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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 the 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 G4Free 40L Backpack, 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?

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  • 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 



Luxury Item

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.

Day Bag

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!)
  • Snacks
  • Box of Awesome
  • Sunglasses
  • Water
  • Charging cords and backup battery
  • Notebook and pencils. Yes. I’m old.

How’d it Go?

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: Subscribe for all of my latest packing tips!

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


  • Heidi says:

    I love this post! So glad the ultralight bag worked out. Will you take it on other trips?

    • says:

      I’m thinking about trying it. I’ll be doing 4 weeks of book research and a tour in March-April. I like being light in book research especially, so it’s tempting!

  • Brenna says:

    What is “Box of Awesome”???

  • Maria says:

    Good job and thanks for reporting back.When looking at your list I was thinking for 11 days you were still overpacking – unless laundry was not in the picture. The dresses and shorts I would rethink due to cultural concerns, but I can see the temptation of changing into a nice silk dress at the end of the day. I go by the ‘no bare shoulders or knees’ for all travels now and then I don’t have to scramble for some sort of cover up when the need arises. A lot of the world is still conservative for women’s dress and as a solo woman traveler, even at 59, I have learned to try not to draw any more attention to myself. Height and blue eyes I can’t change, but reducing skin exposure I can.I have a 3 week trip to Spain and even my carry on policy is feeling heavy to me these days. Granada and its hilly narrow streets means carrying luggage to and from lodgings so I will revisit your ultralight packing plan.Can you show a photo of how you packed your pillow? I don’t know how you fit it into that back pack. I tried it a few weeks ago using a compression bag and though thin, it was a little awkward still to pack – whether on the bottom of the case or top. Thanks.

  • Erna says:

    Excellent post! For my last couple of trips I have packed only in a carry on backpack. Mine weighed 15 lbs, so I still have some room for improvement. I am curious about your pillow, could you provide some details?

  • jayne lindsay says:

    Great article. Just got back from a month in New Zealand on a bus tour. Wish I had read this sooner. Thanks

  • Kate says:

    A large group of us recently went to Italy for two weeks, 14 family and friends in total, and I am so glad I insisted that my husband and kids limit themselves to one carry-on size roll bag each. We had plenty and watching other members of our party struggle with their bags on boats in Venice and trains and buses all over Florence has made me a light packer for life! I would love to get us down to a light backpack each, that would make it even easier for sure. I also like the idea of using weight as your limit instead of bag size, it would be really great for my teenagers that seem to be able to make a small bag feel like a bag of bricks. Be sure to update us on your packing light for 4 weeks!

  • Christine says:

    I’ve often used dresses to double as tunics over tights/leggings/skinny jeans, then I don’t need to bring as many shirts. Especially in warm climates, I prefer dresses whenever possible.

  • Elaine Conner says:

    Love that you take the time to share all your adventures with us, I really appreciate it. Thank you

  • Kathleen says:

    Sounds like a marvelous adventure. I love your packing insights as well. I’ve been meaning to ask you, how much does the Box of Awesome weigh?

  • Erin says:

    So how was it with just your iPhone? We’re going to Italy this summer (my first time there–I’m so excited!) and I really want to pack as lightly as possible. On past travels I’ve taken my iPad and iPhone but in order to save space, weight, and things to worry about, was thinking of just taking the phone. Did you miss your iPad at all?

    • says:

      I have found my iPhone 7 to be superior in every way to my iPad, but I do still use the iPad for tour guiding and book research. The bigger screen is the only advantage.

  • SandyS says:

    Sarah, It would be interesting see a future post on specific items that used to be “must haves” but you learned you can live without, or have in a different format (i.e. your phone). Or perhaps a post of “this” instead of “that” to get the weight down. I’m stuck at 20 pounds (with bag) and suspect it is because I am having a hard time letting go of paper items and books.

  • Linda Winkler says:

    The Buddhist monks may have been transporting books or other religious objects to another monastery. They may have been moving permanently to a new monastery and so brought all their possessions. I don’t think you can assume it was just clothing or something personal.

  • Kathleene says:

    Hi Sarah – just a question regarding your rayon & linen items. Although these fabrics are great, especially in a warm climate, I’ve always found that the items are so wrinkled when I arrive at my destination. Do you roll your clothes or gave any other tips on keeping clothing made from these fabrics relatively wrinkle-free?

    • says:

      Hi Kathleene, in this case I rolled my silk, rayon and linen items. I kind of give in to the “artfully wrinkled” look on some items. Rolling tends to work the best for wrinkle free clothes.

  • Donna says:

    Love this article!!!

  • Jeanettec says:

    I am traveling to Italy for two weeks and would love to include a luxury pillow…please share more on your luxary pillow. Thank you!

  • Anne-Marie says:

    Years of long solo motorcycle trips across North America taught me how little you really need when on the road (no one is ever going to see you wear the same thing two days in a row, even if you cared about that kind of thing!) and I packed less and less every time. I had a designated selection of clothing for trips that more or less stayed packed and could be out the door for a month long ride in 20 minutes.Weight was not so much a consideration as the motorcycle does most of the carrying, but I did organize things so that a bag was easy to carry into a hostel or have a simple routine when camping. I also HAD to have protective gear for rain or colder weather as well as tent, sleeping bag and pad. Still, people were always quite amazed that I could carry what I did, travel and set up camp comfortably and the bike never looked like an overloaded gypsy wagon. ?So now, when I travel by plane or vehicle and actually have a carryon size bag to pack into and carry a sling shoulder bag, the space seems quite luxurious!

    • says:

      Wow, great story. Do you have any pics of that adventure?

      • Anne-Marie says:

        I’ve been travelling by motorcycle for over 30 years and have been in just about every state and province, so I have quite a few photos! I added a few photos to my profile of me on trips to Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky on my present bike, a Suzuki VStrom. Most of these are from trips in recent years with my husband whom I introduced to riding. ? The one of a Utah canyon road was on a Harley Davidson Softail, which I still own, 25 years ago.

  • Judy Brennan says:

    LOVED your post, Sarah!! Gave me lots of inspiration and ideas for a trip in October/November. Thanks so much.

  • Eliza A says:

    I totally agree with you and Rick on “no one ever said I should’ve brought more”. If you can do a version of this for cold countries, that would be great!

  • Christina Nellemann says:

    Thank you for doing the video and post. I pretty darn obsessed with light packing and when I can’t travel, I’ll watch videos about traveling and yours are great. 🙂 By the way, I also have trouble finding deodorant I like. The natural brands just don’t do it for me, but I did find fir needle essential oil which has natural antiseptic properties. It works great and comes in a tiny 10 ml bottle. Test it on your skin first.

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