Ultralight Packing Tips: Living On the Road with Less

If you’ve seen the movie “Wild” (starring Reese Witherspoon), you’d remember the breathtaking scenes and whirlwind of emotions that led to the satisfying end. But you’ll also recall the absurdity of the main character’s backpack. It’s enormous for her size. And it is packed with so many unnecessary items which made her Appalachian thru-hike nearly impossible to endure. While she did manage to make it to the end of the trail, her packing mistake isn’t worth repeating.

Treading the world lightly is a way of life here at My Travel Backpack.

And what better way to leave a minimal environmental footprint, avoid baggage fees, and get around comfortably than to pack ultralight?

Every expert vagabond I’ve come across with lives off a slim backpack, weighing roughly 15 lbs, with items neatly organized and easily accessible. Ultralight (a.k.a. minimalist) packing is almost an art, a proven process that you can only master after years of hopping from one place to another. Though it may seem like a simple case of ditching the “just-in-case” attitude when packing for a trip, it involves a lot of thought and planning. One wrong decision can have a big impact on your experience.

The Philosophy

As the name suggests, ultralight travel is about bringing only the essentials so you can get around quickly, easily, and inexpensively. There’s no one strict rule that drives the philosophy, but at the core of it is the premise that you should only bring what you need.

But it’s also not about bringing the least amount of things to the point that you’re compromising a little comfort and limiting the travel experience. It’s about finding that balance and surviving life on the road — with less. Comfort is essential when travelling, so you need to make sure that you pack enough to accommodate this. Before you begin your trip on the road you may need to fly on a plane to your starting destination. Packing lightly, but being mindful of your own comfort on a long haul flight is definitely a delicate balance you will need to strike. Overpacking for a road trip or flight could actually cause more discomfort, so try to narrow down your list of essentials as much as possible.

Quality Over Quantity

Budget travel doesn’t always mean scrimping on your luggage. From the fabric of your pack to the gadgets you bring along, the ultralight philosophy emphasizes quality. You’d want to maximize that tiny space with clothes and gear that will withstand the test of time and exposure to the elements. If you’re going on a long trip or planning to embrace the nomadic life, it’s wise to save on top-quality items.

Make a list of these items, shop around, and buy them one by one so you won’t have much to think about and spend on during the weeks leading up to your trip. Here are some qualities to look for when assembling your kit:

Backpack – as a budget traveler, your backpack will be your trusty companion come rain or shine. Whether you’re into grueling thru-hikes or quick weekend jaunts, picking the right pack will keep you comfortable on the trail for the years to come.

Fortunately, there are dozens of packs to choose from for this specific purpose. I highly suggest that you pick one that’s:

  • Compact
  • Sturdy
  • Waterproof
  • Versatile
  • Perfect for your frame

Though a lighter pack is the best option here, consider the geography and climate of your destination. If you need to bring heavy, bulky gear, consider a pack that will accommodate these. But I’d suggest that you rent out gear instead of bringing your own. Make sure it has enough compartments and ports to stow specialized gear.

Fabric – ideally, you’d want to limit the number of clothes you bring. This means you’ll have to wear them multiple times. To do so without worrying about the odor, choose lightweight and high-performance fabrics. Choose those that have anti-bacterial coatings and moisture-wicking properties, so you don’t smell even if you repeat wearing the item many times before washing.

Breathable fabrics also dry quickly – the perfect garb for your backcountry adventures. For towels and blankets, choose the microfiber types as they weight much less and dry quickly.

Essentials – For safety, survival, and basic comfort, all you’ll need are

  • Compass or guidebook
  • Flashlight or head lamp
  • Extra batteries
  • Compact first-aid kit
  • Fire-starting gear
  • Swiss knife
  • Whistle
  • Water bottles
  • Toiletries
  • Trash and reusable bags
  • Utensils

You’ll also need emergency shelter, which could be a hammock, tent, tarp, bivy, or reflective blanket.

Electronics – it’s common sense that you only pack gadgets you will need to navigate, document your trip, and live in the wild. Leave your laptop or tablet at home unless it’s highly essential. Get a hold of a multifunction watch, cellphone with a long-lasting battery and waterproof case, a tough camera that’s waterproof, personal locator beacon, and if possible, a satellite messenger for when you get lost somewhere.

Other Recommended Items – if you’ve managed to pack all these basic items without exceeding the base weight of 15lbs, then feel free to pack some more. Bring whatever it is that you find essential, but only for your comfort and safety. Toss in there a small book or journal for the tedious commute or quiet nights.

Layering Up over Bulking Up

Trust me when I say that when you hit the road, you’ll know the big difference between layering up and bulking up. You can get away with a few but high-tech layers of clothing, which should include a regular or UPF-rate shirt, long-sleeve top, fast-drying pants, insulating fleece or soft-shell jacket, and rain clothing.

What you’d want to have are four to five pairs of socks and underwear since they don’t take up much space. You’d also want to bring an all-weather hat, sunglasses, a scarf, and a piece of fashionable clothing for social nights. For your footwear, you only really need two types:  hiking boots or shoes and watersport sandals. Only bring gaiters if the terrain calls for it.

There’s more to downsizing your backpack than saving time and on luggage fees, or moving from one place to another with ease. It teaches you to become mindful of what you need. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize that you don’t need absolute comfort and convenience to be happy and collect memories.

Feel free to send me a message for more in-depth ultralight packing tips.