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The Terradrift Guide to Traveling Light

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Enjoying a beautiful day in front of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece

We are masters of packing light for travel (also when wilderness backpacking). Self-proclaimed masters, but masters none the less. We take great pride in responding with a sly smile and a confident nod of the head when fellow travelers, friends or family look at the size of our bags and say, “Is that all your luggage?!” Why yes, yes it is. One large and one small backpack for two people for a three-week trip to Mexico for beaches, hiking, city exploration and a wedding, professional shooting equipment included is all we need. One rolling carry-on and a daypack for two people for a week in Florida. One daypack per person for two months in Europe.

Yeah, you read that right. Still not sure? Go ahead and read it again. I’ll wait…See? I told you. And those two daypacks? They did, in fact, hold our camera gear in addition to clothing. Amazed? Want to know how we did it? Why we did it? This is our ultimate guide to ultralight packing! Our gift to you.

Why Pack Light?

I’ll tell you why. Because when you’re flying around Europe (or the U.S.) on cheap airlines, it’s not uncommon to pay more for a checked bag than you did for your seat. And it doesn’t even have to be a checked bag. Even international budget airlines like Wow Air [UPDATE: No longer in service] charge extra for as much as a roll-aboard carry-on. All you get with the price of your seat with airlines like Ryanair and the like is the space underneath it.

So if your bag doesn’t fit under there, you’re gonna pay. And after a couple of those flights, you’re not gonna wanna do that anymore. So it makes serious sense to carry less with you. Also when you get stuck carrying your luggage around a foreign city all day because you cant check it at your hostel or host’s place until dinnertime, you won’t threaten to throw everything you own off a bridge just so your shoulders don’t have to bear the weight anymore. Also, lugging a giant rolling suitcase through the sandy streets of Jamaica or Mexico? It just doesn’t work.

This is actually a bit more than I took with me to Australia for nine months. I removed about three or four articles after I took the photo.

How to Pack Light for Travel

It all starts with a bag. You’re going to need a good one. I’m a big fan of Osprey, but that’s because their packs feel like they’re hugging me from behind. Yeah, your shoulders are going to get sore no matter what kind of fancy pack you have, but a good pack that fits well and is made for long hauls is going to be much more comfortable in the long run. It’ll probably hold up better, too. But you’ll want to keep size in mind. Nothing bigger than about a 20-22 liter pack (a standard daypack or book bag size), is going to fly (literally) in an airline cabin as a personal item on budget airlines. A lot of them, like Jetstar in Australia or Ryanair in Europe, even weigh your bags or test fit them in a little box before you get on the plane, just to make sure.

The next step is not to just start shoving things in to see if they fit. C’mon! You knew there was gonna be more to it than that! It’s about planning and order when it comes to packing small. There’s a process to it. Enjoy it. First, consider your itinerary and the climates in which you’re traveling. Will it be cool? Warm? Hot? All of the above? If so, it’ll be tough, but you can do it! Then start pulling items out of your closet and lay them on the floor or bed so you can see what you’ve got as you go.

Start with base layers. Will you only be in cooler climates? Then tank tops probably won’t be necessary. Pack a long-sleeve undershirt instead. Will it be warm? tank tops and T-shirts take up less space, but count on running into cool nights and pack at least one sweater. While traveling I regularly have one at least two to three layers because it means I can shed them as the day warms up or pull them back on as the day cools down. It also means I have more stand-alone pieces without extra bulk in my bag (like I would if I brought three tank tops and three sweaters).

This is the only bag I carried for two months in Europe. Note the clever usage of all the straps and loops! Josh’s bag was the same size.

Next, keep it simple. solid colors beat crazy patterns no matter what when packing light. You just don’t have room for the pineapple shorts and the leaf-print top when they can only be paired with one other item in your bag. Neutrals go with everything. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a few pops of color, but keep it to one or two pieces so you can wear it with anything.

Lastly, multi-purpose items are your BFF’s. Ditch the top with the flowy sleeves that you can’t put under a sweater and the mini skirt you think you might wear for a night out. You ain’t got room for that. Everything has to serve double duty. The shorts you bring have to also work over leggings. The leggings also have to look good under a skirt or dress. The dress needs to be able to be worn over a long sleeve shirt or with a sweater. The sweater has to multi-task for an evening out or walk around town. Nothing should have just one purpose. Except for pants. There’s not much else you can do with pants. Unfortunately.

And as far as shoes go…let ’em go. Pick two pair of low-volume multi-function models (we love barefoot shoes for this) and wear ’em out. For example, a pair of sandals that look just as good with a dress as with skinny jeans and a pair of stylish sneakers with aggressive tread that you can take from cobblestone streets to day hikes without issue.

Packing Light for Travel: How We Do It

Want a sneak peak into my bag for two months in Europe? Of course you do.

Clothing

Two tank tops (that can be used for warm weather, as workout tops and sleepwear), a spaghetti-strap shirt (to be worn as a base layer or under a button up), one long-sleeve shirt (that works under a dress, on it’s own, or layered under another shirt or sweater), a plaid button-up (used as a light over- or middle-layer or tied around my waist to cover my bum in leggings), a cardigan, a compact pullover for warmth, a rain jacket, one pair of skinny jeans that roll up quite small, a pair of leggings (for under skirts/shorts/dresses or jeans in extra cold weather), a simple skirt with pockets, a basic dress (that could be worn over leggings and a long-sleeve shirt if it was cool), a swimsuit, a pair of sandals and packable shoes. Oh, and five pairs of socks/underwear and one bra and sports bra, cause I’m a lady and I need them.

And that’s it, my friends. Every article of clothing in my bag. And it all only takes up about three-quarters of the space in my daypack. Cool, huh?

Take a look at all the combinations that can be made from just a handful of items! packing light
Take a look at all the combinations that can be made from just a handful of items!

Toiletries

What’s harder to pare down in my opinion are personal items. Shower stuff and hair stuff and makeup stuff and sunscreen and headphones and all that. I have the advantage of having very short hair, so I don’t feel I need much product, but Josh and I usually bring one small container of some sort of hair goop for the both of us. Whatever you can share with travel companions, do! If you’re more high-maintenance than me (and many people are), all I have to say is this: embrace your natural beauty.

Your head probably won’t explode if you don’t straighten your hair for four weeks. I also don’t wear much makeup, so all I bring along is mascara and some concealer. If you wear more, pare it down to the bare necessities ’cause that crap takes up space! As for shower stuff, I’m generally a fan of good ol’ castile soap for just about everything. One bottle works as body wash, shampoo, laundry detergent, face wash, you name it. I like the liquid, but the bars work, too. And for the end of your shower, travel towels take up far less space than fluffy bathroom varieties.

Other Necessities

Of course, once you cram all the necessities, you’ve got to fit the (let’s be honest) other necessities. I’m talking cameras, laptops, charging cables. Take as little as you can get away with, but it’s important to make room for things you actually need, like a laptop if you’ll be working. We tried to get a Chromebook that we could use as a tablet, too, in order to save space, but we were clearly overthinking/not thinking at all when we decided this would be a good idea because we mostly just wanted to throw it out a window on a daily basis. We should have just brought one of our 15″ MacBook Pros, but you’ll know better what works for you. We also started bringing along a smaller, lighter, pro-level mirrorless camera instead of our humongous DSLRs that weigh 40 pounds (I’m exaggerating, but only slightly) with our most utilitarian lenses. No bueno. Instead, we have a Fuji mirrorless with a single zoom lens.

Bottom Line: Packing Light for Travel

And yep, it all fits in a daypack. And here’s a little tip if they weigh your bag at the airline counter and it’s too heavy or you have too many snacks: take out your jacket and stuff every pocket with anything that’ll fit, then tie it around your waist or loop it through a backpack strap. problem solved. You still get to carry everything on in one tidy package and don’t have to pay any extra. That’s a win, my friend. That’s packing light.

Have we inspired you to try packing ultralight for international travel? send us a photo or tag us so we can give you the slow-clap you deserve. Wander on!

Take a look at all the combinations that can be made from just a handful of items!
The 42 towel makes it to the Colosseum in Rome, Italy