Packing for any adventure

I've spent more than a year of my life traveling all over the world, from snow-covered Turkish winters to scorching Mediterranean summers, from short trips, or extended adventures, in cities, villages, jungles, mountains, and everywhere in between. I've done all this with a 20 liter daypack that fits in the overhead compartment on the plane. Everyone I've met seems to think this is utterly impossible, as few of them know anything about how to pack a suitcase.

I spend less time packing every morning, I never wait to check my bag at airport security, I never lose my luggage, and I never wait in line by the conveyor belt to pick it up. It weighs about 15 pounds and no one believes me. Here are my secrets for how to travel lighter than you ever though possible, no matter where you're headed.


How to pack for travel

Cut as much as you can. 100% of all travelers on the road promise they'll go lighter next time, and not a single one promises to bring more. Instead of thinking of things to pack for a trip, think of what you can cut. You'll be surprised how little you really need when you're on the road, especially in countries that have everything available for purchase on every street corner.

Your maximum bag size should be the same as the airline limit: 22" x 14" by 9", or 45 liters. I did it with 20, you can do it with 45. This way you don't have to put the bag through security and pick it up later, and complain a lot less about having to drag 50 pounds of useless garbage around with you.


Clothing packing checklist

People ask me how I can fit 6 months of gear into a daypack, but no one out there is really packing for Europe or Asia with 6 months worth of supplies. My trip packing list includes 3 changes of clothes, and that's it.

All the clothing is made of ultralight, fast-drying performance fabric that stays comfortable in hot or cold weather, packs easily, and can be washed in the sink and hung up to dry overnight. That means no cotton, and instead mostly polyester or nylon. Whenever I take a shower I wash whatever I was wearing and hang it up. It's that simple. I may tweak the individual pieces, but I never add to the simple trifecta.

Hiker clothing tends to look a little unusual, so I spend the extra time finding pieces that look presentable in a variety of social situations, maybe even bringing a button-up shirt for fancy evenings, but again, no more than 3 sets of clothing. There's no reason to pack separate sets of nice clothes, hiking clothes, and casual clothes. Just get clothes that look good, and perform well. Isn't that how all clothes should be anyway?

For colder weather I bring the lightest fleece sweater I can find (I don't like heavy jackets, since you need something for moderately cool weather), and I throw a down or synthetic puffy jacket on top when it's really cold. Down is the warmest thing on the planet for its weight, so you can get a warm jacket that's half the weight and size of a bulky fleece jacket. This is likely to cut a pound from the trip packing list, with no loss in performance. I bring a rain jacket (the lightest I can find) or maybe an umbrella, and I like light wind jackets too. For winter travel I pack some long underwear.

I bring just one, single, solitary, lonely pair of shoes. This seems to be the weirdest concept for anyone to wrap their heads around, but why not? If you find a nice-looking, durable, comfortable pair of shoes, they'll be nice enough for the club, tough enough for the mountains, and feel nice all day. Why bother adding a second pair? Hiking boots are only built for supporting huge packs, and if you're carrying less than 20 pounds, it's just dead weight, and if the shoes look good anyway, you won't need "nice" shoes (except the ladies, as the rules are a little more strict for you––just keep it small and light). I bring some flip-flops too, the lightest I can find.


Gear packing checklist

I skip things like packing cubes, vacuum bags and other "organizers" because if you have so few things that they don't need organization, they're dead weight.

I bring a camera, a card reader, and outlet converter, a book or two, a journal, some cards, a money belt, maybe a tiny LED light, maybe an iPod, maybe a hat and gloves if I need them, and sunglasses. Maybe an umbrella if you don't have a rain jacket. I try to avoid bringing a daypack, but now that we have tiny coffee-mug sized contraptions I've been letting it slide.

The bathroom packing checklist is similarly minimal. I always bring plenty, but all in mini-bottles that fit on the plane, so the toiletry kit is smaller than an average hardback book. There's no reason to spend the extra time and energy checking the bag through just so you can bring big bottles on the plane. You might have to buy more when you're there anyway, so just bring the little ones, buy more when you need it, and try to use up the big bottles (including refilling the little ones) before you have to dump them to fly home. Instead of spending an extra hour in line, you'll spend 5 minutes in a grocery store, which you'll probably visit repeatedly anyway.

Always bring a travel towel. They're cheap, they cut maybe a pound of weight, and dry fast enough that you won't have to pack a wet towel in the bag. You don't need a full-body size, as just a washcloth is often enough (except for the ladies), though sometimes I like to wrap the clothes inside a larger towel to spread out the moisture so things dry faster.

Unless you're going camping, skip the sleeping bag. 99% of backpackers stay in hostels anyway, and if you really feel you want to sleep in your own sheets, bring a travel sheet. But you'll likely never use it. Same goes for the laptop. Internet cafes are ubiquitous all over the planet, and you'll save a few pounds and never worry about losing it.


That's it!

Someone asked me at the end of a 9 month trip, the first time I had tried this method, if there was anything I would have added. I said no. Someone else asked if there was anything I would have subtracted. I said no. It was the happiest moment of my life.

Watch for sales or eBay deals, because this stuff isn't cheap, but remember that 3 sets of clothing is all you need, so you shouldn't have to spend a whole lot. You'll be happy with the lost weight, taxi savings, and running to catch a train and making it because your pack was only 15 pounds. You'll fall in love with the simplicity very, very quickly. And remember, packing for a trip is the same every time: summer, winter, jungle, city, and everything in between. Never worry about what to pack.


Ultimate travel packing list:

1 pack (45 liters or less, under 3 pounds)

Clothing, all performance fabric:

2 t-shirts, 1 nice shirt

2 pairs of pants, 1 pair of shorts, or vice versa

3 pairs of underwear

3 pairs of socks (2 light pairs, one warm pair, worn over the light ones)

1 light sweater

1 windbreaker

1 pair of shoes

1 pair of flip flops

Cold weather

1 light down/synthetic puffy jacket

1 pair of long underwear

1 rain jacket or umbrella

1 pair of gloves

1 hat

Gear packing list:

1 toiletry bag, all mini bottles

1 travel towel

1 packable daypack, if necessary

1 money belt

1 camera and equipment

1 book

1 journal

1 pair of sunglasses, or a hat, by preference

1 deck of cards, if desired

1 iPod, if desired


No more!

I hope this helps when packing for vacation or a trip. There is simply nothing else you will need, and I've done this for all kinds of trips all over the world, never with any desire for anything more (and people borrow gear from me). And don't say this won't work for you––on certain vacation packages this strategy is forced upon all customers. They say it can't be done, and a week into the trip, they say they love it. Every one of them. Be one of those people too. Enjoy the adventure.