This list is for minimalist, One Bag travel. However, once you start packing light, it will be very difficult to go back to your old way of packing. As it should be.
It is also for how I dress. I tend to not wear button-up shirts. People who wear pants might like to, but I don’t like to wear them with the kilt, except as an over-shirt. I wear variations on the t-shirt theme, which I find more comfortable but can still be quite dressy.
First, what I wear:
–Kilt (for me). Or pants (for others). Avoid wearing track pants on a plane unless they are the kind you would feel comfortable wearing in a museum.
– Good Walking Shoes– Eccos were my first choice. Wear whatever are the biggest pair of shoes you are going to take. (I have been wearing ‘zero-drop’ shoes from Vivo Barefoot for over a year, and I don’t see any reason to wear anything else; especially when traveling.)
–Compression Socks. Your body will thank you.
–Merino Wool Undershirt– almost always short sleeve. Even in the winter, a light-weight, long sleeve Merino Wool shirt is too warm (for me).
I tend to wear either one or even two shirts over the Merino Base Layer:
-A Travel Shirt. The one I have is the TEC Shirt by Scott eVest. It’s black, has numerous pockets, is a wonderful polyester fabric that sheds wrinkles and feels like silk, and is fairly dressy when buttoned up. It also become my ‘go-to’ shirt if I go out to a play or something at night. There are similar versions of this type of shirt; the best ones I have seen are from Clothing Arts, Rail Riders, and Rohan Designs.
I have a grey all-cotton rip-stop shirt from Eddie Bauer that I sometimes use instead.
-A T-shirt over the Merino Wool, under the Travel Shirt. Usually a large black cotton shirt that might actually be too bulky to pack. J. Peterman makes a great, thick T-shirt.
Because the Merino Wool under tends to wick away moisture, this shirt can get sweat stains on it if I have a particularly active journey to my destination. Usually I can wash it out when I get to wear I’m going, but depending on the weather and the room, it could take two days to dry. That’s why my other choice is:
– A black all-polyester T-shirt It’s a nice black color that will never fade, and it takes less time to dry. I will also wear an Ably tee (see below).
-A Season-appropriate Jacket. Traveling in so-called Shoulder Seasons, I usually try to take one I can wear with a T-shirt under if it’s on the warm side, but can still fit layers under when it’s cooler. I have a rough-out leather jacket cut like a denim jacket, and a black leather jacket that is not too heavy. Try to avoid a Denim jacket. Five seconds in a freak downpour and you don’t have a jacket until you can get it dry, and denim takes awhile. Depending on how you pack, a simple rain jacket might be all you need. Layer underneath as needed.
-A Light Scarf. Even I have gotten cold in a plane, and a light scarf is very versatile. And it’s one less thing to pack.
-A Cap or Hat, especially one that is tough to pack. For a number of reasons, wearing a baseball cap that needs to retain it’s shape for it to look good can pose problems. I recommend some kind of hat you can put in the pocket of the jacket you are wearing.
I use a 26L Tom Bihn Smart Alec.
This is a recent pic of what it looked like, all ready to go:
In a 7L Tom Bihn Travel Stuff Sack I put these rolled-up shirts:
– Two (2) Short Sleeve Merino Wool T-shirts. These can be worn as a T under your Travel Shirt (see above), or just under a jacket, or by themselves if need to be. Merino Wool shirts do NOT hold body odor, and even after an active day, they are ready to go the next if you hang them up; usually you don’t even have to wash them out, but you might want to. QOR, Icebreaker and Duckworth make the best ones, in my opinion. There are ones made by Wool & Prince and Unbound Merino that are nice as well. They can be spendy— around a $100— but getting on mailing lists and waiting for sales can save you serious dough (I’ve never paid more than $60 for one). (I will also have a review of many different Merino Wool T-shirts on the blog soon.)
-One (1) Long Sleeve Merino Wool t-shirt. It can be a Henley, or just a long-sleeve dri-fit Tee, in a ‘performance fabric’. REI makes some great ones. This can be worn under anything else you bring, or by itself. Again, pricey, but more than worth it.
-One (1) Long-sleeve “dress” Shirt. This is where you would pack that button-up shirt you like, for going out to a nice dinner or to the theatre. In this space, I take one of two luxuriously thick Black Long Sleeve t-shirt type shirts, that are more like a light sweater (which you could also take in this slot). Or I will take a J. Peterman Shirt, which is crazy comfortable and dresses up nicely.
– One (1), possibly Two (2) T-shirts. I like the Ably brand T-shirt, which is meant to be resist stains and smell, even though it’s NOT Merino wool. If I’m wearing the above Merino tees underneath, I will pack one Ably shirt and wear the other one on the flight. I have four of these, and you really can wear them for days with no one the wiser. They are not as expensive as Merino Wool tees, but they are more expensive than ‘normal’ t-shirts. You can usually get them for around $30-$40 bucks.
In a 2L Tom Bihn Travel Stuff Sack I put:
-One (1) Sleep Shirt and Shorts. Basically, my pajamas. I have a no-smell, dri-fit T-shirt from 5.11 Tactical that is big and indestructible. I also have a pair of Ex-Officio Boxer Shorts that fit me bigger than boxers would (folks who wear boxers swear by Ex-Officio for travel). I bought them to be PJ’s when I travel, because I don’t wear PJ’s at home. I find them necessary when booked into a place that has a shared bathroom, or, of course, a hostel.
This is the bag I can put either sandals or flip-flops into for packing as well, and it does not take up much room. It will also usually fit a rolled-up light scarf if I want to sneak another in.
In another 2L Tom Bihn Travel Stuff Sack I put:
–Socks. Six(6) pairs. Because all my socks are Merino, I could probably get away with just four pairs, but socks are light and sometimes you need to put on a pair that hasn’t been worn yet.
Try to avoid cotton socks because they don’t dry well and they hold on to stink. Again, Merino Wool socks are superior in that way. I would suggest at least one of these socks be the athletic, ‘no-show’ type to wear on hotter days.
I actually also have a Merino wool pair of ‘toe socks’ from a company called Injinji. Sometimes when I’m walking a lot my toes rubbing together give me athletes foot, or blisters, or both, and sometimes the Tea Tree Oil doesn’t fix it (see below). These not only help, but I can wear them with my Luna Sandals if the weather gets surprisingly warm.
Side Note: Clothing-wise, you do not need more than the above. If you mix and match all of the above— including the travel shirt— you have over nine (9) different combinations you can wear (do the math). If you wear pants and pack another pair, you double that. There is no way you need more than 9 (or 18) outfits. You can do laundry if you need to.
Okay, other stuff to pack. Some of this is optional.
–Pants, I guess. If you have to. One (1) pair only. Makes sure you don’t have two pairs of jeans. Khakis would probably be best.
I will occasionally pack another— usually lighter— kilt. But there is not a reason to take more than two (2) pairs of things for your legs. You just don’t need to. (Again, this is packing for me, and other men. Women have different packing needs and get to wear things like leggings and skirts. There are some FANTASTIC resources out there for women who want to pack light.)
-A word about Shorts. Most folks writing about travel will tell you that wearing cargo shorts immediately tags you as an American, because Europeans don’t wear them. I say, wear them if you want. Just don’t tag yourself as an American by the way you treat everyone else. That’s the only way to be the dreaded ‘Ugly American’. I would say that it might be better to bring a pair of, for lack of a better term, Performance Shorts. Ones you could wear to sit in a cafe or to go to a pool or sauna. You can even wear them to sleep in. There are many brands of this type of nice-looking, quick dry shorts.
– Waterproof Sandals or Flip-flops. These are shoes you should be able to wear in the shower stall at a hostel, or out and about. Luna Sandals are fabulous for this (and are so much better than flip-flops; but so are Teva’s or Keens, although they take up more room in a bag because they don’t lay flat. You can do Birkenstocks if you get the EVA, waterproof ones.
Side note: I now only take a very flat pair of Luna Sandals. They can be worn in a shower at a hostel, or actually be daily footwear when the weather gets unseasonably hot (Prague in March was 79 degrees Fahrenheit!). Lunas are ‘zero-drop’ footwear, and I suggest you read up on that if you’ve been around the sun a few times and want your feet to stop hurting. See also Vivo Barefoot shoes.
–Toiletries. Because there so many variables this, buy the type of toiletry bag you’ll use first; then pack to it. Get one that doesn’t take up much room. For goodness sake, no ‘Dopp Kit’ or ‘Shave Kit’ monstrosities. Not only do they take up way too much room, but we tend to try to fill them up, which is a mistake of many proportions.
Just do basics: toothbrush and tooth paste. Floss. Multipurpose Soap. Deodorant. Razor. Q-tips. You should be able to fit all of your toiletries in a Quart-size Zip Loc bag (which also does make a perfect toiletries bag of it’s own). You should be able to pull out your toiletries bag for the Airport Security folks and they see everything inside; then back it goes. Tom Bihn makes a great toiletries bag with a hanger on it (the Spiff bag), and both REI and Eagle Creek make a couple of nice small ones, see-through and otherwise.
Smaller is soooo much better. This is something that everyone learns through experience; so if you don’t have that experience, take it from those of us who do. You can buy most of what you need when you travel. I used to carry a small Listerine bottle, a big deodorant; all kinds of crap. Not anymore. I can buy a Listerine bottle at most airports if I want it. I take only one soap for body and shaving, ONE razor, a travel-sized deodorant, and no shampoo. If you can’t get shampoo where you are going, you can use the soap; Dr. Bronner’s is a good multi-purpose soap for all of the above needs. I take a Shampoo Bar (Lush and JR Liggets are good) and a Dr. Bronner’s Bar in one Soap Bag from Matador.
I also take in a small ZipLoc— because I have room for it— a very tiny bottle of Tea Tree Oil, and a small bottle of Liquid Bandage (also called Second Skin). The latter for obvious reasons (I prefer it to regular cloth band aids, and it can used for rashes, blisters, etc), and the Tea Tree Oil because of it’s many uses: to put between your toes if Athletes Foot approaches; to rub your tired feet with; to put on your scalp for dandruff in dry places; to put in boiling water and inhale if a cold is trying to get you; the list goes on. It’s a natural anti-biotic and I rest easy knowing I have it. There some minimalist travelers who say you only need Dr. Bronner’s and Tea Tree Oil, and I don’t think they are wrong.
-In my Toiletries bag I also put my Medicines; both prescription and OTC. You may decide to pack them separately.
-Make sure to put a few empty Zip Loc bags in your toiletries; for spills, or whatever.
–One (1) Wool Scarf. This can be the thin wool— I don’t mean to go on like a broken record here, but Merino wool is best— or something a little thicker. Check out GoLightly Cashmere for some great, really warm, really thin scarves. (Not cheap but so worth it.)
– One (1) Beanie or Beret. For unexpected cold.
Both of these things are not needed if you are only going to warm, tropical climes. Even then, though… weather happens.
(Both of these are also great things to buy for yourself once at your destination.)
– Camera and related gear. If you have to take a DSLR, then you have to, but avoid it if you are going for Minimalist. I recommend a small point-and-shoot like the Sony RX100. A lot of folks are just taking their iPhone, provided it has enough storage.
I pack a small Tom Bihn 3×5 Pouch that contains:
– A small duct tape roll.
– Stain-remover stick; almost all brands make these, and they are easy to find at airports. (I use ‘Tide-to-go”.)
-Rubber Bands, a few of all sizes.
– SIM card removal tool
-Minimalist Sewing Kit (really just a small cardboard tube with some thread wrapped around; two sewing needles inside it.)
-Nail Clippers and/or non-metal Nail File.
Other essentials I pack, usually in the pockets of the Smart Alec.
–Travel Hangers. I like to stay in inexpensive places, and this is the one thing I have found they usually lack. And hanging up clothing at the end of a long day of exploring a city is essential. If you’ve ever tried to drape your t-shirt over a window ledge, you know why these are needed.
–Sink Stopper. Another thing you wouldn’t really think about unless you wanted to be able to rinse out some clothing. Many cheaper rooms with a shared bathroom have a sink in them. Takes up NO room at all and is very handy.
–Bluetooth Speaker. It is truly astounding what is now available to a traveler in this area; they used to be too big to pack but now the quality and the selection are almost overwhelming. There are good high-end ones from Bose and Ultimate Ears. If you have no audiophile requirements, you can literally pick up small BT Speakers at most airports.
Side note: I only consider a BT Speaker essential if you are staying in a room by yourself. If you exclusively do hostels, you probably don’t need one. Some of the places I stay have a TV in the room— I like to put on the local news, in whatever language— and some do not. I will open up a news app on my iphone and stream it to the BT Speaker, just to be able to touch base with current events. YMMV.
–Single Packet ‘Butt Wipes’. I would call these TRULY essential. The chance that a toilet you will be visiting on your travels has toilet paper you feel good about putting in your nether regions— or has any AT ALL— is remarkably slim. Keep one or two of these in a pocket, purse, day bag, etc. I’ve stopped counting how many times I was glad I had these. You can get them at Amazon, or just google them online. (Dollar Shave Club makes some nice ones called One Wipe Charlies. )
I would call the following ‘optionals’, but definitely good to take:
–Breathe Right strips. These are the things you put across your nose, that can help with snoring. Good to use on a plane or staying in a hostel.
–Sleeping Pills. Also good for the plane or for the hostel. I take either Tylenol PM or Advil PM; helps me sleep and deals with aches I might get from my activities.
These both work nicely with:
–Ear Plugs. There are many travelers who do not call these Optional.
And Lastly, but certainly not Leastly, I recommend taking:
–An Anomaly. This is something that doesn’t fit into any of the packing guidelines, but is something you wish to take. I recommend that The Anomaly not be something that completely undoes all of the good packing work you have done up ’til now. Don’t take a big guitar unless you are a musician going to a gig. Don’t bring some portable electronic thing you love (I’ve seen people bring ‘portable’ TV’s). Take something small that you know you will use and enjoy and will connect you with what you believe you are (careful; travel may change that belief).
– I usually take one of two different Anomalies:
–Leica Sofort Instant Camera. This is basically a Polaroid Camera, that is made by Leica (!). I found this in electronic store in Heathrow Airport, and I couldn’t believe one of the biggest names in high-end cameras made something so affordable (roughly $300 bucks). It uses easy-to-find Instax Film made by Fujifilm. (You may or may not know this: Polaroid is no more). The pictures they produce are about the size of credit card. Fuji also makes a number of Instax cameras, that run about a third of the price of the Sofort and are almost as cute. There are also different sizes of Instax film, and numerous cameras that require them. Lomography makes some fantastic instant cameras using the Instax film, but some of them might be too big to travel with. Amazon is once again your best source for affordable Instax film.
I would say an instant camera, where the picture just slides right out and develops in front of you, is the perfect example of what I mean by an Anomaly. It will usually go right on top of everything else you pack, depending on the size of the camera.
Bring a few packages of film, give pics away to people you meet, take weird shots; whatever. It’s definitely a conversation starter. And many major cities in Europe have a Lomography Store, where you can not only get film but also some cute accessories. There is also something to be said for having a picture of a point in time that exists nowhere else: not digitally, not on the internet. You will always remember that moment when you look at that picture.
-The other item I might take is a Travel Mandolin. A Travel-sized musical instrument is a good Anomaly. My travel mando is made by Weber, and it’s called The Sweet Pea. I got it used, I play mandolin, it’s all beat up so I don’t worry about it. It can strap to the front or the sides of most of my bags, or I can carry it in it’s own little soft travel case. I play guitar and banjo as well, and I’ve not found travel versions of those instruments that I think are suitable to carry around. (I did take a Vagabond Travel Guitar with me on a few trips, but I rarely played it and it was borderline too big.) I play the mando at night when I’m looking to wind down; it keeps my fretting hand callouses tough. In my regular life, I try to at least play an instrument for five minutes a day, because it’s easy to fall behind and forget songs and licks. The travel mando helps me stay connected to that.
You might also think I do it to be some ‘life of the party’ at a hostel or airport, and honestly, that has never happened to me. I would call myself a decent mandolin player, but not someone who can play solos or anything like that. In other words, I’m really not looking to show off with my mando; I’m just trying to keep being a mandolin player. This is also something that has never happened for me because I’ve never tried to make it happen. You might be different; you might want to be able to meet people by just sitting down and playing.
By the way, a Ukelele is a great travel instrument, if you play. (My travel mando is of a size that I always gets asked if it’s a Uke.) If you play Uke, and know some songs, I’ll bet you’d be happy you brought it along.
Other suggestions of what your Anomaly could be:
– A whole bunch of Vegan eats. My vegan friends tell me they carry an embarrassing amount of Clif Bars with them when they travel, especially to not-large cities or rural areas. There are apparently a few Clif Bars that are completely vegan, and they want to make sure they don’t have to starve. Smart move.
-A slightly bigger than travel-size drawing tablet with extra pencils
– a tiny box of watercolors and an appropriate tablet of paint-ready paper
Or, I’m sure you’ll think of something.
That’s it. Hope it helps.