Two Wool Shirts, an Electrocuting Watch and a Tennis Ball: A Treatise on Packing Light
I’m going on a trip for a month and packing my bags. It won’t be the first time I’ve gone on a trip. As a tour guide, travel company owner and rural explorer for the last 25 years I’ve packed a lot of bags. And I’ve seen a lot of other people’s bags, usually as I’ve lugged them onto the roof rack of our tour van. Here’s what I can tell you, most people think you gotta have a big piece of luggage to travel. Big means the size that you have to check at the airport.
And then there are the handful of travelers who’ve seen the light. We weren’t born this way, we just got tired of lugging the anchor of our luggage around with us and started paying attention to what we brought and what we didn’t.
Anyone can pack a lot of luggage. Packing a little is a learned art, a kind of physical poetry and is constantly refined by trial, error and experience. Learning how to go lighter is literally like losing 30 pounds, like releasing the ball and chain, like cleaning out your garage of the clutter, like downsizing. Ahhhhhhhh. There is something wonderfully liberating about paring your possessions down to a bare minimum. We are from the culture of Things and our lives are filled with extreme abundance.
To travel with little is to learn you can get by with less. For me this creates a lightness in my soul that feels RIGHT!
That alone is enough reason to go minimalist when you travel. But there are collateral bennies as well. It’s easy on your back, you are mobile as you move around foreign cities and you can confuse customs agents who wonder if you’ve forgotten to pick up your luggage. Traveling light means going carry-on only on flights. That’s the basic definition as far as I’m concerned. And this saves you fees, checking in luggage and waiting to pick it up. While everyone else is still at the conveyor belt, you are getting in your Uber or walking to the subway.
So as a way of contributing to the well being of porters and tour guides around the world, lightening the load on airplanes, tuk tuks and river boats, and with the hope that you can feed some lightness into your soul, I’m going to let you crawl through the closet of my luggage. Don’t worry, it’s day one, all the clothes are clean still!
This time around I’m off to Peru and Bolivia for a month. Last time I was in a place for a week. What you pack for a week is basically what you pack for a month. It makes no difference.
What you’ve gotta know before you go to deep in to my list is that this is a man’s perspective on packing. I can’t speak for women, though I’ve known some who’ve traveled lighter than me, and frankly, they are my heroes. You also have to know that I don’t win any fashion awards when I travel. I look pretty hum drum, which is fine by me.
I’m going to break things out into categories. The first two, BASE LAYER CLOTHES and BATHROOM AND ESSENTIALS are the things I take on pretty much any trip anywhere with some minor variations. WARM LAYERS and ELECTRONICS are categories that vary by trip and on some trips would be nearly non-existent. But you’ve got to pack for the journey you are going to go on. For this trip into the Andes I’m expecting highs in the 60’s and lows in the 30’s, I’ll be in small towns, don’t expect to meet any dignitaries or hit the clubs, but I will probably be sleeping on the floor of an alpaca herder’s hut for a few nights, and one of the purposes of this trip is to gather images and video for story sharing. So the WARM LAYERS and ELECTRONICS categories are relatively hefty.
So without further ado, here’s the list. As long as it looks, it ain’t actually that much. It is filled with gems, like why wool shirts are the best travel hack ever, why you should consider having a tennis ball in your bag, how to never use a plastic water bottle again and why you might consider getting a watch-like device whose sole purpose is to electrocute you. Plus plenty of other sweet tips.
BASE LAYER CLOTHES
- 2 merino wool t-shirts. Until not long ago I thought I was clever packing 5 cotton t-shirts because I knew they’d get me through a week before they were unbearably musty and I’d have to do my wash. Truth is, a cotton T is good for a day. After that you are imposing on people when you wear it. Merino wool T’s are my favorite travel hack on earth. Merino is soft and it doesn’t stink if you wear it for days on end. Let ’em air out from time to time, hang them in the sun for an hour, and they can go days and days without needing a wash. They are finer/more compact than cotton and two is all you need for a month. If you want to be bourgois you can wash them every now and then.
- 1 Long sleeve button up. If I need to dress up for something this goes on. It’s also a nice second layer, it keeps the sun off and it keeps the bugs off at dusk.
- 1 super light windbreaker. A windbreaker outer shell is the lightest, most compact way to carry extra warmth. I always have it in my daybag.
- 2 pair hike/travel pants. Like I used to pack cotton T’s, I used to pack denim jeans or cotton khaki cargo pants. Live and learn. Denim is thick, heavy and restricting. Cotton dries slowly, dirties quickly. I never travel with this kind of pant anymore and I’m soooo glad. Hike/travel pants are made with tech stretch fabric that is super comfortable (ie it doesn’t cut of circulation to your groin on long flights), dries fast, take up 1/3rd the space of a pair of Levis, and as long as you don’t get the zip off kind that convert to shorts and have 15 pockets, they are not entirely hideous.
- 1 webbing belt, plastic buckle. Don’t have to remove going through security
- 1 pair light shorts = My PJs. Good for swimming or running too.
- 2 pair wool socks. Wool is key, like merino shirts, you can use many times before they need to be washed.
- 1 pair comfortable, multi purpose shoes. For me these are trail runner shoes. Sturdy, light and not totally garish. If I was going someplace warm, I’d also bring a pair of flip flops.
- 1 wide brim hat. I’m bald, I’ve always got a lid on my head. If this was an urban trip, it might be a cap, but mostly I use a wide brim hat. The one I’m taking on this trip is a semi crushable wool hat. But I gotta say, hats matter to me and I’ll probably switch it out for some cool as can be local hat from the market in Arequipa. Peru and Bolivia ARE the land of great hats. What you’ll never catch me in, as sensible as they are, are those khaki packable travel hats that probably have a pocket for your passport inside. Sorry, I just can’t do it!
BATHROOM AND ESSENTIALS
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 bottle toothpowder. I don’t’ use paste, one less possible issue with TSA
- 2 razors to keep my mug tidy.
- Earplugs! Don’t leave home without these! I always bring extras in case I lose some or to share with people who left home without them. The world is a noisy place and sleep is so…necessary.
- 1 nail clippers
- 1 ear hair/nose hair trimming scissors. Dapper men of my age know we’ve got to keep up on the grooming! (Let’s see if TSA lets these pass, this is a first)
- 1 mini bar of soap. For the cheap hotel that doesn’t give you one.
- 1 Relief Band. This is a magical device that looks like a wrist watch and alleviates motion sickness by sending mild electrical shocks into pressure points on your wrist. Amazingly effective. If you are prone to motion sickness, this is a gift from the gods. Turn it on when you start to feel quesy, turn it off when the curves are past. No side effects. Or you could take Dramamine and feel like a rubber chicken for 12 hours.
- 1 pair of spare batteries for the Relief Band
- 1 tube conductivity gel for Relief Band
- 1 one oz tube of sunblock for high mountain UV protection
- 2 envelopes oral re-hydration powder. In case travelers diarrhea catches you in the middle of the night, which is the only time it catches you. Getting hydrated is the key.
- 1 pair eyeglass sport straps. For when I’m sweaty from a long walk, my face is oily from not bathing recently because I slept on someone’s floor and there’s no water to wash and I hate the feeling of my glasses sliding down my face. This little thing is like my teddy bear!
- 1 metal water bottle. Travelers, this is an ethical must! Do not buy or accept plastic bottles when you travel. If it’s hard to imagine where they wind up, look at the road sides, look at the creeks, look at the lakes and oceans. Don’t do it. Bring a metal water bottle, fill it with that undrinkable tap water that’s available everywhere and then….
- 1 Steripen. Yep, use this genius devise. It’s a battery operated UV water purifier that will purify a liter of water in 90 seconds. The one I’ve got is good for 8,000 liters before the bulb needs replacing (which they do for free). If I drink 3 liters a day, that’s 2,666 days, or 7 years worth of water. And, well, 8,000 1L plastic bottles that aren’t winding up burdening our planet. Tried and true. Get yourself one!
- 1 Tennis ball. The ball is a great back massager on long trips, put it between you and the seat and let it work out the knots in your back muscles on the bus ride to Puno. Roll it around under your feet after walking all day. Squeeze it to make your handshake more manly.Or throw it against the hotel room wall when your bored!
- 1 nylon cord. Clothes line, tie things to outside of backpack, hand a mosquito net, play cats cradle…
- 1 inflatable U shaped travel pillow. For my overnight flight, super compact when deflated.
- 1 book just for fun reading. Someday I’ll switch to audio or an e ready and save the weight. For now I’m still on analog books.
- 1 guide book. I love guide books. Way easier to navigate than online resources, and often, online isn’t available anyway. When I get an e reader, I’ll get e guide books.
- 1 small notebook and a pen.
- 1 set of proper docs and plastic. Passport, e tickets, drivers license, debit and credit cards, a little wad of cash, business cards.
- 2 bags fer carrying that stuff. One holds all the obvious bathroom stuff. The other holds the Relief Band and accessories, sunblock, water purifier and eyeglass straps and drops into the bottom of my day pack.
WARM LAYERS Layers are an art. Select them so that they can be combined in different ways to adapt to changing conditions. In this case I’m covered from cool to frigid.
- 1 knit hat
- 1 cotton scarf. Aside from a bit of extra warmth, this protects my poor neck from the sun, is a back up towel, lens cleaner and adds panache, which I can use given my very utilitarian wardrobe.
- 1 pair light fleece gloves
- 1 medium weight fleece pull over jacket
- 1 medium weight down jacket
- 1 lightweight down vest.
- 1 pair wool long underwear. It’s gonna be cold!
- 1 quality down sleeping bag and ultralight sleeping pad for the nights I might be sleeping beyond a hotel.
- Note:I hope these layers are a bit of overkill. It is said we pack for our fears. Well, I’m afraid of being cold and had plenty of that last time I was in the Andes. Hopefully this time I’ve got enough down to keep me toasty!
- 1 smartphone. This is simply a must. When I travel light I can use this to keep in touch and check email. For shorter trips, I leave my computer at home and bring a folding bluetooth keyboard for my phone. On this trip I’ll also be using it to capture video, for which it is reasonable adequate.
- 1 charging plug and cable
- 1 battery pack. This charges my phone 2.5 times. Great on long bus trips.
- 1 pair of good earbud style headphones
- 1 3 prong/2 prong plug adapter. Few places have 3 prong outlets. This solves that problem
- 1 plug with three outlets. For those hotel rooms that only have one outlet…now I’ve got 3!
- 1 plug adapter for the region I’ll be visiting. I’m not bringing a voltage adapter even though Peru is 220V while the US is 110V. That’s because I’m not bringing any electronics that aren’t made for 110-220V. Computers and cel phones can handle either. But if you need electronics that can’t handle 220V, you can buy a voltage converter. One more piece of gear…
- Necessary charging cables
- 1 computer and cable. I’d love to get away without taking my computer along. It’s big, fragile and expensive. Someday I’ll buy something lighter or figure out how to be just as productive on an ipad. If this were a shorter trip it would stay home and I’d make due with my phone. But I’ve got a business to run and I’m way more productive on my computer. Plus I love editing photos as I travel and the computer is the place for that.
- 1 external hard drive 2T. I’ve got all my pertinent files on this, plus I can download photos to it and the computer as I travel (creating a redundant copy)
- 1 wireless mouse, because I hate the pad on my computer
- 1 Good Camera. Nikon D7500 DSLR with an 18-200 zoom lens. This is a hefty piece of gear, but for me it’s indispensable. Creating pictures and visual story telling is a large part of why I travel. Check out www.ericmindling.com. That said, I’ve only got one camera body and one lens in my bag, so as professional photography goes, I travel light!
- 2 batteries for camera
- 1 battery charger
- 1 lens cloth
- 1 card reader. Computers used to come with these, Not any more.
- 1 travel size bluetooth speaker. This is a luxury item, it’s nice to be able to listen to tunes in my hotel room without my headphones in.
- 1 smartphone tripod. For shooting video of me talking to someone else to make simple interview videos.
- 1 smartphone gimbal. Super techy gear used for shooting steady video
- 1 carry on size backpack. I like the burgundy Rick Steves models shown here. It’s basic, light, has a few pouches for things and that’s it. I’ve been traveling with this same bag for 10 years. Note that it has backpack straps and no wheels. Wheels are good in airports and malls. Almost everywhere else they are just extra weight and take up space. They are no good walking down the street, which is how I spend most of my time with my luggage…heading to a hotel, finding the bus station, exploring between point A and B. Carry your bag on your back and be mobile. It’s light, after all, so you can get away with it!
- 1 day pack. I need this to be small enough to easily go under the seat in front of me on the plane and big enough to hold my computer, camera, snacks, water bottle, note book, reading book and some odds and ends. This black Lowepro Urbex pack seems perfect. Big plus, it’s got a side access pocket for my camera, making it really easy to pull out, shot a picture and stash away again. When I’m carrying both packs I wear the Lowepro on the front. It counter balances my backpack. Also, the top zip pocket is right where I need it to get at my passport or wallet or a stick of chewing gum as I walk through the airport.
And that’s it! If you got this far you are also a packing geek. Congratulations, it means you care about going prepared for your trip, thinking about what you need, and perhaps more importantly, thinking about what you don’t need. It’s the difference between your luggage/possessions being an anchor or enabling your explorations. All of the above weighs 29 pounds. Like I said, a bit heavy, the electronics are largely to blame. For most airlines, the dimensions and weight of these bags totally pass muster for carry on. But there will be some exceptions on smaller, regional flights and my burgundy bag might have to be checked. Purposefully, everything valuable and fragile is in my black Lowepro bag, which never leaves my hands!
I’d love to hear from you about great packing tips you have for making your travels light and excellent.
buen viaje! Eric Mindling
Just so you know I’m not nearly as together as I might sound in this article…there’s a story behind the shoes I’m bringing. A year ago when I first traveled to Peru I’d packed as carefully as I did this time around. Then I drove 6 hours to get to the Bay Area, parked my car at the home of friends, threw on my luggage and headed out to get public transportation to the airport. This was August, hot summer. When I hopped in my car leaving home I had my flipflops on, the only footwear I use in the summer. Meanwhile I’d left my travel shoes sitting on the kitchen floor and only realized this at the very moment I was hurryingoff to get the transport to the airport! Time was short and all I had was flip flops for my journey to the Andes! After a brief panic, I jumped in my car, found the nearest REI, spent 14 minutes choosing and buying shoes and then got back on track. Turns out I chose alright; the shoes served me well in Peru, and I then took them on a 135 mile backpack trip the following month. And now they go with me to the Andes again!