsing of socks and underpants, but items like Ex-Officio briefs dry quickly, and it was less inconvenient than a major laundromat trip.
The only caution I would give is that claims of overnight drying generally apply to items hung to dry in a hotel room, or similar warm environment. In chilly unheated accommodation, such as a campervan in winter, one night is not quite enough Three sets of underwear in the cold is safer than the two sets you could get away with in warm conditions.
Is it really worth the effort to save weight when travelling? I think so. I’ve been using a number of packing lists (one for each type of trip) for over fifteen years and have never regretted a single minute spent modifying them.
Over the years I’ve progressively reduced the weight of my hiking backpack from 25 kg (55 lb) down to 12 kg (26 lb)- and that includes food, fuel and tent. For me, that’s the difference between enduring a hike and enjoying it!
My packing list for general purpose (non-camping) trips has likewise reduced to the point where I can now fly with carry-on luggage only - even for a winter trip with warm clothing. The benefits of this are numerous, and even on car trips where weight is less of an issue I find myself taking as little as possible.
The above describes some general strategies for lightening the travel load. For lots of useful details, specific tips and helpful links, I can recommend these websites:
One Bag - "the art and science of travelling light", a gold mine of very well organised information on just about all aspects of lightweight business and leisure travel. A great place to start.
One Bag, Qne World - a blog and forum revolving around travel using a single bag which fits within airline carry-on limits. While focussing on hotel-style travel, much can be applied to backpacking and adventure travel too.
Backpacking Lightweight - a wealth of information on all aspects of hiking and camping with a backpack; an activity where carrying less weight can be enjoyed the most.