Minimalist Packing: How Low Can You Go?

Jessie Beck

I’d bet you don’t hear this much, but I actually love packing. Not only does it mean a trip is quick approaching, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to see just how light I can get my bag.

I mean, I’m no Rolf Potts, but over the years I’ve gradually dwindled my packing list down to the most minimalist packing list possible. Recently, I spent 10 days in Mexico with nothing but one daypack and a small purse — which was, apparently, light enough to raise suspicion at customs.

But packing light is subjective, and can look different from person to person, and trip to trip. Even if you’re only packing a carry on, you could end up with anything from a day pack to a larger 40 liter bag. So, rather than talking about minimalist packing, I’ll be demonstrating just how light “light packing” can be by comparing three different packing lists with three different bags — the Tortuga, Tortuga Air, and Tortuga Daypack — for the same trip.

The Trip: 3 Weeks in Southeast Asia

Packing for a weekend getaway would be too easy, right? Which is why, for this experiment, I’ll be using an upcoming three-week trip to Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan as my example. Although the climate and temperature will stay pretty consistent throughout the trip (which simplifies a few things), I’ll still need to prepare for:

  • City exploration
  • A nice dinner or two
  • Roughing it in the jungle
  • Heat and rain
  • Travel around a developing country

For each sample packing list, I’ll progressively be getting lighter, but also using a smaller bag:

light lighter lightest

Packing List Version One: Light

My first go at a light bag for this trip is what most people would consider pretty darned light. This packing list will be the “original” or control list for this little minimalist packing experiment. Using the Tortuga, which fits carry-on dimensions perfectly, I packed the following:

Packing light

Clothing

  • 7 pairs of underwear
  • 2 bras (1 sports bra, 1 other)
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 2 tank tops
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • Scarf (for the airplane)
  • Light sweater
  • 2 pairs of pants
  • 1 pair of leggings
  • 1 skirt
  • 1 dress
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of sneakers
  • 1 pair of flats
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 sarong
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 bathing suit

Toiletries

  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Solid perfume
  • Soap
  • Deodorant
  • Razor
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Makeup (lipstick and eyeliner)
  • Chapstick
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray

Electronics

  • DSLR and extra battery
  • Tablet + mini keyboard
  • iPhone
  • Chargers
  • Converter
  • Headlamp

Miscellaneous

  • Airplane snacks
  • Starbucks Via packets
  • Medicine: smecta (like pepto-bismol but better), immodium, ibuprofen, and bandaids.
  • Quick dry towel
  • Water bottle
  • A book
  • Journal + pen
  • Wallet
  • Tortuga daypack
  • Passport

I decided to wear the flats, leggings, dress, scarf, and sweater on the plane (I personally hate wearing sneakers while traveling, but packing light allows me to just toss them in my bag).

The result?

My pack was a backpack that was easy to carry and fit easily as a carry-on during flights, but also allowed me to be prepared for most of the situations I thought I’d be encountering. Here’s what it looked like all together:

Packing light

Packing List Version Two: Lighter

I thought I did a pretty good job at just packing the basics on our first packing list, but after re-examining the list and thinking about what I was and wasn’t willing to travel without, I saw some opportunities to go even lighter. In the second version of this list, I swapped out the Tortuga for the Tortuga Air, and took out a bunch of redundant items from my bag:

Packing lighter

  • Quick dry towel; opting instead to rely on my sarong if needed
  • Lipstick; and swapped the chap stick for tinted chap stick
  • Mini keyboard and charger; this was one of those “it’d be nice to have it” items, but ultimately I think I can stick to tapping out words on directly on my iPad.
  • Sandals; I wanted them for nice dinners out, but the flats will do.
  • The dress; the skirt would make for more outfit combinations
  • The scarf; again my sarong can double as a scarf, and I only wanted it for the plane anyway (meaning, the sarong will still be clean…)
  • 1 pair of pants; I technically have 5 bottoms already. I can ditch one pair of pants and be less redundant.

On the plane, I’d now be wearing a t-shirt, flats, the sarong as a scarf, my sweatshirt, and leggings.

The Result?

By taking out all of these items, I was able to pack even lighter and more minimally, travel with a lighter bag, and ultimately be even closer to the most minimalist packing list for my trip…

Packing lighter

Packing List Version Three: Ultra-Light

Still, I wanted to see if I could get everything into just a daypack. Though I’ve done it several times for shorter trips, I still had quite a lot of stuff, and I wasn’t sure if it would all fit — even if I “cheated” by bringing a small cross-body purse (which always makes it easier to keep track of small valuables and get my passport, phone, or plane ticket out easier).

In order to get ultra minimalist, I knew I would have to get rid of some things, but also make a few others even smaller.

Minimalist packing

First, I removed even more items:

  • 1 bra
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • 1 t-shirt
  • The sweatshirt
  • Shorts
  • Snacks
  • Perfume
  • DSLR, charger, and batteries (it was hard deciding to rely only on my iPhone for photos!)

Then, I miniaturized a few others items, or swapped them out for more compact versions:

mini versions

  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Sunscreen (I put some sunscreen in a smaller 1 oz tube, originally from another product, that I was reusing.)
  • The journal
  • The medication (by taking the ibuprofen out of its case)
  • My wallet (not pictured) — being a wallet clutch, it just takes up too much space. Instead, I opted for a small change purse.
  • Water bottle for a foldable platypus
  • The tablet for an iPad mini
  • The multiple charger cords for one universal charger
  • The headlamp, a just-in-case item, for a mini flashlight

Furthermore, since I would be packing all of this in the daypack there was no need to pack the daypack itself. I’d also plan on wearing the sweater, leggings, a t-shirt, and sarong on the plane. However, when I travel with only a daypack, I like to have a small cross-body purse in addition so that I can easily access my passport, phone, and pen while traveling.

The results? An ultra-light packing list that would — thanks to a bit of crafty engineering — get me through three weeks traveling in tropical Southeast Asia. Yes, it would mean doing more laundry, but it would also mean more freedom and lightness throughout my trip.

Packing ultra light

TL;DR

Packing light looks different to different people and can vary from trip to trip. Using three different bags, all of which are carry-ons, we demonstrated how to pack light, lighter, and ultra-light. When every small corner of space counts, you can get your bag from light to ultra light by:

  • Getting as miniature as possible with your stuff — toiletries and electronics especially.
  • Bringing the absolute bare minimum of clothes and plan on doing laundry a little more often.
  • Looking for compact versions of bulkier items, like cameras, tablets, and water bottles, to replace them with.
  • Opt for single items with multiple purposes, like a sarong versus a sarong and towel or a universal charger versus many specific chargers, rather than multiple items with single purposes.
  • Get a smaller bag! The smaller the bag, the less tempted you’ll be to fill it.

So go ahead, grab your daypack or Tortuga Air and challenge yourself to go even smaller than usual on your next trip. With a little creativity and planning, you’ll be able to take your bag from light packing to ultra light.

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