Sep 082013
 

Guest post by Kristan Lawson

When did everyone forget how to pack?

After a recent stay-at-home decade I have started traveling again — and I’m aghast at everyone’s poor packing skills.

When I was younger, I went through the customary “backpack around the world” phase, and in those days — the ’80s and ’90s — most of my fellow travelers seemed to be backpackers as well, and our goal was to travel as lightly as possible. Sure, there were a few people stuck in a time warp still using hard-sided luggage left over from the 1960s, but it seemed that the era of unwieldy and heavy hand-carried luggage was coming to an end.

Now, in my newly reignited wanderlust I was eagerly looking forward to discovering how the ongoing miniaturization of all our travel essentials surely must have made our luggage smaller and lighter than ever before.

Boy, was I wrong. Fast-forward to 2013 and suddenly it seems that everyone on every flight — even five-year-old kids and college students bumming around Europe — has klutzy wheeled luggage too heavy to even carry (not that they try). Sometimes even two or three bags.

I don’t even want to know what could possibly be inside all that luggage — all I see is how unnecessarily large and heavy their bags seem. Hadn’t we moved past all that?

Time to chuck it all overboard and start from scratch. Fellow travelers: Consider this your refresher course on How to Pack.

Over the past year I’ve developed and finely honed a world-travelers’ packing list designed to cut out all the weight and bulk yet keep all the modern essentials.

The following list may seem to have a lot of items, but most of them are very small and hardly weigh anything. 75% of the entries below combined weigh less than one unnecessary pair of shoes.

Ready for some packing tips? Let’s travel light!

"Packing essentials for a ten-day trip overseas (except for clothing)"

Everything (except clothing) for a ten-day trip overseas

The Ultimate 21st-Century Packing List

The Essentials
passport
credit card

That’s all you need, really. The list could end right here. You need a passport to get on the plane, and with a credit card you can buy whatever you need at your destination. Even so, acknowledging that everything which follows is non-essential, let’s continue:

Money
debit card
$100 worth of cash in local currency
$50 in US cash

Since I don’t recommend bringing a wallet (as we’ll see below), you still might need some cash to get to your departure airport, and to have on hand in case of unforeseen pre-flight emergencies. Upon arrival at your destination, often the first few hours are the most confusing, and exchange rates at airports are often a ripoff, so I recommend getting a bit of foreign cash ahead of time back at home (most major banks in the US offer some foreign exchange at decent rates) to tide you over you when you arrive. If you need more foreign cash for a longer trip, withdrawing it using a debit or credit card at a bank once you arrive is safer than the old-school method of carrying around a big wad of bills or travelers’ checks.

Packing essentials for traveling light"

The real essentials, all of which fit neatly in a passport pouch worn at all times: passport, credit and debit cards, cash, house key, memory card

Information
airplane ticket/flight info
hotel booking info
maps and itineraries

Optional:
address/phone/email
contact list
bus schedules/transit info
guidebook

Postmodern travelers may try to dispense with paperwork altogether, preferring to keep all information and lists electronically on their smartphones or computers. Personally, I don’t like being that reliant on machines, so I like to bring printouts of various essentials — flight and hotel info, maps, etc. ¬— making it easy (and safer) to refer to them in stressful situations. I also like to bring paper versions of my contact list and transit schedules, though not everyone may need this.

As the author of several guidebooks myself, its painful to admit that guidebooks have become nonessential, but I gotta be honest: the web-connected smartphone has replaced the guidebook for many travelers. If you’re still old-school and want a real guidebook in your hands, bring one that is small and lightweight; even consider tearing out and discarding unnecessary chapters ahead of time, to lighten the load.

Photography
pocket-sized digital camera
battery charger for camera
memory card reader

Optional:
USB cable for connecting camera to computer

In the old days, if you needed to travel with a decent camera, you were forced (as I was) to lug around not only a heavy, clunky and delicate SLR, but also its case, an extra lens, and several rolls of film. Now, all of that can replaced by a single high-end digital pocket camera that’s one-eighth the size and one-tenth the weight. The quality of even mid-range digital pocket cameras has risen so high that only professional photographers on assignment really need to bring a full-size DSLR anymore. (I myself, as a semi-pro photographer, bring two high-end pocket cameras, but most people can get by with one.) The one downside of digital cameras is the need to recharge their batteries frequently, but luckily their battery chargers are generally quite small.

Many travelers foolishly leave all their digital pictures on their cameras (and nowhere else) for the entire trip; and if the camera gets lost or stolen on the last day, they lose everything. Don’t make that mistake: Bring a memory card reader (such as an SD card reader) so that each night you can offload all your photos to your computer or tablet, safeguarding them if your camera is later lost. (I myself also bring a small cable to connect my cameras to my computer, just in case the card reader breaks; but not everyone needs to have this backup.

Computing and Electronics
MacBook Air/iPad/other ultra-compact computer
power adapter for computer
iPhone/other smartphone
iPhone/iPod power cable
spare 32gb SD card
3 electrical converter plugs
headphones

Optional:
iPod
4gb USB thumb drive
pocket watch

"Electronic and photographic items to pack for traveling"

All my electronic and photographic needs

Long gone are the days when writers needed to carry along a travel typewriter or even a heavy laptop. If you need (or want) to write on your journey, it’s best to bring either an 11″ MacBook Air (the smallest and lightest of portable computers), or an iPad or similar tablet computer (if you don’t mind the on-screen keyboards). There are a few other ultra-compact notebooks, but I prefer the Air for being the most stable and resilient. The main drawback of “ultra-compacts” are their power adapters, which in some cases weigh as much as the computer itself.

Many Americans these days can’t seem to survive without a smartphone, so it goes on the list, although be forewarned that your call and data plan will likely not work in most foreign countries, and you’ll have to buy a new SIM card and calling plan to make your phone fully functional overseas. To keep it running, you’ll also need a charging cable, not to mention some electrical converter plugs so you can recharge all your electronics in foreign electrical outlets.

As someone who creates a lot of “digital content” (i.e. photos and writing) on my travels, I’m always paranoid that my computer will be stolen during the trip, and along with it all my files and pictures. The solution? A spare 32gb SD memory card, which is more than big enough to contain all my photos and writing. Every night, after uploading my photos from my camera to my computer, I then copy them once again from my computer onto my 32gb card — which I then slip into my passport pouch and carry around with me at all times. That way, even if my computer is stolen from my hotel room, or my luggage is swiped, I still have all my data safely around my neck.

Personal Care
toothpaste
toothbrush
dental floss
portable hairbrush
sunscreen
prescription and over-the-counter medicines
shaving razor
makeup

Optional:
anti-perspirant
lipscreen
vitamins/supplements
cough drops
earplugs
sleep mask
anti-bacterial wipes/lotion/spray
feminine hygiene products
contraceptives
hair care products

"Personal care products to pack for traveling light"

Personal care products (at least the ones suitable for display)

Bring everything you need to take care of your body, but don’t go overboard, and try to keep it small. If you have prescription medicines, don’t bring the whole bottle — just enough pills to last for the journey. Bring travel-size tubes of toothpaste and sunscreen, not big heavy full-size ones. The little things add up. I have trouble sleeping in strange environments, so I bring earplugs and an eye-covering sleep mask. And to keep infectious diseases at bay, consider preventive measures like vitamins, cough drops and anti-bacterial products. Again, in small amounts.

What we’ve packed so far

"Condensed view of personal and electronics items to pack for a trip"

Everything you see in the first photo and listed so far

Everything you see in the first photo and listed so far easily condenses down to a small pile not much bigger or heavier than a single high-school textbook.

Back to our packing tips

Clothing
shirts
pants
lightweight sweater
socks
shoes
underwear
nightwear

Optional:
hat
sunglasses
swimsuit

This category is where most people go wrong when it comes to packing. Take it from generations of weary travelers: KEEP IT TO A MINIMUM. Whatever you aren’t wearing at any given moment, you must personally carry in your bag. Don’t drag around an entire closet. Choose clothes based as much on their weight as on their fashion or function. Generally, tourists like to travel during the summer and/or prefer warm destinations anyway, so most of the time you really aren’t going to need a lot of heavy clothing, unless you’re absolutely sure you’re headed somewhere cold. On past trips, whenever I brought too much clothing, I always regretted it; but I never regretted bringing too little. Why? Because in a worst-case scenario when a snow-storm strikes Tahiti, you can always simply buy a jacket or warmer clothing while on the road. Think of them as souvenirs.

For a ten-day trip I bring 3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants, 1 lightweight sweater, 3 pairs of socks, 3 pair of underwear, 1 pair of shoes, and a very lightweight pair of pajama bottoms. All cotton. It’s easy enough to wash things in the sink and dry them in your room, or pop them in a washing machine if you’re somewhere civilized. I also am sensitive to the sun so I need a hat and sunglasses, but that’s just me.

If you know ahead of time that you’ll attend a formal ball or a cosplay convention, then you may need to bring extra specialty clothing, but the average traveler just needs the basics.

"Packing tips: Clothing to pack for a ten-day trip"

This is all the clothing I need for a ten-day trip (aside from the outfit I’m wearing), including daypacks, swimsuit, and hat

Miscellaneous
passport pouch
small portable backpack
small portable shoulder bag
non-leak pens
mini sewing kit
rubber bands
plastic bags
front door key only

Optional:
pencil
small notepad
safety pins
water purifying filter or tablets
bug spray

I always bring a “daypack” — an extremely lightweight small backpack — for outdoor excursions when the rest of my stuff is back in my room; and also a similarly lightweight shoulder bag for “indoor excursions” (like museums or temples) when a backpack might seem awkward. If you bring a pen, make sure it’s the kind with a sealed ink cartridge — nothing is worse than a pen leaking ink all over your possessions.

As for the front door key to my home: I slip it into my passport pouch alongside my 32gb memory card, so I know it’s always safe.

If you’re heading somewhere tropical, bring bug spray and some way to purify water; but otherwise leave those at home.

Food
airport/flight snacks

Optional:
energy bars

I like to bring some small snacks with me as I first depart, because I often find myself getting hungry waiting for my flight at the airport. But make sure you eat it all or discard it after the first day — food can weigh your bag down. My travel partner has hypoglycemia, so I pack a couple of emergency energy bars as well, in case of an unexpected drop in blood sugar.

"Mid-sized backpack containing 12 pounds of clothing and other items -- fits under airline seat"

Every single thing mentioned in the list, including the clothing, comfortably fits into a mid-sized backpack.

Every single thing mentioned in the list, including the clothing, comfortably fits into a mid-sized backpack, with plenty of room to spare — and which easily slips under the seat (or in the overhead compartment) on an airplane. Total weight (not including backpack and the clothes I’m wearing): 12 pounds.

DON’T Bring
wallets
full key rings
large notebook
address book
books to read
umbrellas
large or heavy laptop computer
jacket

This is the most important category of all when it comes to traveling light. Leave everything unnecessary at home. This includes your wallet and your key ring, which will just be a burden and a temptation for pickpockets on your trip. Put your credit card and debit card, along with your large cash bills, your passport, your memory card and your single house key in your passport pouch, which you should wear around your neck (under your clothing) whenever you leave your hotel room. Leave your pockets free for small bills and change. Don’t bring big writing pads or address books. Don’t even bring a book to read — savor each moment on your trip. If it rains or gets cold, just buy an umbrella or jacket there. And keep your electronics small and light at all costs.

One last note: I recommend putting everything in transparent zip-lock bags, which are almost weightless; if you’re not careful, just the containers (heavy pouches, bags, cases, etc.) can weigh down your bag. Transparent bags also make things easy to find, and as a bonus enable you to slip easily through customs, since it doesn’t look like you’re hiding anything.

Here’s the full list, which you can copy, save and adapt for your own future trips:

The Ultimate 21st-Century Packing List

passport
credit card
debit card
$100 worth of cash in local currency
$50 in US cash
airplane ticket and flight info
hotel booking info
maps and itineraries
pocket-sized digital camera
battery charger for camera
memory card reader
MacBook Air or iPad or other ultra-compact computer
power adapter for computer
iPhone or other smartphone
iPhone/iPod power cable
spare 32gb SD memory card
3 electrical converter plugs
headphones
toothpaste
toothbrush
dental floss
portable hairbrush
sunscreen
prescription and over-the-counter medicines
shaving razor
makeup
shirts
pants
lightweight sweater
socks
shoes
underwear
nightwear
passport pouch
small portable backpack
small portable shoulder bag
non-leak pens
mini sewing kit
rubber bands
plastic bags
front door key only
airport/flight snacks

Optional:
address/phone/email contact list
bus schedules and transit info
guidebook
USB cable for connecting camera to computer
iPod
4gb USB thumb drive
pocket watch
lipscreen
vitamins and supplements
cough drops
earplugs
sleep mask
anti-bacterial wipes/lotion/spray
antiperspirant
feminine hygiene products
contraceptives
hair care products
hat
sunglasses
swimsuit
pencil
small notepad
safety pins
water purifying filter or tablets
bug spray
energy bars

Note: For more and updated information about permitted items in carry-on and checked luggage: Transportation Safety Administration

What are your packing tips?

Photos courtesy of Kristan Lawson.

About the author:

Kristan Lawson is an author and photographer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also co-author of several travel guidebooks.

  23 Responses to “Traveling Light: Packing tips for the 21st century”

  1. Thanks very much for this helpful post! We’re heading off to South East Asia next month and your tips have given us some useful ideas for packing over the next few weeks!

  2. Super list, Kristan, and I appreciate the photos to make your point! You’ve set a new standard for down-sizing my gear, and I will see how close I can come for the next trip…meaning next week. 🙂

    • Glad the photos proved helpful, Anita! It’s a little embarrassing to reveal my personal belongings to the world, but visually showing how packing light should be done can be even more inspirational than a mere description.

  3. Love it! I do use Eagle Creek Pack-it! Folders and Cubes – they don’t add any noticeable weight and they slide easily (with plenty of room to spare) into my 55L pack.

    I think the airlines are screwing it up for us. Those kids and adults with the “klutzy wheeled luggage too heavy to even carry (not that they try). Sometimes even two or three bags.” are packing that way because many airlines (in the US anyway) are charging for checked bags. Yes, even if you only check one, single bag, many airlines will slap a $25 fee on top of the already costly ticket.

    As I understand it, the checked bag fees are related to reductions in ground crew staff and the airlines’ efforts to reduce the overhead of salaries. However, in doing so the airlines are creating long TSA lines and far too many departure delays as so many traveling nowadays cram what seems to be their entire lives into carry-on bags…even toddlers who are often used as “mules” for the adults.

    • Interesting theory about how airline policies strongly affect packing habits! You may be correct.

      An intriguing alternative theory that occurred to me: There seems to be a backlash against miniaturization in recent years, especially amongst hipsters and young folks. Examples: “ear bud”-style headphones nowadays can have excellent audio quality, and are very tiny — and yet many people under 25 have inexplicably “reverted” to wearing large clunky noise-cancelling old-style headphones, popularized by the “Beats by Dr. Dre” brand, even though they’re much more unwieldy and heavy than small ear buds of almost the same audio quality. Another example: When cell phones first appeared long ago, they were extremely heavy and thick, and everyone cheered when they became slimmer and lighter with every passing year. But in the last 18 months or so, Samsung has begun increasing the size of its cell phones, until they’re now as heavy as they were 15 years ago — and yet these new mega-phones are very popular.

      I suspect the average consumer is not putting enough thought into what might be termed “micro-ergonomics” versus “macro-ergonomics,” and are now opting for the latter at the expense of the former. Yes, it may be more convenient to have a full-size easy-to-open umbrella for when it rains, but the trade-off is that when it isn’t raining (which is most of the time, usually) it’s better to have a small folding umbrella which can be stowed away easily. One must weigh the pros and cons in each case, and too many people are choosing options that are convenient when in use but inconvenient when not in use.

  4. Catherine, I absolutely love posts like this! Because I think of what do I pack when I finally get to travel overseas? I worry about so many things. I worry about documents (i.e. passport, etc) and that I’m minding my own merry business and a policemen (I work in law enforcement btw…) stops me, “your papers are not in order.” And I get thrown in jail. Yep, I watch way too many movies sometimes. The other is getting ripped off. That I won’t know the $$ end of things overseas.I’m not a total dum-dum but I still worry about these things. That’s why I will take someone with me (whoever is willing to go) who has experience on overseas travel with me the first couple of times. Then, I will go on my own down the road. Thank you again, this was a great post! 🙂

  5. Now these very detailed and useful packing tips. Thank you sooo much.

  6. This packing list includes a lot more than expected. While this isn’t exactly “traveling light” to some, perhaps this is a more civilized and modern approach to what traveling light entails in the 21st century. After all, it is 2013. Interesting read and thanks for the advice, as it was certainly insightful if nothing else.

  7. Wow, great list and very detailed too. I think where I’m going wrong is with the cloths. I have now started to buy cloths from where I travel to. It’s an easier option to packing many cloths.

  8. I have actually been really impressed by how light many travellers are able to pack and how far you can make the right articles of clothing go! With that said, I have also met those who do carry their homes with them and manage to pack an extraordinary number of belongings into one massive backpack! As a result, I think this list was a brilliant plan and will prove very helpful to your readers!

  9. […] of travel, but it isn’t the easiest thing to do, either. If you need some help, here are some packing tips for the 21st century – […]

  10. I am obsessed with traveling light. There are VERY few times when I’ll check a bag… The result is that I’m often wearing the very same thing in a lot of my photos, but so be it!

  11. Indeed very informative blog shared for traveling. Thanks alot!

  12. […] Kristan Lawson is an author and photographer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also co-author of several travel guidebooks. Previously on TWS, Kristan offered us his Packing Tips for the 21st Century. […]

  13. […] A huge list of tips for packing light […]

  14. […] it, use a packing list to figure out what you need, and what you don’t. Find more packing tips here. As you are gathering items from your list, put them near your bag. Don’t start actually packing […]

  15. This is AMAZING. I always pack too much and my shoulders are dead by the end of a travel day! I’m excited to modify this a little bit for a 14 day trip 🙂 Thank you!

  16. I love the list, and love the advice but for the sake of your fellow travelers, please move the deodorant from the optional list to the essential list 😉

  17. Great tips, but always leave your prescriptions in their original containers! Yes, they are clunky but they won’t cause TSA or customs agents to detain you on illegal drug charges.

    • Thanks for your input!

    • My husband was stopped about his perscriptions and asked what each of them was for. They were in the correct bottles. I was on a flight once when a man passed out. There was a Doctor on board and the man’s companion handed the Doctor a bottle holding seven days of medication. The Doctor handed back the bottle and said he couldn’t do anything because he had no idea was the pills were for. I always carry medication in the correct bottles.

  18. I would also move feminine hygiene products out of the optional category. I can say from personal experience that searching for tampons in a small Ecuadorian town is not a fun way to spend part of your trip.

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