I take packing light fairly seriously. I never check a bag, even on trips of two weeks or more. I’ve been to Peru with nothing more than a small photo backpack. I know that sounds braggy, and I’m sorry for that, but I need to show you right up front that I take this subject seriously. I want to introduce you to the joys of packing light, and show you how to do it.
I’m not suggesting you need to travel like a dirty, college-aged, backpacker. You can do this and travel comfortably. In fact, you’ll be more comfortable than you would be with a bunch of stuff. This is particularly true on trips where you will be changing locations a lot. If your upcoming trip has you staying in one location the entire time, then packing light still mattes, but not as much. If you’ll be unpacking, repacking, and moving a few times during a trip, then traveling heavy is a real drag. Your trip will be greatly improved by keeping things small and light.
I’m assuming you already know the basic stuff. I think most people already know that you should just bring necessities. You are probably familiar with the idea of bringing clothes that you can layer and use in a variety of different circumstances. You already know to get small trial-size shampoo, soap, etc. What I want to do here is take things a step further.
You know what? You can really bring as many pairs of socks, underwear, and t-shirts as you want. They just don’t’ take up that much room. Plus you can smoosh them down. Don’t worry about those as much.
But what does matter is shoes, so let’s address them right up front. Shoes take up a lot of room in your suitcase and you cannot compress them. For this reason, perhaps your number one priority needs to be to limit shoes. If I can help it, I don’t pack any shoes. I just wear hiking shoes, which are pretty well all-purpose. You can walk around in them all day and you can wear them to restaurants. Where sneakers might seem out of place, hiking shoes won’t.
Of course, hiking shoes won’t work for every circumstance, but you get the idea. If you are going to the beach for a week, do you really need anything beyond flip-flops? If you are going to a big city, then perhaps loafers that look good enough for restaurants and museums, but are comfortable enough to walk all day in. Just tailor the shoes to your trip, and see if you can limit it to one pair.
Some people choke on this advice, particularly women. If you must bring another pair of shoes, make them small. Wear your largest pair of shoes or boots on the plane, and pack the small pair. That will keep them from clogging up your suitcase.
One more tip on the subject of footwear is to avoid bringing boots. They just take up too much room. I understand there are times you might think you need them, but consider any workaround to avoid lugging them. For example, on a recent trip to Scotland – which was very wet – we bought knock-off Wellies upon arrival. They were only $25, we used them during the trip (kept them in the trunk of our car) and then left them at our final hotel for others to use (hopefully, although they might have just been discarded).
Staying warm is something to take seriously. Ever beyond safety considerations, if you are cold you are miserable. And there is no reason to ever be cold, since it is virtually always fixable by suitable attire. At the same time, warm clothes – particularly jackets and coats – are bulky. They will eat up all the room in your suitcase by themselves. So you’ll need to limit them.
The way to do it is to bring a fleece and a rain jacket. I have yet to go anywhere that a fleece and a rain jacket wasn’t sufficient to keep me warm. This is the most useful combination of clothes there is. The fleece provides interior warmth, and the rain jacket is a shell. It acts as a windbreaker. It also obviously works in the rain.
If it is really cold, you might wear a layer underneath, but usually you don’t have to. Granted, I haven’t been to Antartica with this combo, but unless you are going somewhere extremely cold, this will do the job.
Your Largest Items
Lots of people already know this, but I have alluded to it in two ways, so I want to mention something. Wear your largest items on the plane. I mentioned wearing your largest shoes/boots already. And I mentioned the fleece and rainjacket combo. Usually you will wear these on the plane. Planes can sometimes get cold, so they might come in handy. But even if it isn’t cold, you can just take them off and push them under the seat in front of you.
Sometimes this is inconvenient. When I show up at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport in August with a fleece and a rainjacket when it is 106 degrees and sunny, I get some funny looks. But you don’t have to wear them all the time. You only have to wear them as you board the plane.
The Greatness of Waterproof Khakis
I used to be a devotee of jeans. In fact, for me, casual pants pretty much meant jeans for me. That’s all I wore. But that changed a few years ago in conjunction with my travels, and I highly recommend this change for you as well.
Several years ago, I was preparing for a trip to Ireland where I was going with a guide to climb Carrontoohil (Ireland’s tallest mountain). As I was preparing for the trip, I read the info on my guide’s website. It said that jeans were not allowed on the hike, and it went on to specify that you needed to have waterproof pants. I didn’t have any of those. To me, waterproof pants meant rain pants. I went to buy some waterproof pants from REI and discovered that they didn’t have to look like you were wearing a rain suit. They looked like normal khaki pants and they were comfortable. And they had extra pockets, which was handy for little things you end up carrying around on trips. I bought some and wore them the day of my hike. They were great. By the end of the trip I was hooked and was wearing them all the time. Shortly thereafter, I went and bought a few more pairs of them and then threw away all my jeans. I wear nothing but waterproof khakis now.
Why? There are almost too many reasons to count. First, they are waterproof, which has more benefits than the obvious. They dry very quickly. You can wash them in the sink at night and they will usually be dry in the morning. Further, they are more comfortable than jeans. They fit looser and the material feels better. They are also nicer looking. You can wear them in any restaurant with no fear of appearing underdressed. (Don’t get cargo pants, get the ones that look more like dress pants). They are more comfortable too. And they have more pockets. Usually there is a small pocket where I carry a flash drive with a backup of all my pictures. Lots of times they have zippered pockets too, which means you don’t have to worry about pickpockets.
I harp on this subject so much that my friends actually make fun of me about it. But they are all converts as well There is a good reason for that. For travel, these are unbeatable.
Doing Laundry on the Road
Unless you want to bring a set of clothes for every day of your trip, you’ll need to do laundry (or be dirty). This can be a real hassle. Here are two ways to avoid that.
First, wear only quick dry clothes. I already mentioned waterproof pants (have you bought yours yet? Have you?). Get tech t-shirts and quick-dry underwear as well. That way, you can simply do laundry in the sink of your hotel and everything will dry overnight. Bring along some little travel detergent packets and you are in business. I often bring only a few sets of clothes now, and just rotate them through this process, washing and hanging in the bathroom to dry overnight.
Some people don’t like this process though. My wife doesn’t, for sure. For you, you’ll either have to do your laundry or get someone to do it for you. The best way is to check with your hotel(s) ahead of time and see which will do it for you. Most hotels have a service where you leave it out one morning and they have it back to you the next. For an extra fee, they might have same-day service as well. It avoids you spending precious time looking for a laundry facility, or, worse yet, wasting a few hours doing laundry.
The World’s Best Toiletry Bag
I have quite a collection of toiletry bags. As you might imagine, I try to go light in this department, and I was always looking for the perfect bag. At long last, I found it.
The perfect toiletry bag is a zip-lock bag. It holds everything, it won’t leak, and there is nothing lighter. Plus you can see through it, so you don’t have to dig through it to find your stuff.
Fancy? No. But who is going to see your toiletry bag? No one.
Packing cubs are rectangular fabric containers that fit within your luggage. They allow you to organize everything into compartments. You will be able to find everything quickly, you will be organized, and you’ll save space.
You need them. If you aren’t familiar with these, I know it doesn’t seem possible. I find it difficult to explain why these are so useful. All I can tell you is to take my word for it. Get them and you’ll always use them. Then you’ll be in the position of trying to explain to others why they are so great. I hope you do a better job than I just did.
If you are going abroad, you need to consider power, as there are usually different plugs and sometimes different current. The good news is that this is much simpler than it used to be. You shouldn’t need a converter. All electronics are dual voltage. That includes your phone, your laptop, and your camera batteries. For any of these, you just need an adapter.
Get only one adapter. You don’t need a bunch of them, just one. Then get yourself a small power strip. Plug the adapter into the power strip, and plug it into the wall. Then you can just plug everything into the power strip and it will work just fine.
Even when you travel domestically and you don’t need an adapter, having the power strip will come in handy. Outlets are frequently quite limited in hotels, particularly older ones. The power strip will allow you to plug in all your gadgetry and chargers.
I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asked me about cameras and/or lenses to get for their next big trip. I tell them the same thing every time. What I tell them is: don’t buy anything.
There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that it is better to go with gear you are familiar with than better gear you don’t know how to use. I’ve seen a lot of problems develop when people try to use a new camera on a trip. All of a sudden the camera isn’t doing what you want it to do and you have no idea how to fix it. It can ruin an entire day. In any event, it is not likely that gear is really holding you back. When I was just starting out, I spent a lot of money on cameras and lenses and still came back from trips with mediocre pictures.
If you decide that you really need a gear upgrade, then you you still shouldn’t buy anything. Rather, rent what you want. You can rent amazing photography equipment for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to buy. If you are really only looking to get some particular gear for your upcoming trip (and not general use all the time), then buying it would be a waste. Just pay for what you are using. Even better, renting equipment gives you an opportunity to try out different cameras and lenses before you pull the trigger and buy one. Better still, Lens Rentals will allow you to buy the unit you rented, and it will apply your rental charge to the purchase price. Pretty sweet.
Your biggest item will be a tripod. I would get a smaller travel tripod that fits in your suitcase. I personally like the MeFoto travel tripods, but there are lots of good ones.
Camera equipment is bulky, expensive, and heavy. It is best to keep things light. My own go-to set-up is one camera body, one moderate range zoom (24-70 mm) and one wide angle zoom lens (16-35 mm), a tripod, and a few different strengths of neutral density filters. That works for virtually every situation I want to shoot. I offer that only to be fully transparent, and not as a suggestion of what you should bring. For example, if you are interested in shooting wildlife you will need a longer lens, and if you are interested in shooting people you might need a flash or strobe. Think through what you plan to photograph.
If you do all this, you ought to be able to fit everything in a moderate sized suitcase and a camera bag. Usually, that means you won’t have to check a bag. Even if you get to check bags for free, that saves you from delays at the airport and the occasional lost or delayed bag. There is nothing that will throw a wrench in your trip more than not having your luggage for a few days.
More importantly, it will make moving around during your trip much more enjoyable. As an added bonus, you can feel superior as you smartly stroll out of your hotel with a small amount of luggage while watching others struggle with an insane amount of baggage.