Why I choose to travel with a 16L bag everywhere I go.
Years ago, I stopped checking bags when I flew. I’d seen too many things get lost over the years, my own and other’s, and couldn’t stomach the thought of landing somewhere again, only to lose all my possessions. So, I began using a canvas duffel bag, as well as a small backpack.
The bag is grey, and around 30L in volume, has little toggle closures, and a couple internal pockets. It was great for trips in the car to Dallas to see my partner at the time’s family, or anywhere that I didn’t need to carry it. But it was horrible for planes and walking.
For a while, I just dealt with the shoulder pain and annoyance of a single, cross-chest strap full of gear, in addition to my backpack. But it hurt, and I didn’t really like the way I looked, carrying two different bags. I still felt much better about my setup than I would with a large rectangle of soon-to-be-lost gear, but I wanted to simplify more.
A note on my able-bodied privilege This choice to carry a smaller bag, regardless of weight, is one that I was able to make because of my body. For those with chronic pain, or difficulty carrying weight on their back for whatever reason, my setup will likely not work. I see a lot of folks get frustrated with rolling bags, and I have shared that sentiment in the past, but it is very shitty to the folks who need those bags for any reason.
Pack lighter by packing less
The first thing I did to simplify, was to see what I could live without. Many of the extras that I was sure of needing got tossed. No more extra shoes for a trip. No more than the number of underwear I would need for the trip (and often less — it’s easy to hand-wash). Two bras (Nude label). A couple shirts that could also be hand-washed easily (yoga tank-tops from Lucy). Wool socks, usually two pairs. With my wardrobe thus whittled, I turned to my love of books.
In the past I always brought at least 3 books with me on trip of more than 3 or 4 days, as I’d likely go through all of them. Books are heavy. Like, really heavy, and not very easy to pack tightly, especially if they’re lengthy. A Kindle helped fix that problem immediately. I bought the cheapest one, with ads, and loaded it up with a few books I’d acquired over the years, and some free ones from Project Gutenberg. I don’t like giving my money to Amazon, but there are other ways to buy books that support independent bookstores. Now I could carry as many books as I wanted, and acquire new ones instantly, without needing to add to the weight of my pack. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the smell and feel of books, and have a library at home that I treasure, but just like my other stuff, I don’t need to travel with everything I care about.
When it came to electronics, I was already pretty lightweight. I had the ability to afford a Macbook Air, and learned that each year I could sell the previous one and buy a new one for ~100 dollars or so if I kept it from getting banged up. This 13”, slim laptop could go most anywhere with me with a minimal strain on my back. I had a slender Tom Bhin sleeve for it, and its charger. I also had my iPhone, my Kindle (as mentioned above), and a small USB cable for both. In recent years, I’ve switched to the Macbook, which is even smaller and lighter than the Air. My company bought me a Kindle Paperwhite, so now I can read on dark planes with minimal disturbance. I also purchased an Anker powercore 15600 that can charge my phone ~6 times before needing to be charged itself. It’s a little heavy, but has made a huge difference in how I travel, as I don’t need to worry as much about finding an outlet when I am sure to need directions and contact with folks via Twitter, email, or text. For headphones, I’ve always loved in-ear ones, but on long flights, they are painful at best. I got a pair of **ATH-M40Xs **that I adore, and usually wear them around my neck when I’m not listening to them on trips. When I get where I am traveling, I often leave them in the room and switch to my RHA 10Ti in-ear-monitors. There are better headphones for the price, but these work well for me, and most-importantly, fit into my phone while the case is on it, unlike my Shure 215k that I previously wore everywhere.
The final electronic device I bring is a vibrator. At home, I have quite the array, and particularly love my wireless Magic Wand. But, taking a note from a friend about not becoming dependent on what amounts to a power tool, I travel with the easily-packed JimmyJane Form 2. It does the trick, has a travel mode (so it doesn’t vibrate in my bag), and is waterproof to boot.
When I go anywhere with either changeable temperature, or the likelihood of rain, I bring my **Ilse Jacobsen Raincoat 50 **jacket. It’s black, minimally adorned, and waterproof. I love it. Before I had this jacket, I always brought my older Marmot Precip, which could be stowed in my bag easily, unlike this new jacket. With warmer weather, I will probably return to that jacket, for ease of carry.
Yoga pants are the best. For both comfort on the plane, and versatile city exploring, I always bring a pair of yoga leggings that are black, and durable. The ones I have now are from Lucy, but anything will do. With these, my socks, and the yoga tanks I wear, the key is wicking. I sweat easily, and don’t always have a great way to wash clothes, so having clothing that stays pretty stink-free, and dry, is a huge plus. It also packs down really easily due to the thinness of the fabric. You might want something a little thicker if you get cold more easily. Sometimes I bring wool tights too, to wear under these or my jeans.
For pants, I also bring a pair of high-waisted, stretchy black jeans. This is a style choice, but I love them. I pack these in my bag while flying, and then wear them around half the time I’m on my trip. I also bring a small pair of shorts (Foxers), for sleeping and wandering around my hotel, or hostel.
I don’t wear much makeup, and that means my toiletry packing is pretty straightforward. I bring a stick of eyeliner, a stick of lipstain, some coconut-oil deodorant, essential oil, and a toothbrush. I pack these in the front pocket of my backpack, along with my medicine, and some hand-sanitizer for those times I have no idea where to wash my hands, but want to eat.
I also bring a water bottle, which is a Hydroflask, but have thought about getting a collapsable water bottle, the Vapur, soon. (Edit: I got a Vapor bottle, and it’s amazing. It can fold up and fit in the small front zipper of my Fjalraven bag along with the makeup and pill-bottle I keep in there. A+)
I switch between two bags these days, depending on condition. If there will be a lot of rain, or I expect my bag to get jostled significantly, I bring my Mission Workshop 21L Sancturary bag. It’s super durable, and has held up to international travel and mistreatment in my often clumsy hands, and stayed strong for the past 6 years or so. In an effort to get even lighter, as well as have something cuter to walk around cities like NYC with, I picked up a Fjalraven Kånken bag. At 16L, it’s pretty small, but I can still fit all my packed gear inside. My only complaint with this bag, is that with my stuff in it, it can be difficult to get my laptop out in the TSA line. I never dealt with this problem using my Mission Workshop bag, because it has a folding top, that allows for easy access to the laptop in the back. The Fjalraven is a zipper system at the front of the bag, so I have to roll the top back with it unzipped to pull out my laptop. I’m considering cutting the bag and adding another zipper, but we’ll see. It’s less of a problem with the bag less tightly packed, so it’s likely this will just lead to me packing a little bit less each time, and that’s not so bad.
Final recommendation: Years ago I read an article written by a designer who decided to travel without any clothes, save for enough underwear to get her through the trip. She loved the opportunity to hit up a thrift store and buy interesting outfits, which she would re-sell, or donate at the end of her trip. She figured she was saving hassle by not bringing extra clothes, and saving money, potentially, by not needing to check a bag. I love this idea, but as a woman who has a hard time finding well-fitting clothes (I’m 5’10, athletic, and wide-hipped), I don’t want to take that kind of risk. But, if you love shopping, have a frame that is more welcoming to thrift clothes, and feel ok with buying and getting rid of these temporary outfits, then I recommend trying her style of light packing. You might find that the short-lived nature of these clothes inspire you to make riskier or more interesting choices, and maybe even mailing a few pieces back home.
There are many reasons why I’ve decided to pack as light as I do, and it’s become a thing I both enjoy and find ways to challenge as I continue to travel regularly. Questioning the stuff I own, and finding a way to make cute outfits with limited options is a fun way to make the most of a limited budget, or a temporarily limited wardrobe. A lot of folks I know love to bring large bags with extra shoes, more clothes than they wear, and options for most gear. I’m glad they found what works for them, but I’m also very happy to have figured out a minimal pack that feel like I have enough for a week or two. However you decide to pack, light, heavy, or not at all, I hope you enjoy your travels, take some pictures, and breath.