I have learned the hard way over the years that ‘over-packing’ is actually more costly and ends up being a bigger hassle than simply learning to live without certain luxury items (ahem.. hair dryer, straightening iron).
During my very first backpacking trip through Europe, I could barely lift my bag let alone put it on. This was quite embarrassing on trains when I required help putting it in the overhead compartment. I ended up leaving items behind in hostels to lighten my load, which was a complete waste of money.
Packing light is way more functional, it’s ergonomically better for your spine to carry a light bag and it also keeps costs low. In some countries, it is cheaper to buy additional items as needed than to purchase them in bulk ahead of time in North America or Europe.
It can also save costs in avoiding your Airline’s luggage fees. During my trip from Canada to Tanzania last year, my backpack for 3.5 months of travel was 20lbs underweight! For my upcoming trip to Romania, Kenya and Ethiopia, I only packed a carry on which was also underweight.
If you would rather see a packing guide that breaks down exactly WHAT to pack and HOW, you might want to check out my article: The Ultimate Packing Guide for 3 months abroad
So how exactly did I manage to do this?! …. I will tell you, read on.
Here are my 5 tips for light packing:
1. Pack according to the purpose of your trip
When it comes to light packing, consider your situation: Obviously your packing will be based on the type of travel you do and the activities you plan to do while abroad. For example, if you plan to do a lot of camping and trekking, it would make sense to bring your own sleeping bag, mosquito net, warmer clothing (i.e. gloves, touque, neck warmer, warm jacket, additional layers), tent and hiking poles – although there are companies to rent these from.
If you plan to do a lot of scuba diving than you can probably skip the hiking gear; You will want to bring your own mask, snorkel and fins, your certification card, extra bathing suits and consider whether or not to bring a wetsuit or rent one.
2. Think Functionally
I am living in Mwanza, Tanzania for 3 months vs. traveling place to place. Since I have a home base and I anticipated that I would likely be doing a variety of activities in addition to my day-to-day work, it made sense for me to bring versatile items that could function in more than one way. When your items have more than one purpose, you can really cut down on the volume of things you must pack.
For example, my scarf can also be used as shawl at night, a head covering in a temple or mosque, a beach sarong, and a blanket on the plane. The one pair of pants I brought are light weight and loose so they can be worn out in the community, on safari, as lounge pants at home, yoga pants or even as pj’s; they also have cuffs so I can roll them up into capri pants.
3. Be Practical
You also need to remember that while abroad, you are in a new environment and cultural context therefore you likely won’t use many of the things you would back home.
For example, I own many pairs of high heels and enjoy getting dressed up back in Canada. However, I would never consider packing a pair for my trip to Africa because it simply wouldn’t be practical here with unpaved roads, rugged terrain and dust. The same goes for cosmetics, beauty products and flashy or expensive items; depending on your destination and activities you do, you could be too hot or sweaty to even wear make up or hair products. In your host country, you may not want the added attention of wearing designer clothing or expensive accessories. Think in terms of practicality when it comes to light packing, and it will be a lot easier to cut out the items that you don’t actually need.
4. Make a ‘Maybe Pile’
With the functional strategy in mind, I only packed things that would work in more than one way, or that I deemed 100% necessary. This can be easier said than done though, especially if you’re packing for your first long term trip.
I find it really useful to pack a day or two in advance and make three piles for your “YES”, “NO” and “MAYBE” items. If something is not functional or practical and you are not sure whether you will use it or wear it, put it in the “NO” pile. Put the items you are not sure about in the maybe pile and give yourself a day or two to think about it. If you are still having doubts about whether you will use certain things on the big departure day, than you likely don’t need them.
5. Carry-on vs. Luggage?
As a rule of thumb, pack your carry-on as if you know your luggage will be lost. Although you should always have travel insurance to cover luggage delays or lost baggage, it is still wise to keep any important or valuable things in your carry on.
Particularly, things like documents, electronics or jewellery, prescription medication and personal belongings of sentimental value should be kept with you at all times. Also keeping your toiletries in your carry-on (despite having to organize your <100ml liquids into a clear ziplock bag) makes staying fresh through multiple connecting flights and red-eyes a lot easier.
Finally, make sure to go onto your airline’s website to familiarize yourself with their baggage policy. Airlines vary significantly on the number and weight of bags you may bring on board and whether you must pay for your first stowed bag, so definitely read the fine print to avoid unnecessary fees.
Take home message:
Learning how to incorporate these principles of light packing will save you money, energy and time! It doesn’t have to be difficult, just be realistic with yourself!