Packing light for travel may seem impossible, but with a few strategies and the right gear, anyone can master packing a bag under 15 pounds for a trip. As noted in various packing talks, the prime strategy is to focus on ridding your bag of weight and bulk.
While any bag can be packed with my strategies using things you already own, I have found some products that increase efficiency or shed weight—or just level up the comfort on your journey.
This is an evolving document, check back for updates. Please comment and share your favorite items for travel.
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What’s the Key? Weigh it!
My theory is that it doesn’t matter what you pack, it’s what it weighs. The first things you’ll need to adopt my approach are a couple of weighing instruments.
OXO Kitchen Scale— Don’t cheap out here since this is the whole system. Buy a rugged, quality scale that can take several pounds. The one I use goes up to 11 pounds and can measure tiny fractions.
Bag Scale— This hand-held scale loops onto your bag once it is packed, and then you lift it to weigh. This is critical if you’re traveling on restrictive airlines.
Ultralight Cheapo Backpacks
Two inexpensive and road-tested choices top my list for super light backpacks.
G4Free 40L Backpack– Probably the most basic travel backpack you can find, but a steal at about $20 and under a pound. Many of my tour guests have used this successfully. There aren’t many pockets, just a big space that can be adjusted with bungee cords, so you’ll need to use packing cubes to keep it organized.
G4Free 40L Hiking Backpack with Wet Pocket- This bag is similar in spirit but has more features. It has two main compartments and a few smaller pockets, room for water bottles, and a bonus plastic-lined pocket at the back for wet or stinky clothes. Bonus—it comes in fun patterns that make it easy to spot your bag.
Upper Class Backpacks
Tom Bihn Tri-Star– The bags from Tom Bihn cost significantly more than others in their class, but there’s a reason—they produce the highest quality bags on the market. I have had this bag nearly 10 years and it’s good as new after tons of use. This could be the last backpack you ever buy. Organized, tough, designed with care, and sporting inner loops to attach their little pouches to.
Cotopaxi Allpa- Not quite the quality level of Tom Bihn, but close, this backpack has the perfect shape for overhead compartments. The interior is neatly organized, meaning that you could skip packing cubes. There’s a slot for a laptop, and a sneaky pocket that’s perfect for your toiletries.
Packing Cubes should be made of ultralight material and ideally have mesh panels for breathability. My favorite is the Tom Bihn Techonaut Large Laundry Cube, which behaves like two cubes in one. Technically it is designed to be clean clothes one side, dirty the other, but I put rolled clothes one side and folded on the other. Works brilliantly. My most used cube by far.
The classic best ultralight cubes are Eagle Creek Specter, which have impossibly thin and strong fabric, with great quality. These have lasted miles and many washings, but can be a little floppy.
Two lower cost sets also work well. E-Bags has the nice advantage of structured edges.
Lewis N Clark Electrolyte has another version of nice, ultralight fabric, and adds the feature of expansion/compression.
To keep to a minimum, I limit myself to the TSA standard quart-sized toiletries bag. My favorite is from Tom Bihn, their 3-D organizer cube. A cheaper option is available on Amazon, and it works, but I keep returning to the sturdier Tom Bihn cube. Your toiletries bag should at least have a hook or strap to hang, as many bathrooms have no place to set things.
Everyone has their own very personal beauty regime, but this is my small arsenal, which is a minimal make-up situation:
- BareMinerals SPF Face Powder
- Neutrogena SPF Face Cream
- Thrive Causemetics Mascara
- Revlon Colorstay Overtime Lip Color
- Mac Waterproof Eyeliner
- Marvis Toothpaste
- Cream Paste Deororant
- Travel Razor
I’ve searched for ages for refillable liquid containers that were lightweight and easy to squeeze out every drop. I finally found the best ones, Kitsch Ultimate Travel Bottles Set, that pack almost flat in your pouch. They are perfection.
Finally, Sonicare has released a truly travel friendly toothbrush, the Sonicare One. It’s not as sexy looking as the quip toothbrush but the cleaning is no contest. It also comes with a handy case and also has a rechargeable version using a USB port.
My top pick for electronics is undoubtedly my Iphone. I currently carry an 11Pro, which, even being 2 years old, works just fine for photos, video, and running my business. If you can afford the most current model, go for it, but if you’d like an upgrade for your next trip, 11Pros can be bought inexpensively. Be sure to buy an unlocked phone so you can buy a local SIM card at your destination, which is the smartest and cheapest way to have internet access.
Traveling without a cellphone is a huge mistake, they make a traveler’s life so much easier. But what if you don’t have international coverage or your phone is locked and cannot accept a foreign SIM card? Your best bet is to buy a cheap “burner phone” here in the US that can accept a foreign SIM, then act as a hotspot for your US phone. I recall the days of loving my stupid Nokia unlocked cell phone, and they still make those solid little babies, unlocked and hot-spot capable.
Tablets are a popular travel companion, and I often bring my Ipad Air for reading, sketching, and entertainment on the plane. It does almost everything my laptop can do and is more functional than a phone alone. The addition of writing makes this a cut above other tablets.
If you’re looking to go all-in on travel photography, there is no better travel camera than the Sony RX100 series. It’s a hefty chunk of change but worth every penny if you’re serious about upping your photography game. The sister to the RX100, but built for vlogging, is the Sony ZV1, which is what I am currently using for my travel content. It has the mechanics of the RX100 but is much less expensive and has lots of extra video features.
The darling of mobile travel video at the moment is the DJI Pocket 2, which combines a gimbal and a video/still camera into the size of a banana. It’s a neat toy that I have yet to try, but the reviews are stellar.
In the old days, you needed a current converter but for most current electronics, it is unnecessary. The only thing you will need is a plug adapter, and I suggest you bring several. This is the most forgotten item on my tours, so I pack several to lend. It’s a great way to make a new friend. Rather than just an outlet adapter, I bring Travel Plug Adapter (3 Pack) that can connect both USB C and USB simultaneously, so I can charge my phone and Ipad at the same time.
Cords are another valuable commodity. Don’t bring just one, and be sure you bring a long one. Sometimes the outlets is miles from your bedside. You’ll want something that won’t break easily, like this: 6 foot Lightning Cable
A fun emergency charging cable is a good addition to any daybag: Lever Gear Cable Kit
You will never regret bringing a back-up battery, but don’t go too crazy—they can be heavy. Anker Power Bank batteries are by far the best.
Day Bag Gear
For years, I have been using Tom Bihn bags as my day bag, and I have no reason to suggest anything else. The design is simple, the bags are tough as nails, and there are innovative little pouches to clip on interior loops for customization. My choice is the Cafe Bag which is, like all of their styles, wonderfully unisex.
If you’re looking for something similar in a lower price range, Sherpani makes a fun range of design-oriented day bags with interesting features.
I carry my famous Box of Awesome, the first aid/travel emergency kits I’ve created. If you’re too busy to build your own, there are some adequate options, like Claritude Travel Essential which you could combine with a comprehensive First Aid Kit.
Headphones are a major comfort on planes, and are useful to have for guided tours with groups. I will always pick Bose first. Their Quiet Comfort Noise Cancelling Headphones are a chunky thing to lug around, but there is a reason that every professional traveler on your plane is wearing them. They are a little piece of heaven and silence in a noisy world and are both wireless/wired. Wireless headphones are all the rage but remember, you’ll need headphones with a cord for the plane and for group audio systems. If the Quiet Comfort headphones are too chunky, I recommend Bose Soundsport, even if they are becoming an endangered species. Stock up if you find them at a good price (under $200).
Should you bring a water bottle? That’s up to you. I’ll often just buy one on arrival and reuse it. The ultra light Vapur Collapsible Water Bottle is a great choice because it has a clip that attaches to any bag and packs flat when empty. If I’m traveling in really cold or really hot weather, I’ll suck it up and take my heavy but insulated Swell Water Bottle. There are many cheaper knock-offs of this brand and they….they are not swell, they suck.
Oh, that perennial question, the most asked travel question of the ages, what are the best travel shoes? It’s a highly personal and complicated thing to answer, but I’ll give you the short answer here. The long answer can be found in my many blogs on Travel Shoes.
Superfeet Insoles— The nicest thing you can do for your feet. Remember, if your feet hurt nothing else will matter.
Basic Superlight Comfort Shoes
Propet Travelwalker II— This shoe will not win any beauty contests but it’s not ugly. You’ll be hard pressed to find a lighter shoe in so many sizes, with removable insoles. I have the drab beige pair, but my tour guests have had better colors, like gray and turquoise.
Propet Travelfit Slip-Ons— This is the shoe for you if you prefer something a little spicier. Same lightweight sole but cuter, stripey upper that is shockingly versatile and fashionable.
Skechers Reggae Slim— This sandal won the fall travel season for me, being light, rugged, and stretchy for when my feet swelled. They’re kinda cute too.
Teva Mush Mandalyn Wedge— If you’ve followed me for years, you know I’ve had a love affair with these for years, and I’m not the only one. It seems, however, that they might be discontinuing them so grab a pair while you can.
Ecco Flash T-Strap— Ecco wins the long-haul comfort award, being the one pair that I’ve never had foot fatigue with after many miles. Stylish enough and stable on the feet, just a little pricey.
Skechers Equalizers—Pretty much a basic, no frills shoe, but comes in a wide range of sizes and are lightweight travel shoes for men, no easy task. My kids say they are very comfy.
Merrell Travel Suede—This is a surprisingly stylish and versatile choice. It’s both a walking and hiking shoe, and is low profile enough to wear to a nice dinner. A great pick for a variety of activities.
Teva Men’s Terra Fi Lite Sandal— There really is no better sandal than a Teva. You can swim in them, hike, walk, and maybe attempt to dress them up if you get the black ones. But, please, I beg you, no socks with sandals.
If you’re going to do one thing to improve your quality of life when you travel, make it compression socks. They are so good for your heart, and you’ll feel better on long flights. The best choice has no competition: Sockwell Moderate Compression Socks.
My favorite socks of all time are found at Costco, Kirkland Signature Merino Wool Socks. If you don’t have a Costco membership, you can still get them on Amazon, although the Costco price is better.
Clothes are very hard to suggest considering size, shape, style and so on. What follows are some extremely neutral, basic travel staples to consider.
- Icebreaker Merino Wool Shirt
- Cashmere Cardigan
- Travel Leggings with Pockets
- Basic Travel Dress
- Sarah’s Favorite Prana Travel Dress of the Moment
- Arcteryx Down Jacket
Scarves are always a must because they come in handy for all kinds of needs. At the moment, I am in love with my oversized cashmere scarf, which is a great airplane blanket but also a fancy-looking wrap.
I suggest at least two bras, and one should be a comfy sports/yoga bra. If you get one in black, it can sneakily double as a bikini top. Athleta and Lululemon have great options, but this knock-off on Amazon has become my favorite bra recently: Running Girl Crisscross Back Bra
If you’re going the route of sports bra and swim bottoms, Freya makes the best two-piece swimsuits around.
Random Other Stuff
For laundry, I bring along Earth Breeze laundry sheets. I use them at home to cut down on plastic use, and on the road I can tear off a piece for sink washing.
Vax Card Sleeves— Some of my very clever tour guests put their vax cards and a copy of their ID in clear sleeves for quick access. Some wore them on a lanyard around their necks.
If you’re renting a car, bring a Universal Phone Mount for the dash to help with navigation.
If you enjoy shopping, a Packable Goody Bag is smart. Be sure it has a zipper so it can be checked on the way home.
This is an evolving list, check back occasionally for more suggestions. Please comment with your own ideas to help our travel community!