How to Travel with Less Stuff than Gandhi – The 2013 Life Reengineered Minimalist Packing Guide

Tom Bihn Synapse

The Tom Bihn Synapse a.k.a. Marry Poppin’s bag. This photo was taken about an hour before the kayak we were riding almost sank at which point I was thrown int the water with this bag on. The bag saved my camera.

Happy day after Mother’s day! I hope you all had a chance to connect with your wonderful mothers in whatever way you could. As my mother would remind me, it’s not what’s in your bag that matters most, it’s what’s in your heart. Enjoy!

I travel with a 19 liter bag, which is the size of a school kids book bag. I’ve been traveling for 6 months straight, living out of this bag and I have not had a moment where I said to myself “damn, I wish I had more stuff”. Nobody comes home from a big trek wishing they had another 10 lbs of gear to lug around and worry about. In fact, most people are constantly shedding things, sending stuff home or throwing unused items away if they can overcome the delibitating sense of sentiment they feel for some of their stuff. Traveling light has improved the quality of my travels in hundreds of small ways

The inspiration for this minimalist packing guide came from Tynan, and I must give credit where credit is due, so thank you Tynan.

I’ve done a lot of research and field tested everything you see on this list so rest assured that I am recommending only the highest quality gear (that I know of). If you have any suggestions about other things to bring, I’m all ears, please respond in the comments.

Some people may think twice about carrying some of the gear I list as some of it is quite expensive (mainly my computer, cell phone and camera) and some of the areas I’ve been are somewhat “dangerous”. However, these items greatly improve the quality of the travel experience and are not only critical for producing this blog the way I want it produced but act as creative outlets for me during down time. Also, I’m only truly exposed while moving from place to place, which is a small portion of my travel time. Otherwise the stuff is locked up in a hostel room or locker somewhere, generally out of reach of most thieves. And my theory is that having such a small bag does not make you a typical target for bag slashers and thieves as you could be mistaken for someone simply going to work or school in some areas (in other areas you can’t help but stand out like a sore gringo thumb).

To allay any other fears, I have travelers insurance to cover my health and safety and to provide some coverage for the items I carry. As added protection I have renters insurance even though I’m not technically renting a place right now (I carry the insurance on my Mother’s house, where I have a bedroom full of items). The renters insurance covers all my travel gear with minimal deductible.

Below is my packing list. Almost all links are affiliate links, so if you buy the stuff via that link I will get a pittance of the sell and it will further help me maintain this blog and continue travelling, at no additional cost to you. On that note I encourage you not to buy anything you don’t truly need or plan on using as I think the world is overrun with consumerism and I really want people to unclutter their lives and live more simply. So if you’re serious about travel the stuff below is the best I’ve found – enjoy!

Backpack - Tom Bihn Synapse

Words cannot describe the love I have for the Tom Bihn Synapse backpack, but I will give it a shot. I affectionately refer to this 19 liter marvel of backpack engineering as “Marry Poppins” because of its astounding ability to hold an almost endless amount of items in a limited space. Everything you see on this list fits snugly into this bag. It’s incredibly comfortable – nice wide straps with a shoulder clip hold the bag firmly in place, and it has a waist clip as well if you ever needed to run with the bag. I have an 8″ metal plate in my left clavicle from a snowboarding injury, which the doctor said some backpackers complain about, but I’ve hiked through the jungle for 5 days with this bag on and shoulder pain was not an issue.

The bag is also waterproof – it has sealed zippers that do as good a job as possible at keeping the water out. In rain, it performs admirably, keeping my camera and computer dry. However, if you fall off a kayak while wearing this bag it may let a little water in. I know from experience. If you have your camera in the upper middle pouch, it will survive. The added benefit of having a waterproof bag is that you do not have to carry around a large bag cover, which takes up a lot of volume in the average bag (and the bigger the bag, the bigger the cover).

The structure of the bag makes everything incredibly accessible – I keep all my small electronics, sunglasses, flashlight, etc in the side pockets for easy access. An added benefit of the pocket structure is that it makes it so that there is no need to carry smaller packing cubes for organizing these items. The bag also doubles as my day bag. So when I am all checked into the hostel and my computer and other items are locked up I can take this bag out to carry my camera, water, headphones, and jacket. I don’t have to have a second “day bag”.

Travel related safety tip: if you want to take some valuable items into a sketchy area, never carry around a nice pack on your back. Even if you have insurance on your items is best to be as incognito as you can. Simply grab a black grocery bag from the local drugstore and place your valuables (camera, iPhone, etc) in that bag. It will draw far less attention.

A good bag is the foundation for good, hassle free travel. I often wonder what it is that these people with 50L, 75L and 100L bags are trucking around with them? When I ask it usually turns out they wear the same two or three shirts 90% of the time and they wish they hadn’t brought so much extra stuff. My attitude towards bringing too much stuff is that if I really need it, I can always obtain it on the road.

A small bag ensures that you will never have to check your luggage, that you can always keep your bag between your legs on the bus, that you can have some hope of blending in with the locals (maybe he’s just a student at the university) and that you can pack in 10 minutes for a quick getaway. If there is one thing I recommend about travel it is this: travel light.

Update: there is now a 25-liter version of this bag. Check it out here. For my next trip, I would take this bag. Traveling with a 19 liter bag for six months through South America was pretty aggressive, especially when you can’t always find travel size stuff like soap, toothpaste and sunblock, which are critical to keep small if you want to travel this light.

Computer - Apple MacBook Pro 13.3-Inch Laptop

There are many schools of thought on this item, and lots of people don’t even travel with a computer (hostels typically have computers that are free for you to use). But I am a child of the digital age so I decided to get the most badass computer possible for my travels. Also, I have a blog and I practice photography and video editing so I wanted my machine to be able handle these items. I thought about the MacBook air, but it does not have comparable internal storage, RAM, and processing power of the MacBook Pro. Same story with the iPad (plus I wanted a proper keyboard for typing and did not want to carry around the awkward keyboard attachment for the iPad).

Honestly, I could have gotten a comparable PC for about half the cost but I wanted to see what all they hype was about with the Mac. I have not been disappointed. It’s different, but it’s incredibly user friendly and it just works. Even the power cable is well thought out for a traveler – the power prongs fold into the body and these little legs kick out to wrap the very thin cord around so the thing packs down super tight. It’s that attention to detail that is winning Apple so many customers.

Camera - Olympus PEN E-PL2 with Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 and B+W 46mm Circular Polarizer

This thing is a beast. One of the newer 4/3 micro line of cameras that are revolutionizing photography for the masses. It comes with a nice stock M. Zuiko 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, but I opted to upgrade to the faster Lumix f/1.7 pancake because zoom does not matter to me (I prefer to use my feet) and my favorite type of photographs are those with great “bokeh”. If you’re interested in photography but afraid of the steep cost of entry I recommend getting this camera or something close to it (check out Steve Huff’s website for detailed up-to-date product reviews of all newer micro 4/3rds type cameras). Also pick up the book Understanding Exposure for an entry-level look at photography basics. And take a photography class! Check Groupon for local deals on these classes – they are happening all the time and they are really fun, even for experienced photographers. You can always learn a new thing or two and it’s good to brush up on the basics. My favorite quote from the last one I went to is: “a photographer paints with light”. Good stuff.

In addition to the Olympus I always have on me an unlocked iphone 4 as an extra camera. It fits nicely in my pocket and I actually prefer the video from the iPhone to the Olympus, as the Olympus cuts out at about 7 minutes recording time and has really loud, noticeable autofocus. As an the old saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have on you”.

Along with the camera, lens and filter I also carry a battery charger, an extra battery (critical!), the lens caps and a Gorrillapod tripod (more on that later). I do not carry a separate “camera bag” as the Tom Bihn Synapse bag has a pocket perfect for the camera. I also do not carry any other lenses, including the kit lens. There’s plenty to think about when choosing the perfect travel camera, so I’ll write more on that later.

Tripod - Joby GorillaPod with Bubble Level

Rather than carry a full size tripod the Joby Gorrillapod is an adequate alternative. As long as you can find a pole, post or tree you can wrap the Gorrillapods flexible legs around it for photo stability.

Phone - iphone 4, unlocked

There are an almost unlimited amount of phone options out there nowadays and most people are so caught up via contracts with a certain carrier it’s a tangled mess to escape. It’s likely that your phone contract end date does not tie nicely to your travel start date and this probably leaves you wondering what to do about the cell phone. First of all, let me say that you can travel the world without a cell phone. You’ll be just fine. You can always Skype home on your personal computer or the hostels computer, and there is something extremely freeing knowing that everyone cannot get ahold of you at their whim. Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I’ll say that traveling with a smartphone has been awesome. It’s nice to always have the phone in your pocket so that if you meet someone new at the hostel and you want to find them on FB or take down their contact info you can do it there, on the spot, using the hostel’s WiFi. It’s also nice to have the notes app for jotting down quick travel related notes, and it’s really great to be able to use Skype for calls and google voice/ wats app for free texting over WiFi. Also, as previously stated, it’s great to have a separate camera that you can take out with you that is not as conspicuous as the Olympus.

Another great benefit of the iPhone, or any smart phone for that matter is that it doubles as your mp3 player. I use Spotify for mobile ($10/month). If you’re not familiar with Spotify – download the free version on your computer right now and let it sync with your Facebook contacts. You’ll have access to their entire library of music for free on your computer and in no time you’ll have crept on all your friends music and you won’t be able to resist paying the $10/month fee to take Spotify on your mobile. The one drawback to relying on Spotify while traveling is that if you ever turn off your phone to preserve battery (or because the mean dude in the cockpit tells you to turn off all your devices ((I’ll let you in on a little secret – I never do))) it will log you out of Spotify and you’ll need an internet connection to log back in. Otherwise you can use Spotify to download their proprietary music files onto your phone and take them offline.

One more reason to use a smartphone is the Kindle App. I buy all my new books on the Kindle, which allows me to not have to carry a large bulky piece of tree around with me in my bag. It stores my notes and highlights for future reference, and my soft traveller hands don’t get paper cuts. Also, it reduces your impact on the environment so for all you would be “green” travelers out there who can’t ween yourself off the paper versions, get over it and go digital.

I purchased this phone off craigslist and then took it to a cell phone repair shop that specializes in unlocking phones for international use. Follow these guidelines for purchasing a used phone off a private dealer to reduce risk of getting a bunk phone.

Phone choice is really a topic all in itself and I plan on writing a separate guide to international calling in the future. For now, know that most people that travel with a smartphone use some version of the iPhone.

Shoes - New Balance Minimus

Obviously, with minimalist style travel you look for single items that serve multiple purposes. Besides traveling light, I want to be prepared for nearly any situation. This means being able to withstand temperatures ranging from near freezing to over 100 degrees, snow, wind, rain and all forms of weather in between. One of the most critical items in the arsenal are your shoes. Your shoes have to be rugged enough to handle a jungle trek with river crossings and muddy hill climbs, yet stylish enough that you do not feel underdressed going to a club full of beautiful Colombian girls. I think the New Balance Minimus fit this bill nicely. Now I know most of my female friends would disagree that these things are at all stylish, but I find that what women say about your shoes and how they treat you as a person really have no correlation. So I wear these things everywhere.

If I’m going into wet conditions, I choose to wear these shoes. New Balance does not advertise their wet condition performance, but the Minimus has surpassed my expectations in this regard. They dry fairly quickly and clean up well after time in the mud. Vibram, the company that produces the Vibram 5-finger toed ninja shoes, produces the soles. A friend of mine traveled all through Southeast Asia with only those shoes and never had a problem. I wanted something a little more stylish, so I chose to go with the New Balance Minimus.

Socks - Icebreaker Micro Ultralite (2 pairs)

Icebreaker is an amazing New Zealand based company that is improving the lives of travelers everywhere by selling merino wool products. Merino wool outperforms cotton in every important category except one: price. But you get what you pay for and it would be impossible to travel this lightly with cotton-based products.

Merino wool products are better than cotton at: retaining heat while wet, wicking water from the body, drying and resisting body odor. Merino wool is naturally anti-microbial. The reason your cotton shirt smells after a day at the office is that bacteria has grown and died on it as the day progressed, wool does not have this problem as bacteria cannot grow on it.

Icebreaker’s main competitor is Smartwool. I wouldn’t recommend Smartwool’s socks – after only a few times wearing a pair I ripped through the heel of one of the socks while putting it on.

Boxers - Icebreaker Mens Bodyfit 150 Boxer Briefs w/Fly (2 Pairs)

Two pairs of these boxers are all you need! The wonderful people at Icebreaker have done it again. Just alternate boxers daily and you can go a week without doing laundry no problem. 

Shirts - Icebreaker Tech T Lite, Icebreaker Mens Tech Polo, Mens SS Apollo V

I carry three shirts – all black. In retrospect I would recommend mixing in a little color. I carry one normal t-shirt, one polo and one v-neck. I swear if I didn’t tell people that I only travel with three shirts they would NEVER know. People seriously do not care what you wear. You’ll meet so many people on the road you’ll barely be able to remember their name, where they come from and what their general direction of travel is that you will not care at all if they wore that same shirt 2 days ago, unless it stinks. But that’s the great thing about these Merino Wool products from Icebreaker; they do not pick up body odor. The wool is naturally anti-microbial so bacteria don’t have a chance to grow and perish on your shirt, which is the source of stinky clothes. I swear by these shirts – they are the backbone to the minimalist travel experience. I’ve also tried on some Smartwool shirts but I did not like the fit for my body type, but I hear good things performance wise in regards to those shirts.

The trick is to alternate shirts, so let two shirts air out while you wear the third for the day. I could probably get away with only 2 shirts, but it’s an indulgence to carry three. 

Pants - Versace wool blend jeans (Blue)

I use to rock Kuhl brand Renegade pants from REI, which were totally adequate for 4 months. Those pants were incredibly versatile with good cargo style pocket layout. They are comfortable enough to sleep in, they dry fast enough that I don’t mind swimming in them (in fact, I explored a river cave full of bats in them) and stylish enough that I could wear them out. But after 4 months they wore down and I ordered a pair of the Versace Wool Blend jeans based on advice from Tynan.

The Versace pants are fairly pricey and hard to find on ebay but they are worth the work required to obtain them. They are stretchy, the breathe well and they look great. Also, they are dark and dont require constant washing (I’ve washed them once in the last 5 weeks). I use the search term “Versace silky stretch lite wool jeans” and check back on ebay from time to time to find these pants.

The trick to traveling light is to wear your heaviest clothes – your pants, heaviest shirt and shoes whenever you are traveling from place to place.

Belt - Volcom canvas with bottle opener

I wear a volcom canvas type belt with clasp buckle. The belt buckle has a bottle opener built in, and the look girls give you when you put their beer in your crotch to crack it open is priceless.

Sandals - Rainbows

I should probably carry some rubber/plastic sandals, like Havianas, instead of these leather Rainbow sandals, but I love Rainbows. Rubber sandals would do much better in wet conditions which you’ll find all over South America. In wet conditions I either go barefoot if its safe, or wear my New Balance Minimus shoes.

However, these are the most comfortable sandals I have ever worn so I can’t recommend them enough. And I realize that these sandals are considered formal wear in California but believe it or not, most of South America does not consider this to be the case.

Shorts - Hurley Board Shorts

These Hurley board shorts double as my regular shorts. They are stylish enough to golf in and rugged enough to surf in. I hiked through the jungle with these shorts. They have proper pockets in the front and zippered pocket in the rear. If I were traveling with the larger 25 liter Synapse backpack I would carry an extra pair of shorts in another color that would serve as my “dry” shorts for when I get out of the water after surfing or swimming.

Jacket (base layer) - REI Revelcloud Jacket – Men’s

REI Revelcloud Jacket - Men's

This thing packs down to the size of a 32 water bottle and looks like it was modeled after a nine-millimeter pistol. It’s pretty badass. It does not offer enough warmth on it’s own to hike through Patagonia during the dead of winter but combine it with the Marmont rain coat listed below and an Icebreaker undershirt and you have the perfect cold weather setup. I have the black version.

Jacket (rain coat) -  Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket – Men’s

Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket - Men's

This is simply a thin waterproof coat to be used either by itself in wet conditions or over the REI down jacket as an added layer of wind and water resistance in extreme cold conditions. Again, I have the black version.

Wool Buff -  Buff Original Buff

This is a wool scarf/headband, called a ‘buff’. It can be worn around your neck for scarf type warmth, pulled over your mouth and nose like a bandana or worn around your forehead and ears like a headband. I’ve used it during sandstorms, snowstorms and anytime I needed some sun protection for my face. Very useful to have around.

Watch -  Casio Men’s G-Shock Solar Atomic Black Digital Sport Watch

I wear a G-shock solar powered watch. It’s water resistant to 20 bar, and almost never leaves my wrist. It’s rugged enough to go anywhere my body can go. It’s great to not have to pull out your phone to check the time, and it’s nice to have the alarm function on your wrist.

Headphones - Shure SE-530

These are some badass sound canceling headphones, makes listening to music even more enjoyable. These can be found used on ebay as brand new Shure headphones are in the $400 range.

Carbon fiber money clip - by Carbon Fiber Designs

This thing is a bit pricey but I love it. It’s super lightweight, and won’t deform like metal versions. It’ll hold 10 credit cards and a bunch of bills and still snap back to hold one card.

Sunglasses - Ray Ban Folding Aviator Gunmetal/Crystal Brown Polarized Sunglasses

Sick shades that fold down into a case the size of a deck of cards. Shades can also be carried in your pocket if you prefer. Polarization makes everything look more vibrant. They are a bit pricey but if you are only going to have one pair, might as well make them count

Speaker -  Jawbone JAMBOX Wireless Bluetooth Speaker

This thing is a bit of an indulgence but it puts out room filling sound with crisp highs and lows. Cannot be beat for it’s size. It will sync to your devices via Bluetooth so you can play music off your phone or computer remotely. I also like to use it when watching movies on my computer for the improved sound quality.

Towel -  PackTowl Personal Towel

PackTowl Personal Towel

Towels are not always available at the hostels so this thing comes in handy in a pinch. Not large enough to wear around your waist if you’re concerned about modesty, but perfect for wiping away the shower water and it dries extremely quickly. Can be hung from the outside of the bag rather than packed away wet if necessary.

Water Bottle -  Klean Kanteen Insulated Bottle (Brushed Stainless, 20-Ounce)

I was originally going to travel with my 32oz Nalgene bottle but I’m very happy with the Klean Kanteen simply because its insulated so I can carry hot or cold drinks and they stay that way. Also, since its stainless steel it does not smell as bad as the Nalgene when water is left in it. I carry it attached by a climbing style carabeaner to the outside of my pack.

Headlamp Style Flashlight -  Black Diamond Gizmo Headlamp

Headlamp style flashlights are great for one reason: it frees both of your hands for whatever task you are trying to accomplish. You’ll need a flashlight as some places you go simply won’t have electricity after a certain point, and they also come in handy when you are rifling through your things late at night in the hostel dorm, you’re not going to want to turn on the lights and wake up 7 other dorm mates.

Padlock – Small zipper lock with keypad

Most hostels have lockers but a large padlock will not fit on most locks – you’ll need a smaller luggage type lock. I recommend a number code lock rather than a keyed lock so you don’t have to worry about losing your key.

Small packing cube first aid kit

To organize the medications and first aid stuff that I carry I use a small packing cube made by eagle creek. I’ll simply list the stuff I have with me:

Ibuprofen

Claritin

Malaria medication

Band aids

Extra Chapstick

Vitamin packs

Immodium

Anti diarrhea pills (prescription strength)

Pepto Bismol pills

Note: In six months of travel in South America I never used the Pepto, Immodium or the prescription Anti Diarrhea meds.

Iodine tablets for water purification

Extra razors for my Mach 3

Toiletries

I carry an eagle creek brand toiletries bag, which has a waterproof liner in case my shampoo pops. Ill list the items I carry:

Mach 3 razor

Truefitt & Hill West Indian Limes Shaving Cream Travel Tube - This stuff is great, it lasts forever and comes in a compact tube great for travel.

Toms brand deodorant (NOT anti perspirant, that stuff is weird. It’s natural to sweat, embrace it)

A toothbrush. Nothing too interesting here.

Travel size toothpaste

Floss, my dentist says to floss daily. Just do it people it feels good.

Nail clippers

Dr Bonners body wash, carried in a GoToob

Shampoo, also in a GoToob

GoToobs are sweet little devices. I have the 3oz version, so I don’t have any problems with security at the airport. They are rubbery travel containers that come equipped with a suction cup so you can stick them to the shower wall.

Various electronic cords:

Headphone splitter, in case someone wants to listen to Seals “kiss from a rose” with me. Love that jam.

Audio jack, which comes in handy all the time. I use it in cars that have audio input, or when someone has a speaker set to share my music. I also plug the jambox into my computer using this cable so that I get better sound quality than the computer speakers. I use the Scosche Retractable Cable.

3-Way Electrical Splitter - awesome to have around when there are limited power ports and everyone wants to charge their devices.

Kikkerland Universal Travel Adapter - This is the greatest travel adapter ever created. Can modify any power cord into any socket type, worldwide.


And of course you’ll need an iPhone charger, computer charger, jambox charger, camera battery charger, don’t forget your chargers!

That’s it. It all fits in the Tom Bihn Synapse. If I can live out of this bag for six months what superfluous items do you think you can cut out of your life to simplify? And if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. Please help me out by sharing using the buttons below!

 

  • Pazu Kong

    I read through the whole article, and I may buy some merino wool stuff and the Kikkerland Universal Travel Adapter.

    • Brandon Cronan

      Great! that kikkerland adapter is awesome.