Two Months, One Backpack: A Lightweight Packing Guide

This week I leave for a 2 month backpacking trip around Europe, with a group of friends from college and childhood. I wanted to be as lightweight as possible with what I brought on this journey — traveling is always more fun when you’re not tied down by tons of stuff. Over the last several months I’ve scoured the internet for the blogs regarding the best gear and packing choices for traveling with just one backpack for indefinite amounts of time. This post is a compilation of what I’ve learned and applied for this upcoming trip.

I partly intend this post to be a guidepost for others looking to bring less with them on their journeys. Keep in mind that traveling light is a process, I’ve been traveling my whole life, and have worked down to a bag this size. I’m also sure I could get by on less than this. Borrow from me whatever seems relevant, and ignore whatever seems excessive!

The Bag

The backpack to hold it all is a [Tom Bihn Smart Alec], with both modular packs (pictured above). The pack is 26 Liters, plus 2L and 3L from the smaller and larger add-on bags, respectively. I can’t test this claim on my own — it’d involve a lot of foam beads like what they put in bean bags — but I do trust Tom Bihn’s marketing claim. Here’s a great intro post to the general awesomeness of this bag.

Clothes

Quick Primer on Fabrics

As many (many) lightweight-oriented travel blogs will suggest, fabric choice matters a lot. The advantages of fancier fabric are myriad, they tend to be warmer in cool weather and cooler in warm, quicker drying,

Polyester is a form of extruded plastic, and therefore consists of smooth, thin, interwoven fibers. The thinness these fibers means that polyester dries very quickly and is a generally lightweight material. Gym clothes are almost exclusively polyester for this reason, as sweat is quickly wicked away and evaporated. However the smoothness of polyester fibers makes it a perfect breeding ground for bacteria–causing clothing made of polyester to quickly begin to smell (also as anyone who has gym clothes knows).

  • tl;dr: quick drying, lightweight, smells really bad really quickly.

Cotton fibers are significantly thicker than polyester, and have a rough organic outer layer (cotton is plant based). The thickness of these fibers means cotton holds more water for longer, and can take much longer to dry (think: wet jeans) than polyester. The thickness also means that cotton is quite warm and cozy. In theory this roughness of the fibers means that cotton can last longer without smelling terrible, but in my experience this is somewhat offset by the water-holding properties: bacteria like moist environments, and cotton has got that going.

  • tl;dr: Takes up more space, slower drying, potentially smells less terrible less quickly.

Wool, specifically Merino Wool. The best of both worlds, merino wool has thin fibers as well as a rough organic surface. This means merino wool is quick drying, and stays smell-free for much longer, giving us the advantages of both cotton and polyester. Merino wool also de-wrinkles itself, packs tightly, stays warm when it’s cold, and stays cool when it’s hot out. Merino wool is perfect for socks and underwear, t-shirts, as well as button-downs thanks to its anti-wrinkle properties. Downsides? Merino wool is generally very expensive.

  • tl;dr: Ideal. Expensive.

Packing lightweight means doing your own laundry, frequently. Quick drying clothing is crucial to lightweight packing, so that you’re not stuck waiting for things to dry rather than moving towards the next part of your adventure.

Without further ado, the list of clothes:

  • 2 collared button downs, both from Wool & Prince. I like their style and they make merino wool shirts. These are quite expensive, but worth it for all the wool goodness. In my experience, the most immediately useful aspect in the button-down case is that the shirts don’t wrinkle. Any minor crinkles they pick up in the pack quickly ease out of them within the first hour of wearing. This matters less with t-shirts, but is invaluable in the case of semi-formal button downs.
  • 4 t-shirts. Two of these are $6 Uniqlo cotton/polyester blend, and 2 are merino wool (one Outlier and one Wool & Prince).
  • 1 pair of khaki shorts, which I’m sad to say are totally un-optimized. What I’d like to get is a pair of the Outlier New Way Longs, or perhaps a pair of theOlivers.
  • 1 pair of black Outlier Slim Dungarees. These are easily the best pants I’ve ever owned. These are a synthetic blend rather than being wool.
  • One rain-jacket, a Marmot Mica. I was inspired to buy thanks to this Snarky Nomad post. The jacket crumples down into its own pocket, and is ridiculously light weight. I’m actually hoping it rains just so I can wear this jacket more.
  • 3 pairs of socks, all merino wool from various places including these, these, and these.
  • 3 pairs of Icebreaker Anatomica boxer briefs (purchased on amazon). These are merino wool and do much better with being washed in the sink (read: don’t start to smell) compared to the polyester ones recommended here. However, the $13 ones are equally comfortable and much cheaper.
  • Shoes: 1 pair generic sneakers (not pictured anywhere, by my own oversight), and 1 pair of Berkenstock sandals. I’d like to pick up a pair of hippie magnet vegan lightweight sandals from Earth Runners, as they look super comfy and packable, but I haven’t got them yet. Soon. Shoes go into a regular plastic grocery bag for packing.

All the shirt-type stuff fits in to an REI expandable medium-sized packing cube.

Socks and underwear all fit into an Eagle Creek quarter size packing cube, which I also picked up from REI.

Electronics

  • 13″ Retina Macbook Pro, with a protective shell. Covered in stickers.
  • Kindle Paperwhite.
  • iPhone 6, which double as the only camera I’m carrying. The second I’m convinced there’s an android phone with a superior camera, I’m switching back to android.
  • Klipsch Image S4i earbud headphones. I prefer earbuds to over-ear, mostly, and these have a built-in microphone which is most-convenient for hands-free phone calls, as well as video calls.
  • Power plug adapter. Kinda cool because of how small this thing is.

Toiletries

  • One 4oz GoToob squeezy bottle filled with the best soap. The eccentric Dr. Bronner really knows how to make soap, as well as how to make awesomely philosophical product labels. I use this soap for body, hair (although only on rare occasion), and shaving. I [prefer the almond-scented variety.
  • One 2oz tube filled with hippie toothpaste. Technically toothpaste can also come in travel sizes, but it’s more cost effective in bulk.
  • Convenient travel toothbrush.
  • Hippie deodorant, also rom Tom’s of Maine. I actually think the Mountain Spring flavor smells better than any of the non-hippie deodorants, but the ingredients list is an influencing factor too.
  • Generic disposable razor or two. (As mentioned above, I use the Dr. Bronner’s soap as shaving soap.)
  • Nail clippers, misc pills & some first aid stuff.

Miscellanea

  • REI Medium size microfiber towel. I was skeptical of these at first, but they actually do a surprisingly good job drying me off after a shower. The medium size is a measly 1′ x 2′, and packs up nice and tiny. Snarky Nomad ranks this 2nd most important for lightweight travel (after a decent backpack), and I agree. Don’t forget.
  • Sleeping bag liner, which my mom had lying around. This may come in handy for sketchy hostel beds, or even just as a blanket, and it’s small enough to fit in my pack easily. I’m interested to see if I actually use this.
  • Rubber circle sink stopper thing, which makes washing things in any sink a very convenient affair.
  • Notebook, with a couple of writing implements.
  • Steel water bottle
  • Passport
  • Sunglasses + case (not in this picture, but you can see the brown case in the overview pic)
  • And finally a couple grocery bags / ziplock bags (they come in handy)

Conclusions:

I’d be quite remiss if I didn’t credit the blogs I’ve drawn significant inspiration from in putting together this pack. Here’s where I link out to them:

Hopefully this was helpful to anyone trying to pack light. Safe travels 🙂

Singapore

We spent a week in Singapore after our India adventure.

Chinatown market

I really enjoy crowded marketplaces–the more crowded, the better. There’s always so much new to see and smell and taste. Plus, being 6’3″, I generally have a birds-eye view and can still breathe and locate other people I’m with.

Preperations for Chinese new year were well under-way (actual New Years is in a week), which contributed heavily to the crowdedness and expanse of the marketplace.

Sri Mariamman Temple

We visted a Singaporean Hindu temple. The unique thing about this specific temple is that it was populated by Hindu “village gods”–gods that are generally maintained and prayed to by the local farmers/merchants of a small village community as opposed to an official brahmin priest. The village gods have slightly different names and portrayals as the more well-known Temple gods starring in the same mythology and stories.

There’s a similarity to the Christian protestant versus catholic divide in village god worship (being available to the peasants, very personal and accessible) versus temple god worship (controlled by the priestly class, living solely in temples). Protestantism is the idea that the bible should be read by and accessible to everyone, rather than just the priest/father giving the sermon, as decreed by old-school Catholicism.

Because everyone in Singapore is an immigrant at some level, when the Hindus came to the country they were granted space (as all religious singapores) to practice their religion. This space ended up being a temple, naturally, as there’s no room for small, sparse villages on the Singaporean island. So this temple is the only place (within my knowledge) that these village gods are worshipped in a temple setting.

Broken Tooth Relic Temple

The interesting thing about this temple is contained within its name. It contains a relic, a tooth, which supposedly belonged to the original Buddha Gautama. People come and pray to it.

The main philosophical divide (or at least, one of the main philosophical distinctions) in Buddhism is between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is more in line with what’s commonly thought of as Buddhism: Ascetiscism, long hours of sitting meditiation, orange-red robes, and so on. It’s in some ways the more classic and traditional form.

Mahayana buddhism acknowledges that everyone can’t (or won’t or don’t) really take the time to retreat for years and meditate in the woods, or on top of a mountain somewhere. It tries to make the Buddhist philosophy more accessible to the average individual. As such, it tends more towards temple prayer, holy relics, and primarily the idea that enlightened individuals called Boddhisatvas have postponed their unificiation in Nirvana in order to help you, the average individual, come closer to enlightenment. They’re the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian Saints, as far as I can tell.

The Broken Tooth Relic Temple is an example of a Mahayana Buddhist place of worship.

Mumbai

Wedding

We came for my cousin’s wedding. While not the first Indian wedding I’ve been to, it was the first since I’ve been an adult, and really paying any sort of proper attention to the world around me. The wedding was a lot of fun, with the as-seen-on-TV dancing and delicious food, family and festivity.

Dharavi Slum

We toured the Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Asia.

At first, I was apprehensive of the whole idea: “visiting” a slum seemed intrusive to the lives of those who lived there, as if the homes of over 1 million peoples were a tourist attraction to be gawked at.

bombay-dharavi

Actually touring the slum changed my initial sentiment. The organization giving the tours, Reality Tours, is an NGO geared towards bringing more revenune to the Dharavi community (and the communities of other slums around the world). Our tour guide, Mayur had been born and raised in Dharavi, taught himself english and was now giving tours and studying computers.

The proceeds from the tours went towards community programs such as classes (including computer classes!) and sports organizations for the children growing up there, as well as some for the adults. They provide basic computer skills (office, web browsing, etc), and also sports equipment (footballs (soccer balls) and kleats for the kids). They were recently donated a 3d printer that Mayur (our tour guide) was in charge of figuring out how to use.

Through recycling and other industries, Dharavi moves over $1 billion / year.

bombay-dharavi3

We weren’t accosted by beggars at all throughout the 4 hours of being there. Tour-ers are advised against giving to people begging, since it encourages a counterproductive mentality of getting something for nothing.

At one point I picked up a retinue of children who were interested in my watch (I sport a Pebble Steel), asking me questions about it and pulling on my wrist to press its buttons. I was actually surprised by the fact that they were truly interested and not trying to steal it.

The gap between the rich and the poor in Mumbai and across India is much greater than it is in the US, with the wealthy being at the level of the American upper class, and the poor far below the (eg) American poor. For instance, my grandparents’ apartment (where I’m sitting currently and where we stay when we come to bombay) is on the same road as the Ambani house which is the most expensive private residence on the planet. (there was a media wave about it when it was built, not sure if you caught any of that) And it overlooks basically slums, in certain directions.

bombay-dharavi2

Although all this being said Bombay has come a long way in the last even 2 years. I’ve noticed a lot less abject poverty on the streets, and a lot of the slum shanty-dwellings have been renovated into low cost apartments. The roads are better. The old Hindustan Ambassador taxi fleet has been largely replaced by new Mitsubishi Santros burning compressed natural gas.

Muslim Street

At Mumbai’s Muslim street we ate kebabs, partridge… I tried goat brain, which has a slightly squishy texture and a taste similar to liver/kidney but not quite as strong.

bombay-muslim

I fell into the eyes of a young muslim woman standing down the street, probably around my age. She was wearing a full burka, only her beautiful, grey-green eyes were visible at all. I on the other hand was in a button-down and jeans, my RayBans on my head. For whatever reason, time seemed to stop as we gazed at each other for a while, until her (presumably) husband returned and ushered her away. Sappy imaginary pseudo-romance? Probably. Bridging cultural divides? Hopefully.

We also saw a man mysteriously taken away by a cop, who arrived outside his shop-stall and demanded he get in the back of the police jeep. After some back and forth he got in, handing off his wallet to his friend out of the back of the jeep as they pulled away.

Weird.

Anyway, here are some more pictures:

bombay-nightbombay-night2bombay-wedding3bombay-wedding2bombay-pujabombay-marinebombay-weddingbombay-mendhibombay-wedding4