You’ve probably read it time and time again: travel light. Everybody’s saying it. It’s the way forward, right?
Travelling lighter really does make travel much more enjoyable. It reduces the stress of travel days, and makes travel on local transport much easier (making travel much cheaper for you)!
I too believe that the best way to travel is as light as possible. However, I am prepared to show you how I travel with that philosophy.
For the last 6 months, I have been travelling across Asia with just a carry on sized backpack. Before that, I travelled extensively with less than 60 litres of luggage each time. That’s a medium sized backpack.
My partner and I have hiked across mountains and deserts, cycled thousands of miles, and even just gone on the odd week-long holiday. Every time, we’ve carried everything we’ve needed in just one small backpack or suitcase each.
Now, we each have an Osprey Fairview/Farpoint 40 litre backpack. In it, we carry everything needed to travel longterm, through both hot and cold climates.
A lot of the information that you may find online tells you how to backpack light IF you’re travelling to the tropics. However, I’ve got all bases covered.
I should probably mention that it is very much possible to travel A LOT lighter than this. However, I believe that I have attained a very comfortable balance between travelling light, but also having everything that I want and need. For me, a carry on sized piece of luggage is the perfect size for longterm travel.
Okay, so let’s get into it.
The first rule in packing your life into a SMALL bag, is to invest in packing cubes.
With packing cubes, your clothes — and everything inside your luggage — are no longer just folded neatly and placed inside. They’re arranged in a manner that makes it easier to fit a larger amount into a smaller space, and makes packing and unpacking SO much easier. Quite simply, they eliminate the empty space in your luggage by making it all cohere together nicely.
I love packing cubes.
In fact, I love packing cubes so much, that I wrote an entire post on what they are, and how best to use them.
If you don’t feel like reading that entire post, I shall summarise right here.
What are packing cubes?
Packing cubes are essentially small, cube-shaped bags, designed to organise and compartmentalise clothes inside luggage. They can also be used to compress clothing to create space, and optimise empty gaps inside backpacks and suitcases.
Usually they are used to sort and organise items of clothing into separate areas, making packing easier, quicker and all-round better.
They can be bought in different sizes, meaning that you can utilise the space inside your luggage better. Like real life game of Tetris, you can squeeze more clothing into the same amount of space.
Part of the huge appeal to packing cubes is that they can be customised to accommodate your personal, different needs. As they usually come as part of a set, you can either opt to buy an assortment of different sizes, or you can purchase a number of the same size, making them completely customisable.
How to use packing cubes
Well, for the most part, it’s pretty self explanatory. You put your clothes in and zip it up.
BUT, if you want to make the most out of their amazing space-saving, organisational abilities, there’s a few tricks.
# 1 : Roll your clothes before you put them in. This squishes the air out of your clothes, and helps them to hold their shape.
# 2 : Work your way inwards, from the edge. Pack your clothes into them from the outside in. Start at the edges, and work your way into the middle. The last item in should be right in the middle. And, it should be hard to squeeze it in. You can close the zip up as you work your way inwards — this will help it to hold it’s shape.
# 3 : Use smaller cubes than you think. You don’t want any spare space in there. It needs to be squashed full, so that it will hold it’s shape. Otherwise, your clothes are just going to be flying around in there.
# 4 : Utilise different sizes. If your backpack is long and thin, use long and thin packing cubes. Use whatever fits best into the game of Tetris that is now the inside of your suitcase.
Essentially, in order to fit a substantial amount into a carry-on sized bag/suitcase, you’ll need to get your hands a few different kinds of packing cubes. Which packing cubes you’ll need are down to your own personal preferences, and what type of luggage you are travelling with.
However, a good place to start is to simply order an assortment of sizes from Amazon. I personally recommend the very affordable Amazon Basics packing cubes.
So, order the 4-piece assortment, find out which ones work best, and then order a few more of that particular size. Simple.
Other amazing packing tools
I love being organised. And, when it comes to packing, organised is great.
These are few of the other tools that I use to make my packing that little bit more organised.
# 1 : ELECTRONICS AND CABLE ORGANISER
Affectionately referred to as ‘the bum kit’ (because according to my partner, it looks like it says ‘BUM’ on the top), this small cable organiser is one of my favourite things inside my bag. It’s literally great. It’s essentially a giant case that holds cables, chargers and electronics.
Before I bought the bum kit, I just stored all of my wires and chargers in a plastic bag. It was a disorganised nightmare. Now, everything is laid out and separated perfectly — saving space and time. I highly recommend getting your hands on a bum kit.
If you’re anything like me, and have a lot of chargers and cables, you need to get one of these delightful things.
# 2 : HANGING TOILETRY BAG
Now, admittedly, any toiletry bag will suffice (in terms of space saving capabilities). But, there are many reasons that one of these organised little things is much better. I’ve used hanging wash bags for years now.
I love my hanging toiletry bag. It makes showering (particularly in a shared bathroom) a much more enjoyable experience.
Do yourself a massive favour and get one of these.
# 3 : MAKE UP / MISCELLANEOUS BAG
Now, this doesn’t need to be a make up bag. The particular one that I use is — because it’s laid out in a sensible way. And, because I don’t carry a lot of make up, I store that in there as well.
Amongst other things, my ‘miscellaneous bag’ holds: a small sewing kit; nail varnish; two watches; hairbands; hair clips; spare buttons; a necklace; small mirror and tweezers and nail clippers. Basically, it carries anything that doesn’t really have any other home. It’s just a very small case to put all of my random bits into.
How to pack
One of the main ways to fit more items into a smaller space, is to find a system for your particular piece of luggage. Work out the best way to manipulate your packing cubes and other packing tools, into your luggage space.
I find that the Amazon Basics ‘slim’ packing cubes fit perfectly across the width of my backpack. Therefore, I currently use three of them to maximise the space inside the backpack. They are the perfect shape and size to fit nicely with everything else inside my backpack.
For a smaller bag or suitcase, it’s generally better to use smaller packing cubes. This makes it easier to re-arrange and fit them in, in more economical ways. It expands opportunities for different packing preferences.
Essentially, it helps you to find the perfect packing structure.
The perfect packing structure is pretty much the essential part to being able to fit more into a smaller bag.
For myself, it took a little bit of trial and error. Before I left, I ‘practised’ packing my bag, to make sure everything fit inside. Even on the road I was still re-arranging things to best fit it all in.
Once you find that magic arrangement, you’ll be surprised at how much you can actually fit inside your carry on luggage.
Don’t forget to utilise any extra pockets or compartments on your backpack or suitcase. I can actually fit a surprising amount of things into the extra pockets on my bag. It’s easy to overlook these, and head straight for the main compartment when fitting things in.
I also rely heavily upon the compression straps inside the main compartment. Without pulling these as tight as possible (and I mean REALLY tight), I would never be able to actually zip the bag up. Most suitcase come with compressions straps, so ensure you’re using them to maximise your space!
What to actually pack/ not pack
Now, obviously I could travel much lighter than I do. But, I believe in being comfortable when travelling. There is no reason to be missing items that make you comfortable for the sake of travelling super light.
For example, I could carry much less clothing. However, I enjoy not feeling like a smelly, budget backpacker (which is secretly what I am). On my first Asian backpacking stint, I didn’t really bring a lot of nice clothes. This made me feel like I was always smelly, and that I looked like those one of those typical ‘tourists’ that we would see everywhere.
Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it just wasn’t how I wanted to feel on my travels. So, now I carry more comfortable clothes, that make me feel like I’m not the budget backpacker that I am.
On the other hand, there are SO many things that I often read on ‘packing lists’ for longterm travel/ backpacking, that just aren’t necessary. Be careful not to bring too many ‘just-in-case’ items, that might never actually get used. If I’ve been carrying an item for more than two weeks, and it hasn’t been used, I get rid of it.
Particularly on your first backpacking trip, it’s easy to bring a lot of things that you might need, but probably won’t. People tend to overestimate the potential for things to go wrong, or things that might be needed. Just remember that everything you may need can be purchased or acquired whilst you’re away. People live in the places that you’re travelling to, and they also buy the things that they need from these countries. Everything can be easily obtained on the road.
Only you can decide exactly what it is that you need to bring traveling with you. But, remember to comb through it all a number of times before settling on a final packing list. If there is something in there that you MIGHT need, think twice about whether or not you should pack it.