Lightweight One Bag Travel: A Conversion Story

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Sometimes it takes a life-changing experience to see the error of our ways. That happened for me on a road trip through several of the western U.S. national parks. It taught me a lot about myself and started me on my path to lightweight one bag travel.

How Yosemite Changed My Life

Maybe that section heading is a bit much, but Yosemite really did change the way I hike and travel. It chewed me up, smacked me around, and then it laughed at me. But in the end, it taught me a lot about myself and helped me see the benefits of lightweight one bag travel.

Back country hiking in Yosemite inspired us toward lightweight travel

Half Dome from Clouds Rest, Yosemite

My girlfriend at the time (now my wonderful wife) and I decided to backpack through several of the western U.S. national parks. At the second stop, Yosemite, we hiked about 28 miles from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. While incredibly beautiful, it was hot, grueling, and (at times) miserable. But I’ll make a long story short:

28 rugged miles + 45 lbs each + stiff new boots + mosquito swarms = 2 unhappy campers

We hiked 28 miles through Yosemite with heavy packs. That spurred our passion for ultralight hiking and lightweight travel.

Our grueling route through Yosemite

The Epiphany

Yosemite was only the second of many stops on the trip. We continued on, but took it a little easier. After the last park (and after the blisters subsided), we looked back to consider what we could have done differently. It all came down to lightening our loads. Epiphany!

Changing it Up

Well, we spent the next year paring down our gear – selling the heavy stuff, purchasing lighter options, and determining what we really needed and what we could do without. We took lots of hikes, testing different gear and packing methods. By the next summer, we were ready to apply what we’d learned. So we booked a flight to Costa Rica, backpacks ready.

We carried lightweight backpacks throughout Central America, including to Mount Arenal in Costa Rica

Mount Arenal in Costa Rica

The Weight We Saved

From over 45 lbs to under 30 lbs

On this trip, we visited Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico over two weeks. Even though we packed a full suite of camping gear, the closest we came to sleeping outside was “glamping” at a hostel in Arenal, Costa Rica. The point is, we had everything we could possibly need, yet we each carried under 30 lbs. That’s a far from the 45 lbs we toted previously.

Now, you might wonder what happened to that girlfriend I mentioned. I proposed to her on an island in Belize, on this very trip. Believe it or not, she said yes! 🙂Proposal on a beach in Belize

Anyway, back to lightweight one bag travel:

Applying What I Learned to Lightweight One Bag Travel

Now, I’m not saying camping and backpack travel are the same. But you can learn a lot about packing from a through-hiker. On this trip, we did carry camping gear. Leaving that at home frees up a ton of space and weight. That means a smaller and lighter bag. So, we reduced our loads even more for the next trip.

Lighten Up - Even More

From 30 to 28 lbs

So, remember the proposal in Belize? Well, that wonderful woman and I married that year. For our honeymoon, we decided to see some of Central and Eastern Europe. We used everything we learned from the Central America adventure and applied it to a nine country extravaganza. We left behind the camping gear, scaled down our “necessities” and reassessed clothing choices. This time, our packs were under 28 lbs and we didn’t want for anything.

Lake Bled Slovenia - part of our lightweight travel adventure to Central and Eastern Europe

Lake Bled Slovenia

The Last Big Thing

From 28 to under 25 lbs

While I’d love to say I keep cutting pounds from my load, that just isn’t true any longer. The last major development happened after a trip to New Zealand. I realized I was done hauling my heavy DSLR and lenses all over the place. So, I finally replaced it with a mirrorless kit. That saved a couple of pounds without losing too much image quality. And it helped further me in the journey to lightweight one bag travel.

The road to lightweight travel doesn't have to be difficult -

One-lane bridge in New Zealand

Other than that, each iteration now might net an ounce or two. But it’s not really about the weight anymore; I can comfortably pack for a multi-week trip in under 25 lbs, without sacrifices. Instead, it’s about slowly perfecting the approach.

Practice Makes Perfect Better

Each time I travel, I change something – test a new packing trick, swap space bags for packing cubes, find a smaller/lighter version of something, use a different bag, etc. It gets better every time. I’d like to say I’m an expert at lightweight one bag travel. I’m not. This is an organic process. I’m simply a practitioner.

What do you do?

How do you pack lighter? Tell us your experience in the comments below!

Further Reading


MJ is a world traveler and outdoor enthusiast. To date, he has visited 26 countries (most while wearing a backpack), scaled 17 peaks, hiked the back-country in 11 national parks and snowboarded in both polar hemispheres. He enjoys experiencing new cultures and soaking in all life has to offer.

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Just great tips, no spam!