How to Pack Light: Ditch the Heavy Crap You Don’t Need

Shawn Forno

I’m writing this on a bluetooth keyboard and my iPhone in an albergue in rural Spain as I hike the Camino de Santiago. This 500-mile Catholic pilgrimage across Spain via a centuries old route (Emilio Estevez made a movie about it) is a grueling endurance test of your stamina and your packing prowess. You have to fit your whole life (and all the contingencies you can think of) into a 25L backpack that (hopefully) weighs around 10 pounds. Water included.

This extreme packing challenge has taught me a thing or two about what you really need (and don’t need in your backpack). Believe me when I say, once you’ve walked 500 miles with everything you own, every ounce of gear in your bag matters.

While five weeks on foot across Spain is probably a lot more intense than your typical trip to Europe, every traveler has to worry about weight restrictions on budget airlines, fatigue, and keeping your bag light enough to actually maneuver through a happening city. I’ve become obsessed with ultralight packing, and now I’m bringing that obsession to your everyday packing list to make sure your carry on backpack is as light as possible.

Don’t let a heavy backpack ruin your trip. Let’s get started.

Lightweight Packing List Essentials

I’ve spent hours researching the best (affordable) ultralight gear for all kinds of trips. The upside of all this over thinking (aside from my super sleek Camino packing list) is that I’ve compiled a pretty hefty list of common travel items and backpacking gear organized by weight.

No matter how minimalist you are, everyone needs certain things. Underwear and a toothbrush are pretty non-negotiable. However, the number of pairs of underwear you pack, and how much toothpaste you bring are up for debate. That’s what this list is about–cutting those little corners to shave a few ounces off your bag, because when you live and work out of one bag, every ounce counts.

Homebase Travel Backpack

The ultralight, mid-sized travel backpack for minimalist packers is perfection if what you’re aiming for is weight reduction. Weighing in at only 2.3 lbs, this baby holds a laptop up to 15″ and a tablet up to 10″.

Designed with the digital nomad in mind, this bag transitions from travel bag to daypack or office backpack in less than ten seconds with the built in packing cube.

It’s everything a weight conscious traveler needs:

  • Trim
  • Well organized
  • Wuper functional
  • And it looks cool

Oh, did I mention it’s also made of waterproof sailcloth? Yeah. That’s awesome too. Get this bag.

So without any further ado, I give you the ultimate gear weight comparison for some of the most commonly packed travel items. I’ve even included a few simple hacks, DIY solutions, and budget substitutes for some of the really expensive ultralight gear. Enjoy my OCD packing insanity.

Lightweight Essentials Packing List

Clothing & Shoes

Lightweight Clothing

Clothing is the most obvious place to cut some weight, and it’s easier than you think. Consider multi-use items like sarongs and lightweight pants that transition from day to night and can handle a chill as well as a vigorous trek through town. My favorite way to lighten the load is packing just two pieces of clothing at each “layer” of my outfit.

Two tank tops, two shirts, two pairs of (good) travel underwear, two socks, two pants, one short, one swimsuit, and one “nice” shirt, and one jacket to round it all off. Presto, you have a functional, versatile, lightweight packing list.

Obviously, you don’t need the “nice” shirt if you’re backpacking across Europe, and you’ll need more nice shirts for a business trip, but the layer mentality is a great way to cut weight and trim your wardrobe without limiting your options.

The Best Lightweight Travel Clothing

Travel Shirts

I wrote a whole article just on travel shirts, but if you’re looking for a nice lightweight multi-tool travel shirt, the Old Navy short-sleeved Henley shirts are good bargain. They’re versatile as all heck, and look good on the train, the trail, or happy hour. Plus, they weigh less than your typically footy looking “travel shirt.” You don’t need sweat wicking nonsense to travel well. Pack a shirt with built in stretch that looks normal.

Hybrid Shorts & Swimsuits

Hybrid shorts are amazing. Get a pair that you can swim in, and you’ve just made your minimalist packing list even shorter. If you like having a dedicated swimsuit, the H&M short shorts swimsuit is my new uniform. They’re comfy to sleep in, hike in, and can beat the heat better than any pair of shorts you own. Plus, you don’t have to wear underwear while you’re wearing these bad boys, so that’s cool. Sorry for the over share.

Travel Underwear

Speaking of good lightweight travel underwear, the clear winner,  still ExOfficio. They just came out with an updated version of their flagship travel underwear, and they are lighter and more comfortable than the already stellar original. Get a pair. You’ll love ’em.

Lightweight Travel Socks

Darn Tough merino socks are exactly what they promise. I’ve been beating mine up on the Camino and they still look and smell great. One pair of socks to rule them all. If your trip is a little less active, cheap throwaway ankle socks are the ticket.

If you want to cut out socks entirely (and shave a few ounces off your backpack), get a pair of Toms.

I’m a late convert to the espadrilles family, but now that I’m on board, I couldn’t be happier. Toms (or any other espadrilles) are hands down the lightest most versatile travel shoe for anything short of hiking. They fold down to nothing, weigh even less, and look great. Heck, Chris Carrabba from Dashboard Confessional wears Toms onstage and he’s easily the coolest guy in the world. Ever. No, you shut up.

Scarpa Approach Shoes

If Toms aren’t your speed and you’re looking for something a little more hearty (that isn’t a stupid hiking boot), approach shoes are for you. Specifically designed for rock climbers to wear en route to the next dope bouldering spot, approach shoes have a laundry list of great features from amazing grip (even in the toe box), vibram shock absorbing sole, comfortable design, rugged stitching, and even hoops on the back for easy on off (and a handy place to attach and clip a carabiner to your bag). They perform like a hiking boot but at half the weight, they look and feel like a trail shoe. I’m a huge fan. I’m walking across Spain in a pair of Scarpas and I couldn’t be happier.

Crocs Lightweight Travel Sandals

I know, I know, but just hear me out. Seriously. My girlfriend got a pair of the open toe croc travel sandals and she loves them. They’re light enough for her Camino backpack, durable enough for everyday wear, and if you’re staying in a bunch of albergues (or cheap hostels) you can pack these and use them as shower shoes AND as a great pair of around town sandals because they dry insanely fast. Crocs are back, and they’re a great substitute for generic flip flops or heavy “hiking” sandals.

Buff Travel Scarf

BUFF travel scarves simply do it all. You can wear a buff as a neckerchief to keep the sun off, or a bandana to wick away sweat. You can fold them into a hat, a bag, a top (if you’re tiny), a hair tie, and a balaclava for those chilly mornings. They dry fast, weigh nothing, and can even be a pillowcase in a pinch at that skeezy hostel. I love my Buff and bring it everywhere.

Clothing to Leave at Home

Jeans

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with jeans for years, and while you can make a decent case for jeans as a durable pair of travel pants, they just don’t stack up against the better designed lighter weight travel pants out there. One pair of jeans weighs over a pound and a half. That’s just way too much.

The same goes for any other denim you’re thinking of packing. Denim is heavy, slow to dry, and not very super versatile. And yes, that includes your acid washed denim vest. Leave it.

The main takeaway is that if you can pack a few pieces of lightweight outer gear (a lightweight fleece and super thin rain jacket) and ditch just a few of the heavier things like jeans and hiking boots, you’ll noticeably lighten the load. Invest in a good pair of travel pants, and make sure your shorts can function in and out of the water and you’re on your way to a featherweight backpack.

Toiletries & Dopp Kit 

  • Chapstick – 0.3 oz
  • Floss – 0.45 oz
  • Travel sized toothbrush – 0.7 oz
  • Toothbrush – 0.75 oz
  • Travel-sized toothpaste – 1 oz
  • Travel deodorant (.5 oz) – 1.15 oz
  • Trader Joe’s sunscreen stick – 1.25 oz
  • Disposable razor – 1.45 oz
  • Bar of soap – 2 oz
  • Mr. Natty hair gel – 3 oz
  • Sunscreen tube (3 oz) – 4.5 oz
  • Shaving cream – 6 oz
  • Dopp kit bag (varies)

The main thing to remember when packing your dopp kit or bathroom bag is that you don’t need everything you use back home. Seriously. One disposable razor is more than enough for a week long trip. If you’re staying in a hotel or with friends, you don’t need that bar of soap or shampoo. The TSA hates liquid, so make your life easier and trim your dopp kit down to a few–and I mean like six–essential items. You can then build around these items for different trips and vacations.

If you’re beach bound, the Trader Joe’s sunscreen stick is a great item to pack. It weighs nothing and covers you for hours (it has zinc in it so you’ll look super cool). A travel toothbrush isn’t all that much lighter than a regular toothbrush, so if size doesn’t matter, pack old faithful and keep your teeth pearly white. Floss also doesn’t weigh ANYTHING, so now you have no excuse not to bring it.

I cut my toiletries packing list to the bone years ago, and I’ve never regretted it. You can always pick up shampoo or whatever once you get there, and it’s usually cheaper. Keep it light and tight.

Camping Gear 

  • REI travel pillow – 2.35oz
  • Campland ultralight sleeping bag – 26 oz

I chucked these in since they’re common “Europe backpacking items,” but honestly, you probably don’t need the inflatable pillow. It’s pretty comfy and tiny, so feel free to bring it along on any long road trips or camping trips, but it’s far from essential.

The Campland sleeping bag on the other hand is a winner. I honestly can’t believe how well this thing packs down into its stuff sack, and yet how comfy and warm it feels to sleep in. I don’t recommend bringing a sleeping bag on most backpacking or other trips, but on the Camino, this thing has been a champ. I’ll bring it on any camping trip from here to eternity, and maybe even a few long weekends out on Montauk or up at my friend’s cabin. A winner.

Gear for the Flight 

  • Headphones (iPhone) – 0.4oz
  • Eye mask – 1.25
  • Foam neck pillow – 11.6 oz

Being comfy on the flight is essential, especially when you need to hit the ground running for work, or if you’re on a time crunch and want to see as much as you can in a day. The foam neck pillow is a bit bulky for most flights–so go with an inflatable one that you can wad back up and stow until your next big travel day. Also, a good eye mask is worth it’s weight in gold–which isn’t that much, but it should be. Get a comfy, form-fitting eye mask and it will change the way you travel.

Over ear headphones are great for home or rocking out in the studio, but they just take up way too much real estate in your bag, and honestly, they look ridiculous on the road. Don’t be that guy, pack earbuds.

Lightweight Camera Gear

  • SD memory card case (loaded) – 0.7oz
  • Mini tripod – 1.35oz
  • GoPro Session w/ mount – 5.4oz
  • iPhone 6 – 5.85oz
  • Panasonic Lumix – 10.8oz
  • Gorillapod tripod – 13.85oz

Packing ultralight camera gear is getting easier every year, especially if you don’t need professional level audio. Honestly, with the new Samsung phones, the iphone 8, and iPhone X about to drop later this year, the list of lightweight camera gear should include your phone and whichever Mophie battery case fits your phone. Period.

Seriously, I have the Panasonic LUMIX “travel” camera, and I love the portability and quality of pictures and video, but when I want to keep my bag light, it’s one of the first pieces of gear i cut. When you get rid of the camera, you lose the batteries, charging gear, SD cards, and any extra lenses and cleaning wipes, etc. It takes a lot of other crap out of your bag, which is why I shoot a lot on my phone. It’s just easier.

The GoPro Session is a happy medium, in that it’s lightweight, durable, holds a charge for a while, and the wireless ability to dump photos onto your phone means you don’t have to bring a back up mini SD card, although it never hurts. It’s a nice bridge piece of camera gear, especially for wet shoots and wacky stunts.

You can upgrade your travel camera kit with a gorillapod tripod for capturing good timelapse and as a less obnoxious substitute for a selfie stick.

Portable Office Gear & Electronics 

  • USB memory stick – .25oz
  • Charging cable – 0.5oz
  • Dual USB adaptor – 2.45oz
  • Universal power adaptor – 2.65oz
  • RAV power hub – 5.55oz
  • Portable battery (Anker) – 6.3oz
  • Portable battery (Mogix) – 6.45oz
  • Toshiba 1TB portable HD – 7.25oz
  • iPad mini bluetooth keyboard – 7.75oz
  • Seagate 2TB HD (with case) – 9oz
  • iPad mini – 10.9oz
  • Nulaxy bluetooth keyboard – 11.75oz
  • Apple computer cord – 15.85oz
  • Macbook Air – 38oz
  • 13” Macbook Pro – 57oz

Your portable office is going to be the heaviest thing you pack, so make sure you need every piece of gear. Don’t just bring a portable battery because you think you might need it. Think about how you work and travel.

This is my first trip working with a bluetooth keyboard, and I’m surprised at how well it’s performed. The battery life is incredible (I’ve only charged it once), and it feels like a little laptop after just a few minutes. I love not feeling weighed down by my laptop or worried about my bag getting stolen, damaged, or wet. While I won’t use the keyboard for every trip, it’s exponentially easier to pop it out at a cafe, connect via bluetooth on my phone, and bang out an article, than it is to lug my laptop, fire it up, and either plug in or worry about running out of juice mid sentence. A phone and a Bluetooth keyboard are a potent pair.

If you do opt for the laptop, bring backup. Seagate makes a great portable hard drive to back up your work in case of theft or damage, and when I commit to a full work trip, I always pack a HD.

Miscellaneous Gear 

  • Travel wallet (loaded) – 1.15oz
  • Passport – 1.7oz
  • Wallet – 3 oz
  • Credit card (1) – 0.15
  • Fanny pack – weightless
  • Hip pouch – 2.2oz
  • Carabiner – 2.2oz
  • Deck of cards – 2.85oz
  • Packing cube – 2.85oz
  • Travel frisbee – 4 oz

A few random items always make travel easier and more fun. Packing cubes, for instance add a little weight to your bag, but the amount of time and organization they bring is worth every extra ounce. Same goes for a carabiner or two. I use these to keep hostel or AirBnB keys clipped to my waist so I never have to worry about getting locked out when I’m on the move.

And there’s nothing like a nice hip pouch or fanny pack to say, “Hey, I’m a tourist, and I’m here to have a good time.” My friend at Ministry of Culture makes these killer messenger style biker hip pouches, and I’m addicted to mine. Toss in a few odds and ends like a travel frisbee and a deck of cards, and you’re good to go.

Lightweight Digital Packing

Honestly, travel has been transformed by the power of our phones. We can carry whole libraries of books, years worth of music and podcasts, and all the info, contact numbers, and even payment info we need to manage our entire lives from the palm of our hands. Heck, I’m writing this from the kitchen table of Spanish casa rural on my phone.

Keep your backpack as light as your phone, and you’ll be able to live and work anywhere in the world for as long as you want. I know, I am.

TL;DR

  • Jeans are heavy
  • Hiking boots suck
  • Ditch the heavy camera gear in favor of your phone
  • Your laptop isn’t always an essential carry on item
  • Less is more when it comes to toiletries
  • A good eye mask is all you need in life
  • Pack two sets of layers – tank top, t-shirt, outer layer, pants, and short
  • Good travel underwear changes your life