I’ve been often asked: “How do you manage to travel for months with just one small backpack?” Indeed, how? Is that some kind of a mystical craft – or rather a matter of attitude? Truth is, packing is but a skill to learn and refine. Here’s my look at the issue.
How much stuff do you need to take along for, say, a nice beach vacation? Oh, tons and tons. This dress and that dress, and that one too, and maybe these high heels will prove useful, and a makeup kit as well, why, all of it, of course, and at least five pieces of swimwear, and these shirts and those shorts…
No. No no no, stop. Right here. It’s a lie we all tell ourselves. “But what if I need it? How do I know I won’t need it?”. No! No you won’t! And you know why? Here’s why.
We people tend to horribly, outrageously overpack. The thing that drives us is a desire to be fully prepared for whatever’s to come in that new foreign city or land. But you won’t take a suitcase to a sleepover at a friend’s place, would you? Most likely, you wouldn’t even think of it, because your friend’s place is somewhere you feel comfortable. And it’s just one night, no matter how many daily rituals you have to leave behind. When traveling abroad, this is not the case. Getting your bum off the couch and placing it in a train, car or airplane means getting out of your comfort zone – that very one everybody can’t stop talking about these days (Rolf Potts described it even before it was cool). And getting out of your comfort zone is that type of a personal sacrifice when you want to shield yourself from all negative consequences, possible or not.
I’m not superhuman, it took me a while to get to this myself; I used to overpack tremendously. But in the end, when I would get home and start sorting through my luggage, I would discover stuff that sat in my suitcase through the entire trip. In fact, I’d even managed to forget I took it. When you’re traveling, your mind and body are usually occupied enough to make you dismiss such banalities as wearing a different outfit every day (unless it really needs washing). Because truth is, no one cares how you look on the road. Maybe your parents do, back home; but there are so many people flowing through various places each day that the locals and travelers alike know better than to waste their time discussing someone not wearing makeup. It doesn’t mean you need to turn into a hobo, but there are some universal items that, combined, can provide you with everything you need on the road. Leave the lace and jewels for parties at home!
There are things I never take along when I pack for a trip. One of them, the mentioned-above jewels. I rarely take any jewelry at all – it’s just not practical, unless you’re ready to part with it at some point (losing stuff on the road is travel classics, you know). If I take some, I only wear it on special occasions. And never anything expensive. I don’t even always take a watch, though in some places it’s better to look at your watch rather than your cellphone. I do my best not to take expensive gadgets, except for my iPhone – which is my second brain, a lair of maps and charts and contacts; and an iPad for reading during long rides. It sits in a special inner pocket of my backpack most of the time, and I don’t usually take it out in public places. Thieves love tourists even more than they love locals. That’s why my awesome camera stays at home unless I’m not alone or I’m sure I can flash it safely. Same goes for cash – I always carry the absolute minimum. If my stuff gets stolen, I make one call and block the bank cards, but you can’t block your cash from being wasted!
I also seldom carry perfume. Even travel-sized bottles are usually made of glass, and I had accidents before. Solid perfume may be a decent option, but truth is, shower and no perfume are good enough. Believe me, people in an overcrowded bus, busy train or some long line would thank you for sparing their flair. And you can’t even imagine how disgusting a mass product perfume is when you smell it on a pristine beach or in a hot spring. And yes, I never take my makeup kit, even though I do have one. Traveling is a good time to let your skin have rest, and besides, just as with perfume, boxes break and liquids leak. It better be some shampoo rather than mascara – just think of trying to wash the latter out! And, as we’re talking of packing light, that stuff takes a lot of space too. I’d rather take an extra batch of moisturizer.
Now here are my basic tips for packing light. If two of my friends traveled all around the world with tiny backpacks, why can’t you? Not having luggage saves so much time and nerve cells in an airport, for starters, whether you have a backpack or a single carry-on suitcase.
1. Roll clothes
Now my secret to fitting so much stuff in my 30L backpack is that I roll everything that can be rolled. You won’t believe how much space it saves, and it’s the best anti-wrinkle solution. Say, you fold your jeans as you usually would, and then you roll them in… well, a roll. Like a roll you eat at a Japanese cafe. Meh. Linguistics.
But make sure you roll the right things. Place all you want to take with you on some surface, like a bed, and look at it. Now, which out of these do you really need? Remove all the unnecessary crap; remove all expensive, voluminous, synthetic, flashy items. Don’t take anything you really value. I once had my backpack stolen an hour before my bus just a few meters from the White House, and I had a few favorites in there! Pack comfortable, non-favorite clothes, but let it look and feel nice. I always take along one of my vintage silk shirts, because silk proved to be of great help. It doesn’t make you sweat, but never lets you freeze either. It can be always put on in between layers for extra warmth. In warm months I also take one light short dress which doesn’t tend to wrinkle much, for special occasions – you never know. If the weather’s to be cold, light dawn-ish jackets work great as, when rolled, they can be reduced to a tiny pack. Lightweight cargo pants if I know I’m to go hiking. If I go to hot sunny places, I take a light white longsleeve and long flowy pants for sun protection. In some places it’s easier to just cover up, rather than pour streams of sunscreen onto yourself. Though sunscreen and a cap or a hat is a great idea too. As a friend of mine likes to say, “I never burn”, walking around with tomato red nose… Well, you get the idea.
2. Mind the shoes
It’s always great to wear something nice when you travel, right? However, if you’re a fan of nice suede boots, or pretty heels, or anything of the kind, you might want to reconsider taking them. It’s always a shame when your favorite pair turns into crap before your eyes – it applies pretty much to everything you pack. I usually travel either in my sneakers/hiking boots or soft leather boots with good soils if I’m going, say, to Europe. Toms are my must for warmer time – they don’t take up any space at all. Flip-flops too, for the beachfront activities, if such are in sight. So usually two to three pairs are my maximum.
3. Personal hygiene
I hate luggage, all these lines, and the things they do to your bags – yikes! So travel-sized liquids are my world. That is, under 100ml, or around 3 oz. They include shampoo – I usually don’t bother with conditioner, giving preference to softer organic shampoos; shower gel, foldable toothbrush, toothpaste, small hairbrush; mouthwash – just in case; facial cleanser, moisturizer, and some body lotion (I’m actually considering replacing the moisturizer with an oil, like argan or sweet almond – they last forever, and they do the job amazingly!); sunscreen. Sunscreen is good in any country that has sun, be it snowy mountains or fair plains. Then, nail clippers – a life savior, as you’re not allowed to have scissors in your carry-ons, and a file; and I also have to take a container and a bottle or two of liquid solution for my contacts. Gotta love these 2-oz bottles.
4. The med kit
It’s an absolute must. It’s different for everyone, but the basics would include anti-inflammatory, anti-flu, anti-diarrhea medicines, immunity boosters, patches, bandages, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, pain killers and whatever you personally might need. My pack includes activated charcoal – great for any food poisonings and stomach problems, allergy pills and dramamine. I plan to expand it in the future.
5. The extras
Next comes the water bottle. You never know where you might need it. I suggest light aluminum bottles, as they literally weight nothing, and water in them tastes better and keeps cool longer than in plastic ones.
Chargers, cables, adapters. A lock! Whether it’s a code lock or a classical small one with a key, it’s good to have it when you stay in hostels or hotels alike. Even when you’re couchsurfing, especially if the party’s coming, it’s good to give your belongings extra protection. Although in some hostels even a bicycle chain won’t help…
And, finally, my rule number one: no matter how great your backpack is, always have an extra something where you keep your “precioussss”: passport, some money&cards, and, preferably, a cellphone. It won’t save you in case of a real robbery, but will spare some trouble in other cases. For me it’s a small crossbody that I always wear on me (tried the belly purse, really uncomfortable – but for some countries it’s the only way). It proved invaluable, for instance, when that backpack was stolen from me in Washington. Thanks to my crossbody, I was still a legal visitor to the United States with an identity, all my cards and most of my money, my iPhone – and a good lesson for the future.