A couple of months ago, I received a challenge from a reader to try ultralight packing and pack a bag that was 10 pounds maximum. I was recently home from travel and pulled out all of my favorite gear to make a hypothetical bag, and it worked! It was much easier than I expected, so when an actual trip fell in my lap, I was excited to field test it.
My occasion is a scouting trip to Thailand and Cambodia, two places I’ve always wanted to go. I was invited by a colleague for two weeks but could only stay for a part, a total of 11 days with travel included. This is a short trip for me, as I’m usually gone for 6 weeks or more at a stretch.
It was a short trip and one to a tropical place, I figured that I’d have no problem meeting or beating the ultralight packing 10 pound mark. I’m also fanatical about carry-on only, and since I’m unfamiliar with the workings and regulations of small Asian airlines, it would only be an advantage to pack as little as possible.
In my preparations for coming, I heard that shopping in Thailand is pretty fun and inexpensive for what you can get. Interesting….. I kept that in mind. I’m not a big shopper but I am a sucker for good bargains and enjoy spoiling my kids. I figured that I’d be lured into some of the markets, so I wanted to leave some room for purchases. Less is definitely more in that case. Shoppertunities! Woohoo!
The basic premise of my packing strategy is weight. By weighing each individual item going into the bag, I can make comparisons and choices to maximize what I bring with minimum weight. My things are weighed on a kitchen scale and marked with a Sharpie.
For an ultralight bag, the weight of the contents is important but also bag itself. I have an ultralight bag by Lewis n Clark that I use as overflow for things I buy on the road, which has performed very well so far. I was thinking of using it for this trip, but the fabric is so thin that I didn’t trust it to be tough enough for multiple flights, buses and boats. It’s also a duffel bag, and I prefer a backpack with padded straps.
I looked through my massive luggage graveyard, or the “Ghosts of Rick Steves Past”, and didn’t find anything that would work for this ultralight vision. I wanted a backpack. It had to be thin and light but rugged. A basic sack with straps would do.
I did a bit of research on Amazon (which you should read as- I sat in my PJs with my phone and drank wine all day). I was looking for something with a reasonable capacity but as light as possible, so I settled my search on the 40 liter range. I do love my shiny bells and whistles on luggage, but in this case I was only concerned about the weight, so I ignored any fancy or high priced bags. My normal backpack cost me a painful $300, but I didn’t spend much this time since it was just an experiment.
I settled on a nylon backpack from G4 Free, a brand I’d never heard of but that got good reviews. The price was a crazy deal at $20, so I was kind of expecting it to fall apart immediately or smell like a dumpster or be filled with stinging ants.
I was concerned about weight and this claimed to be less than a pound. When it arrived, it was such a tiny package that I thought I’d made a mistake (mentally attributing said mistake to drinking wine in my PJs all day). But no! It was indeed that full sized backpack, folded into itself like tricky origami. It really did weigh almost nothing.
The bag fit my needs perfectly. Light, durable, with one big compartment and two small zippered compartments. It even has cup holders! So, the bag was ready, now for the packing.
Ultralight Packing List
For an 11 day trip to Thailand, I needed only a few summer items. It was winter there, so the anticipated temps were a chilly 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit.
This ultralight packing list is a stripped down version of my normal list, leaving out anything that was not essential. No tour guiding gear, no Oktoberfest dirndl. How little could I live with?
- 2 tank tops, red and gray
- 2 sleeveless tops, red and black
- 2 short sleeve tops, green and cream
- 1 button up short sleeve top, gray
- 1 light cashmere sweater
- Packable down jacket, black
- 1 pair wide leg rayon pants, black
- 1 pair leggings, black
- 1 pair Capri pants, gray linen
- 1 pair long denim shorts
- 1 skirt, black linen
- 1 light cotton dress, floral
- 1 long silk dress, black
- 1 knit shirt dress, red
- 7 pairs underwear (yes, 7. A girl must have standards.)
- 2 bras
- Freya Bikini, underwire top which doubles as extra bra
- 2 pairs socks, black ankle type
- 1 pair socks, awesome Costco Merino socks
- Silk pajama
- 3 oz shampoo
- 3 oz conditioner
- Neutrogena moisturizer with spf 30
- Cream deodorant
- Waterproof mascara
- Revlon Colorstay lipstick
- Bare Minerals face powder with spf 15
- Portable sonic toothbrush
- Small bottle sunscreen
- Pills, including Advil PM, Benedryl
- Small comb, elastic bands, hair clips
- Down pillow, because a princess needs what she needs.
All of these items were put into my lightest packing cubes and packed into the main compartment of my bag. Total weight? 9 pounds! Room for souvenirs? You bet!
On the Plane
The above packing list included my clothes for the plane.
I am always cold on the plane, I usually bring a cozy outfit for the long journey. In this case I knew I would never use warm clothes once in Thailand, so I layered everything. I wore a tank top, light sweater and down jacket, with leggings under my loose rayon pants and wool socks.
I did not count my day bag into the total weight this time, but there was not much in it. I decided to only bring the most essential items. I used my basic Tom Bihn Medium Cafe Bag, a classic that works well, even if I hate the scratchy shoulder strap.
The biggest weight in my bag these days tend to be electronics. I chose to leave my iPad behind and save that weight, relying only on my phone. I just bought an iPhone 7, which has a fantastic camera and let me leave the digital camera behind.
Day bag basics
- iPhone (camera, guidebooks, phone, flashlight, hotel and flight reservations)
- Most Excellent Bose Headphones (with adaptor for iPhone 7)
- Money belt (in the bag when not wearing it…do as I say and not as I do!)
- Box of Awesome
- Charging cords and back up battery
- Notebook and pencils. Yes. I’m old.
I’m home and my bag is ready to be unpacked. My feelings about ultralight packing? WOW.
After 11 days with the bare necessities, I realized that I have been overpacking all this time. There are so many things I bring which I don’t really need anymore. My phone can replace tons of things that used to weigh me down such as books, computer, notebooks, tickets, cameras, and so on. On the other hand, relying on my phone means I have to pay attention to power. I’ve invested in a stronger power bank and I’m glad I did. It can recharge my phone a few times.
The clothes I brought were perfectly flexible for the weather. Although it was hot, I needed light pants and shirts to cover up for visiting temples. I was most grateful for my lightweight long pants and my button-up short sleeved shirt, as these were required for the modest dress code of the Grand Palace. In general, I found that Thai and Cambodian cultures were more conservative than I’m used to, in terms of dress.
There were things I didn’t need. I didn’t need as many dresses as I brought, one would have been enough. I brought a skirt but only wore it once. Considering that it is cheap and fast to have laundry done in Bangkok, I could have brought half as much if I’d wanted to. And considering the cool clothing for sale on every corner, most of it costing almost nothing, I could have come with just the clothes on my back and my toiletries. And my pillow. The pillow is non-negotiable.
Benefits of Ultralight
Packing such a small bag was fantastic and turned out to be a big time saver. It saved me a big headache in transit, that’s for sure. As it turned out, my ticket was for two separate airlines that didn’t cooperate, and if I’d have checked my bag, I’d have had a big hassle in transit retrieving my bag and checking it again. With a small bag, I was able to hop on and off flights with no problem. When I returned home, I was the first person through customs and out the door of the airport.
Carrying a small bag was delightful. I felt so light. My back never strained. I could skip through the airport. There was less of an explosion of possessions in my hotel rooms. I could plop my bag down anywhere, it wasn’t like parking a heap of baggage the size of a small elephant.
In Bangkok, as I flitted through customs and baggage claim with my tiny pack, feeling free and ready to run, I saw a group of Buddhist monks with a huge cart, suitcases piled high. I had to think about that one. Ok, I admit that their robes probably have more material than my clothes. But still, if an American woman like me can pack so light, I’d bet Buddhist monks could too. Really. Maybe I can help them some day, ultralight packing lessons in exchange for enlightenment.
Want to see me unpack that bag? Check out my video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/6qDVqqbyNUc
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