The Life-Changing Magic of Traveling Light

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One of my favorite recurring exchanges when traveling is when a taxi driver or customs agent asks, “Is that all you have?” I savor the moment, then casually shrug as if I’ve never considered how small my bag is.

I’ve just returned from my honeymoon in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, where I traveled with only a tote bag for 15 days! This is the same tote bag that got me through a five-week adventure all over the U.S. last year. It’s possible to travel light on stuff and heavy on adventure, and I’m going to show you how.

One of the tricks to minimalist packing is knowing that you won’t have just the right thing for every occasion and making peace with that. The second most important thing is to reuse every garment; if it can’t serve multiple purposes, leave it at home.

How to Plan

  • Use the notes app on your phone to make a checklist that you can check and uncheck with each trip. Keep the categories loose since you won’t need every item for every trip. This is really just to jog your memory and prevent you from leaving your passport behind.
  • Buy a malleable dopp kit that can be stuffed into whatever corner of your bag is free. I’m a huge fan of this one (opt for the large) because it’s practically weightless but strong and leak resistant.
  • Use a backpack or shoulder bag. If you have to actually carry everything, you’ll be less tempted to over-pack and let wheels do the work. If I’m not using my Travelzoo tote, I like to travel with a 22L Osprey for less than a week or a 31L for up to six weeks. The Filson small duffel is great if you need something on the hip side of professional.

What to Wear for Traveling Days

  • Your travel-day ensemble is outfit number one, so choose the combination wisely. Opt for comfortable pants (I like dressy jeans with stretch in them), a solid-colored shirt and a cardigan or blazer (depending on the purpose of your travel) that you’ll recycle into other outfits on the trip.
  • This is the time to wear your bulkiest pieces so you don’t have to pack them in your bag. Also, it’s ideal to choose a single pair of shoes to wear on the plane and not pack any others.

What to Pack

  • Start with shoes. Shoes in your bag are the quickest way to add bulk and weight. If your trip is an adventurous one, can you simply wear your hiking boots on the plane and the trail? Probably. If it’s a business trip, can you wear your dress shoes with jeans to the bar after work? Absolutely. If your trip is longer than a few days, it may make sense to pack a second pair (dress and comfort perhaps) but no more.
  • Next, build your outfits around those shoes. If something doesn’t go with them, leave it at home.
  • Build your outfits with interchangeable pieces of clothing. For a multi-week trip, you almost never need more than two bottoms and three tops (plus what you’re already wearing) if all of the pieces go with each other.
  • I like to go with the jeans I’m wearing on the flight plus a white skirt and a black skirt (casual or fancy depending on the type of trip). Then I have the top I’m wearing with a cardigan plus three mix-and-match blouses that will go with each of the bottoms.
  • That translates into a dozen outfits before I have to repeat, and if I’ve been on the road for several weeks, I can guarantee that the people I’m with aren’t going to notice that I already paired the turquoise tank with the white skirt last Tuesday.
  • Pack three pairs of socks and underwear max. These are absolutely the easiest things to wash in your sink at night and take up gads of unnecessary room in your bag.
  • For toiletries, choose products that do double or triple duty. Is a separate shampoo and body wash really necessary? Also, consider switching to bar shampoos and conditioners. They’re just like the products you’re used to, but with the water removed, which means less weight and more TSA compliance (bonus points for environmental consciousness).

When you’re done, go back though each item and ask yourself if it sparks joy and is absolutely essential. If you only have a small bag of gear with you in a foreign place, it might as well be gear you love. And if you aren’t going to absolutely require it, why haul it all over the world and strain your back?

The benefits are worthwhile; I promise! I was in a hostel in Prague once when a new friend suggested that we hop the next flight to Hungary. With almost nothing to pack before catching a taxi to the airport, we were sipping beers at a Budapest ruin bar before sunset. For me, the freedom to pick up and go is worth every pair of shoes I leave behind.

Are you wondering if sticking to these minimalist guidelines will leave you missing your wardrobe back home? Here’s a video of all that I packed for my honeymoon in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. In two weeks, I never once wished that I had more stuff, and I suspect you could feel the same way with a little planning.

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Show 2 Comments
  • Bree

    We are doing a very similar trip, what did you wear for shoes? Did you do much hiking?

    • Staci Woodburn-Henry

      Hi Bree, sorry for being slow to see your note! We do love hiking but I opted for a pair of Toms that were flexible enough to take me motorbiking around town and then hike up a trail and wade in a stream when they inevitably got muddy! This, of course, prevented us from going on seriously treacherous hikes but it worked with our lazy honeymoon itinerary!