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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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)
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:
- Every single Snarky Nomad post. Of particular interest were the guide tomerino wool dress shirts, the guide to lightweight rain jackets, the post onprioritizing travel purchases, and the invaluable insight that the best travel clothing is actually marketed towards cyclists. Also the ultimate packing list. Seriously, I’ve read everything on his site.
- James Turner’s minimalist packing list. This is what actually convinced me I could do all of this with the Smart Alec. There are gems in here such as the carabiner tip, and I’m still waiting for the Roost macbook stand to come back in stock.
- Jeremiah Rogers’ Around the World Packing List. Invaluable since it uses the same Smart Alec bag, though you’ll notice without either of the modular packs.
- Tynan’s yearly gear lists, like the one from 2015 and 2014. Really cool watching his packing list evolve from year to year, these annual updates are the only thing like it which I’ve encountered.
Hopefully this was helpful to anyone trying to pack light. Safe travels 🙂