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How to travel light

how to travel light
how to travel light
When we were headed out of Laos and catching a plane to Hanoi, The Boy had this great idea to go via this old rickety bridge that a few people had mentioned and then catch a tuk-tuk to the airport from the other side. This was a lovely idea and I was actually quite excited about the bridge, because I love heights. Weird, I know. And the bridge truly was an adventure, as the footpath is in pretty bad condition and we crossed as school was getting out and dozens of children came running from the other side, despite it being very much a single-file bridge. But adventure accomplished and on we went.

Except there are not really any tourists on the other side of the bridge. So there are not really any tuk-tuks on the other side of the bridge. So we had to walk to the airport. It was only a few miles. And it was only something ridiculously hot. And at some point along the trek I may have said it was perhaps not his best decision that we should walk all this way, and as a compromise, he ended up carrying my stuff. So in this photo, you see everything both of us took for our fourteen week journey, with the only exception of the clothes I am wearing and the camera I used to take the picture. Right there in those two bags – that’s everything, right down to the book I was reading at the time.

how to travel light
Here is my share, and why it seemed so ridiculously hot. It was very cold that morning so I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a cardigan. By lunchtime it was baking but we’d already checked out of our accommodation, so I was kinda stuck in all those bulky layers. But there we go.

I promised I would share how I lived out of that one little bag for all that time, so here is the play-by-play on what I packed!

how to travel light
The Overview
This is my bag and all the major stuff that lived inside for the entire trip. At the top is my camera, with the Black Rapid camera strap, which I really recommend. It’s a shoulder strap rather than a neck strap, so it takes the weight off your neck and it keeps your camera at your hip so you can grab and shoot really easily. I also took a GorillaPod as a smaller and lighter alternative to my full-sized tripod.

Carry on to the right and there’s a pink microfibre towel – useful for budget accommodation that doesn’t include towels as well as water activities. Below that, the black thing that is hard to make out is a black pashmina – like a big scarf. Bought for £2 from a London street vendor right before we left. I was worried this would be a waste of space because it’s a bit bulky, but I am so glad to have taken it. It served as a belt, a blanket and an air filter as well as being useful when we hit the odd day of unexpectedly cold weather. And I loaned it to a few girls who arrived at various temples with their shoulders bare – tank tops and temples do not mix. Also at the top right corner, I had a book on the go for all of the trip. I started with one book and when I finished it, I would just find a used book store that did trades or I would trade it with another traveler. Worked perfectly, aside from when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and really started to wish I was carrying a book that was smaller and thereby easier to pack!

Continuing clockwise, we each packed a silk sleeping bag liner even though we weren’t carrying sleeping bags. The liner was perfect for places that were cold or had too many mosquitos. And it weighs almost nothing. The pink thing is my rain jacket. For several weeks of our trip we had beautiful sunny weather and I started to think packing a rain jacket was a waste of space and money, but then we arrived in Bali where it did nothing but absolutely pour with rain the entire time we were there. Rain jacket – with a fitted hood – is a requirement, definitely.

Basic first-aid stuff included pain killers, stomach settlers, some bandages and some mild antibiotics, which we also took as anti-malarials for the part of our tour that went through mosquito trouble. We used everything we took but didn’t really need anything more, so that was just right.

The black rectangle is a small external hard-drive. We bought this along the way and used it to back up our photos as a just-in-case measure.

A red hairclip and a blue make-up bag – contents revealed later in this post! And my clear bag of liquids. Since we weren’t going to check any bags on any planes, we couldn’t take anything sharp nor any liquids over 100ml. I bought a bag and 100ml bottles from Muji, and that held shampoo, conditioner, perfume, toothpaste, lotion and sunblock.

Which brings us to that funny looking bag in the middle, which held all my clothes. While The Boy went with the option of three special shirts that would work for everything, be easy to wash and dry and wouldn’t wear out, I knew I would get sick of whatever I was repeatedly wearing and want to change it for something else, so I did that a few times, but the total contents of my clothing bag remained pretty consistent: two short-sleeved tops, one long-sleeved top, one cardigan, one pair of hiking trousers, two pairs of leggings and two skirts/dresses, basically. All that plus my pajamas and stuff would fit into this bag and then get seriously, seriously smooshed by pulling all the straps tight on the compression sack. Basically, without the compression sack, my clothes would have filled the entire backpack. But with the compression, they just took up the room you see here. I had never heard of these bags before but am now a total convert.

What’s not shown: whatever pair of shoes I wasn’t wearing – either sandals or Converse All-Stars. And hilariously, one of these because I cope well with neither disgusting public loos nor fifteen mile hikes in the middle of nowhere.

how to travel light
The Little Blue Bag of Looking Beautiful
Some girls can just stop wearing make-up when they travel, but I am not such a person. When I am in some place where I’m not settled, I can be really harsh on myself. I just feel I am in more control if I can pretend I have a lovely complexion even when I’m on the road. Plus, more layers of spf on my face are totally welcome. But I couldn’t take very much, so I narrowed it down to the contents of the little blue bag:
Eyeliner – the one thing I stopped wearing pretty quickly, as it was so hot it would run.
Foundation – I am still in a funk because my favourite foundation was discontinued and I haven’t found one I like yet. I’m not singing the praises of this mousse stuff but that is what I wore, so there we go.
Eyeshadow – one little pot in the most neutral colour imaginable.
Lip balm – my favourite lip balm is actually called My Favorite Lip Balm. Hilarious.
Lip gloss.
Plus an emery board, a teeny box for keeping bobby pins and hair bands from going astray and the most high-tech of all brush/comb hair implements in the world. Yes, I got that free on an airplane. Yes, it is the only thing I used to style my (nearly waist-length) hair for the entire trip. Yes, I am very proud of that but no, I do not care to see that brush again for the rest of my life really!

What’s not shown: nothing really for this one. I did pick up one big hair clip at a market, and it’s in the first photo.

how to travel light
The ‘It would be nice to SEE you’ collection
Let’s just say I do not have 20/20 eyesight. I’m also a little paranoid at being without my glasses. So this is my little bit of extra gear to take that into account. At the far right is my spare pair of glasses. I actually carry these with me all the time, pretty much. Not just when I’m on the road. It’s just an older pair of glasses and they fall off less than my everyday pair, so they are good for more active days. But really I just carry them in case my regular glasses break. Even though in twenty years of wearing glasses, I’ve never had a pair break. I think it might just be a paranoia I developed from too much Harry Potter exposure.

I also have a pair of prescription sunglasses. I very rarely need them here in England and I actually bought them a few years ago for skiing, because the glare on the snow is harsh, and that’s why they are pink. But they still work for sun – just not as well as a pair of dark lenses – and I wear sunnies so infrequently that I just couldn’t budget a different pair. These were fine in the end. And also some contact lenses. Contacts and I don’t really get along, but they are more sensible for things that involve the sea or running or whatever. I use the daily lenses so I don’t have to worry about jars and solutions and stuff. I took a whole box of lenses but only used one strip of each (oh – my eyes can’t even agree on being equally blind, so I have different lenses for right and left).

What’s not shown: the other set of glasses were on my face. I didn’t have to pack them. If they weren’t on my face, I wouldn’t be able to find them to pack them anyway.

how to travel light
The paperwork pile
Of course a passport is required for a trip like this. I actually have to travel with two passports – my current passport and an older passport which has my visa that explains that I’m a UK resident and I’m allowed to stay here as long as I like. (I’ve been in the UK for twelve years as of this week, but I keep leaving the country too many days in a year to apply for my UK passport.) So there are two passports in my passport case – and mine have stayed in quite good condition with a case. The Boy doesn’t carry a case and his passport looks like it’s been through the wringer!

The yellow booklet is a vaccination record. Partly for our own medical info so we would be able to show a doctor outside our own medical system in case of an emergency, and partly to show at immigration in some countries. We’ve now been through areas that have yellow fever, and some countries won’t let you in if you’ve been exposed but not vaccinated. But we had those jabs before we left, so we can just show the yellow book if needed. (By the way, vaccinations are probably the only thing that made us not be able to leave immediately – it’s a three to four week process to get the basics, so make sure you plan those ahead of time.)

And I packed a small moleskine notebook and an American Crafts precision pen (of course). I added all the contact details for everyone along our journey and a list of addresses for sending postcards so we wouldn’t have any extra bits of paper but we would also have a hard copy with some emergency numbers in case our phones or computer were stolen or something. Then I still had plenty of space to take notes along the journey and collect a few stamps, stickers and ticket stubs.

What’s not shown: my driver’s license and debit card, which were on me at all times via zip pockets in my clothes.

…And that is it. Since there were two of us, we split some things, like I carried the camera and the hard drive, but he carried a laptop and my other lens. He carried a Kindle with all our travel guides so we wouldn’t need paper copies. But otherwise, it was pretty much the same!

We did manage to pass the dress code at a few nice restaurants (I think I got away with more casual shoes because I could wear a dress) and we didn’t have any trouble with theft. We had to refuel a few consumables, namely shampoo, toothpaste and sunblock, but those things were easy to purchase everywhere. I may have even bought hair dye once or twice.

I had never packed lightly in my whole life so I didn’t really think this would work, but it did… and I was very grateful for that every time I saw someone trying to get somewhere with multiple wheeled suitcases in the middle of the jungle, the desert or the beach. I had days when I struggled with missing nail varnish and hair dryers, but really that was pretty minimal. It was much easier to just enjoy the moment without having to worry about having so much stuff to carry, plus it was always fast to pack and we couldn’t accidentally leave something in the hotel room, because we would notice any gap in our bags!

And just last week, the dress I posted home from Singapore in January? It arrived here in London when I had totally given up hope! When I sent it home I was positively sick of wearing it every second day, but now I’m thinking it looks quite cute again. Amazing what a little time apart can do.

For the record: there is no way I could pack this lightly for anything crafty. I carried this one bag for more than three months. Last weekend I took this, a suitcase and two shoulder bags on the train to go away for three days. One bag with these essentials and everything else? Craft supplies. Well, craft supplies and cake.



10 May 2011

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31 Comments for How to travel light

  1. Nikki M Says:

    Incredible! I am going to re-read this next time I travel. Thanks for the information!

  2. Mel Says:

    Really interesting, thank you :) I’m hopeless at packing light, but as we’re spending a month in LA in the summer I do need to give some thought to what we need as opposed to what we want, so this will be useful when I get to prioritising as well as just really darn interesting in its own right!

    PS Is it ridiculous to be pleased that we use the same toothpaste?!

  3. Judi Davis Says:

    My DH just saw the photo of what you had in your backpack….. now he thinks we can go on a motorcycle tour of Scotland and that’s all I need to take! LOL In his dreams. :-D Actually having read this I’m beginning to think it could be possible. TFS. Jude.x

  4. Sabine Says:

    Wow, that is really amazing! I always thought you went on that trip with a BIG backpack, not such a small one!!

  5. Kirsty A Says:

    Great post. OK,I get it. Glasses, a she-wee and 20 sheets of similar colour cardstock – essentials. Oh, I forgot cake, how could I forget cake?

  6. ruth smithson Says:

    WOW! Thanks for sharing, that was really interesting to read, I am in awe!

  7. Emma Says:

    Absolutely loved reading this! So many great ideas, now I just want to find somewhere amazing to travel to and try them out!

    (p.s You sound really angry at your foundation..)

  8. Madeline Says:

    Love this post Shimelle, very interesting how you did that for so long with so little. TFS

  9. pidgen Says:

    I’ve been waiting for this post since BEFORE you left! LOL! I saw one of those “wiz” things last month and I thought it was great that you used one. They seem very useful! Thanks for the lovely post — you’ve made going around the world not seem like such a big deal! :)

  10. Scrapdolly Says:

    I am in total and utter awe
    I am an awful packer and this was such an interesting post and totally fascinating and inspirational. If I ever backpacked (which I promise I will never do LOL) I would follow it to the letter, I took more than this for four days in Paris. I need to re-read this again before I go away next time and get some perspective. Nij wants to know if you will give me lessons as you might be able to achieve what he has failed to do in years – make me a rational packer.

  11. furrypig Says:

    this brings back memories of when I went travelling in 1990! I think there are a few more gizmos and gadgets now but I completely empathise with you as I was away for 6 months!

  12. Irene Fitzpatrick Says: it!

  13. Carrie Says:

    Wow – I am completely in awe! I went away overnight last weekend and took almost the same amount of stuff (although I skipped the she-wee and passport) – I think I may have taken more shoes in fact! I simply am incapable of packing light – hubby despairs as he would also like to go touring on a motorbike – not gonna happen unless someone follows with a car!!!
    Thanks for sharing!

  14. glee stormont Says:

    i loved this post! this summer i’m taking my 20 & 13 yr old sons to visit Michigan (where i grew up.) We’re determined to only take a carry on…but they want to bring their skateboards, too. thanks for the inspiration!

  15. Jane Says:

    Wonderful Shimelle – this takes me back to my first traveling experiences. I vividly remember pulling everything out I thought I would need for my south pacific jaunt, laying it all out on my bed. I looked at it all piled there and then promptly took over half of it away. You truly do not need as much as you think you do! My next trip was not so easy however – Canada in winter and traveling as light as before was not really an option.

  16. Jenn V Says:

    This is an awesome post. I love all the details. My best friend traveled to Europe last summer and I shopped with her a bit…she was looking for a garment that could be a skirt or a dress or a shirt…crazy. But she was only bringing one backpack and now I know why she was trying to pack so lightly.

    Again, thanks for the awesome information. I will remember to pack light if I ever get to travel to a far away place!

  17. Zahra Says:

    Brilliant post, love the compression sack for your clothes!!

  18. Jodpea Says:

    “my eyes can’t even agree on being equally blind..” The sight in my left eye is so poor they wouldn’t even give me a lens for it! They told me just to wear the one side which just seems plain wierd to me! I’ve not got to grips with them (it?) yet, I really must try again…

  19. alisa beth Says:

    Did you ever weigh the bags to see how much you were carrying around with you?

  20. Becky Says:

    Fantastic post and has really made me think about what I will be packing for our fly drive trip to California next year – perhaps I don’t need to take as much as I usually do!

  21. carole A Says:

    Love this post! I can never travel light so I was interested in how you coped. I laughed at your spare glasses! But as a nearly blind person myself I share your worry. I once feel asleep on a train going to London. Woke up and left the train and couldnt work out why I couldnt see too well. Then discovered I lost one of the lenses in my specs! 40 miles from home and a date to keep! You keep carrying those spares!!

  22. Helen Overton Says:

    Such a fascinating post, but left me wondering what you do on a five mile hike (presumably in the middle of nowhere) if you want a number 2 (sorry)? I’m a total princess when it comes to toilets, Glastonbury festival was bad enough the one year I went. Plus how did you wash your clothes? That clothes compression bag is genius, I want one for my suitcase!

  23. Lynn Says:

    just proves how little in life we need! My other half is of too Rawanda in July and will be using all his luggage allowance to carry electrical equipment as he is part of a team doing work out there. He has to fit all his personal needs in his hand luggage – I think I will show him this.

  24. Daphne Says:

    WOW! I never would have done this with so less things for such a long time… Well done! And you are the living proof that it IS working! xxx

  25. Lizzie Says:

    Wowee! That’s a wonderful bit of packing, Shimelle! I had several back-packing trips, but never managed to travel quite as light as this. I had a rucksack that was about twice as big, with a tent and full-size sleeping bag strapped on top. Compression bags are fab though – and those plastic bags with a valve, that you pack, seal, then roll up to squish the air out!
    The book-swap idea was very clever – as was buying replacement clothes and posting the “old” ones home!
    So glad you had a successful and fun trip – thanks for showing us your amazing back-pack!

  26. Jennie Says:

    What an amazing feat of packing!! I used be be able to go “Travellin’ Light” – but not sure I could do it these days!! We spent all our holidays in a camper van with our children for 12 years – and if I couldn’t fit it in the van it didn’t go – it was a van designed for 2 – we were a family of 5!!I am still in awe of your packing though! Jen x

  27. Dee Cummins Says:

    I love reading this packing for travel blog post! I have never been able to travel outside the US but I love to read packing details! Thanks for sharing.

  28. Michelle Clement Says:

    Yay!! I love this, shimelle! :) Thanks for the insight, hun! I’m definitely digging the compression bag for clothes – something I’d never thought of doing, but my clothes always take up the most room! lol. You’re amazing!

  29. Deanna Says:

    Hi Shimelle! I have just “met” you via the Paperclipping Roundtable and had to jet right over here and find your backpack post. Love it!

  30. discount karen millen Says:

    something ridiculously hot. And at some point along the trek I may have said it was perhaps not his best decision that we should walk all this way, and as a compromise, he ended up carrying my stuff. So in this

  31. Kara Says:

    Amazing! Love the compression bag for the clothes. How did you cope with the wrinkles? I’ve seen sprays and such. Did you use anything like that?

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