The Art and Science of Packing Light

“He who would travel happily must travel light.” 

Antoine de St. Exupery [French Writer 1900 – 1944]

“On a long journey even a straw weighs heavy.”

Spanish proverb

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” 


My favorite adventures are those where I’m able to spend several weeks in a single location. The first week is all about settling in — the pace, the people, and the environment — it takes time to adjust. But I find the commitment worthwhile because a transformation is taking place.

As I settle into my new surroundings, I shift from a need-to-see-it-all tourist into a take-things-slowly traveler. And that is when I’m really able to experience the beauty of travel. Finding my favorite local cafe or bar. People watching in a park on a lazy afternoon. Off the beaten path recommendations from locals. These activities require a bit more time and patience than the typical four-day whirlwind through a new city. 

After returning from a five-week journey through Australia and Japan, I met up with a friend to talk about the trip. Despite my drive along the Great Ocean Road and getting lost at 3 AM in the Tsukiji fish market, he only cared about one thing — how I survived with a single carry-on backpack in tow. 

My steadfast companion since 2009

“I don’t know how…I just put my stuff in a bag and get on the plane”, I responded after pondering the question for a few moments. Hoping for a silver bullet — like a magic vacuum sealer or that ray guns from “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” — my friend was less than enthusiastic with my reply. 

But on my walk home, disappointed I wasn’t able to retell my story about crashing a wedding in the Australian outback, I was able to refine my thoughts. More than just “cramming my stuff in a bag”, packing light is both an art and a science.

A science, because yes, there’s some essential gear to help take full advantage of the limited overhead space. But also an art, because, more important than the gear, there’s a required mindset for traveling light. 

Disclaimer: I don’t believe a minimalist approach is the only way to travel. Everyone has different goals when pursuing adventure. But for me, it brings a level of flexibility and speed that allows me to enjoy my ideal form of travel.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to travel lighter, here’s what I’ve learned.

The Art [The Mindset]

💭 For trips less than one week, I tend to pack more than when I’m on the road for multiple weeks at a time. The reason is simple: On longer journeys, I do laundry. This allows me pack drastically less than bringing clean clothes for every day. I’ve also come to enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to do laundry while in a foreign country (what’s the Hungarian translation for “permanent press”?). Avoid sending clothes to a hotel because they like to charge $2 to launder a single sock. I gravitate towards services that charge by the pound (or kilogram) to wash and fold within 24 hours. 

💭 You can’t solve every problem by packing the potential solution in your luggage. Don’t bring things you might use — because you usually won’t. If you really need something while traveling, just buy it there. Does the weather report call for a 50% chance of rain? Don’t schlep an umbrella, buy one at a local market. Undecided whether you’ll make a side trip to the beach? Don’t bring sunscreen, you can buy some at a local pharmacy. This mindset will force you to visit non-touristy neighborhoods and also nudges you into conversations with store clerks.

💭 This last discovery is the most helpful, yet also the most challenging:  To minimize the amount of stuff you bring with you, you have to minimize the amount of stuff at home. Everything you pack is a decision: Do I need this for my journey? And the more necessities you have at home, the more tough decisions you’re forced to make. Reduce the number of possessions that bring you joy at home and a lighter suitcase will naturally follow. 

The Science [The Stuff]

🧳 Ten years ago, I bought my Kelty Redwing bag for $39 and have been using it on every excursion since. Kelty doesn’t make my 2650 cubic inch version anymore, but they still produce the trusty Redwing line (the Redwing 44 is closest to mine). This bag just works. It’s the perfect size — big enough to get me through a month on the road — while still fitting in the overhead bin (and without feeling like I’m about to hike the entire Appalachian Trail). I especially like the removable waist belt — keep it strapped tight while lugging a full pack or detach for a quick day trip. I’ve been debating an upgrade for years but just can’t seem to part ways with this little guy. It’s been through it all!

🧳 To quote my friend Dave, the eBags packing cubes are “game changing”.  Their purpose is fairly self-explanatory: They keep your gear neatly separated in distinct sections. I rely on three different sizes: the largest to hold shirts and pants, medium for underwear and socks, and the smallest for miscellaneous electronics. If you’re a fan of sturdy zippers (I mean, who isn’t), you will be thoroughly impressed. 

🧳 If the destination cold, I pack my Patagonia Nano Puff hooded jacket — or for wetter climates — the Torrentshell jacket. Both weigh about 12 ounces and compress to squeeze into the last tiny crevice of my bag. Try this jacket folding method to maximize compactness.

🧳 For international trips, I bring a plug adapter to make sure I’m always able to charge my phone. I like universal adapters that work in almost every country and pack easily with fold-flush prongs. 

🧳 I love to read but hate clunky books. Kudos to the Kindle for solving that dilemma. A pleasant side effect: you’ll probably read more

🧳 I always grab a couple cotton bandanas before heading out the door. They fit in your pocket, are essentially weightless, and are extremely versatile. I’ve used a bandana as a sleep mask, sun protector, sweat mop, and as a napkin to wipe away stray crumbs. Dare I say the bandana has surpassed the towel as the most versatile travel tool? 

So, where to next?

”Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find.”

William Least Heat-Moon [American Travel Writer b. 1939]

“We should live with the conviction: ‘I wasn’t born for one particular corner: the whole world’s my home country’”

Seneca [Roman Stoic Philosopher 4 BC – 65 AD]

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” 

Jack Kerouac [American Author 1922 – 1969]

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