A long time ago my wife Sharyn and I set out on a three-and-a-half year backpacking trip around the world. There was much thought given to what we’d carry in those backpacks and how we’d manage them for the time we planned to be away. In the end, we decided to take the absolute basics and buy anything we felt we couldn’t live without as we went.
Southeast Asia was our first stop and we figured we didn’t need much at all. We set out on our marathon adventure carrying just 12kgs each and never looked back. We visited 66 countries in 41 months and arrived back in Australia with barely much more.
In those days, before online accommodation booking, we would sometimes search for a couple of hours for a decent room in our price range, especially in popular or off-the-beaten-track destinations. Thus was the genesis of our rule that if you can’t walk for two hours with your luggage, then you need to lighten it up. Nowadays, it’s unusual that we don’t pre-book, but that thinking is still firmly engraved on our psyche.
So, how did we do it? What did we do for colder climates and for places that demanded specialist clothes? We started pretty well, but our recent time spent on touring bicycles, fully self-supported, has really shown us what’s necessary to get by clothes-wise in vastly different locations and this knowledge can be applied to almost any kind of travel.
Firstly, we packed layers of lightweight clothes. Good quality ones like those from outdoor stores cost more, but they weigh less, last longer and are easy to rinse out overnight and be dry in the morning, meaning you don’t have to carry more than one or two options for each clothing item.
Fewer clothes mean wearing the same thing over and over, but don’t worry, you’re not at home parading around in front of the ‘fashion police’. Most people you meet when you’re travelling don’ know you and won’t remember what you had on yesterday, so it doesn’t matter if you wear the same things all the time (although people will pick it up in your pictures!). That doesn’t mean you have to look scruffy. A few classic pieces will serve you well in any situation. My wife, Sharyn, mixes and matches her two pairs of pants and a skirt with around three tops, creating six different outfits, (and more with the addition of a couple of colourful scarves.) For me, I’ve found that black goes with everything!
Leave your bulky coats at home; they weigh a ton. Layering good-quality, lightweight clothes will keep you just as warm. A t-shirt under-fleece under a rain/wind jacket will keep you snug in almost any circumstance, except the most extreme. In colder climes, a pair of thermals under them all will contribute added warmth without overburdening your luggage.
If you are transitioning to a cold climate like Alaska, the Himalayas or Scandinavia in the winter, you can buy or hire any specialist clothing when you get there saving you having to carry it for long periods when you don’t need it.
Years ago, when we came out of Southeast Asia and into Nepal to go trekking, we hired the things we needed like down jackets and sleeping bags in Kathmandu. This arrangement worked out exceptionally well as they were quite cheap to hire and we returned them at the end of the treks and exited Nepal with no extra baggage. If you can’t hire specialist clothing, you can always post bulky items home or onwards in your journey to the next place you’ll need them.
Each new destination presents the temptation of wanting to buy something locally which can add to your load quite quickly. You can nip this problem in the bud by using our philosophy of “one in, one out.” Meaning, if you buy a piece of clothing, then you must lose a piece as well to maintain the balance. At first, this is easier said than done as you accumulate lots of cool new things. But as your baggage begins to bulge and you struggle to get it onto those pesky escalators, you’ll eventually come to the realisation yourself that you should either dump the old clothes or post them home.
It makes sense that you’re also less likely to be targeted by thieves if you don’t look flush with cash! On that point, leave all your expensive jewellery at home, it weighs a ton. Sharyn only wears her wedding ring and a few cheaper pieces of jewellery she’s picked up along the way. Anything else is just extra weight to carry around.
Toiletries are another source of unnecessary weight. Most supermarkets, especially those in Asia, Latin America and Africa, stock small sizes of shampoo, body lotions, body washes and toothpaste. The same goes for washing powder in many countries which you can purchase in single load packets. Even cheap guesthouses and Airbnbs will supply soap. And, if you’re staying in more expensive places, they’ll usually provide everything. We use theirs and keep our small bottles for those circumstances when they aren’t supplied.
Clothes, jewellery and toiletries are the least of your problems though. Nowadays many people’s heaviest items are their electronics. If you’re like us, they are a necessary evil that keeps us connected to the rest of the world and helps us to fund our travels. The smartphones and laptops themselves aren’t so bad, but all the accessories that go with them weigh a ton. Chargers, batteries, cables, headphones and back-up hard drives all contribute to the headache of packing so we come in under the luggage allowance of the airlines.
Our electronics weigh around 5kgs each, so we really need to be careful when packing. One practice we’ve adopted recently is to work in ‘the cloud’ which allows us to leave those bulky external hard drives and cables at home. Another way to reduce your electronics load is to use your smartphone as a dedicated camera and leave the SLR at home. Many new phones have better cameras than a moderately priced automatic one anyway. That one substitution can save a lot of weight as well as space in your luggage. If you don’t really need that laptop, buy a tablet and a small, lightweight USB keyboard. Each little action can have a significant impact on the overall weight of your luggage.
Apart from the inconvenience of moving heavy luggage around up and down stairs, in airports, taxis and public transport, luggage rates on budget airlines add up. So it’s not just your shoulders, arms and legs that will benefit from paring down your luggage, it’s cheaper and more practical to travel light. And don’t forget that smug smile you get to wear as you breeze past everyone at the airport, train station or busy city square as they desperately drag their life’s possessions behind them, like a deadweight.