The ultimate guide to packing light

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Some would argue that overpacking is a rite of passage, but there is an easier way. Here are 12 tips for packing light

I started our big trip across the South Pacific and South America with a 45-litre backpack weighing 13kg. Over the course of the trip, I managed to drop a fair bit of weight and get my bag down to 10kg. Evidently, I had failed in packing light from the start.

In some ways, overpacking is a rite of passage: you have to do it to learn how not to do it. Of course there is an easier way. By gleaning advice from other travellers and being strict with yourself, packing light will become far easier. Here’s where to start.

Buy a bag that seems too small

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In a similar vein, your toiletries and ‘must-have’ knick knacks will expand to fill the space available. To combat this, buy a bag that seems too small. This brute-force tactic will help in packing light by forcing you to select what you really need versus what you think you need.

Shave off 10 more litres than you’re comfortable with

It’s worth noting that the bag should be small in proportion to you. My 45-litre backpack isn’t huge but I’m barely 5’2” so once it’s on my back, it seems far bigger. I would have benefited by losing about 10 litres.

Limit clothing to one third of your bag

Take enough clothes for one week and no more. Trust me on this. If you’re female, you can pack an extra dressy outfit but that’s it. All in all, clothing should take up no more than one third of your bag. Here’s how to keep the weight down:

  • What not to pack: Have a look at the things we dumped on the road and leave them behind.
  • Mix and match: Make sure all your items complement each other so you can create new looks on the go.
  • Wash and wear: To reiterate the above point, take only what you need for one week and wash as you go.
  • Spend a bit more: It’s worth shelling out for lightweight clothing. I travelled with a chunky fleece and when I got home, realised that my North Face was far lighter.
  • Layer up: Instead of taking bulky jumpers for cold climes, layer up your lighter clothing.
  • Try packing cubes: Packing cubes keep your clothes organised and compressed. These changed the way I pack and made life on the road so much easier.

Pack for the best case scenario

So many of us overpack because we want to cover all eventualities. What if I need more socks in Peru? What if I can’t buy tampons in Rio? What if our iPhone charger breaks in Bolivia?

Instead of worrying about the worst, pack for the best case scenario and simply buy yourself out of tricky situations. Even if you’re visiting remote places like Tanna Island in Vanuatu or Mafana Island in Tonga, you will usually be able to buy everything you need in bigger towns close by. Don’t take a year’s supply or a ‘just in case’ backup of anything. These are cardinal rules for packing light.

Pack multi-purpose products

Where possible, pack products that work doubly hard. The obvious place to start is with electronics and gadgets. Smartphones, cameras, Kindles, laptops, electric razors, epilators and myriad other gadgets all require charging on the road, be it via mains or USB.

Instead of packing multiple adapters, USB ports and cables, buy an all-in-one adapter like the Ceptics World Travel Adapter Kit.

This kit works in over 200 countries and territories, and can charge up to five devices using only one outlet. It is surge-protected and includes two US plugs, two USB ports, a fixed USB cable and six country-specific connectors.

Ask yourself ‘will I use this every week?’

When considering an item, ask yourself: will I use this every week? If the answer is no, leave it at home. You can make an exception for big-ticket items like sleeping bags if you’ll be camping a lot or a mosquito net if you’re in malarial areas but in most cases, if you won’t use it every week, don’t pack it.

The snorkel mask we should have ditched

Equally, don’t get attached to low-value items. Peter wouldn’t let me throw away our relatively cheap snorkel mask after the South Pacific, so he carried it for five months in South America. We used it about thrice (when we could have hired instead). Don’t make the same mistake.

Let yourself go

Every time I teased Peter about the aforementioned snorkel mask, he gleefully reminded me that I was lugging around a glass bottle full of Angel perfume which I’ll admit now was completely unnecessary.

So my hair’s a bit frizzy. No-one cares.

I also packed two types of cleanser and three types of bras (normal, bandeau, sports). On the road, few people will notice or care what you look like, so leave the luxuries at home. Don’t worry about frizzy hair (leave your straighteners at home), don’t worry about bra straps showing beneath your halterneck, don’t worry about not smelling like a delicate blend of sweet red fruits, soft caramel, honey and praline combined with the captivating power of Patchouli and vanilla. It’s really not that important.

Equally, unless you’re a fitness junkie, leave any dedicated workout gear at home. If you’re hiking, swimming and walking on the road, you’ll likely stay fit and your workout gear will remain unused.

Buy solid versions of toiletries

Liquids are disproportionately heavy and can be terrible for packing light. Instead of packing big bottles of shampoo and other toiletries, opt for solid versions. These will be lighter, smaller, more durable, less messy and longer lasting.

Streamline your shoes

This is tricky if you’re going on a long-term trip covering a wide variety of situations.

Peter packed flip flops, hiking boots and smart(ish) trainers, the last of which he wore in formal settings. I packed flip flops, ballet flats, hiking boots and sports sandals. To be honest, I used them all regularly and am glad I packed them – but four pairs of footwear are the absolute maximum.

Muddy sandals after climbing Nevis Peak
Quick-drying sports sandals are invaluable for cross-river hiking

If you’re unlikely to find yourself in formal situations, forego your smart footwear (in my case, the ballet flats). If the need arises, you can always buy some on the road.

Streamline your leisure gadgets

We packed a wide variety of gadgets including phones, cameras, Kindles and laptops. We were working on the road so needed our laptops but could have left behind a number of the other items.

Your phone can act as a camera, e-reader, guidebook, map and notebook so leave the other stuff at home if you can.

Wear bulky items in transit

Throughout the Pacific, I wore my sports sandals in transit. Wearing bulky hiking boots on a plane from Fiji to Samoa seemed like overkill. In South America, however, I was using my boots more often so decided to keep them out and wear them in transit. What a difference it made!

My bag seemed almost a quarter lighter, was far more manoeuvrable and generally easier to handle. In short: it’s better on your feet than on your back.

Don’t forget the small stuff

It was in Tonga, three months into our trip, that I realised I was carrying 14 British pound coins in my wallet. Coins – which most countries do not exchange.

I found myself in a dilemma: do I just dump £14 or do I carry it around for another nine months? Luckily, we met fellow Brit Mandy on E’ua who was heading back to Britain after five years abroad. I happily gave her the coins as a parting gift.

Don’t forget the small stuff like emptying your wallet of change, library cards, loyalty cards, gym membership and other paraphernalia you won’t use for the year. Every little helps when packing light.

Try it out for 20 minutes

As mentioned in What not to pack, before we left home, I tried on my backpack and went for a 20-minute walk. This was an excellent way to familiarise myself with the various straps and adjustments and also good encouragement to shed more stuff.

As a rule of thumb, you should be able to lift your own bag onto your back without help, lift it above your head for storage and walk with it on for 20 minutes. If you can’t do this at home, you won’t be able to do it in hotter climes, at altitude or on uneven terrain. You may hope to avoid walking with the backpack for any length of time but it will likely be necessary at some point – just as it was for us in Fiji and Bolivia.

If you’re genuinely frightened you’ve left too much behind, you’re probably right on the mark.

Good luck!

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Lead image: Dreamstime

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