How to Embrace Minimalist Travel and Pack Less

Jessie Beck

About two years ago, my partner and I spent 10 days in Mexico. Our luggage was so minimalist, it aroused suspicion at customs.

“Where did you travel to?” the customs agent asked.
“Just Mexico?”
“For how long?”
“10 days.”
“And that’s all you brought?”
“How much do you really need for a week by the beach?”
 I said with the most charming smile I could muster.

The agent rolled his eyes and said “Okay, okay, go.”

That question may have helped me clear the “I’m-not-a-drug-smuggler” test but I was sort of serious. How much do you need for a week at the beach? Do you really need more than a bathing suit, flip flops, dress, book, and some sunscreen? Or do you just want to bring more than that? We tend to pack more than we need, but minimalist travelers want to achieve the opposite: to travel only with what they absolutely need.

If you want to become a minimalist packer, below are tips for getting started and building out your own minimalist packing list.

Minimalist Travel Starts With a Mindset

My journey towards becoming a minimalist traveler actually started outside of my trips. Working towards that ultralight packing list first took some lifestyle changes.

For example, I used to straighten my hair but realized that habit forced me to pack more and waste time while traveling. It took well over two years, but I slowly began to ditch that habit entirely, and work towards loving and embracing my natural, curly hair (as well as lots of quick up-dos for when I wasn’t feeling it). The result? A smaller toiletry bag and a routine that got me out of bed and exploring within 20 minutes.

To be a minimalist packer, you first have to become comfortable with simplicity and separate the “want” from the “need” in your life and travels.

I also got into the habit of only buying clothes within a mix-and-matchable color palette. Again, this lifestyle change helped me simplify my packing list. I could pack just a couple items of clothing and feel confident — not dorky — with the outfits I chose while traveling.

For you, this might mean taking up a more portable sport (e.g. jogging), loading up your iPhone with productivity apps so you can leave your computer at home, or learning how to wear less makeup. Most importantly, to be a minimalist packer, you first have to become comfortable with simplicity and separate the “want” from the “need” in your life and travels which takes work.

Where to Start: Get a Smaller Bag

You know how I fit an entire week’s worth of stuff into that small backpack? By deciding to use only that backpack.

Whenever we have a little extra space in our bags, we all have this habit of saying, “Oh, I could bring that dress — I’ve got some more room.” By intentionally choosing smaller luggage, we can force ourselves into packing lighter even if it’s just moving from a 45 liter to a 35 liter travel backpack.

Once you’re used to a smaller bag, repeat the process, up your game (or downsize your game?) and take on the challenge of only packing a personal item or a daypack

Next: Analyze Your Current Packing List

When I first started to reduce my packing list, I found it helpful to ask:

  • What items went unused (or rarely used) the last time I went on a trip?
  • Is there a non-essential habit I could temporarily cut from my routine?
  • Are there smaller or more versatile versions of anything I normally bring?

Since packing is pretty personal, asking those questions can help you identify the areas that will be easiest for you to simplify.

Know Your Essentials

Minimalist packing is all about stripping your packing list down to the essentials and only bringing those. Your absolute essentials will include:

  1. Your passport / ID
  2. Credit cards and cash
  3. Phone and charger

Never leave home without them. Of course, you probably don’t want to leave home with just those three items. For that reason, I’d also consider the following “secondary” essentials:

  1. A jacket or sweater
  2. Comfy shoes (on my feet)
  3. A toothbrush
  4. Deodorant
  5. 1 extra outfit
  6. A water bottle

In college, I lived about an hour’s drive from campus and, as long as I had the 8 items above (plus my car keys, obviously) I felt like I could be away from home for as long as I possibly needed. When I travel, I like to remind myself that as long as I have these items, I’ll be OK; I’ve done it before.

Reducing Your Toiletries and Makeup

If you want to be truly minimalist, for toiletries I’d stick to just packing:

  1. Toothbrush + toothpaste
  2. Soap
  3. Lotion
  4. Deodorant
  5. Shampoo + conditioner (optional)

A lot of travelers will recommend using Dr. Bronners as their multi-purpose soap-shampoo-toothpaste, but ever since I grew my hair below my ears, I can’t do that anymore. Personally, it’s worth it to throw a tiny bottle of conditioner into my bag (since I’d consider that a personal essential).

Even if you can’t get away with those 7 toiletries alone, there are still ways to find your minimalist sweet-spot and pack fewer toiletries. A couple other tips I’d include are to:

  1. Pack for a “lazy Sunday” look — what do you need to simply feel like yourself? Everything else you should leave behind.
  2. Include 1-3 small items that will bring you happiness and confidence (like my case on conditioner)
  3. Search for products that do more (e.g. can you find a single product for styling and de-frizzing instead of two?).

Ways to Simplify Your Travel Clothing

Regardless of whether I’m traveling somewhere warm or cold, the most minimalist version of my packing list for clothes will be:

  • 1 pair of black pants
  • 1 mini-skirt OR yoga pants
  • 2 shirts
  • Sweater and/or jacket (both if I’m going somewhere with below-freezing temperatures)
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 1 extra bra (usually a versatile sports bra)
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • Bathing suit (though my partner will just bring 1 pair of shorts that he wears normally and swims in)
  • 1 extra pair of shoes — this one’s a maybe. I always try to get away with one comfortable pair of black sandals or one comfortable pair of black boots. My extra pair of shoes will typically just be sneakers for hikes or workouts.

Depending on the trip, I’ll pack a few extra things, but I know that I can get by with just the items above. A couple of tips to help you get to your most minimal clothing packing list include:

  • Identify the pair of pants / sweater / top you love wearing the most. Pack that.
  • Commit to washing clothes while traveling. And no, you don’t need anything special to wash them — Dr. Bronner’s or a bar of soap will do the trick.
  • Stick to a single color pallet.
  • Pick your travel outfit from your pile of travel clothes, not in addition to them, to save you from packing one more outfit.

Electronics & Gadgets: How Low Can You Go?

In terms of electronics, the most minimalist version of my packing list is traveling with just:

  • Phone
  • Charger
  • Headphones

If you really, really, really need to type, consider getting a bluetooth keyboard instead of adding in your computer.

Personally, I always end up stepping outside the minimalist list since I like to travel with my DSLR. To help make my bag smaller, I did recently trade in my older, larger Nikon D600 for a Sony RX1R2 but an additional camera is definitely more of a want than a need.

Minimalist Travel Beyond the Bag

I’ve really just focused on a minimalist way of packing in this piece, but I do think that minimalist travel goes beyond just that. To me, it also means focusing on experiences, not consumption, and being satisfied with what you’re able to fit into a single day, rather than trying to do too much. Minimalist packing also means spending modestly and skipping the souvenirs we’ll never touch again.

This isn’t a very official definition — just how I think of it. As a postscript, I’d love to hear what you think about this in the comments as well!


Next time you travel somewhere, try to embrace minimalist travel. Be simple. Do what you enjoy. Grab a small bag — the smallest backpack you own! — and try not to pack anything except the following:

  • Your passport / ID
  • Credit cards and cash
  • Phone and charger
  • Headphones
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste
  • Soap
  • Lotion
  • Deodorant
  • 1 pair of pants
  • 1 skirt, shorts, or extra pair of pants
  • 2 shirts
  • Sweater and/or jacket
  • 3 pairs of underwear
  • 1 extra bra
  • 2 pairs of socks
  • Shampoo + conditioner (optional)
  • 1 extra pair of shoes (optional)