“He who would travel happily must travel light.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
It’s true: light packing makes for happy traveling. Packing is an art form that takes time to perfect, and I’ve done my due diligence. From backpacking Europe as a penny-pinching, hostel-crashing student and living/working in SE Asia for a year, to 16 years of race travel, to countless camping getaways all over the US and Mexico and now 30-something running trips as a Rogue Expeditions guide, I’ve had plenty of chances to fine-tune my craft. Here are my rules and tools for traveling light and happy, no matter your destination.
When it comes to your main bag, here are three basic types of luggage to choose from, each with their own set of pros and cons.
1. Backpacks: The staple of the budget traveler, there are a lot of reasons to love backpacks: they are easy to carry, have plenty of organizational-friendly compartments, are extremely durable and can double as a pillow in a pinch. On the downside, the typical top-load design can make it tough to find what you’re looking for without emptying the entire thing.
2. Duffel bags: Duffel bags have come a long way, and lots of the newer (and pricier) designs feature detachable backpack straps for easy hauling. Like backpacks they are durable, easy to squeeze into a variety of spaces and the side-load design makes it a lot easier to quickly locate specific contents, though the lack of pockets means that all of your stuff is floating around in one big compartment (not a problem if you organize – we’ll get to that).
3. Rolling suitcase: This is probably the first thing you picture when you hear the word “luggage” and certainly the most “mature” option. The hard sides are great for protecting your stuff from getting squished, they are generally sized to specific airline dimensions and the wheels can help you glide effortlessly through an airport. However, they aren’t very durable (too many moving parts!) and the wheels become a big liability when you hit cobblestone, natural surfaces or, worst of all, stairs (hate to break it to you, but a lot of the world is an elevator-free zone).
So what do I use? Traditionally, I’ve always gone with a backpack and it remains my favorite method. However, I recently moved to a Patagonia duffel which I love; the wide opening makes it easy to pack and to dig through, it’s water resistant and, best of all, it has the backpack straps. The best of both worlds! For a brief moment in my late-20s I thought that it was time to start using “adult” luggage, but quickly got over that – aside from quick weekend trips to big city races, roller bags just don’t make sense for me.
You'll have to choose the best style for yourself, but remember that no matter how big your bag is, you will fill up every inch of it. So, set some boundaries and always keep it carry-on size (even if you plan to check it).
In addition to a “main” bag, I also carry a small school-size backpack which serves as my personal item during the flight and as my day bag during the trip. For adventures requiring a larger hydration pack (and that’s most of them!), I’ll often leave the small backpack behind and let the hydration pack fill all of the aforementioned roles.
When it comes to the contents of your bag, quality and quantity is everything. Here are my rules:
1. Multitask. Everything that goes inside my bag must be serve multiple purposes whenever possible. Each top should go with every bottom. One warm coat removes the need for warm, bulky shirts. A rain jacket doubles as a running jacket. One pair of sunglasses gets used for both running and casual wear. A sarong can be a skirt, a towel, a blanket. A hydration pack can be the day bag. Shampoo also serves as body wash, and laundry detergent. If an item serves only one purpose, then it should be something that I’ll use on a daily basis. Otherwise, it stays behind; it’ll be there when I get home.
2. Get smart gear. There are a lot of gimmicks available for purchase, but there are also things that are well worth the investment. Stock up on quick-dry, wrinkle-resistant fabrics; most activewear brands now make flattering casual wear that are perfect for travel, and for the shower laundry that comes along with it. There are so many options for lightweight travel pants beyond the zip-off hiker style, and they take up much less room and dry much faster than jeans. Wool socks repel odor well, letting you get a couple of days out of each pair (use discretion here). Down jackets pack down incredibly well, and serve as your go-to in cold conditions – no sweaters or thick fleece needed. A rain jacket (as in, waterproof) is essential. A tablet takes the place of heavy books (I know, I prefer paper too, but sometimes we have to sacrifice).
3. Go easy on the toiletries. Pack quantities that can be carried on, and focus on the basics. As mentioned before, don’t bring shampoo and body wash – consolidate! Bring a comb instead of a brush. These little things add up to big space savings and remember: the rest of the world takes showers too. If you run out, you can get more.
4. Rule of thirds. It’s commonly said that no matter how long you will be traveling, you should never pack more than 7 days worth of clothing. But how much is 7 days worth? For me, most things come in threes.* Three running tops and three running bottoms. Three “regular” shirts, three “regular” bottoms. This includes a combination of styles – the trio of running tops may mean two short sleeve shirts + one long sleeve, or maybe two tank tops and one short sleeve (remember, you’ve got the rain jacket!). For “regular” bottoms, the three pieces might include a skirt that can be worn at dinner, a pair of casual pants and some shorts. Regardless of the breakdown, it ensures that you’ve always got something to wear while you wash and dry another (remember, shower laundry). And if you stick to the other rule about all of your tops matching all of your bottoms, then you’ve got 9 potential outfits! I also never travel with more than three pairs of shoes: running shoes, non-running shoes (usually flats, since they pack down…flat) and flip flops. Though you might use more if you bring more, I can assure you that if you stick to this plan, you won’t miss what you don’t bring.
5. Make room for a few extras. There are certain items that I have found to be worth their weight in gold over the years. Plastic bags & ziplocs help separate dirty clothes and shoes, and also serve as waterproofing for your extra layers and phone while you’re out. Dryer sheets can be shoved inside shoes for odor control. A string or clothesline ensures that you can rinse out and dry clothes pretty much anywhere. If you’re traveling somewhere where shopping will happen (hello, Morocco), bring an empty duffel bag that you can fill towards the end of your trip and then check for the flight home. For longer term travel, dental floss is excellent for stitching up clothing tears or loose buttons. Emergency snacks, because getting from point A to point B often takes twice as long as planned. A journal is always worth it’s weight.
PUTTING THE STUFF IN THE BAG
Now that you’ve got your bag and the contents, it’s time to put it all together.
1. Use stuff sacks. There are great feather-weight stuff sacks out there, or you can just get creative with whatever sort of small bags and pouches that you have lying around the house – even plastic grocery sacks work just fine. Regardless of material, make sure they are distinguishable from each other. Designate one as your running stuff, one as underwear, one as socks, etc, and don’t change it up. This keeps your stuff from exploding all over the room, and you’ll never have to wonder where your favorite wrinkle-resistant all-purpose black shirt is – it’s in the shirt sack.
2. Use the space wisely. This isn’t new advice, but roll your clothes – it’s the most space-efficient method. Shove socks inside shoes, store loose items like a headlamp or watch in an empty water bottle. There is potential everywhere!
3. Everything in its place. Decide early on where everything goes, and be consistent. Passport in this pocket, wallet in that one, and so on. A little organization goes a long way; you won’t have to waste time tearing your bag apart for a phone charger, and you’ll be shocked at how fast you can be packed and ready for whatever it is that you came to do.
4. Perfect your carry-on. Even though you’ve packed in such a way that you can carry it all on (right?!), maybe you chose to check your main bag. I actually do it all the time, and my cabin bag always includes the following: wallet, passport, phone, a tablet with books loaded, charging cable, headphones, a down jacket, tooth brush & toothpaste, contacts & contact solution, glasses, a few pens and some sort of snack. The only other items I include are things that I couldn’t possibly find at my destination should my main bag go missing. For me, that usually means my running shoes (which I put on my feet) and a singlet if I’m headed to a race. The rain jacket if I’m going somewhere like Patagonia. Nothing more. I never have a problem sticking my carryon under the seat in front of me, which means I don't have to rush onto the plane in an attempt to claim overhead space.
5. Lift it. Once you’re all packed, pick up your bag. If you can’t lift it over your head in a controlled manner, then you’re bringing too much. Try again.
Of course, every traveler will need to make adjustments based on their particular destination and activity lineup, but the basic principles work across the board. It doesn’t matter what sort of travel you’re doing – adventure or business, racing or holiday – no one ever wishes that they brought more stuff.