I’ve been bouncing around Asia and the Indian subcontinent for almost two years now, with a pack that weighs in at 15 pounds (7kg). This minimalist travel setup has served me well through monsoon season, snow and ice, storms, jungles, mountains and deserts alike.
As the stamps have accumulated in my passport, I’ve road-tested various types of gear, and switched out almost all of my initial travel kit. At the time of writing, I’ve managed to get my core packing list down to less than 50 items in total.
This is possibly straying into obsessive freak territory, and most people will do just fine taking a less extreme approach. The point of this list is to serve as a counterweight to all the hilariously bad backpacking guides out there, which imply you will meet some terrible fate in Scary Foreign Lands – possibly torn apart by a pack of ferocious timber wolves – if you don’t bring at least 16 pairs of undies and an emergency life raft and a year’s supply of wolf repellent.
Before we get into the packing list, let’s run through the general principles of minimalist travel:
1. If in doubt, leave it out
No traveler in the history of the universe – vertebrae creaking and grinding under the yoke of their ridiculous 80L pack – has ever said, ‘Boy, I wish I brought more stuff!’ When you first leave home you might feel like Elon Musk on a voyage to the alien planet Mars, but it turns out that the concept of “shops” has made it to overseas places too. If you do end up needing something, you can almost certainly buy it on the road, and often for next to nothing.
2. Invest in quality gear
Whenever I try and pinch pennies on the things I use every day, I always end up regretting it. Get yourself outfitted with a small amount of high quality gear to begin with, then supplement it with cheap disposable stuff as required.
3. Accumulate over time
If you can’t afford good stuff, just pick it up over time. It’ll take a while to figure out your preferences anyway – my list is still a work-in-progress, and I’m continuously optimising it as I go.
4. Multi-purpose everything
Pick neutral colours and styles. When every bottom pairs with every top, it means you can squeeze the maximum number of different outfits out of the minimum number of clothing items. Ideally you should be equally comfortable wearing each ensemble in a bar, an airport, or trekking through the jungle. In the same spirit, try and get multiple uses out of a single item – e.g. a scarf is also a spare towel/sarong/sleep mask/garrote.
5. It’s not a competition
If you’re traveling for a really long time, you’re definitely going to want more than the bare basics listed below. I tend to buy a bunch of household stuff when I’m going to settle somewhere for a few months, then give it away or sell it when I leave. I stashed a guitar, yoga mat, and a few extra clothes in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a while, and have a similar cache at my parents house in New Zealand. Remember, there’s no trophy for being the most hardcore minimalist.
Onward to the list! (or use these links to navigate to a particular section)
Pack selection is crucial. If you have a big bag, you’re guaranteed to fill it up with junk. If you have a small bag, you’ll be forced to pack more thoughtfully. The sweet spot is anything carry-on sized, which is up to 45L or so (twice my current capacity). That way you get to skip checked luggage queues and fees, can keep it with you at all times, and always find stuff easily, among other benefits. As a rule of thumb, ask yourself whether you could walk around comfortably carrying the pack (I like to think of this as Super Hans’ Law):
I used the Macpac Kahu 22L for the first 18 months, then traded it with a friend for the slightly more spacious 26L Osprey Pixel pictured above (1). It’s still not perfect for my needs, but I’ve got my eye on a new Macpac model which looks like it might just be The One.
Heres’ what to look for in a pack:
- Water resistant fabric
- Metal, lockable zippers
- Sturdy haul loop
- Not too touristy-looking
- Flat compartment for documents and/or laptop
- Hip belt (if you’ll be hiking)
- Drink bottle pouch, clips to hang stuff on
2. Flat panel dry bag
Dry bags are handy for quarantining laundry/smelly clothes, protecting valuables from boats/dives/rain, and as a mini daypack for when you’re out and about. They weigh virtually nothing, and take up almost no room. I got this FeelFree one with a flat panel, because it sits more snugly against my torso.
3. Combination padlock
Not all hostels provide locks, and you’ll also want some security when you’re on night buses or trains. I have a TSA approved lock in case I ever need to check the bag in. A padlock doesn’t stop someone from taking off with the whole pack, which is where a bike lock comes in handy (thread it through the haul loop and attach it to a pole/bed frame/sturdy thing).
Clothing (lower body)
1. Macpac/Icebreaker merino underwear x 2-3
Merino wool is expensive, but worth every penny. This is going to be a recurring theme, so I’ll get it out of the way now: This stuff is woven with some sort of black magic. It doesn’t smell. It’s super light. If you air it out, or hang it in the sun, it’s back to new. If you wash it in the sink, it dries overnight. I’ve alternated between the same two pairs of briefs for almost the entire trip. With cotton undies, that would be exactly as disgusting as it sounds. With merino, I promise you it’s not. Macpac and Icebreaker are both excellent brands.
2. Merino socks x 2
Same goes with the socks. I don’t wear shoes that often, so two pairs is more than enough. It is quite a revelation to realise you will never wear smelly cotton gym socks again.
3. Adidas Climalite shorts
Are they casual streetwear? Swimming trunks? Gym shorts? All three, of course! I like the Climalite fabric, but anything that ticks the above boxes will do the trick.
4. Short pants
Right now I have el cheapo cotton ones, but I’m hoping to get my hands on these (you guessed it) merino blend bad boys from Icebreaker. Make sure the colour you choose matches all your shirts. I like bone grey, although no-one should be taking fashion advice from me.
All the packing list guides will tell you that jeans were created by the Devil himself as a ploy to ruin the lives of backpackers: Denim is made of cotton, it’s heavy, and it’s no good in hot climates. Honestly, I think I’m siding with Lucifer on this one. Is there any more comfortable, all-round versatile item of clothing on the planet than blue jeans? You can dress them down with a t-shirt and flip-flops, or dress them up with a button-down shirt. Everyone in India quite happily wears jeans without collapsing from heat exhaustion. You can blend in anywhere with jeans, whereas the six billion pockets on your daggy travel pants basically scream “HI I’M A TOURIST!”. There’s no getting round the fact that they are rather bulky, so I just make sure to wear them whenever I’m flying.
Alternative: If anyone knows of any ‘travel pants’ that aren’t ugly as sin, let me know. I’m also thinking about getting some tailor-made linen chinos, which I’ll report back on later.
Clothing (upper body)
1. Icebreaker short sleeve T
Merino blah blah, you get it by now. Versatile enough to wear in any context, from a social thing to a hike to the gym to walking down the street. When you’re cold, it keeps you warm. When you’re warm, it keeps you cool. I usually cycle through a cheap cotton t-shirt on the side for a bit of variety too.
2. Icebreaker long sleeve T
This is useful as a base layer for warmth. If I pair it up with my other merino shirt, then it’s really toasty (this is what I did in the Himalayas). It’s still lightweight enough to wear casually, and doesn’t look like some sort of weird fetish sports clothing.
3. Oxford shirt
It’s useful to have at least one dress shirt for meetings, applying for visas, and other semi-formal occasions. The blue Oxford button-down is a great all-rounder. At one point I had a polyester blend from Pierre Cardin which didn’t need ironing, but I’m still on the lookout for the perfect travel shirt.
4. Shell jacket
Depending on where you’re going you won’t need a jacket at all – I didn’t have one for most of my time in Southeast Asia, and just used a plastic poncho when it rained. I bought this alleged “North Face” jacket for $12 in Nepal, and it’s since come in handy quite a few times. It’s only got a thin shell, but it cuts the wind and rain while providing a bit of warmth.
5. Sleeveless T (not pictured)
For the gym, or just whenever it’s too hot to wear a proper shirt. Mine is stained from full moon party glo-paint, Holi colours, and has many other fascinating burns and holes, but I just realised I’ve lost it somewhere. RIP.
Footwear and accessories
1. Jandals (flip-flops)
This is what I wear 90 per cent of the time. You can wear jandals anywhere, as I think Ed and I have proved beyond a shadow of doubt. When they’re not in use, they’re easy to hook onto my pack. I don’t buy fancy brands because it’s too heartbreaking to lose them, but I do make sure to get ones with a bit of arch support.
2. Timberlands (or similar)
One of the biggest challenges in minimalist packing is getting down to a single pair of shoes. It’s a hell of a hard task finding something you can wear to a club, to the gym, on a hike, and on a motorbike, but I think I’ve almost cracked the code: Leather and water-resistant, with good grip, without looking too goofy. Chukka boots, Timberlands, or even boat shoes might fit the bill. The raised heel is useful for weightlifting, there’s decent tread and a bit of ankle support for hiking, and they pair up well with blue jeans. If you like jogging, I don’t know what to tell you (except may God have mercy on your soul).
3. Light scarf
Someone gave me this scarf in Thailand. I’ve since used it as a makeshift blanket, sarong, beach towel, dust mask, curtain, and sometimes to keep my neck warm.
4. Baseball cap
Loops onto the top of my pack when not in use. If I didn’t have long hippie hair to protect my neck I’d probably get one of those cool Legionnaire-style hats with the bumflap.
I destroy or lose sunglasses constantly, so I usually go for ones which actually do have UV protection, while still being as cheap as possible.
6. Beanie (not pictured)
Plain black, cotton. I almost never need it, but when I do, I’m glad it’s there.
Toiletries and miscellaneous
1. Macpac microfibre travel towel
Rolls down really small, and dries easily. Still going strong after several hundred uses.
2. Toiletries bag
Some people have those cool ones with all the compartments but mine’s just a freebie from some airline. There’s nothing wildly exciting here – nail clippers, toothbrush and paste, razor, no-handle hair-brush, roll-on deodorant.
3. Potions and lotions
I’ve never had to buy soap because you get a million free ones from hotels. I use regular soap (or shampoo) to wash my clothes in the sink when there’s no machine. My beauty regime is pretty much nonexistent, although I do carry sunscreen (SPF 30+, travel size) and usually bug spray.
Honestly not very powerful, but it is incredibly light, and only uses a single AA battery. There’s a guide for different lengths so you can trim your beard or unmentionables just the way you like, or use the bare blade for a dry shave.
5. Money and passport
Passports are generally deemed quite useful for international travel. I always keep a stash of US dollars on me, and at least two credit/debit cards, preferably from different banks.
6. Pen and notebook
Always handy, especially for filling out forms ahead of time.
Health and fitness
Pack of cards
I mostly do calisthenics (bodyweight exercise) to keep fit, which works great for travel because it requires no equipment. With a bit of imagination, a pack of cards becomes a portable pocket-sized gym. I also use it for brain training (memorizing a shuffled deck as fast as possible) and occasionally even play cards with it.
For stretching and mobility work. Takes up almost no room.
A few painkillers and antihistamines, iodine, plasters, tape, tiger balm. Again, you can buy this sort of stuff anywhere, and put together a proper kit if and when it’s required.
While the obvious choice of travel computer tends to be the Macbook Air, I don’t need that level of functionality, or want to carry around something so expensive for no good reason. The R11 weighs 2.7 pounds, costs less than $300, and is good for anything up to basic video editing. It has a 360 degree touchscreen so I can use it as a tablet to read on, or watch movies, and an epic battery life of 10 hours plus. I frickin’ love this thing.
I pick up actual books and trade them with friends as often as possible, but they’re too heavy to carry around. E-readers kind of suck in comparison, but the Kindle is growing on me. The battery lasts weeks, so you can use it instead of wasting precious phone or battery on 16 hour bus journeys. They’re also a vastly better experience than trying to read books on a phone or computer. Make sure you get one with a backlit display, like the Paperwhite, so you can read in any conditions.
3. Moto E4 Plus
This thing has a mega battery that lasts for two full days. It’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary that is while traveling. I laugh heartily at my iPhone-toting friends who are constantly desperate for a charger. The Moto family are the best budget Android phones on the market, but they do take shitty photos (this is a feature not a bug for me, because it forces me to use my actual camera).
This little beauty takes crazy good photos for its tiny size, with a massive sensor and a full range of manual and automatic settings. If I wasn’t travelling I might get a DSL, but it would be a close call. The RX series are the best point-and-shoots on the market (there’s also a Mark III, IV, and V, all of which are under $1000, with specs that are starting to put DSLs to shame).
After doing a ton of research, I decided that noise-cancelling wasn’t worth it for the rare occasions it’d be really handy (like on planes). Instead, the passive benefits of in-ear seem to be the way to go. I use the Jaybirds for calisthenics, which means they have to stay in when I’m upside down, and resist sweat. They have solid battery life, and are really comfortable, with a whole range of wings and buds to suit your earhole. I also keep a wired pair of generic earbuds around for when I’ve run out of juice.
6. Universal adapter
I’m pretty sure this generic adapter cost me all of three dollars, and it hasn’t failed me so far. Super handy.
7. USB charger
There’s no point carrying four separate chargers and cables for my Kindle, phone, headphones, and camera. Instead I have a couple of cables between them and just alternate, or plug into my laptop and use it as a power bank.
Travel apps and services
Download an entire country or regional map, then navigate offline without any WiFi or data. Usually comparable quality with Google Maps, and sometimes even better.
Uber and Grab (Asia)
A great alternative to price-gouging local transport cartels, with GPS pickup and dropoff, and linked to your card so you don’t have to mess around with cash. In Asia, I prefer Grab over Uber. They’re trying so hard to acquire users that the promo codes are super generous, to the point where I almost never actually paid for a ride.
I use Transferwise to move money from home to my Thai bank account, as well as to pay people in foreign currencies. Not only does this eliminate ATM fees, I get the actual mid-market exchange rate instead of getting ripped off by brokers. If you sign up with this link, you’ll get your first transfer free.
I’ve had a great time hosting fellow travelers. Tinder is another good way to meet new people (seriously). I’ve written a whole article on making friends as a solo traveler which will be up on the blog soon.
- This is always going to be a work-in-progress. I’ll keep the page updated as I come across better equipment and fill the remaining gaps in my list.
- This list is biased towards warm climates, because I personally hate the cold. Yes, I’ve been across the Himalayas, but I bought some fuzzy pants and gloves, and was hiking all day to keep warm anyway. For a really savage winter, you’ll want a proper coat, sweater, maybe some thermal underwear, a thicker scarf, etc.
- This list is obviously very male-centric, because I can only speak to my own experience. One of my nomadic lady friends is even more hardcore than me about this sort of thing, and has promised to share her own packing list soon – watch this space!