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How to Pack & Travel Like a Minimalist

Minimalism is in. Minimalist dressing, minimalist design, minimalist homes, minimalist offices, it’s a trend now and it’s everywhere. But the original minimalists, the ones who’ve been doing it since the beginning of time, are travellers.
I’ve been travelling for six-month to year-long stints for the last couple of years as a remote freelancer and travel blogger for my blog, The Travelling Light, so I’ve had to fit my life inside a backpack quite a few times now. As a reformed hoarder, travelling has taught me a lot about minimalism and its merits, and as a result it’s served as free therapy.
Underneath the trend and at the root of minimalism is the desire to edit your life down to only the most important things. It’s a way of getting very clear on what you value, whilst getting rid of all the stuff that distracts you and weighs you down. It also teaches you just how much you don’t need external things to be happy; editing your life down to minimal possessions can ultimately prove that everything you really need is already inside you. And travelling with only a backpack’s worth of stuff forces you to adopt a minimalist way of living, whether you want to or not.
The price you pay for taking too much stuff is high. I know this. I’ve learnt it the hard way a few times now. I remember years ago taking off on a month-long trip through Vietnam with some friends. We all took big suitcases and filled them up more and more as we went along on our travels. We turned up, all four of us, to our hostel in beach town Nha Trang rolling our huge suitcases loudly over the cracked pavement, struggling with a few carry bags on each arm. The entire hostel seemed to be dining at the restaurant at the entrance and every single one of them turned to stare at the interruption of us loudly rolling in. Any illusion we wanted to create of ourselves as cool, casual, freewheeling travellers was immediately shattered!
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the incredible freedom that comes with packing barely anything. When I was living in Ubud, Bali, I met two very cool girls travelling as the ultimate minimalists around the world, working online as they went. They’d managed to each fit a laptop, phone, chargers, two sets of clothes, two pairs of underwear, a swimsuit and bare essential toiletries into a small day pack each; they only had one pair of shoes. They said it was all you really needed. These girls were free and fluid in the way they lived for this time in their lives.

One of the ultimate minimalist travellers I met in Ubud, Bali

They floated from town to town, country to country, to an island for a few days and then back again, all based on what they felt like doing. They didn’t have to deal with the hassle of where to store their things as they could carry it all around with them anyway. Packing up and moving on wasn’t a big deal. I remember asking one of them where she was staying right now, she replied, ‘Oh I’ll probably just walk up the street and find a hostel with a bed for cheap later this evening’ she had all her possessions with her anyway, so she just had to find a place to lay her head when the time came. She was just so relaxed and carefree.
I’m not quite there yet, travelling with only a daypack. I’ve travelled with suitcases and duffel bags and backpacks and I will say the feeling you get travelling with less stuff in your care is a good one.

Varkala Beach, India 

Here are some rules and tips I’ve amassed over the last few years on packing minimally:

  • The Minimalists have a great rule for packing. If you can get it for under $20, in under 20 minutes from where you’ll be and you’re not going to need it daily, don’t pack it, you can always buy it
  • Marie Kondo, author of ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ (it sounds ridiculous but it’s life-changing), has another great rule for life that I like to apply to travelling. She says if something doesn’t spark joy for you, don’t keep it, or in this case, don’t pack it
  • When you’re packing, pretend you’re only going away for one week, you only need to last living with the bare minimum of stuff for one week, what do you pack? Look at what you’ve packed now and try to imagine if you could possibly live with just this collection of stuff for a month, six months, a year, however long you’ll be away. Only add the bare, bare minimum extras to this collection.
  • Where can one item serve more than one purpose? Cetaphil or QV wash make for great body wash and face cleanser in one. Gentle shampoo can serve as hairwash and washing detergent too. Pyjamas can be sleepwear and yogawear as well
  • Try to keep it to only 2-3 things in each category e.g. t shirts, shorts, dresses. Practically speaking if you’re washing a t shirt, then you can be wearing the other one. As for underwear, I’ll let you decide!
  • A great way to keep your stuff organised (and your mind!), is to have a smaller bag or compartment for everything within your pack. I would never travel without these packing cubes for example. I then have a bag for my toiletries, for my work/electronic stuff, for my cameras, a bag for dirty clothes. So nothing is ever floating loose in my bag – it’s the travellers’ equivalent of drawers.
  • I travel with an Osprey convertible backpack/wheelie bag and a Millican daypack (made from recycled materials) and love both. They’re both great quality, with lots of compartments to keep everything organised.

Travelling in general teaches you self-reliance – to stop relying on external stuff, people, places, and use your own strength, resourcefulness, openness and smarts to get by. All these possessions we think we need, the attachments we form to stuff, travelling out of a backpack teaches you to get all that from within. Travelling minimally is the ultimate test of faith, the best way to prove to yourself that you have everything you need within you at all times.
If you’re in the zone, here’s some further reading you might enjoy….

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