Travelling light

Posted on September 28, 2013

Last updated on October 20, 2013

He who would travel happily must travel light.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Have you ever gone on a trip and regretted not taking enough with you? Probably not; it is the natural instinct of many to pack for contingencies – take that extra pair of socks, some fancy shoes, and a couple too many t-shirts. I have just recently come back from a month long holiday that spanned Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and India, and the only luggage I carried with me was a 25L backpack (while an average travelling backpacker’s backpack is around 70L). I am trying to reduce my possessions and generally move towards a minimalist lifestyle; this trip was an experiment to see whether travelling light, using a backpack the size you would have gone to school with, is feasible. In the rest of the post, I will cover the advantages of travelling light and my packing list with an analysis of what worked well, and what I would have packed differently.

1 Advantages of packing light

2 Packing list

Here, I will itemize what exactly I packed for my month long trip. The trip was to warm climates – South-East Asia and India, although in India I have visited the Himalayan region where night-time temperatures were no more than five degrees centigrade. A key point to travelling light is dressing up in layers, of which you can add more when it gets too cold, or take some off when it is getting warm. This disqualifies things such as a jacket with an attached internal fleece - a better alternative is a separate sweater and a windbreaker waterproof jacket.

If you want to comfortably travel light, you cannot skimp on your gear. A cheap cotton t-shirt simply will not do; as technical gear for extended travel cotton, is a terrible material – it’s heavy, dries slowly, makes you cold when it’s wet, doesn’t easily evaporate sweat and smells bad rather quickly. Neither do you want any of the hyped up quick-dry no-smell synthetic materials. I have tried many, but they are all not very nice to the touch, and end up smelling bad fast as well. You might have heard of Ex-officio underwear, but that still isn’t a good choice; I have two pairs, and while they are alright, there is simply no comparison to the alternative material for what your baselayers must be made out of: merino wool. Merino wool comes from sheep and hence is completely natural (some clothes can have additions of elastene; this is fine, it’s just to strengthen the fabric). You might be imagining wool as a sweater your grandma would give you: large knit, itchy, heavy, and too warm. Get this image out of your head, and simply try out a merino wool t-shirt. It is lighter than cotton, dries a couple of times faster, does not smell at all even after multiple wears and doesn’t feel wet until it absorbs more than three times its weight in water. Merino wool is also the perfect material for underwear, a sweater, and socks. The only downside to merino wool is the price. A simple merino wool t-shirt will cost around $65.

An overview of my initial packing list and what I took on the trip:






Medicine and Toileteries

The core clothing that I packed consisted of three sets of merino wool t-shirts and underwear. Halfway through the trip, I had one of my sets stolen at a hotel, and ended up with only two sets. That was a sad and expensive loss (more than $120 of gear), but in practice I was only using two sets anyway, the third was backup. Two sets of merino baselayer (t-shirt + underwear) is just enough; if you want to be even more minimalist, you can opt for only one set, but you will have to do laundry much more often, and the extra effort of carrying another set is very small.

2.1 Backpack - Tom Bihn Synapse 25L

A very important part of the gear. This is the thing that you will be carrying on your back for a prolonged time, so you want this to be very comfortable, have enough space, and have a good internal design with enough compartments and pockets. The backpack I chose is the Tom Bihn Synapse 25L backpack. This is a new version of the Tom Bihn 19L Synapse which came highly recommend by many people online, notably Tynan, who is a fervent minimalist, and is the person who inspired me to try merino wool and move towards a more minimalist Buy-it-for-life (BIFL) lifestyle.

19L was just a bit too tiny for me for my first minimalist holidays, so I opted for the recently released slightly larger 25L version, which proved to be just right for this holiday.

The backpack itself could probably warrant a full review, but the gist is that I find it a very good backpack, with some minor concerns:

2.2 Clothing

2.2.1 Baselayer t-shirt: 2x Icebreaker Anatomica V

Initially, I had three t-shirts, the other one also an Icebreaker of a different model, but I honestly prefer much more the Anatomica series. It has a much better body fit, and feels lighter. I had one Ivory, and one Monsoon color t-shirt. There is simply no comparison between merino wool and cotton. I don’t want you to consider me dirty for not washing my t-shirts every day, but this t-shirt simply does not smell and does not require much washing at all, even after an exhausting day in 30 degrees centigrade sweaty temperature. You can wash this t-shirt around every 5 days. It’s recommended to wash it in the washing machine (do not machine dry it though!), but on a trip, I preferred to handwash it in the sink with a bit of soap. Do this when you go to bed, and the t-shirt will be dry the next morning. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to convince some of the friends of the quality and benefits of merino wool t-shirts, but haven’t gotten a convert yet. Hopefully this blog post will change it. Buy one, and try it.

2.2.2 Baselayer underwear: 2x Icebreaker Anatomica

Again, it is made out of merino wool and it is far superior to any cotton underwear, and also better than the lauded Exofficio underwear, which in my trials had a noticeable smell after just one day of use. Again, do not think that it is dirty to wear the same underwear a couple of days in a row, because it is possible with merino wool. Before discovering merino, I would never wear a t-shirt or underwear twice without washing it, but this underwear you can, just like with the t-shirt, wear for a couple of days in a row with no noticeable odour. You have to wear it to believe it.

2.2.3 Socks

Pretty much any woolen sock will work well. I wanted one thinner one, and one thicker one, in the case if it was cold enough to warrant me putting one on top of the other (layering principle). Here is what I went for:

2.2.4 Wool sweater: Smartwool Men’s Lightweight Front range 1/2 Zip

I have been using this sweater almost daily for more than a year, and it’s everything I could wish for. If it gets a little bit more chilly, simply put this on, and the merino wool will work its magic keeping you much warmer than the equivalent weight cotton hoodie/sweater. I’m comfortable wearing just an Icebreaker t-shirt and this sweater for temperatures down to around 10 degrees centigrade.

2.2.5 Woolen shorts: Icebreaker GT Sonic

I took these as a precaution for use when when my convertible pants are drying. The shorts are very good quality, but I didn’t end up using them too much. They are meant for running, and are a little bit short to wear as normal travelling pants. For another trip, I don’t think I will pack them.

2.2.6 Linen/Cotton Jeans

I brought a pair of lightweight linen/cotton Boss jeans. They are very lightweight, and folded down extremely well. They were useful when it got a little bit cooler, or when the occasion necessitated longer pants. They were a blend of linen and cotton – not wool, but I feel they did their job fairly well.

2.2.7 Convertible pants: Columbia Men’s Silver Ridge Cargo Pant

I took this on my trip without much research, and I had it laying around so I thought I’ll try it out. The material is not wool, but this is one part of the travelling wardrobe that I think does not have to be wool. The benefit of these pants is that they are convertible, so you can easily transform them to long pants which is especially useful if you need to go visit a temple or some other religious monument that requires long trousers. This is not a top-of-the line product, but I was still happy exclusively wearing it everyday for over a month, having to wash it only once (after having fallen into mud).

2.2.8 Swimming shorts

This one is nothing in particular. I knew I would be visiting beaches and swimming, and I just took a pair of Nike swimming shorts which are very lightweight. Conveniently, in a warm climate, you can use swimming shorts just as regular shorts, which I did a couple of times. The issue for me is pockets – I like my pants to have zippable pockets to keep my passport, wallet, and camera handy, and swimming trunks are not good at this.

2.2.9 Baseball cap

I was cajoled last minute into taking this for sun protection. Never used it; waste of space, and I will not be taking hats again.

2.2.10 Rain Jacket Men’s Blue Ridge Paclite Jacket

I hesitated for a long time whether to buy a rain jacket for this trip or not. I read some discussions online, and people were mostly advising to not take a rain jacket, and just buy a cheap $1 poncho from the multitude of sellers that pop-up everywhere in SE-Asia as soon as rain starts falling. The argument is that with the temperature and humidity you will sweat as much as in the rain. I found that to be false, and I have to say that I’m extremely happy I took my own high quality rain jacket. Whether it was rain in Vietnam, or wind and low temperatures in Kashmir in India, the jacket has served me extremely well. I was able to put in my iPhone and camera into the side pocket, and comfortably walk for four hours in medium rain.

Again, the principle of layering is important here. When in a hot climate, I would put this right on top of a t-shirt to not get wet, and the merino wool baselayer and GoreTex jacket are working hard on wicking sweat away and evaporating it. You would be much worse off in the pure plastic ponchos that you can buy for $1, since they trap all the moisture inside unlike GoreTex. Secondly, even though the jacket is rain gear and won’t give you much warmth at all, it’s still better than nothing when there is some wind as it will work as a windbreaker. At 320g, it folded down very nicely and fit inside my backpack.

2.3 Shoes

2.3.1 Xeroshoes Huarache Sandals

This is probably as minimalist as footwear can go, but I unfortunately did not use these a lot; they feel overly minimalist to me, and lack the foot support that I enjoy from larger shoes like sandals. They are also very hard to get “right”. I wore them for a couple of days, and always felt there is something a little bit wrong – either my whole foot was shifted a bit too much to the front, or the tension of the string just didn’t feel right. Maybe wearing them more will convince me. Though they do take up an incredibly small amount of space for shoes.

2.3.2 Clorts sandal shoes

I bought these one day before my trip, and did not do any sandal research online before buying them. I also cannot find them online, as the manufacturer’s website seems to be saying they don’t have any sandals. These were just your standard Teva-style sandals, providing optimal support – much more than the Xeroshoes huaraches. The key point which I debated for a long time is whether to bring closed footwear as well. In the end, I decided not to bring it, which was a good choice. I was mostly in warm climates, and sandals every day where no problem. When it did get at times more chilly, ie there was some light snowfall, I put on a pair of heavy wool socks. Now, of course sandals with socks are not very fashionable, but not taking a second pair of shoes saves a large amount of space in the backpack, and allows me to travel much more light. In the end, if you really do need more footwear, you’ll be able to find a shop and buy one.

2.4 Accessories

2.4.1 750ml Filter Water Bottle: Travel Tap

I thought I would need a water bottle with a filter. Turns out there was always someone to sell bottled water, and I didn’t end up using it all.

2.4.2 Merino Wool Buff

Just an accessory made out of merino wool. It’s extremely lightweight, but can be used for many things: as an eyemask to sleep, as a scarf, as a sun protector for the neck and many others. Quite recommended.

2.4.3 Paper Wallet: Mighty Wallet

If my trip was to be as minimalist as possible, I couldn’t take a bulky leather wallet. I took this paper wallet, which worked very well; even after getting wet in rain, it dried quickly and didn’t lose any form.

2.4.4 Portable Towel: PackTowl

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have

– “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

A portable quick-dry towel is an essential item. A couple of times on my trip I were in places where was a shower but no towel, or there was some kind of shared towel used by many – clearly, you want your own. A very versatile piece of equipment. Indeed, the towel does dry quickly, and packs down to a very small pack. I got the L, which is small for a towel, but it minimises space.

2.4.5 Visa Photos

Remember to take those on your trip if you’ll be jumping across many countries!

2.4.6 Silk Bed Liner / Sleeping Bag

For warm climates and on minimalist travel, you simply cannot take a sleeping bag, it won’t fit. Sometimes though, you are in a place where the bed and the sheets don’t look very clean, and you wouldn’t want to sleep in it to catch some skin disease. This kind of silk liner came extremely useful during my trip. It’s very light, packs down neatly, and unfolds to give you around an extra 3-5 degrees centigrade of warm.

2.4.7 Tom Bihn packing cube

I had one Medium sized packing cube, and kept all my clothes in it, excluding socks and the rain jacket. Good organizational packing cube.

2.4.8 Tom Bihn Side Effect

If you are using the Synapse backpack, you will need something along these lines to organize your smaller things, like medicines, headphones, SD cards, cables, camera, etc. The size was just right for my trip. I would also recommend buying a long key-strap to connect this to the main backpack. This ensures that you cannot forget it – I kept my most important things in here, so it was essential I don’t lose this.

2.4.9 Tom Bihn Accesory Bag

I used this as my toiletry bag – it’s lightweight, made out of liquid-proof material, and also has a strap so that I can attach it to the main backpack so that I don’t lose it. I kept this in the front pocket of my backpack for easy access at airports to take out all the liquids.

2.4.10 Power Adapter

Very small power adapter that does its job very well!

2.4.11 USB Charger with iPhone and miniUSB cables

I had the following electronics with me: Blackberry, iPhone, Kindle, and camera. There was no way I could bring all the chargers for them. Thankfully, the Blackberry and Kindle both use miniUSB, and my camera allows charging over the camera without an external charger. This means I only had to take a USB charger, an iPhone cable, and a miniUSB cable.

2.4.12 Sunglasses: Oakley Juliet

Walking around all day in extremely bright sun without sunglasses is damaging to your eyes, so polarized sunglasses with UV protection are in order. I had these sunglasses for some time, and didn’t really do much research. I like them, but I think there might be better choices. For starters, the Oakley carrying case is very large, but necessary or otherwise the expensive Oakleys won’t live for long. I’m thinking of trying the folding wayfarers since they pack down to a small volume and wouldn’t require a separate carrying pouch.

2.5 Electronics

2.5.1 Camera: Sony RX100M2

I originally brought on the trip a smaller point-and-shoot camera, a Sony WSC1000, but that wasn’t quite meeting my standards. While in Thailand, taking advantage of the tax redemption, I got the Sony RX100M2, which is a camera with a 1 inch sensor and many manual features, all at a size a fraction of a DSL and just slightly larger than a point and shoot. Whether you want to bring a camera is up to you – some people don’t like taking pictures, or their iPhone camera is enough for them. Though, at this small size, the Sony RX100M2 is able to give me fantastic pictures such as this one.

2.5.2 Headphones: Shure SE215

I believe these earphones are discontinued now, but you can get another pair of Shure earphones and they will be good quality. I like listening to music and cannot stand crappy earphones, so good earphones were a requirement for me for this trip. Try come in a very nice carry pouch that I attached via a key-strap to an easy-to-access pocket in my backpack so I easily get them out wherever I was.

2.5.3 Kindle 4th Generation

I knew that after sightseeing, and during periods of waiting, there wouldn’t be much to do except read, so a Kindle was good to bring along. I vacillated between the Kindle 4th Gen and the Paperwhite, but went for the 4th Gen because it was much lighter and thinner than the Paperwhite. In retrospect, the Paperwhite would have been a better choice – I cover this at the end of this article.

2.5.4 Blackberry

I’m not even entirely sure what model I had – I took it as a secondary phone to put in international SIM cards while travelling.

2.6 Medicines and Toiletries

I took the following:

I was deciding a long time between a picaridin-based repellent and a DEET-based repellent, but went for a picaridin-based one after reading discussions on how DEET is able to easily destroy plastics, such as parts of my sunglasses and my watch. I didn’t want this to happen, and went for picaridin, which worked very well, and even had a pleasant smell. Remember to take hand-sanitizer gel, you will want it if you are travelling to third world countries.

Here is my complete equipment set (without the camera, with which I took the picture). It all packs down the Tom Bihn backpack, still leaving around half the backpack free.

Complete equipment for my trip

Complete equipment for my trip

3 What I would change

In general, I was very happy with my packing, and wouldn’t change too many things. Here a couple of points of interest:

4 Conclusion

Thank you for reading this far, and hopefully I managed to convince you to travel light the next time and invest in merino wool baselayers. Please leave a comment for any questions, I’ll be very happy to answer them.

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