The myriad benefits of minimalist travel

The Myriad Benefits of Minimalist Travel

Traveling amplifies nuisance. Each and every tiny little issue becomes several orders of magnitude more annoying than it would at home, where you can return to your comfortable abode of air conditioned glory whenever the need may arise. When you’re in the middle of nowhere and something goes wrong, it often goes incredibly wrong.

I learned these lessons the hard way, in snowy winters and blazing summers, where my laughably incapable supplies were no match for the below-freezing chill or the above-body-temperature swelter from which I could find no escape.

Slovakian beer haul guy
I keep telling people, vodka is the answer to everything!

Luckily I had a few high-quality items, and quickly learned to make use of only the best gear I had brought with me. So despite bringing a nearly-full 55 liter pack, I only bothered using the 20 liters at the top. I was too lazy to unpack the damn thing, and I was doing laundry often enough that I didn’t have to.

But if I could get by with a relative minimum of items and ignore the rest, I could only think, “what if I only bring high-quality travel gear?”

On the next trip, that’s all I brought. And I’ve never gone back.

Why minimalist travel is not about compromise

A lot of people think minimalism is about limiting yourself, whether in terms of comfort, style, adaptability, or whatever. Quite a few travelers make assumptions about what needs to be done (“But then you can’t have nice clothes!”), and then avoid minimalism like the plague.

None of this is true. Minimalism is not about compromise; it’s about efficiency. Instead of bringing “nice” outfits in addition to “regular” outfits, you can just bring a few outfits that look nice and function properly, and then you only need half the gear. And although this can often be quite challenging (like when hiking pants have all those ridiculous zippers), it’s easier to accomplish than a lot of people might expect.

And, if you can make it work, minimalist travel brings with it a number of exquisite benefits.

Minimalist hermit crab
He is my hero.

1) Minimalism is blazingly fast

If you can simplify your life to the size of a carry-on, your airport security experience will shift from being an inexplicably awful ordeal that breaks your spirit and diminishes your faith in humanity, and into a utopia of blissful convenience that warms your soul. By comparison, anyway. But it will literally save you hours and hours of annoying airport waiting times:

  • You can get on a plane without checking a bag. You know all those people waiting in line, kicking their bags along the floor every few minutes as the line moves forward? You can bypass this ordeal entirely by using automated check-in machines, or checking in online, so you can go straight to the security line.
  • You can get off a plane without dealing with baggage claim. This is good enough on its own, but have you ever gotten stuck waiting for hours because your luggage didn’t arrive on the same flight? Or, even worse, your bag never arrives? It sucks. Which brings me to the next point:
  • You’ll never lose a bag. Not on a flight, anyway. Even if it’s insured, imagine arriving in Paris with only a few days to visit, and having to spend several hours buying new clothes. If everything is with you at all times, this is a non-issue.
  • You’ll be first in line for customs. Immigration lines usually run into bottlenecks because they massively expand whenever a flight lands, and might otherwise be completely empty. If you can skip the baggage claim routine, you can often be the first in line (or, at the very least, 200 places ahead of everyone else who was on your flight), allowing you to go through customs in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, rather than potentially several hours.

I’m not sure why these advantages aren’t more actively pursued, especially by those who complain about how irritating it is to fly, and how long it takes to drop off and pick up their luggage.

I’ve even seen families go on week-long vacations, where they had a laundry machine the whole time, yet every single person brought a suitcase that had to be checked. Their bags didn’t arrive on the flight home, so they had to sit in the airport for 4 hours waiting for their unnecessarily heavy luggage, and they complained the whole time about how awful it was. Yet somehow none of them ever attempted traveling lighter after this ordeal. Oh well.

2) Minimalism has no fees

While we’re on the subject of airports and luggage nuisances, it’s a good time to point out that a minimalist setup will save you the hassle and expense of fee-happy airlines, as well as reduce or eliminate a few other costs:

  • You’ll save on bag fees. Specific savings will vary based on specific airlines, as they all have their own rules, but if you fly rather frequently, minimizing your travel gear will cut out the expense of flying with overweight bags.
  • You’ll take fewer taxis. I’ve seen people with bags so big that they were literally incapable of walking with them over long distances, so they took taxis for what could have been a 20 minute walk. It might not be such a big deal in cheaper countries, but it can add up quickly if it becomes a frequent routine. Besides, isn’t a little exercise nice anyway?
  • You’ll skip luggage storage fees. This isn’t likely to occur so often, but if you’re traveling from one city to another while stopping at a picturesque village while en route, you can walk around with your bag while you visit, instead of paying for a few hours of storage. You also won’t need to worry about which items to bring or leave behind. This saves time as well.

Minimalism can admittedly include some up-front costs, such as buying the gear to make it work (though you can use regular clothing, especially if you have access to laundry machines), but if you can save $20 per flight by skipping bag fees, minimalism can pay back its potential costs.

Lucky sea turtle
“I need no trailer. I AM the trailer.” Original photo by Albert Herring.

3) Minimalism is simple

I love to simplify. I despise owning things that aren’t enhancing my existence, and if they start weighing me down, they’ll find themselves on eBay shortly thereafter. This is especially helpful while traveling, when you’ll want to spend your time traveling, rather than managing. By carrying a relative minimum of gear, you’ll find yourself skipping a number of minor nuisances:

  • Less digging for things. If you carry fewer things, you don’t have to spend time finding them. Packing cubes and suitcase-style openings can be quite helpful, though minimizing the grand total number of items still makes a huge difference anyway.
  • No ironing. I refuse to buy anything that gets wrinkly, just on principle, because we have the technology to stave off such nuisances. It can be challenging to find low-maintenance items that also look good, but remember that you only need a few of them anyway.
  • No mismatching items. One of the stipulations of a minimalist travel setup is to bring items that work with every other item, so you don’t have to bring extra gear to match, or spend time finding them. This is true for color as well as style; it’s nice to bring things that can be dressed up or down, rather than outfits that only work for fancy occasions.
  • No unused garbage. One of the most common refrains from first-time backpackers is “I brought way too much.” I remember someone who brought three dresses, and used zero of them. It’s much better to bring a few things you’ll use frequently, rather than haul extra gear you’ll never use.

I would say simplification is one of the most underrated advantages of minimal travel; many backpackers complain about having to dig through their gigantic bags to find one or two items that were stuck at the bottom, or how their hiking boots are way too heavy and barely ever get used (which is why you should travel with only one pair of shoes), or how they realize half their gear is unnecessary for one reason or another. Issues like this come up all the time, which is why I prefer minimalist setups that avoid them altogether. If you won’t miss it, why bring it?

4) Minimalism is comfy

I am a scrawny weakling for whom even a tiny amount of gear will cause crushing shoulder excruciations and drive me insane. This was a major motivation for minimizing the gear setup in the first place, and is part of the reason I obsess over tiny weight savings. While the huge brawny backpackers can haul 80 liter packs all day long with no problems, there’s no way I could keep up without my entire skeletal system collapsing into a pile of bony shrapnel.

Besides, it’s not just comfort that minimal setups provide:

  • You’ll go farther. Between the reduced packing time and higher walking speed, you can often get more done in a day than if you had to deal with overloaded bags. Unless you take taxis everywhere…but that gets pricey.
  • You’ll go faster. Which is especially helpful when that’s the last train for three days and argh I haven’t sprinted this fast since high school gym class.
  • You’ll be less annoyed. Traveling can be incredibly stressful, especially when the Ravenna train station security guards lock you inside the waiting room in the middle of winter for the entire night (thanks, guys!), but if you’re able to reduce the complications under your control, it’s easier to respond to the complications not under your control.

And again, I would point out that you should bring clothing that’s physically comfortable, as well as stylish and presentable, which will keep you nice and comfy, physically or otherwise, in whatever situation comes your way.

How little is too little?

For all the potential benefits of shrinking a travel gear setup to an absolute minimum, it can be taken too far. There are people out there who travel with only two sets of clothes, a toothbrush and some deodorant (and I think they’re adorable), but that’s not something that would objectively work for everyone.

Hobos with a bindle
Too far.

I try to recommend a setup that does work for everyone, in all situations, so that minimalism is not a compromise. You shouldn’t feel held back, whether in comfort or style, regardless of whatever situation comes your way. If you hate not having a comfy pair of jeans, well, go ahead and bring some. Just keep the overall setup simple and functional, and you’ll be fine.

I’ve drawn up an ultralight packing list with specific recommendations for individual items, but the basic idea is to limit yourself to a carry-on sized travel pack (I’ve mentioned some favorites here), and fill it with a week’s worth of clothes. Do laundry once a week, and you can travel forever. It’s really that simple.

You don’t even need high-tech gear to accomplish this. Quick-drying clothing will allow you to go even more minimal, but it’s not absolutely necessary to do so. And it also means that if you have a decent setup that’ll handle all sorts of travel-related situations, from lounging to classy dining, you’re only a few steps away from having a non-travel, general-use minimalist wardrobe that’ll handle any situation that comes your way.

Hitting the minimalist travel sweet spot

I think a good target for anyone is to hit the carry-on only limit, because it’s incredibly doable, and brings with it a number of advantages, from carrying comfort to airport nuisance reduction, while still allowing you to carry quite a wide selection of clothing and other gear. It’s certainly possible to go even lighter, but hitting the carry-on threshold is a maximum benefit/minimum effort bullseye. So give it a try, and see how far it takes you.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

26 Comments on “The myriad benefits of minimalist travel”

  1. Vodka IS the answer to everything :)
    I must say, I pride myself on very efficient packing, even though all of my travel involves staying at decent hotels and lots of dressed-up photo-ops. I can easily do 10 days out of carry-on luggage (and those 10 days would cover everything from a fancy dinner out in heels to a hike in the woods) – something I cant say for ANY of the male companions I have ever traveled with.

    1. I’ve known plenty of girls who say it’s just outright impossible, and they’ll cite reasons like “But I want to look nice!” as though looking nice requires 8 outfits instead of 1.

      1. Actually it totally does require 8 outfits :) – the key here is planning. You can make those 4 original outfits with 4 garments (or something like that) as long as you put together those outfits in advance accounting for color and function compatibility. Everything has to go together, so I usually pick two neutrals and 2 compatible colors . I plan all my outfits before each trip, down to corresponding jewelry and makeup, so I never have even an extra lipstick or pair of tights with me.

        1. Well I meant that they’ll say they need 8 nice outfits to look nice, in addition to their regular daily outfits, so they’ll have a grand total of 20 outfits or something. I meant that having 8 outfits doesn’t help you look good if 7 of them are packed in the suitcase. I think a week’s worth of clothing is a nice middle ground that anyone can do, but they’ll say there’s no way they could do it, and I think it’s because they want to bring enough outfits that they can choose between several for each evening, and they never bother using all of them. What you’re describing is bringing enough to have variety, but not so much that they end up unused, whereas they want to bring way more.

  2. I’m the first one to admit I’ve packed too much, and as I’ve now traveled for more than six months I can see I’m far from the only one, and girls are way worse than me. I’d like to say I have a good excuse for overpacking – lived in Taiwan and went straight traveling from there. No way I could send my laptop home by mail. And, I’m very proud over this, I’ve used all the clothes in my pack. Still, I wish I’ve brought less. I have brought three shorts, but I never use shorts or pants, I only use dresses – I know, as a backpacker I’m different than the other girls. I would throw them away, but when you go swimming in Cambodia and Laos, it’s expected from you not to wear a bikini, but shorts and t-shirt. Furthermore, as a girl, we meet way more requirements when it comes to dressing in certain countries than you guys; cover our knees and shoulders when we enter temples (have you ever thought about how little of girls clothing cover knees and shoulders?), not shoving cleavage and so on…

    This is far from my first backpacking trip, and I have lots of experiencing in packing. If I were to do this trip again, I would pack less and send more home (but the price of sending things home will cost the same as traveling a month for me). And bring my beloved travel towel instead of a big pink towel a Mexican girl gave me in Korea.

    If I were to add one thing to your list it would be don’t bring anything white. White will turn yellow no matter how hard you try to keep it white. I gave up a long time ago ;)

    1. Women’s fashion does have stricter requirements in general. Guys can get away with just a single pair of shoes and flip flops, whereas girls need something nice and something for daily use, since nothing exists for girls to cover both those scenarios. On the other hand, women’s clothing is usually smaller overall, and fits a lot more closely, so a woman’s t-shirt might be half the size of a man’s t-shirt. You need to carry more, but at least some of it will be smaller, which can help somewhat.

  3. Vodka is the answer to everything. So true….it’s my favourite tipple!

    Going minimal Eytan. I try. Really I try. It doesn’t always work though. I find that when I travel for business, I carry less as I wear one suit and take another with me. However, for leisure….it ain’t easy.
    I’m also a mother with a pre-teenager so he carries his own stuff yes, but I end up carrying the Xtras like laptop, mobile phones, cameras, PSP stuff, extra cables, the kindle, etc as my child always loses his…. Sigh!

    1. I do really like seeing people who can make do with practically nothing, but I don’t think one person’s efforts should necessarily look identical to someone else’s. But “I want to look nice” can be accomplished with just one or two nice outfits, so I like to point out that it’s easier than a lot of people think.

    1. I’ve found common sense to be the least common sense. Case in point: Why spend time reading something if you know all about it already?

  4. I’m planning to travel for 18 days, 7 days of which will be on an Alaska cruise, no air travel involved. I’m thinking the bindle and vodka is a good idea. I’ll swish my teeth with the vodka. >^;^<

    Let's see, I'm a 50-ish grandmother, but can rock a younger look. I'll go with leggings, skinny jeans, travel pants, a few tees, a shirt, a cardigan, military jacket, North Face gloves, warm scarf, ankle boots, and a small umbrella. Anything I'm not wearing I'll tie up in a bindle using a decorative scarf. I'll bring a 4 oz bottles of Dr. Bronner's, which I dilute and use for everything–shampoo, soap, laundry soap. My walking stick will be my bindle holder. My travel pants are REI convertible, water shedding hiking pants, and will layer nicely with either leggings or skinny jeans, or both. The skinny jeans can look dressy for formal night if I wear the shirt as a jacket over a bright (somewhat elegant) tee shirt, and add a scarf. I used to be an ultra-lightweight backpacker on the AT, so I get what you are ranting about and appreciate your tips. Thanks!

    1. I can’t wait to run across you someday, adventuring onward, while the 20-something backpackers at the height of their athletic ability collapse under the weight of their 80 liter packs, and lazily drink a beer, while you kick your heels and go forth unto the next experience life has to offer.

      1. Turning 60 shortly, and still kicking up my heels. We just finished a two-week bike camping trip on the Katy Trail (rails-to-trails) in Missouri. The secret to my youthful energy is copious amounts of imported dark beer and a minimalist packing list. If you’ve ever been to Springer Mountain at the start of the AT Thru-Hike season, it’s a chance to stock up on backpacking gear for free. Those 80-liter packers start unloading the higher they climb. In my early days of learning, I’ve ditched a brand new frying pan and assorted canned goods in the first twenty minutes. It’s all a learning experience, and that’s why I love to hear other’s minimalist packing tips.

        I just stopped by this post again because the latest comment on this article by EasyTraveler was very interesting. I don’t know if I’m up for just wearing one outfit because I’m trained to the concept of layering to be prepared for any sort of weather. But, I shall have to look into toothpaste tablets because my Vodka mouthwash was confiscated while embarking on the cruise. >^;^<

        Keep on giving us great travel tips!

        1. Tooth powder lasts longer than toothpaste, and you can put it into an even tinier container, like a chapstick tube.

  5. I’m an ultralight traveller, but more due to necessity than anything else. I don’t like to bring anything that I won’t use for the exact same reasons you’ve listed above, and I steadfastly refuse to check luggage.

    The problem arises in that I’m a cheapskate and always look for the very least-cost air ticket I can find. The last three trips I’ve take, size is not so much a factor in whether the airlines allow carry on or not, as weight is. My bag was a 32L and that was only 1/2 full at the most, and my wife’s was a 28L or so, so we weren’t carrying much but every time the airlines insisted on weighing our bags anyway. They wouldn’t let ANY more than 5kg (about 11lbs.) into the cabin, so that necessitated the wear-one-set-of-clothes-and-pack-one-set-and-that’s-all scenario you mentioned above.

    I think this is going to become more and more common as people try to do whatever they can to avoid the stupid checked baggage fees airlines have been moving towards, as well as being a way for airlines to force people to pay these fees when there’s absolutely no reason at all that they should have to.

    Anyway, I think that if people are going to want to do carry on only in the near future, the 20L-ish daypack and no more than 2 sets of clothing is soon going to be the only option.

    Incidentally, we managed 33C in the Sahara Desert to -3C and snow in the Mid Atlas Mountains and everything in between for a month in North Africa on 11lbs each (including the bag), partly due to your tips, so it is do-able.

    Marvellous blog by the way; I’ve put several people onto it who’ve expressed interest in minimalist travel.

    de Stokesay

    1. Thanks for reading! And I agree about the airline fees and other problems. The more they keep pushing people into paying more fees, the more creative people get trying to avoid them. For some silly reason you’re allowed to wear lots of clothes onto the plane, and it doesn’t matter how heavy they are. People will eventually just show up in three layers of clothing with an empty bag.

      1. I’ve actually done something similar. Just to be on the safe side, I’ve put my camera and mini-fieldglasses into the pockets of my jacket, which I’ve worn through the check in process, and stuffed my sandals into my belt, in back of my pants inside my jacket. This guarantees that my carry on is under the 11 lb. limit. I have to do this as I have the opposite problem to you. I’m a 6′ tall, 225 lb ex-infantry soldier so I don’t have any issue carrying heavy stuff for long distances, but all the stuff I do have is much bigger and heavier, just due to the extra amount of material in it. This is only a problem if airlines insist on the stupid rule of only allowing silly weights into the cabin, but it’s my prediction that this unfortunate trend is likely to spread like an embarrassing YouTube video.

        Keep up the good work on your excellent blog.

        de Stokesay

  6. After much thinking and experimenting and actual trips I have achieved the ultimate travel kit.

    I believe you should take only a few things, those things should do more than one thing, those things should be essential and those things should be very lightweight.

    I wear only one pair of pants. They are Nylon, light, easy to hand wash and fast drying. I wear a short sleeve poly under shirt and a robust long sleeve dress shirt. I wear a pair of socks and underwear. Both are easy wash/quick dry. I wear my favorite shoes. I stuff a nylon crusher ball cap in a pocket.

    It’s not lightweight but I love my Black Timbuk2 Small Messenger. It’s tough and reliable. It easily fits under the seat. I can wear it cross body or carry it like a small case.

    I pack basic Toilet items, tooth tablets and brush, razor and beard trimmer, dry stick deodorant, nail clips, White Dial bar soap for laundry and Laundry Sheets. No 311 baggie!
    I pack spare underwear and socks and rotate fresh with used daily. I have some tights that double as long underwear and pajamas. A long sleeve poly under shirt doubles as a sweater and pajama top. I have a hooded nylon pullover windshirt on board. All the shirts worn plus the pullover and the tights keeps me warm down to 40F! A standard charger set for my phone.

    With all the clothing items worn the pack weight drops to about four US Pounds!

    I have a standard EDC pocket suite. A pen. A Maglite AAA LED Flashlite wrapped with duck tape and training tape. A nylon Humangear spork. I wear two belt pouches for a safe wallet and minor wound dressings.

    The whole package comes to eight US Pounds! I get all the advantages you mention with just one eight pound bag!

    My wife thinks I’m crazy. The TSA Agent thinks I’m crazy. The nice lady that looks at my boarding pass thinks I’m crazy. I love it!

    1. That’s some impressive packing. I go back and forth sometimes with certain items, and if you need a laptop, it’s going to add quite a bit of weight, even if it’s a lightweight one…but it feels so wonderful when you don’t have to haul a whole lot of stuff around. Congratulations on reaching a single digit number of pounds. It’s quite impressive.

      1. I go back and forth between the Messenger and a ChicoBag Sidekick bag. The ChicoBag weighs two ounces and holds 25 US Pounds. It does look tacky but oh that weight!

        When you are a business traveler you are just going to have extra things and weight.

        I had a terrible experience in Venice, Italy with too much LUGGAGE!
        I vowed then and there as I was struggling to catch my breath that I would NEVER pack too many bags again! To make it worse I saw some young men in Schiphol Airport with just a single small sack for luggage! They laughed at us! :-(

        My eight pounder has evolved from that.

        I have a Nokia 1520 that serves as a good Camera, E-Book reader, Phone, Internet and a dozen other useful features! The thing “just worked” for three weeks in Europe last September.

  7. Cherryl, all those shirts I mentioned layer. I was warm atop the Eiffel Tower in 50F wind with these items on! I have since added a hooded Nylon Pullover.
    Look for “Harriton” on Amazon. Extremely light weight item! Cheap so it is expendable! I have been know to ditch items before the flight home!

    You might check into http://www.zpacks.com They have extremely light weight packs. I carried one of their six ounce ZeroPacks in Europe. I have since gone to a small Messenger as my primary pack/bag. Limited volume makes you very picky about what comes along for the ride!

    Rule of thumb: What you use everyday at Home is just what you’ll use anyplace! Leave all the rest at Home! Here’s another way of looking at it: An ounce of something morphs into a pound inside a bag!

    Wear one. Pack one. That’s enough clothes for anybody. Try it at home or on the next trip. You’ll see that it works. I know girls can pack light. I saw a woman on our first S. Europe Cruise who wore just one pair of gray zip off pants and a top. Same thing every day!

  8. For me, the biggest benefit is certainly the comfort. Things go so much smoother, quicker and easier. TOn the last trips, i always only carried a backpack while my companions often had multiple bags and trolleys. What I noticed is, that I walk way faster and am generally faster at things (getting prepared, packing, leaving the hotel etc.)
    Planning is key. I have always had a packing list that I reviewed afterwards (which items I used/ didn’t use) to improve it. It really makes me happy

  9. Hey man. Great article on minimalist travel. You outline the benefits to traveling light really well. I travel everywhere with just a backpack and it’s great. I never miss a thing that I don’t bring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.