Minimalist Packing Tips for Lightweight Travel
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It’s entirely possible to be a well-equipped traveler, even as a minimalist. You can be intentional about your choices and still be prepared to travel anywhere in the world. We’ll start with the basics you need for every trip, and then branch into specifics based on the location for which you’re planning. In no time, you’ll be an expert with our minimalist packing tips for lightweight travel. We’ve even included some pre-made packing lists to make it super easy!
Minimalist Packing Basics for Every Trip
There are some things you’ll need wherever you go – like underwear, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, medications, and so on. These are items every minimalist should pack. But what are the lightweight travel options? Read on for our take on the basics.
With the current airport security rules, it’s easiest to keep a go-bag of all your toiletries in three-ounce travel size containers. Think toothpaste, deodorant, body wash, shampoo and conditioner, body lotion, shaving cream, contact solution, etc. Having these items ready ahead of time ensures you have your favorite brands with you. Also, these may not be available where you are travelling; plus it will save you from paying too much for basics.
A hanging travel toiletry bag can be conveniently hung up in the shower or on the edge of a sink if you don’t have counter space. Refilling your travel containers from your larger at-home containers is a good way to meet the three ounce requirement. You can also save room by using a multipurpose soap like Dr. Bronner’s for almost all of your cleansing needs.
Check the documentation you’ll need for any prescription medicine and how much you can bring with you, especially if you are travelling internationally. Keep original medicine containers and do not combine medicines. Bring a few extra days’ worth of medications to tide you over in the case of unforeseen delays.
Socks and Underwear
You can safely assume you will need undergarments wherever you go. I prefer the ExOfficio Give-n-Go line. They have breathable fabric with an antimicrobial treatment, so they stay dry and limit odors. Plus,, they’re really comfortable and dry quickly when sink-washed. Socks are also useful almost anywhere, even in tropical destinations; especially if you plan to go for a hike. Plan for 3-4 pairs of each for a multi-week trip, and wash them as needed with your multi-purpose soap.
A light jacket or sweatshirt is also a safe bet for any trip. You never know when a chilly breeze might pick up, or the air conditioning might be locked at 60 degrees. This should stay on your list whether or not you used it on your last trip. Conditions can change rapidly. If you don’t bring a sweatshirt, you could be uncomfortably cold. Worse yet, you might be forced to buy the tacky overpriced tourist sweatshirt from a gift shop; neither of which are ideal. We recommend any of the Ferrosi jackets from Outdoor Research. Our personal favorite is the hooded version for men or women.
I also recommend bringing comfortable walking shoes wherever you go. If I’m going somewhere hot, I always bring my Chaco Z/2 sandals (which I purchased new on Amazon for half the retail price). For cooler locations I bring a delightfully broken in pair of classic Vans, circa 2011. The walking shoes don’t have to be fancy, just something comfortable and suited to lightweight travel.
Think about the technology you bring with you, and plan accordingly for chargers, cases, and international power adapters, if necessary. Bring extra battery packs whenever you can, or mobile charging power banks.
One of the best options on the market right now is the X-Dragon Solar Charger. It has five solar panels that fold out to efficiently soak up all that free energy. It works great strapped to the outside of your pack to charge while you walk. As for those five panels, it needs that many to charge up the huge 20,000 mAh battery very quickly. As for capacity, this thing can fully recharge your iPhone at least five times before it has to recharge. Best of all, you can use this anywhere in the world without worrying about bringing the right adapter. If you do decide to plug it in instead, it can recharge via USB adapter or right from your laptop. At 1.37 lbs, it’s not super light, but this is the one to get if you’ll be off the grid for awhile.
If you want something a bit lighter and you can charge it periodically, I really like the FosPower PowerActive 10200 mAh Power Bank. It has half the capacity of the X-Dragon and it lacks solar panels, but it’s small, really light (7.2 oz) and highly durable. This makes a great backup battery option, so you have no excuse for ever running out of juice.
Be sure you have proper travel documentation such as your passport, a visa if necessary, your driver’s license, a credit card, and some cash in the appropriate currency. Fanny packs are making a fashion comeback and are a great way to carry your essentials close to your body to avoid pickpockets.
Beyond the basics, your minimalist packing needs will vary based on your destination. Let’s look at a few common destinations types:
Tropical or Beach Destinations
Packing for tropical or beach vacations is a breeze. You don’t need many clothes and can usually assume you’ll spend most of your time in or around water. You can avoid a few potential problems fairly easily by planning ahead. For instance, bring at least two swimsuits so you avoid the unpleasant experience of putting on a freezing, clammy suit if you decide to hit the water multiple times a day. Let’s take a look at a few more tips.
Also consider which water activities you intend to take part in when planning and purchasing your swimwear. If I know I’ll be paddle boarding, swimming vigorously, or body-surfing, I bring a suit that will stay in place and doesn’t have string ties or fringes. These could get caught and potentially tear the suit off. My favorite is the Trouble in Paradise suit from Plumeria Swimwear because it’s stylish, comfortable, and doesn’t have any strings. Watch their Instagram page for frequent flash sales of up to 50% off! You can mix and match tops and bottoms (I prefer the Brazilian bottom since it doesn’t have strings) and save some money by buying on Amazon, although they have a limited color selection.
Gentlemen, bring trunks that tie tightly – for the same reason. Ripcurl makes awesome Mirage boardshorts that are super lightweight and stretchy so you can move easily even in the water, and they even have a zipper pocket for your keys too.
Bring sandals that are easy to get on and off when your feet are wet. I like to bring an inexpensive pair of rubber flip flops that I don’t mind leaving unattended at the water’s edge, in addition to my Chacos for covering significant distances.
In true minimalist packing style, basic summer clothing that you can mix and match is perfect for these trips. Think neutral shorts and tanks or tees that can be worn with a swimsuit during the day or dressed up for night time. A sundress for women or a summer button down for men are excellent and versatile options for occasions where you may need to be “beach formal.”
A brimmed hat can be a lifesaver in direct sun and hot conditions. I was reluctant to own or even wear hats for so many years, because I assumed that it would just trap heat on my head and make me feel even hotter. I finally found out I was wrong when I received a free hat from my life-guarding job and wore it on a hike in the desert in southern California. It not only shaded my head and face, which did in fact keep me cooler, it also kept the sweat out of my eyes. Now I don’t go anywhere without my favorite hat, and I recommend you do the same!
Having a sunburned scalp is no fun. Patagonia makes super comfortable unisex trucker hats with mesh backs for optimal air flow and gently curved bills to shade your eyes. For maximum protection, opt for a straw hat with a brim all the way around like this Ripcurl Lifeguard Hat.
Lightweight Foldable Daypack
You’ll also want a small daypack to carry all your beach essentials. This lightweight travel backpack can hold everything you need and more for a day of exploring; then it zips up conveniently into its own pocket when you’re not using it!
Special Considerations for Specific Destinations
Those were all general recommendations for beach destinations, but let’s look at a few specific places and how the considerations vary.
Hawaii and Other U.S. Beach Locations
Hawaii has some amazing hikes, and if that’s an activity that you are into, definitely bring hiking boots or shoes like the Merrell Moab and quick-dry clothing (Columbia has lots of options). Many of the hikes pass waterfalls or pools that can be very tempting to jump into, and with the tropical heat and humidity, you will get sweaty so quick-dry is essential. Just avoid cotton.
Most beach towns in the U.S. are laid back, and may or may not adhere to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. While it’s generally not acceptable to be naked, most clothing options are fair game.
The Mediterranean or Adriatic
If you visit the Mediterranean beaches in the summer, prepare for HOT weather. Plan for breathable clothing to pair with your walking shoes, as there is tons of stuff to explore. Again, both the Merrell shoes and Columbia quick-dry clothing options work well. For females, there will be some cultural modesty dress codes to adhere to – for example, in in many religious buildings and in primarily Muslim countries. We will address this in greater detail later in the article.
If you head to the beach areas in Southeast Asia between June and October, plan for monsoons. Bring a light rain jacket, like a Venture 2 rain shell by The North Face. I don’t go anywhere without my Venture; it folds up to be tiny, is totally waterproof and windproof, and lasts for years. There are men’s and women’s jackets available, in tons of colors. Add a stash of Ziploc bags to your list to protect your phone, passport, and any other important documents that you don’t want damaged by water. Be aware of modesty concerns here too. In some rural beach areas women should wear shorts and tee over their swimsuits. Also, some government visa offices may require pants and sleeves for admittance.
The sun and heat will be your main adversaries here. Pack a reef-safe sunscreen like Thinksport to avoid damaging reefs or harming marine life with chemicals. This is important at every beach in the world, regardless of local laws. Instead of harmful chemicals, reef-safe sunscreens use a natural mineral-based physical barrier like zinc oxide, which acts like a layer of tiny mirrors to reflect the sun’s harmful rays away from your skin.
Also be sure to bring a water bottle, as staying hydrated will be a full-time pursuit. My favorite is the LifeStraw Go water bottle, which has a two-stage filtration system so I know my water is clean and pure.
Traveling to a city destination generally requires a wider range of clothing options since there are so many things to do. I generally pack a few sets of casual clothing I can mix and match for exploring during the day, some nightlife-appropriate clothes, and a set of lounge wear. Your needs will vary based on your destination city and the activities you have planned, so pack accordingly.
Pack a climate-appropriate jacket you can dress up or down. Nightlife is an important and interesting way to experience a city. You don’t want to be shivering the whole time while you bar hop or walk to dinner reservations. Patagonia makes some great options. Several of us at NV are particularly partial to the Better Sweater line and the Nano Puff. Both are nice and warm, lightweight and they pack well.
Another consideration is driving – and especially parking – in cities. It can be time-consuming and expensive. So, it’s usually easier to walk or take public transportation. As such, consider your footwear choices. Combat boots like the Steve Madden Troopa 2.0 are one of my staples for city trips. They’re comfortable, stylish, and can be dressed up or down. Plus, since they’re so versatile, they qualify as a good lightweight travel option.
And for gents, MJ loves his Merrell Moabs. They have tons of styles and colors, and they make some really cute options for women too. He says they’re the most comfortable hiking/walking shoe he’s owned and he prefers the low top Gore-Tex version. Best of all, they can do double-duty, if you happen to get into some rough weather or take a trip out of the city for a hike.
Of course, it’s not as if one list fits all cities in the world. Consider the seasonal weather, the cultural norms, and the activities you’ll be engaging in. Pack mostly versatile and basic clothing options with coordinating colors.
Cross-body Courier Bag
When traveling in a city, it’s a good idea to carry a cross-body bag or purse. Obviously, this isn’t your main pack, but you can use it to store all your important items. The cross-body design makes it inherently more secure, yet easy to access anything you might need. I like the Baggalini Pocket lightweight cross-body bag. This is just a super durable, cross-body bag with lots of pockets for everything. Best of all, it has RFID blocking technology to block attempts to steal your identity.
Winter Trips or Cold Destinations
Packing for winter trips or cold destinations can be difficult because of the sheer bulk of the necessary clothing. By wearing your bulkiest items while traveling, you can free up some space in your luggage.
Down Jacket - The Ultimate Lightweight Travel Option
Start with a high quality warm “puffy” down winter jacket. While it may seem bulky, many options pack down to easily fit into your bag. Or just wear it onto the plane or other transport. If it’s too warm, use it as a pillow or blanket once on-board. Add insulating layers underneath or a waterproof shell over the puffy jacket, and you’re prepared for most conditions. The North Face makes some nice options.
Nothing is more miserable than cold wet feet in the winter, so invest in some waterproof boots and warm socks. My favorite for trekking in rain and snow are Sorel boots – I went to college in a snowy and bitterly cold town that never cancelled class and these boots were a lifesaver. Add some wool socks and your feet will be toasty and dry. Most importantly, if they DO get wet, the wool still retains heat. Since boots are also bulky, I try to wear them while travelling whenever possible rather than pack them.
Quality Hat and Sunglasses
A warm beanie or stocking cap will protect your hair from freezing and keep your ears warm. We lose most of our heat through our heads, so this is very important. This one is a great, low cost merino wool option.
Another piece of headgear that may be easy to forget is sunglasses. Snow glare can be devastating to your eyes and skin, so don’t forget the sunscreen either! And please, apply some UNDER your nose. Sunlight reflects up.
If you plan to spend extended periods of time outdoors, you might also want waterproof pants. MJ swears by the Marmot Precip. They have full side zips, so you don’t have to take off your footwear to put them on or take them off. Pack warm and comfortable base layers to wear beneath your cold weather gear as well. Also, consider that you might be going from cold outdoor temperatures to 70 degree heated buildings. Layering is key! Have a look at this great article on layering basics from REI.
Destinations with Cultural Dress Considerations
While not strictly tied to minimalist packing or lightweight travel, cultural appropriateness is another consideration. Certain parts of the world may have expectations of appropriate dress, particularly for women. When in another country, try to conform to local standards, within reason. These considerations are particularly necessary when travelling to Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Even some churches in Europe and throughout the world may have dress requirements for entry. Check and plan ahead to avoid being turned away at the door. Awkward!
Research the particular place you plan to visit for specifics. The most common expectations may require women to cover their hair, shoulders, and/or knees. Scarves and lightweight linen pants are great staples to bring with you to these destinations. They allow you to cover up while remaining comfortably cool.
Scarves are particularly versatile garments. You can use them to cover your head, or knot them around your shoulders over a tank top for some additional coverage. You can even tie them like a sarong to cover the knees.
Hopefully this gives you a good start while planning your next trip. Lightweight travel doesn’t have to be hard. Following our tips above, your journeys should be a little easier. If you need more inspiration, check out our printable minimalist packing sample lists at our Packing Lists for Minimalist Travel page.