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Travel Naked

How to Pack Big Adventures into a Carry-on Bag

My friends thought I was mad. I can see why—the hurricane of emotions that preceded my decision to leave New Zealand had really messed up my hair, and left me hollow-eyed and twitchy. Quitting my job, selling my car, and flying away across the sea never to return was considered understandable under the circumstances, but my insistence that I would do it all with only carry-on luggage? Apparently, that was the crazy part.

On budget Asian airlines like the ones I had booked, carry-on luggage is restricted to seven kilos and yes, they do enforce it. For reference, 7 kilos is less than the weight of a daschund. So, why?

A few reasons. Firstly, it’s much cheaper to fly without any checked luggage. I was looking at booking upwards of 15 flights over the course of a year—at $50 per checked bag, on average, taking checked luggage would have cost me at least $750. 

Secondly, I have a horror of luggage loss. Imagine pitching up in Hanoi and standing gormless by the empty baggage carousel, wondering how you’re going to retrieve your backpack from Timbuktu. No thanks. When far from home, I prefer to have everything I need on my person at all times.

Thirdly, I’m a notorious overpacker. I’ll never forget the day my overstuffed 70 liter pack split open on a loading pier in the Philippines, spilling cyberpunk novels and dirty underpants all over the crate of chickens that had just been unloaded from the ferry. Never again, I vowed, would I arrive at any destination lugging a third of my bodyweight in unnecessary vanities. Never again would I nurse a pulled shoulder muscle in a lumpy hostel bunk. The 7 kilo weight limit was a perfect exercise in radical packing reform.

I bought a small luggage scale, and began weighing every item. The pack itself weighed just over a kilo. Could I really do this? I wondered. Yes, it turned out, I could, and six months later I'm on the other side of the world still going strong. You can too—here’s how.

1. Pick the right bag.

Generally speaking, most airlines don't want to see you packing more than 40 litres of kit into an overhead locker. I've carted my Macpac Weka 40 onto some seriously budget carriers, and never had a problem. I love it because of its thick, durable elastic front pouch where I stuff my dirty socks and other nasty things I don't want rubbing up against the clean stuff inside. Sure, it doesn't have lockable zips, but since it's never out of my sight that doesn't really matter much to me.

Whatever container you choose to cart your gear around in, make sure you make its weight the key selection criteria—mine weighs 1.2kg, which is a fair tradeoff for how sturdy, comfortable and water-resistant it is. You can get packs that are specifically designed for travel in that they lie flat and zip open like a suitcase; these are cool, but they don't tend to be made small enough for carry-on, nor as comfortable to wear as a tramping pack. If you invest in some handy laundry bags to serve as pack partitions then getting to the stuff at the bottom of your top-loading pack becomes much less of a hassle.

2. Start with your tech.

The first rule of packing light is to save your clothes for last, so put those havianas down. Start by deciding on the absolute minimum amount of tech you can live with. Unless you’re absolutely sure that you’re going to make a serious commitment to blogging your travels or working remotely, you don’t need a laptop. Everything you need for editing photos and footage can be found in the app store of your smartphone. If you want to make edits to share with the folks back home, install Adobe Premier Clip and use that—it’s rudimentary but it’s free, and it does the job. Good smartphones are as powerful and capable as any laptop I'd be willing to subject to the rigours of travel, so unless you absolutely need a full-size keyboard for typing then a laptop is a waste of valuable real estate in your pack.

I make my living as a writer, and since I was keen pick up some freelance work on my adventures I decided that I did need a laptop. One that was small, lightweight, rugged, and cheap enough that it’s potential loss or damage wasn’t too daunting a prospect. I settled on an ASUS Chromebook, which I’m typing this on right now. It weighs just over a kilo, it's robust enough that it doesn't need a case, and since it stores everything in the cloud I don’t need to worry about losing all my work if it goes careening over the side of a water taxi. If I pick up a contract that requires me to use my design skills, I’ll use a browser-based vector editor - there’s tonnes of them out there.

The same goes for your camera gear. If there’s one thing I regret bringing on this adventure, it’s my DSLR. It’s heavy, valuable, too emotionally significant to give away, and it’s so obtrusive that I rarely use it. I have almost as much control over my shots with the manual mode on my Huawei P10, and the DSLR mostly sits in my pack, posing a theft risk and stressing me out. Unless you’re a professional photographer and you need to be able to produce super high quality images to make money, don’t bother with your fancy camera. Your phone will do just fine.

Finally, get yourself a kindle. They're the best!

3. Weigh your sundries.

The nasty surprise at the end of my packing project was that my chromebook charger, various USB cables, powerbank and universal adaptor were adding over 700 grams to my pack weight. One major bonus of leaving your big tech behind is that you also get to leave behind their charging paraphernalia. If all you need is a cable for your phone, then you don't even need a wall adaptor! Wall plugs for USB are available at every airport in the world, just buy the appropriate one when you get there. Don’t forget the sundries, even the tiny things like your medications, mooncup, emergency coffee, toothbrush. Put everything you're going to need into your pack, and weigh it. How much weight do you have left? This is for your clothes. 

4. It's an adventure, not a fashion parade.

This one was hard for me. Who doesn't want to look cool and snazzy on the road? But here's a fact: travelling ruins your clothes. If it's precious, leave it at home. If it's white, leave it at home. If it's sheer, leave it at home. If it has zip-off trouser legs, burn it. If you think you ought to take it 'just in case', don't. Remember you can buy 'special occasion' things elsewhere in the world for less than the price of a single checked-in bag - in New York City I was invited to a party for which I had no appropriate (read: black rubber) outfits on hand. Twenty minutes in a thrift store and five measly dollars sorted me out.

A compact travel wardrobe probably isn't going to be as sexy as you'd like it to be, but it doesn't need to make you look like Nigel Thornberry either (unless you go with the fishing vest, I'll get to that).

Obviously, the sort of clothes you need to pack and how much they weigh will depend on where you’re going. My trip has taken me from sweltering Singaporean heat to cold spring nights on San Francisco bay - I needed to be prepared for many different climates, for the outdoors and for the city. For sailing in the Philippines, nights out in Singapore, surfing in Lombok, riding a motorbike through the northern mountains of Vietnam, hanging out with the cool kids in California and New York, dancing the night away in Cuba and diving in Mexican cenotes, all I've needed is:

  • 1 pair of jeans, which I always wear on the plane because they’re heavy
  • 1 warm, light jacket, which I also wear instead of packing when I fly
  • 3 pairs of shorts
  • 3 tank tops
  • 2 teeshirts, one cotton, one icebreaker merino (which is brilliant because it simply refuses to stink)
  • 2 light dresses, one a casual beachy thing, the other more appropriate for a restaurant
  • 1 merino-blend button-down collared shirt, which I layer over the merino teeshirt when it gets cold
  • 2 one-piece swimsuits (I find bikinis a waste of time for surfing, plus a one-piece does a better job of doubling as a top)
  • 1 very light silk sarong
  • 3 bras
  • 10 pairs of cotton underpants
  • 1 pair of high-top sneakers for walking
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 pair of ultra-light Crocs Sexi Flip sandals 

These are, without a doubt, the best travel shoes I've ever found. They're incredibly comfortable, stay put on my feet, and in dim light they're deceptively elegant. I've passed them off as evening sandals in fancy restaurants and no one has batted an eyelid.

Altogether, this pack list makes me a solid week's worth of clean outfits with underpants to spare. I chose clothes in complementary colours, so everything goes with everything. It means I'm sort of stuck in one 'look', but I'm a backpacker—it's easier to change the audience than the material.

5. Pockets are your friend.

You know what weighs a lot? Little stuff. Silly stuff, like chargers, toothbrushes, tampons or a mooncup, your kindle, all that jazz. If you still have too much stuff for your airline's carry-on weight limit, it's time to invest in a Nigel Thornberry vest.

Since I couldn't be dissuaded from travelling with a camping hammock and a sleeping bag, I had to find a solution for the extra two kilos of weight I was packing. I researched wearable luggage options, and found them all to be impractical and overly expensive. Instead, I got myself a fisherman's vest. It has enough pockets to contain all my chargers, batteries, mooncup, vape gear, phone, toiletries, kindle, even my chromebook at a stretch. The vest holds almost 2 kilos of stuff; I wear this on the plane when I travel, which allows me to keep my pack weight down enough to include my camping gear. Sure, I look awful, but I only need to wear it when I'm walking from check-in to my seat on the plane. When I'm not using it to hold weight, its many pockets make great storage compartments for sundry items in my pack.

After six months of travelling across eight countries with this kit, I’m incredibly glad that I decided to travel with just carry-on luggage. My travelwife’s 70 liter pack weighs fifteen kilos, and means that together we often have to catch taxis or ubers when I, with my little pack, would be able to walk instead to save money. With that said, she always has prettier, better-smelling outfits than me. At the end of the day, travelling with minimal luggage is going to be a tradeoff, but so far I haven't missed a single one of the things I've left behind, and I've given plenty of stuff away! It's been a radical change for me, the girl who once owned forty pairs of shoes. But it's also made my life so much easier. With a lighter load, I cover more ground. With a small wardrobe, I care less about how I look and more about what I'm looking at. And isn't that what travel's all about?

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