Recommendations for better ways to pack light and enhance your travels!

Becky Searls
Apr 30, 2017 · 10 min read
Me with my 19L Tom Bihn Synapse, my now-normal travel bag for trips up to 6 weeks long (and probably longer!)

Note: this post was originally written in the spring of 2017. It has been updated as of January 2019!

I am an aspiring minimalist. Have been for years. A decade ago, just as I was making the transition from college student to first year teacher, I stumbled across Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits and found its simplicity and focus on mindful habits and ways of life extraordinarily attractive. Since then, I’ve done a few different things to bring the beauty of minimalism to bear on my daily life in several concrete ways including:

  • Cleaning out my closet in order to cultivate capsule wardrobe from which to choose my daily clothing. The internet is full of blog posts suggesting that we minimize our clothing options in order to decrease our so-called levels of decision fatigue as we make our way through our busy days. Streamlining low-hanging fruit choices such as what to wear each day, it is suggested, may keep our decision-making muscles stronger and thereby enable us to make better, healthier choices more in line with our long-term goals throughout the day, whether they be related to how we eat, exercise, or work. While it seems that mostly powerful men are those who thrive with a limited wardrobe, I think women can and should do it too.
  • Regularly choosing an area to declutter my home in the belief that outer order contributes to inner calm. Sometimes this is as simple as following Gretchen Rubin’s “one minute rule” or her surprisingly simple but effective momentum-building habit of making my bed daily. {2019 update: These days I also practice the weekly habit of tidying up by category using the KonMari method each Wednesday, inspired by, who else, but Marie Kondo? No matter what mood I’m in, going through this routine really does feel magically calming and sparks joy, I suspect because it decreases the mental load I carry, which seems to be another way of framing decision fatigue, albeit in a more gendered way}.
  • Slowly iterating on different bags and packing cubes to travel light without sacrificing essentials for trips of up to 6 weeks long (and probably longer, though that’s the longest I’ve gone to date!)

Traveling light

Today’s post will be about that last bullet point. I have travelled quite a bit in the past year as a component of my self-designed traveling sabbatical and it has caused me to get better and better at how I pack.

About a year ago, we went on our first 3-week-stint to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. I think I was still using the bag I’d been traveling with for about 3–4 years at the time, the 46L Osprey Porter.

Osprey 46L Porter, image courtesy of https://www.ospreypacks.com/us/en/product/porter-46-PORTER46.html

The Osprey 46L Porter bag was great because:

  • it was a backpack (allowing you to dash through the airport to make those tight connections on occasion, and also to blend in a bit more easily during peak rush hour on trains in Tokyo than dragging a wheeled suitcase would),
  • it was simple (if I remember right it had only 3 pockets, although the picture is an improved version with at least one more pocket!) including 1 small top pocket, 1 mesh pocket and 1 big open pocket/area for most of your belongings), and
  • it had plenty of space. In fact, I often found that I over-packed and didn’t use several of the items I brought.
Osprey 40L Farpoint, image courtesy of https://www.ospreypacks.com/us/en/product/farpoint-40-FARPNT40.html

This made me realize I could go do with less. So, I decided to downsize to the 40L Osprey Farpoint.

The 40L Osprey Farpoint was a huge improvement in my opinion over the 46L Osprey Porter bag for a couple of reasons:

  • it was still a backpack
  • it was more complex but in very useful ways (added a padded computer pocket, an extra mesh pocket large enough for a notebook and pens, and another open area).
  • it still had plenty of space, but helped me prioritize and leave behind some unnecessary items (did I really need a long-sleeve icebreaker shirt AND a hoodie PLUS my jacket? I’ve learned that if I’m asking myself a question like hat, the answer is always no.)

Around the time I was getting pretty good at optimizing my packing for the 40L Osprey, Justin was getting interested in the 19L Tom Bihn Synapse. I thought — no way, that’s where I draw the line.

Tom Bihn Synapse 19L, Image Courtesy of: https://www.tombihn.com/products/synapse-19?variant=25559033287

But…then I saw him research the bag extensively, order it along with the larger 25L Synapse to compare, and saw how well-crafted the bag was. In addition, the 19L Synapse:

  • had fantastic pocket options along the bottom, sides, and top of the bag in addition to its large open backpack area, making the (smaller) space it had (more) useful for a wide array of toiletries, packing cubes, shoes, snacks, etc.
  • had a nice contrast interior color, making it easier to find your stuff in the often dim light of hotels and airplanes.
  • was so small that it could always fit under the seat in front of you on an airplane, even on infamously tight flights such as RyanAir and other budget airlines.

So I decided to give the 19L Synapse a whirl. Paired with the perfectly-sized, super lightweight Eagle Creek packing quarter cubes, I can now fit everything I need for a trip of at least 6 weeks (maybe longer?) in my 19-liter, small, lightweight, comfy backpack.

Here is my go-to packing list..you’d think it would need to vary more depending on destination, but I’ve found over time that you can pretty much wear a nice pair of jeans and a nice, solid colored T-shirt anywhere you go in the world and be accepted:

  • Workout clothing (see some details in links below; this is always my #1 priority because I exercise almost every day and it needs to be breathable, quick-drying, and non-stink-holding. I’ll probably do a post at some point on the exact clothing I use for those interested!)
  • Device(s) and chords (depending on whether the trip is for work or pleasure I may bring only a kindle or iPad in addition to my iPhone, or I may back my MacBook as well. Honestly I usually don’t need a laptop but find it comforting to have and it also helps me not pack other nonessentials).
  • 1 T-shirt, 3–4 pair of socks, 3–4 pair underwear, 1 bra) ← links to my favorite brands included. Wool socks are a must for packing fewer (never get stinky) and for their ability to dry quickly; same goes for ExOfficio undies — though they run big so size down. Next Level are just my all-time favorite T-shirts, I like both the crew neck and V-neck for women and prefer a size L for V-neck and M for Crew Neck. Although not wool or quick dry, they DO dry quickly and do not seem to hold much smell, so after much experimentation with a variety of other quick dry options, I’ve decided that my favorite go-to T-shirt at home is also my go-to traveling tee.

Clothing Update: two years later in 2019, I am wearing Cuddl Duds T-shirts, the same darn tough wool socks, these icebreaker wool underwear, and knix bras.

  • 1 dry sack to do laundry daily (put in your workout clothes & yesterday’s t-shirt/undies, add just a little grated castille soap, plus some water and shake shake shake. Let it side while you shower, shake shake shake some more, rinse and wring out your clothing a bit. Then place it in a towel, roll up tightly and put the rolled-up towel under the hotel bed to soak up as much of the extra water as possible. Finally hang up your wet, clean clothing and it will be dry and ready to go by the next morning. If it somehow isn’t, or you are transferring later that day when it’s still wet, just pack it in your drysack as you transfer to your next destination to keep your other items dry, then take it out and hang to dry when you reach your next destination).
Dry Sack and Castille Soap — essentials for sink laundry and packing light! Images courtesy of: https://amzn.to/2H84BiA and https://amzn.to/2CilAc2
  • 1 bag of essential toiletries (and I do mean essential. If you find out you really needed something you forgot, you can find a store or pharmacy at your destination and purchase it!)
  • Flexible Travel-Friendly Water Bottle — I took several trips without a water bottle and consistently came out dehydrated and unhappy despite buying water as I went. So I finally put in some time to do some research and found this flexible folding water bottle and it is definitely worth the space in my bag.
This stuff is great straight out of the pack or mixed into your coffee to make a fun version of #bulletproof or #keto high-fat, low-carb coffee! Image courtesy of: https://phatfudge.com
  • SNACKS. I’m alone in this one —Justin is not a snack packer . And maybe over time I’ll relax a little, since, much like toiletries, you can purchase food anywhere you go, or you can fast for a day and survive/even thrive. I’m a fairly new convert to a low carb, high fat, well formulated ketogenic way of eating, however, and while I can buy food anywhere, I find that for me, I do a lot better with making good food choices that fall within my nutrition goals while traveling if I know I have several go-to options right there on my person. Some of my favorite keto-friendly snacks to pack are: nicks sticks, phat fudge, and eating evolved chocolate (their new keto cups are great!)

Snacks Update: 2 years later, I am less about the snacks and more about the sources of portable fat and tea in order to facilitate my daily fatty coffee and nighttime tea habit. I love keeping my routine while traveling and my AM and PM hot fatty drinks are a big part of that. So, I now tend to tavel with coconut oil travel packets, ghee travel packets, a mini salt shaker, a baggie of cinnamon (all to blend into my tea or coffee with a milk frother) and my favorite yogi tea bags.

  • Sometimes, depending on destination: swim suit, coverup (usually something that can double as a gym outfit or PJs or loungewear), and light weight flip flops.

I always wear my jeans (the best ones I’ve found to date for women — bah! why do our jeans have such terrible pockets and stretch out so quickly?! — are from express), my light-weight tennis shoes (my daily shoe plus workout shoe), my 2nd t-shirt, 2nd bra and my long-sleeve icebreaker shirt plus my coat on the plane because I get chilly and the layers help plus keep extra space in my bag.

Clothing Update, part 2: 2 years later in 2019, I am wearing these jeans from express which don’t stretch out! finally!) Also now wearing different nikes which are not as light weight but are better for walking around and working out and I find the tradeoff of better support worth. I still usually wear my long-sleeve icebreaker on the plane. I often also wear a uniqlo ultra light weight down vest too that can pack down to next to nothing and has great internal pockets for an iphone and passport while traveling, since again, girl pants are the worst for actual useful pockets.

A new hack I tried out on our last trip was wearing another full layer underneath my jeans and t-shirt/longsleeve: my workout leggings and a workout tank. This worked well for keeping me warm on the plane, but, you have to be careful because human tendency is to fill your space — so if I’m wearing the equivalent of 2 outfits on the plane and then see all that extra space in the bag I may be tempted to fill it with other stuff and then when it comes time to transfer from 1 destination to the next, scratch my head in confusion at how full my pack suddenly became.

When in doubt, I do without.

Or I try. To be honest..,I often freak out about 1 AM the night before leaving on a trip, doubt myself and add a purse/tote or repack in the 40L Osprey back, get the evil eye from Justin the next morning, remember my minimalist goals and jealously see his somehow-not-really-that-full 19L bag, and re-pack, discarding items left and right as I go, leaving a tornado of clutter in my wake, in the 19L bag, only finishing up moments before our lyft arrives to take us to the airport.🙄

But really, the mantra “When in doubt, Do without” is a good one. Anything you forget or “need” you can purchase at your destination. Usually, locating items you want or need involves wandering in a new place, always a fun adventure, or purchasing a useful, memorable souveneir to bring home with you!

So…definitely try packing light on your next trip, whether it’s for a weekend or a month. You can do it. Probaby the key item to make it doable is the dry sack and soap. Remember, you do laundry at home regularly and mostly wear the same 3 shirts over and over (plus let’s be honest, the same jeans, without washing them all that often)…so, why not do the same while traveling?


Note: none of the products I linked above are paying for this post. I just love these products. Though hint hint nudge nudge — if any of your companies would LIKE to pay me, please get in touch! :)

Finally, If you liked this article, click the💚 below so other people will see it here on Medium.

Better and Better

A publication about growth mindset, self-knowledge & improvement, and optimizing your life!

Becky Searls

Written by

Observations and insights on life and growth from a former Spanish teacher in transition. Into food, fitness, mindset, learning, & travel. 🥩🏃‍♀️💪🏋️‍♀️🤓📚✈️

Better and Better

A publication about growth mindset, self-knowledge & improvement, and optimizing your life!

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