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5 Tips for Minimalist Travel Packing

I’ve learned minimalist travel packing the hard way over the years. During my very first backpacking trip through Europe, I could barely lift my bag. I would be sweating profusely by the time I reached places and suffered embarrassment 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.

I learned that ‘over-packing’ is actually more costly and ends up being a bigger hassle than simply learning to live without certain luxury items (ahem…my hair dryer).

minimalist travel packing

What I packed for 1 month in 3 different countries

Minimalist travel packing is way more functional, it’s ergonomically better for your spine to carry a lighter bag and it’s often cheaper to buy additional items as needed.

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 a 3-week trip to Ireland, Scotland and Iceland, I only packed my carry on (I use the Osprey Questa 27L backpack with packing cubes) which was also underweight.

If you are looking for an actual packing list with what I bring in my carry-on and larger backpack, you can check out this ultralight backpacking list.

But how?! 

minimalist travel packing

What I packed for 3 months in Tanzania and South Africa

5 Tips for Minimalist Travel Packing

1. Pack according to the purpose of your trip

When it comes to minimalist travel packing, consider the central purpose of your trip. 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, hat, 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 a wetsuit.

This can definitely be easier said than done if you are doing a multi-purpose trip. I recently backpacked from South Africa to Tanzania and carried my scuba mask and snorkel around with me, but didn’t end up diving once #FAIL. If you are not 100% if you will need an item and therefore aren’t sure whether to pack it, skip to #4.

2. Think Functionally

When you are packing light, it makes sense to bring versatile items that can 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 pack.

For example, I always pack a scarf because it can be used as shawl at night, a head covering in a temple or mosque, a beach sarong, and a blanket on the plane. Right now I’m using a multi-functional 8-way travel garment which can be worn as a scarf, cardigan, dress and more (I wrote a review on it here).

Another example: I usually bring loose cotton pants with cuffs because they can be worn on a tour or safari, as lounge pants at home or a hotel, yoga pants, or can be rolled up into capri pants.

3. Be Practical

It’s helpful to consider that while abroad, you will be in a new environment and culture and therefore you may not need or use many of the items you would back home.

For example, I own many pairs of high heels and enjoy getting dressed up back in Canada. However, I wouldn’t pack a pair for backpacking around Tanzania 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. In your host country, you may not want the added attention of wearing designer clothing or expensive accessories, or risk losing/damaging them. Think in terms of practicality when it comes to minimalist travel 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 (#2) in mind, I only pack things that will work in more than one way, or that I deem 100% necessary. This can be easier said than done though, especially if you’re trying to pack as a minimalist 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 A) not functional, B) not practical, and C) you are not sure whether you will use it or wear it, put it in the “NO” pile. If you are just not sure if you will use it or wear it, put it in the ‘maybe’ pile and give yourself a day or two to think about it. If you are still having doubts about whether or not to pack the items in the ‘maybe pile’ on the big departure day, than don’t take them — chances are you won’t need them.

5. Carry-on vs. Luggage?

If you are keen on taking minimalist packing to the next level, try taking just a carry-on! This has saved me hundreds of dollars in baggage fees over the last year alone. I use my Osprey Questa 27 L backpack as my carry on (though I have experimented with wheeled bags too). I definitely prefer the Questa (read more about why I think it’s the best women’s day pack)

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 lost baggage (I have mine through Safety Wing), it is still wise to keep any important or valuable things in your carry on.

Particularly, things like documents, electronics, 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

Learning how to incorporate these principles of minimalist travel packing will save you money, energy and time! It might take some practice, but minimalist travel packing doesn’t have to be difficult, just be realistic and practical. If you are looking for an actual packing guide, you can check out the essentials I pack here!

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minimalist travel packing

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Read next:

Ultralight Backpacking List

The Best Women’s Daypack for Travel and Hiking

10 Ways to Avoid Culture Shock

The 10 Commandments of Hostel Etiquette 

What are your thoughts?

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L. M Georgi said:
love your site. I've been traveling with a carry-on for years. pack mix and match, so wardrobe is basic. packing cubes a must everything in it's place and easy to fine. Enjoy, your nest trip. Mine, a Cruise with hubby.
February 17, 2021 at 12:16 pm said:
One of them I wore on the plane but yes, definitely impressed I could fit them all :)
September 11, 2017 at 10:51 am said:
haha yah, it seems everyone has that experience in Europe! never again! :)
September 11, 2017 at 10:49 am said:
Thanks Jessica :)
September 11, 2017 at 10:49 am
Bernadette said:
I'm absolutely with you on the issue of packing your carry on as though you won't see your checked bag again. It's always good to know the important things are under your control. And I'm really impressed that you managed to get four pairs of shoes in that packing pile; I've never managed more that three, but I think I have rather large hooves!
September 9, 2017 at 4:35 pm
Ania | Snow to Seas said:
Really fantastic tips for packing light! I also learned the importance of taking less when I had to carry around a super heavy backpack in Europe during a heatwave. Never again. I swear by determining the functionality of the items I want to take before packing. One top needs to go with more than one other bottom.
September 9, 2017 at 4:22 pm
Jessica said:
I was the same way my first time traveling to Europe - so many stairs, lol!! These are great tips and I'm amazed that you were able to pack so efficiently for your trip to Tanzania - nicely done!
September 9, 2017 at 4:13 pm