How To Travel Light

Packing a smarter, smaller load means greater freedom for the journey ahead.

“Everything you need and nothing you don’t.” That maxim has long been embraced by backcountry travelers, and it’s just as valuable for adventure travelers. A smaller load means greater freedom wherever you go. And when traveling, you have access to restaurants and hotels, so you can pack less and still enjoy key comforts.     

The goal: Pack everything you need into a single carry-on, no matter if your trip is one week or one month. If you can do that, not only will you be more nimble, you won’t have to worry about lost baggage interrupting a trip, plus you’ll save on luggage fees. And if you don’t need any specialized adventure gear (skis, climbing equipment, etc.), you’ll be able to move about the world with ease. (If you do have equipment needs, consider renting items at your destination, if possible.) 

Here are a few pointers on how to travel light (and enjoy it in comfort).

Pick the Right Bag

The most important thing you can do to travel light: Start with a smaller bag. A big suitcase begs to be overpacked, but you can only fit so much into a 45L backpack. Starting small forces you to make smart decisions about what to bring and what to leave behind. Many international airlines limit carry-on weight to 15 to 22 pounds, which can be a helpful constraint (you don’t want to lug around much more than that on your back). Having everything in a single bag reduces the chance of losing additional items in transit; it eliminates extra fees and time waiting at baggage claim; plus it eases A-to-B movement, whether it’s squeezing onto crowded public transportation, cruising dirt roads, or even sneaking in a beach trip while killing time before hotel check-in.

Don’t burden yourself with having to make travel decisions for the sake of luggage. Challenge yourself to see how much smaller you can go. The same goes for a ski trip or an adventure vacation that requires extra gear: Can you get a wider ski bag with wheels and then pack everything else inside? Only having to maneuver one bag makes a huge difference when the alternative is carting around a ski bag, a boot bag, plus a duffel or suitcase filled with clothes.  

Young woman packing backpack in bedroom

Bring the Right Clothes (and the Right Amount)

This selection is often the most challenging part. Start by thinking through your itinerary to get clarity on what clothes you’ll truly need. And be practical: Can your outfit for day-hiking also double for wandering around town? Make a list of every piece or type of clothing you’ll need (again, need being the key word) and then go back through your list and see what luxuries you can cut. (This process also ensures you don’t forget anything critical). Bring clothes that work well together in terms of aesthetics and color palette, and in terms of layering. This allows you to mix and match everything you brought and keep warm when needed. Quick-dry and odor-resistant materials (like merino wool) are great options for re-wearing items multiple times between washes. Pack according to the duration of your trip, sticking to the following packing-list mainstays: two or three pairs of shoes; three bottoms; three tops; two jackets (for warmth and for wind/water protection); five pairs of socks and underwear; and then whatever additions you may need (sun hat or beanie, a swimsuit, adventure-specific items).

Pack Smart

Roll your clothes to save space. And use packing cubes for staying organized—they make it much easier to locate items in a tightly packed bag. Put socks and underwear in one cube, tops in another, and bottoms in a third. Leave extra space in your bag for souvenirs, and for ease in pulling out and stuffing in select items as needed (and not emptying your entire load to find one shirt). Advance research also pays dividends: Are you staying in hotels that have shampoo, conditioner, and lotion on hand? Great, leave yours behind. If you have bulky items (like boots or a big sweater) that you absolutely must bring, wear them in transit so you never have to actually pack them. 

Make Lightweight Swaps

Instead of a parka, bring an insulating puffer jacket that packs down small. It’s a versatile layer to wear while traveling that doubles as a pillow or blanket. Rather than packing a full-size towel, bring a small, absorbent microfiber towel or a sarong. If you’re planning to read books, bring an e-reader instead. Or, download them onto your smartphone to save space and weight. Consider if certain items can have multiple functions: Can you hike in those pants, and wear them to lunch and a museum tour? Can you wear a sports bra and running shorts for a swimsuit? Trail runners are great for hiking, running, and exploring town, plus they’re much lighter than hiking boots. Strap-on sandals are nice for travel during warmer months; they won’t fall off on a hike and you can wear them to dinner or the beach. Pick a neutral color to wear with any outfit. Avoid packing bulky shoes you’ll only wear once (unless you need, say, mountaineering boots for an objective).

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.