If you want to see just how little you actually need as far as things go, I highly recommend backpacking. Nothing will put you to the test like living out of a backpack for 6 months (or longer).
I gave up suitcase-traveling for a good a few years ago, after I bought my first backpacking backpack right before a trip to Europe: A 55 liter Teton sport 3400 that changed travel for me and which I have been using ever since (pictured above). Suddenly, lugging a 50 pound suitcase behind me, getting caught and tripping over jagged, cobblestone streets, and dragging it up flights of stairs was no longer an issue. I could get around faster and with less annoyances.
As an added bonus, you are forced to bring less with you. “Bonus?” you say? Yes, that is to your advantage, because we should all be learning how to live with less. There is something freeing about having less things. The more things you have, the more you have to keep track of. The less you have, the less you have to worry about.
When I was first trying to figure out how to fit everything I needed to travel for six months through various regions with varying climates and temperatures, it was a daunting task. Then I read somewhere that the best thing to do was to lay out everything that you want to take with you, and then get rid of half of it. All the stuff you remove is stuff you don’t really need. And let me tell you, that was some great advice. You really don’t need as much as you think you do.
Now, anyone who looks at this picture of me from my most recent backpacking trip is going to call me a hypocrite, because I’m sure that many would not call this packing light:
In my orange pack on my back I have all of my clothes, toiletries and shoes. My Jansport on the front has my laptop and all my teaching materials for work. It looks like a lot but it’s actually worth your while to have a smaller day pack with you no matter what, for the times you go out on excursions and leave your big backpack behind at the hotel, etc. Lots of hotels and hostels will hold you big backpack for you so that you can travel lightly and comfortably to nearby destinations.
I was ecstatic about being able to leave my monster backpack behind at my hostel in Cartagena when I went to the islands of San Andres and Providencia for a week. At the San Andres airport, a fellow American tourist who was on the plane with me was in disbelief that I could be going on a trip for one week with just this little backpack. “Really? That’s all you’re taking for one week?” she gasped. “Give me your camera, I have to take a photo of this.” She snapped the picture and showed it to me. “Look at yourself!”
If only she knew the joy I was experiencing being liberated from that big backpack! I was delighted to be able to bring with as little as possible for this week. Luckily, I was going to a beach destination so I didn’t need to bring much in the way of clothes and shoes. Of course, the bulk of your load is affected by the climate of where you are going and what kind of clothing you need to bring. If you are going to Europe in the winter, your clothes and shoes are going to take up a lot more room than if you are going surfing in Bali. Regardless of the weather, I still follow these general rules
-1 big backpack and an extra small, lightweight day pack on the front, like a Jansport
-1 pair of comfy pants that can be worn for hiking or lounging
-1 pair of jeans
-1 pair of hiking/gym shoes, 1 pair of flats, and 1 pair of flip flops
-Various pairs of socks and underwear
-A few pairs of shorts, a few tops
-1 pair of long underwear and a thermal long-sleeve (to wear as pajamas or go underneath my clothes when I am hiking to stay warm)
-Some travel sized toiletries. I don’t worry too much about toiletries because you can buy most anything along the way. Same goes for bug spray, sunscreen, etc.
-My winter coat can roll up to a small size, so I make it as small as I can and clip it onto the outside of my backpack so it’s not taking up space inside. If you are traveling long term you are bound to go through some places where you will be wanting a coat- even for bus rides in hot countries where they crank the air conditioning to the max- so it’s good to have it with you. You can see what I’m talking about on my backpack in the second, “Traveling Carly” picture on this post.
-Passport, phone, wallet, credit cards, charger. That all goes without saying.
-My favorite travel item that I don’t need but can’t live without out: my travel speaker. It gets a lot of use and is a fun thing to have around in group settings.
Obviously if you are going to a cold weather destination, it would be an extra pair of pants and a few sweaters instead of shorts and tops, boots instead of flip flops, and a hat, gloves and scarf as well. It can still all fit in a backpack.
I had to bring my laptop and teaching materials with me because I was working while traveling but, ordinarily I’d say leave that laptop behind if you can. It will weigh you down and is an extra, valuable item that you will have to watch and worry about as you go. The less valuable things you can have on you the better, and if you do have valuable things, make sure they are always ON you. Don’t put them in your checked luggage, keep them as close to your body as possible.
If you’re worried about being smelly because you inevitably end up wearing the same clothes all of the time (which isn’t as big of a deal as you might think because you are constantly moving and meeting new people who won’t realize you’ve worn that same outfit three times already this week), don’t be, because there are always places to go do your laundry along the way. Most hostels offer a laundry service for just a couple bucks. It’s never a big deal to go find a laundromat and have fresh clean clothes in just a matter of hours.
It took me a few big trips to kind of narrow down what the essentials are for traveling on the long term and traveling light, but I think I definitely have it down to the point now that I can advise other people. Less is more. It might seem scary to bring so little with you on a long term trip but you will be surprised and delighted to discover how little you actually need and how nice it is to have less things to worry about. This is the joy of minimalism and it’s one of the coolest things you can embrace through traveling.