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The Ultimate Guide to Packing Light

By Kate Gilgan

Lighten your load with these tips.

It was Sunday night in the village of Candidasa on the island of Bali and I was stranded outside a convenience store with four suitcases, my son's Finding Nemo backpack, a stroller, a MEC child carrier, and an Ikea bag  overflowing with rice, utensils, random food bits, a wok, a countertop water cooler and a broom.

One ill-conceived argument with my cab driver later and my family and I were without a room for the night or a car to take us to look for one.

"Um, honey? Now's probably not the right time hey?"

"Oh, just say it: I overpacked!"

Don’t want to end up in a similar situation? I don’t blame you. However, every destination is as different as the reasons that take us there. From a six-month journey overseas for work, to a solo motorcycling adventure in the Himalayas, I’ve checked in with some practiced travellers to give you the ultimate guide to packing light.

Things we pack (but pack too much of)

Let’s start with the obvious and unavoidable: clothing. Aim for a mix-and-match wardrobe and avoid packing “complete” outfits; you want multiple opportunities for wear in each item. Pack a simple combination of lightweight materials that can be layered for warmth, will resist wrinkles when rolled up tight in luggage and dry quickly if hand washed. Keep it simple with layers of cottons for warm climates, and wool or synthetic fleece for cold climates. Stick to two pairs of shoes. Unless you are specifically on a hiking trip or out for an elegant evening, it’s safe to leave behind those bulky hiking boots and cute heels.

“Pack for the season and climate and remember that you can always buy more once you get there,” advises Sheldon Pon, who recently moved from Okotoks, Alberta to a small village in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, where he works as an assistant language teacher. “The more research you do about your destination, the more you can prioritize what you need to bring.”

Family travel adds one more common problem: toys. I allow two toys per child and rely on what I call “the airplane test.” Will these toys reliably entertain my children for a 10-hour flight without fear of temper tantrum or incessant whining? If yes, chances are they’ll work well for daily play too. Upon arrival, observe what local children are playing with. An 89 cent pack of oil pastels once replaced the giant bag of crayons I packed and worked far better in the humid climate and a $2 soccer ball brought children flocking to the local playing field proving—yet again—that new friends will always surpass toys for entertainment.

A First Aid kit is a must, but remember that most items can be purchased locally. A small amount of fever reducer is handy, but larger amounts can be purchased almost anywhere in the world. Consider multi-use products like activated charcoal—which is believed to treat gas and diarrhea—or soaps designed for both your body and clothing.

Finally, that sneaky culprit: bags. Whether you decide on a rolling suitcase or a 40L backpack, it’s a good idea to ensure your luggage choice leaves you with one free hand at all times. Give yourself one rule: do not fill your bags.

Using strategies like laying everything out then eliminating half of it and not leaving packing to the last minute will help you avoid the tendency to over pack for what-if scenarios. Instead, focus on a realistic but short packing list.

Or, take a note from traveller Polly Green and pack nearly nothing at all. She didn’t even pack shoes for her spontaneous two-week trip to India. But when it turned into a six-month long adventure—including a solo motorcycling trip through the Himalayas—she was able to source all the gear she needed in-country. “I had virtually nothing with me and it was amazing to realize stuff actually is a barrier,” she says of her realization that most everything needed while travelling cam be purchased or borrowed while on the go.

Things we pack (but don’t need)

Planning for a trip can be nearly as fun as the actual trip itself. But getting good at spotting those items that you won’t actually use goes a long way to mastering packing light.

Leave the accessories and valuables at home. Leave behind your best jewelry, your favourite sunglasses and your umbrella. (For the latter, a rain poncho will keep both you and a backpack dry while leaving your hands free.) Keep in mind that most hotels offer hair styling tools either in-room or upon request.

Electronics add significant weight to luggage and no one likes to lose expensive gear. One well-chosen smartphone will easily replace a traditional camera and functions as an e-reader, eliminating the need for notoriously large guidebooks or bulky fiction. It’s unlikely you’re going to turn into “the reader” on your holiday. “I don’t know why I suddenly thought I’d be so incredibly bored on my vacation that I would want to read three books,” chuckles Pon.

If you’re heading on an outdoor-based vacation, don’t pack like you’ll be on a cruise. Likewise, if you’re going to a resort, don’t pack like you’re going camping. For outdoor adventures, James Major, who operates Golden Paddle Adventures in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, says to “leave the jeans and guitar at home.” And while some camping trips call for a microfibre towel, pretty much every hotel or guesthouse provides towels.

Things you haven’t packed (but should)

Allow yourself little luxuries that will ease your time in transit. In his experience guiding groups of 50 or more people across Europe, Major found himself on 10 or more flights a year. Now, he never travels without two “luxury” items: a travel pillow and a self-inflating ground pad.

“Imagine the eureka moment when I realized I didn’t have to sleep on marble [airport] floors anymore,” he says.

Choose items that will allow you to travel sustainably. Skip the bottled water and pack your own reusable water bottle. If you’re worried about the safety of drinking water, products such as Grayl’s water filtration bottle, or SteriPEN’s USB-rechargeable system will allow you to sterilize water on-the-go.

For the ladies: Make the leap and buy a menstrual cup. Cast off the bales of tampons and pads you’ve been hauling around. One awkward cycle of learning to use it is well worth the luggage space and comfortable reliability. You’ll thank me when you’re on your next 16-hour bus trip.

And don’t forget to pack: Large ziplock-style bags are great for still-wet items when you’re on the go. Wrap a couple lengths of duct tape for quick on-the-go repairs around items you’re already packing to save space from packing the whole roll. Dental floss doubles as repair string, while it’s container is a handy secret stash for emergency dollars. A small bottle of hand sanitizer works as a stain remover and deodorizer for shoes and sweat-soaked backpack straps.

All it takes to learn to lighten your load is some trial—and at times, some very unfortunate errors. Even Major admits to once forgetting to pack sunscreen for a cycling trip across northern Africa.

“That wasn’t pretty,” he laughs. “Who forgets to take sunblock to the Sahara?”

Ultimately, experienced travellers agree packing light simply takes planning and practice.

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