Minimalist Packing for Normal People

By Fred Perrotta
minimalist traveler walking down the street

Why is it that some people bring multiple checked bags while others pack everything in a personal item for the same trip?

Do these two travelers need drastically different stuff? Probably not. They just think that they do.

Many travelers say they want to embrace minimalism but find it impractical. Keep reading to learn how to make minimalist packing work for you.

Why Minimalist Travel?

I read Leo Babauta’s blogs—Zen Habits and mnmlist—for years. In a post on mnmlist, Babauta outlines why less stuff is better.

Below are his arguments and how they apply to our travels.

Less Means You Spend Less

Bringing more stuff on your trip is more expensive.

Carrying too many bags or too large of a bag will cost $25-50 per flight in baggage fees.

The more stuff you bring, the more you spent to buy that stuff and the more you’ll spend replacing or repairing it if it’s lost, broken, or worn out. Stuff has a way of never shrinking, only growing.

Instead of spending your money on buying, transporting, and replacing things, spend it on experiences. That’s the point of travel.

Studies have shown that experiences deliver far more happiness than possessions.

Less Means You Worry Less

If you bring less stuff, you have less stuff to worry about. You’ll spend less time and energy on your stuff. Looking for it, thinking about it, and repairing or replacing it.

On that note, please remember to bring your passport.

Less Means You’re Lighter

The lighter your load, the less of a physical toll it will take.

Lugging around a big suitcase or an 80L hiking backpack is strenuous. If it’s overloaded or poorly packed, a backpack can cause neck, shoulder, or back pain.

Pack a reasonable amount of supplies in a carry-on-sized bag and skip the visit to the chiropractor.

Less Means You Can Travel More Quickly

Compare two travelers: one has everything in a small bag, and the other with a suitcase, a backpack, and a pile of accessories.

Which person is ready to embark on a new adventure at a moment’s notice?

Traveling lighter makes traveling easier.

Pack modestly so that you can do what you set out to do: see the world, not carry it on your back.

Less is More Sustainable, More Beautiful

If you’ve traveled much at all, you’ve seen the harsh toll that consumerism and waste can take on the environment.

One suitcase may not make much of a difference, but being mindful of how buying habits affect the environment can lead to meaningful change.

Minimalist travel doesn’t just mean buying a smaller bag. Packing less can affect everything from your overall experience to your wallet, your health, and the environment.

Sometimes cliches are true. When traveling, less is more.

Extreme Minimalism: The No Baggage Challenge

To understand how to apply the principles of minimalism to our travels, let’s first take a look at an extreme case: the No-Baggage Challenge.

Travel writer Rolf Potts spent six weeks traveling around the world with only the clothes on his back and what he could fit in his pockets.

While he wasn’t cheating, I should point out that he was dressed entirely in SCOTTeVEST clothes, which are loaded with pockets. Wearing SCOTTeVEST is like wearing cargo pants for every item on clothing.

While the challenge certainly proved its point, the average person will never travel like this. I know I won’t.

Being away from home can be a challenge. Why make it harder?

The purpose of a pared down packing list should be to make your trip easy, not uncomfortable.

Let’s apply the lessons of the No Baggage Challenge to a more reasonable packing list. First, where can we begin to lighten our load?

Where To Simplify Your Packing List

In the quest to minimize our packing list, we’ll have to make some sacrifices. Where to begin?

Clothing

First up is a change in strategy from bringing anything that you might wear to bringing only what you absolutely need.

Instead of a variety of outfit combinations, we’ll be bringing two of everything: one to wear until it’s dirty and another to change into. That’s it. One in use, one on standby.

Just make sure to bring neutral-colored clothes that look good in any combination.

Toiletries

You only need enough toiletries to stay (relatively) clean. You don’t need to be “camera-ready” in the jungles of Vietnam. As long as you don’t stink, you’re good.

This restriction means leaving behind the gadgets and elixirs you use at home. You’ll have to rely on your natural good looks and charming wit to seduce the locals.

The only hardware we’re allowing on this list is a toothbrush. As for liquids, you might not like my suggestion. We’ll get to that in the next section.

Electronics

Even minimalist travel bags usually have a laptop sleeve. If you need your computer for work, bring it. If you’re bringing it for leisure, leave it at home and rely on your phone instead.

Your phone is too useful to leave behind. As James Clear says in his 3 Rules of Packing Light:

Reduce weight, not usefulness.

A tablet will be tempting to bring as a smaller laptop replacement and in-flight movie screen. If you won’t be using it at your destination, leave it at home.

Minimalist Travel Backpacks

If you’re a minimalist packer, you don’t need a maximum-sized carry on bag. We all tend to pack to fill our bags regardless of how much we need to bring on that trip. If you have the extra space, you’ll use it.

So give yourself some constraints and pack a small bag.

The minimalists who post their loadouts online, from James Clear (above) to Tynan, tend to pack around 20L. A 20L bag will usually be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you and be considered a personal item.

Outbreaker Minimalist Travel Daypack

Outbreaker Daypack

The Outbreaker Daypack is 21L, roughly the size of most minimalists’ bags. It’s lightweight and packable yet can still carry a laptop.

Outbreaker Minimalist Travel Laptop Backpack

Outbreaker Laptop Backpack

The Outbreaker Laptop Backpack is has more space at 27L with a larger main opening and more structure for easier packing.

Small bag packing list

Minimalist Packing List

Now it’s time for the easy-to-understand, if hard-to-implement, minimalist packing list. This isn’t extreme minimalism, but you’ll get 80% of the results with only 20% of the sacrifices.

Clothing

  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 2 long sleeve shirts (optional for cooler climates)
  • 1 jacket (optional for cooler climates)
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 pair of shorts (optional for warmer climates)
  • 1 pair of shoes (boots, sneakers, or sandals depending on personal preference)
  • 2 pairs of underwear
  • 2 pairs of socks (if wearing boots or shoes)
  • 1 belt (if needed for your pants)

Toiletries

  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 travel toothpaste
  • 1 bar of deodorant

Get everything else from your hotel or at a drug store when you land.

That’s it! Short, right?

At first glance, this list may look impossible. Keep in mind that you’ll still be clean, have clean clothes to wear, and have more than a week’s worth of outfit combinations. Plus, your bag will only contain (at the most) three shirts, a pair of pants, a pair of underwear, a pair of socks, and a small toiletry bag.

That’s light!

On longer trips, you’ll inevitably need other things along the way. They can be borrowed or purchased locally, often for much less than you would pay at home.

Consider these occasional shopping trips an opportunity for exploration and adventure.