(See other articles in this series in the Travel section. This one ballooned, so I’ve split it into two parts.)
Some of what I’ve learned about travel has come from going and doing, making mistakes and discoveries. Some has come from travel authors and people I’ve met on the way. But almost everything I bring with me is thanks to Tynan. Besides creating my favorite cruise site, he writes a blog. My bag and 98% of its contents trace back to his annual gear post. What I say here will just be a rehash of his ideas with a few of my own added.
My first cross-country housesit was three weeks in San Francisco. I read several articles about backpack travel, went to REI, and bought a Kelty Redwing backpack and a new wardrobe. The staff taught me how to pack and wear the backpack. The results were remarkable to someone who hadn’t seen camping gear since the Boy Scouts. A properly employed backpack is a magic trick. Instead of placing the weight on your shoulders like a bag full of schoolbooks, it redirects it to your waist. There’s some pull on your upper back, but the rest of your load is just floating. Your hips are much stronger and can bear the burden farther than you ever expected.
Even so, I felt every pound walking from the subway to my new home. I had pared down and down, but was still bringing too much, mostly clothes, filling a 50-liter pack with a 20-liter daypack inside it. I’d bought lightweight clothes at REI, but was carrying around too many changes. I later found even lighter, more versatile replacements. I moved from a laptop to an iPad. I slashed the size and number of my toiletries. I began looking everywhere for ways to drop each little ounce, and still have my eyes open for new featherweight, multi-use alternatives.
My trip to Europe was a test of whether I could really live out of one bag. In England, the question changed. It wasn’t “Can I do without all the stuff I have back in the States?”, but “Why am I carrying all this stuff around?” I shedded yet again. The daypack changed to a many-pocketed vest. I left the 50-liter Kelty in Scotland and flew to Italy with a 28-liter Deuter.
When I got back to Florida and got rid of everything I had in storage, I bit the bullet and bought the Tynan-recommended expensive-but-worth-it Minaal carry-on. It’s where I’ve settled for now. I still hear an inner doubt asking whether I could get by with the smaller Minaal Daily Bag Tynan uses. My back seconds the thought. It wants to know if I can lighten the load even more. The last way I emulate Tynan is by sharing his goal to carry only 10 pounds of possessions. I’m down to 10 pounds of contents, but the bag itself is 8 pounds. 10 pounds total remains my white whale.
So, starting from the outside in: The Minaal bag is a well-thought-out compromise. Unlike a backpack, it’s built for carrying the materials of daily life, not camping gear. Like a backpack, it can strap to you for long hauls and includes a water-resistant cover for rainy days.
It fulfills its first purpose best. A mesh pocket lets your clothes breathe. A smaller, solid one tucks away your odds and ends. The space over both holds your bulkiest items. A separate compartment in the back holds your laptop or tablet, your passport, and your papers. Smaller pockets here and there keep your odds and ends at the ready. It’s all well-thought-out and of the highest quality.
As a backpack, it falls short. The shoulder straps come out and go away quickly, and the optional hip pads pay for themselves the first day. With the three tightened, the bag hugs your back, but it still pulls on you in ways you can’t tolerate for long. If you need to walk a mile to your bus stop, you’ll manage it. If you need to walk across town, you’ll have to find a cab. If you’re shorter than me (5′ 9″), you may fare better, but even if the bottom of the bag reaches closer to your hips, it can’t put enough of the weight there.
The Minaal makers are passionate, and I hope they’ll continue pushing toward a closer merger of bag and pack. What they’ve done already is impressive. It lets me haul my gear reasonable distances with a bag that stuffs into any carry-on space or under a seat. I leave the shoulder strap attached and just throw it over my shoulder for walking through airports. I admit I’m envious of other travelers pulling their roller bags. I hope someday the makers will find materials light enough to make wheels possible.
The bag unzips so it lies wide open, a huge advantage over having to hunt something from the bottom of a bag with a small opening at the top. I use a packing cube to corral the items I keep in this open space. At the time of photographing, these included my shoes and socks (since discarded), my poncho (more effective and much lighter than the compact umbrella it replaced), and my shaving kit.
My toiletries have shrunk by at least two thirds since I started. I buy smaller bottles and just buy them more often. Homeowners usually have soap and toothpaste around, so they last quite a while. I stopped using shampoo a year ago (and no one noticed), but liquid soap could double as shampoo and body wash if I wanted it. I have a strong suspicion, soon to be tested, that it could work well enough as shaving cream, too.
Tweezers are a must-have because I almost always walk barefoot and need to pluck out the odd hitchhiker. I’m quite nearsighted, so an eyeglass repair kit (and a spare pair of glasses) ensures I won’t be at the Taj Mahal and pretending to appreciate the big white blur.
This shaving kit itself is a good size, but I spend too much time zipping and unzipping compartments to find what I need. I hope to find a simpler one.
I look for two qualities in clothing:
- Merino wool
Convertible clothes change with circumstances to offer multiple uses. Look at my pants and vest:
The pants are also shorts. When the day turns hot, I can remove the pant legs and let in the air. Zippers run vertically down the legs so I can attach and detach them while standing. This is especially useful when switching between formal and informal situations. I can walk in comfort in oppressive heat, but in a minute be presentable to enter a church or mosque. I only need to carry a couple of ounces of fabric in my pocket, not a separate pair of pants in a daypack.
The vest has sleeves which can also roll up in a pocket. When a chill comes, I slip my arms through them, and magnets snap them to my back. The hood can hide in a special zipper-covered pocket or be removed entirely. With everything together, it provides just enough warmth that I don’t need to carry a jacket or windbreaker. With the sleeves and hood stowed (or left at home), it’s a cool way to carry my daily necessaries.
It’s made by SCOTTeVEST, a company known for clothes of great utility and sometimes questionable fashion. It has 22 pockets, only three of them visible. It’s my best travel secret. It hasn’t just replaced the jacket I was carrying, but my daypack as well. It’s better for my back because I can distribute the weight through it, balancing from front to back and left to right. It secures my valuables by placing them behind zippers on the inside of the vest (though I would still use a money belt in truly dicey situations).
Best of all, it’s reduced the stress and hassle of air travel tenfold. Before going to an airport, I just make sure everything is in the vest instead of in my pants pockets. I slip my watch into the breast pocket, lay the vest on the scanner’s conveyor belt, and sail through the metal detector. (I wear a belt with no metal parts.) On the other side, I just slip it back on and take out my watch. I can do it pre-coffee before a 5AM flight, with no running back-and-forth because I forgot this and this and this.
At the gate, it transforms from my daypack into my carry-on, but no one notices it’s a carry-on. They think my bag’s the carry-on, and say, “Is that all you have?” I pay the minimum on fee-heavy ultra-budget airlines like Spirit or Ryanair. If I think they might get pedantic about their carry-on weight limits, I transfer heavy items to the vest before approaching the gate. No one ever asks to weigh your jacket. On the plane, with the bag overhead or at my feet, I sit with the vest in my lap and have easy access to my water bottle, iPad, neck pillow, etc. At the destination, I slip on the vest, grab the bag, and I’m gone.
Merino wool is a miracle of nature. When I started traveling, everything I read told me to find clothes made of “moisture wicking” materials. They pull sweat through to the outside of the fabric where it can evaporate quickly. You stay cooler and your clothes stay cleaner. After wearing my new wardrobe for a few months, I put on a cotton t-shirt and couldn’t believe how heavy it felt, and how soaked and disgusting it was at the end of a hot day.
Merino wool goes one step farther. It has an uncanny ability to stay clean. Synthetic wicking fabrics need less laundering than cotton, but I don’t know what you would have to do to dirty merino wool.
This t-shirt was the first merino wool clothing I bought. I wore it to the gym in July. I walked 45 minutes in 90° weather, worked out for an hour, and walked home. I draped the sweat-drenched shirt over the back of a chair while I showered, and when I came back, it was dry and had absolutely no odor. It might have just come out of the package.
For a weight- and space-conscious traveler, this is golden. It lets me travel with one pair of pants (which are also shorts), one t-shirt, and one collared shirt. I can cover a lot of ground between laundromats and can wash my clothes in a sink when I can’t find one. My clothes dry quickly, and even if I need to throw them on while they’re still damp, they’ll soon be as good as new.
My collared shirt comes from Wool & Prince. The founder of Wool & Prince wore one of his shirts for 100 days straight without washing it, going up to strangers on the street and asking them to sniff it. How could you not want to be associated with that?
You will pay a premium for merino wool. Don’t let sticker shock dissuade you. One wool shirt can replace four cotton ones you pack just to have something clean to wear. You don’t have to carry a big, heavy bag to hold them, and you don’t have to hold your nose every time you open it. You aren’t sitting by the dryer waiting for it to buzz while your friends are cruising the Seine. You aren’t shoving wet clothes in your bag and grunting it onto your shoulder. Think of what you pay for all your clothes and be happy to pay the same or less for a few pieces that will serve you better.
With the t-shirt in the photo above are a pair of swimming trunks. I bought them at REI in my first batch of travel clothes. (They don’t appear on their website now.) They look good enough and have enough pockets that I often wear them as shorts. I’d like to find wool replacements, but all I’ve found so far are briefs, not trunks.
I also have a pair of Smartwool socks. Odor resistance and quick drying are especially welcome with socks.
These slip-on shoes are the lightest I’ve found. I only wear them a few times a year. I leave them at my partner’s house and pack them when we’re going on a cruise, where you’re not allowed in the gym or on the volleyball court without them.
The rest of the time, I just bring my Earth Runners sandals. They’re marvelous. I walk barefoot 98% of the time (4-5 miles a day on average), but sometimes I want to avoid wet ground or harassment from an hysterical shopkeeper. These sandals weigh next to nothing. I can place them sole to sole and stuff them in the back pocket of my vest so they’re always handy. My only complaint is that they’re too well-made. I hope Earth Runners can last through the long time between the need for replacements and still be there to make my next pair.
I like to have a pair of lightweight pants for lounging around the house and for walks. I found this pair in a sporting goods store.
This shirt by REI was part of the original travel wardrobe I bought there. It’s not Merino, but it is made with moisture-wicking materials. It lies in a middle ground. You can’t wear it indefinitely like a Wool & Prince shirt, but you can get five times as many wears as the same shirt in cotton. Ventilating mesh armpits help it go extra miles. I brought it along for this trip because I was going for a couple of months and thought I’d like some variety. The Wool & Prince shirt would have served by itself.
I also have three handkerchiefs (not pictured). That’s it. That’s all I have. If I go to a place where I need something more, I get it when I get there and leave it when I go. When I walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, for example, I went to a camping supplies store and rented a coat, a daypack, a head lantern, etc. When I got back to Cusco, I returned it all and they returned my driver’s license. The things they would sell but not rent (like socks) I left at my hostel with a “Free” sign next to them, and I got back on the plane with just what I’d brought.
I’ve given specific recommendations of what I’ve worn, but the same principles and many of the same brands and retailers will serve for female travelers. Just keep striving for lighter and less. Choose carefully, pay for quality, and you won’t need much. Pack half of what you think you’ll need, then unpack half of that and put it back in your closet.
I’ve watched both young men and young women in hostels struggling up staircases with giant overflowing backpacks, sometimes with one strapped to their backs and another to their fronts. I’ve watched older and wiser travelers strolling up with small bags thrown over their shoulders. Get over your bringing-the-kitchen-sink phase as quickly as you can. You’ll be a much happier traveler.