Stop packing so much: The minimalist packing list
How to comfortably live out of a 26 litre backpack indefinitely
“And that’s all you own? In that bag?”. “Yes”, I answered. It was for the third time that an inquisitive friend had asked the same question. I’d just arrived back in London for a 7 day pit-stop after spending the previous 8 months in North America. Before that my partner Holly and I were UX designers in London. That year we quit our jobs, founded our own design agency and started working remotely for clients all over the world.
We got the tube to Heathrow for our first flight to Vancouver, it was then that I knew I’d made a huge mistake. The flight departed at 20:55, which meant a Friday rush hour trip on the Piccadilly line. This is an unpleasant enough experience, without the addition of a 70L ‘gap year’ rucksack. It wasn’t my fault, I’d been in the UK’s army reserve since I was 17, and a cadet before that. It had been drilled into me to be prepared and that bags are supposed to be heavy, it’s almost a rite of passage. But on that underground train, I realised that this type of packing wasn’t go to fly in our new nomadic lifestyle.
Fast forward to the tail end of 2014, I’m at Hong Kong’s ridiculously large airport heading over to Thailand for 3 months. I’ve got a tiny 26 litre backpack casually thrown across a shoulder which tops out at 12kg. The tiny bag, coupled with some impressive Hong Kong’ian logistical efficiency means I’m off the train and into the departure lounge in a speedy, fuss free 20 minutes.
This is an unapologetically long post. It’s an in-depth look at what gear I use to travel around the world, constantly, with only a 26L backpack. It’s written for the gear freaks and professional travellers. Newbies and veterans alike. If you just want to see the list, then skip to the end. If however, you’ve got a cup of tea and 15 minutes for a story, then read on.
*Why not read the June 2015 update of this packing list when you’re finished
The Packing List
The story starts with the backpack. Luggage is one of the most contencious issues in the travel community. Everyone has their brand of choice, and mine is Tom Bihn.
They’re not a well known company outside of the ‘professional traveller’ community. You won’t see them on Amazon or in Walmart. They don’t have a referral program so don’t appear on many travel blogs. Instead, they concentrate on quality, well designed products. As often is the case, the people shouting the loudest aren’t necessarily the ones to listen to.
We visited Tom Bihn’s Seattle factory on a rainy June morning and saw the team of seamstresses in the company factory. Unfortunately we didn’t get to meet the founder and lead designer the company is named after. But we left the factory shop with a confidence that we’d made the right decision, and 2 brand new backpacks.
I chose the Smart Alec bag. Its a 26L all black bag and to the casual observer it doesn’t look special or unique. And that’s the point. For the one bag traveller, standing out and looking like a traveller isn’t the aim. This is not the place for fashion statements.
It’s constructed of ballistic nylon which is custom made in the US for Tom Bihn. The interior is lined with an equally specialist nylon ripstop fabric imported from Japan. When you touch it, it’s like closing the door on a VW Golf. You immediately trust the engineer behind the design.
As well as the material quality, there is evidence of a craftsmans presence in the tiny details. It’s easy to make a rucksack, it’s difficult to make a rucksack you can live out of and it’s almost impossible to make one which you enjoy living out of.
The zips are big, chunky and have a water repellent seal. The top carry handle is soft, large and padded. You’ll find o-rings at strategic places around the bag to securely attach valuables. The side pockets each have a grommet in the bottom to drain the water from your water bottle which will leak at some point.
Inside the main compartment you’ll find 2 connectors. Tom Bihn sell a TSA approved laptop sleeve which has 2 webbing rails on the back. Once assembled, the sleeve glides up and down which not only keeps your laptop secured to the back of the bag, but allows you to breeze through airport security.
26 litres doesn’t sound much, but when it’s been designed with this sort of attention to detail, it’s cavernous. You can comfortably live out of it, and then use it as a ‘normal’ backpack around the city. There are plenty of bags which you can pack small with, but not many which will leave you with a smile.
On the road Holly and I run our UX design agency. With that, comes equipment. I travel with a Macbook Pro 15 Retina. It’s getting pretty battered now and there are more than a few dents, but I’m ok with that. I used to be quite precious with my technology, but now I view things as tools. Whilst in the bag it lives in a sleeve, but that’s as much protection as it gets.
I carry a 2TB USB3 external hard drive. At the moment it’s a Samsung unit, but everyone has a personal preference. I replace the drive every 12 months because it gets abused a lot. It’s better to replace it before it breaks, not after the fact. It’s partitioned into 2, with a Timemachine backup taking up 750GB. With this, if my Mac does go for a swim then I can be back up and running with a replacement within the day. There aren’t many corners of the world where Apple haven’t reached yet.
The Roost laptop stand is one of my favourite bits of kit. It’s an incredibly light and efficient design is perfect for small bag travel, whilst still hoisting your screen to eye level. It’s paid for itself already by curing my back ache after a couple of days. Along with this comes an Apple Magic Mouse and Anker Bluetooth Keyboard. The keyboard is cheaper and lighter than the Apple equivalent, though I’d admit it doesn’t have the same quality feel to it.
I carry an Apple AA battery charger too which charges the batteries for my mouse and toothbrush. It takes up very little space, and takes the standard Apple plug heads which makes for some more space savings.
For charging mobiles, I carry a Mu folding charger for when we’re in the UK or Hong Kong. It’s an amazing piece of design and my only complaint is that it has 1 USB port (though they’re bringing out a 2 port version in 2015). For the US and Asia I carry a Powergen plug. I also take a small portable battery charger for charging on the move.
Cables are kept to a minimum. There are 2 micro USB cables which have a threaded nylon sleeve. They’re robust and will last longer than their generic counterparts. I’ve a flat ethernet cable imported from China which gets used about once a year for debugging a dodgy AirBnb router and a Thunderbolt ethernet adaptor. I also carry an audio line-in cable because they’re always impossible to get hold of for the rare occasion you need one.
I carry a headphone splitter for connecting 2 pairs of headphones to a single source, handy for watching movies together. There is also an Airline headphone adaptor for the occasional plane which won’t let you use your own headphones. My headphones are folding Sennheiser PX 100s. They’ve proven surprisingly robust with only their foam cushions needing some elastic bands help to stay on.
Finally, I carry a Bear Wifi Extender for the rare occasion that they router is too far away to get a good signal. I take a Magsafe 2 adaptor so that I can still charge my Mac if I can only use an old style charger.
I’ve probably lightened my technology load by 30% in the last 12 months, and I’m considering losing even more. The biggest challenge I’ve found is having to cater for different plugs globally. It’s also worth noting that we live in such a globalised world, things are pretty easily replaced wherever you are. I started off my journey by carrying so many spares, but it turns out that you can find anything you need in most places.
Being a naturist traveller would be a lot easier. When I started this lifestyle, I had a good idea about what technology I’d need to take. But clothing? That was a whole new world. I took one look at my Gap filled wardrobe and knew things would have to change before we left.
Let’s start with the tops. I travel with 4 t-shirts, 1 jumper, 1 shirt and a waterproof jacket. The t-shirts are a mixture of my favourite Icebreaker thin Tech T(2), a Patagonia Capilene synthetic (1) and a heavier weight Icebreaker merino (1). The thin merinos dry incredibly quickly, are easy to handwash with normal soap and hold their shape very well.
The shirt is from Rohan, it’s made of some funky nylon esque fabric and has a hidden chest pocket behind a zip which I love. The jumper is just a normal mid layer hiking top made by Rab. My waterproof is actually designed for fell running and came from Patagonia (Houdin mens jacket). It weighs almost nothing, but still hasn’t wetted-out in some pretty hardcore Asian storms. The Patagonia branding is quite striking, but nothing a Sharpie didn’t sort out.
Moving down, I carry 1 pair of Oliver shorts. These guys started as a Kickstarter and make their multi-purpose shorts in California. They sell them on the promise that you can run, swim and look good, all in one pair of shorts. And I can confirm that it’s true. I’ve jogged around New York City, swam in Lake Tahoe and driven 5000 miles across North America, all in the same shorts. The material feels slightly like swimming shorts, but of a higher quality. They dry really quickly too.
I also take 4 pairs of Patagonia boxer briefs and 3 pairs of Tilley travel socks. Each of these items is perfect for handwashing with normal soap, and will dry easily overnight. Tilley actually claim that they’ll dry in an hour if you use a hairdryer, but I’ve never been in that much of a hurry.
I normally wear a pair of Levis which get replaced every 6 months. 6 months of constantly wearing any item of clothing is going to hammer it. This often means replacing things before they need replacing. Icebreaker don’t have shops in every city and they’re much much cheaper in the US than in Europe so they get replaced whenever we’re in the US. Part of this lifestyle is accepting that need to replace clothing often.
Finally, I have a pair of trainer socks, a pair of generic leather boots and a pair of running shoes for, well, running.
I’m going to start with toothbrushes as it’s been the bane of my existence for the last year. We started with this thin Phillips Sonicare electric model. We were sold on it’s weight but never really found it cleaned our teeth very well. That was replaced by a good ‘ol manual brush. We quickly realised that we weren’t competent enough to clean our own teeth and promptly placed a machine back in charge in the form of a $30 Walmart Oral B brush. This was excellent, but heavy. Not to mention the enormous charger we had to carry around, which wouldn’t even work in Europe because of the voltage difference.
To get around the charger issue we switched to this AA model, made by Oral B. It was a disaster, as we now know, there is a huge design flaw in that the battery door fails after a set number of uses. It turns out that not all AA batteries are the same length, and this brush wasn’t built with that in mind. Not to mention that it took 2 AA batteries and was as powerful as a gnat’s fart. So after a leaking battery incident, we threw it in the bin, declared ‘sod it’ to the bathroom mirror and brought this one from CVS in New York. It is amazing.
It’s called the Oral B Cross Action Power Toothbrush, and it’s available in the US, but I’m not sure about Europe. It takes 1 AA battery, which lasts for a month. It has a threaded battery door which has a rubber seal and even comes with a travel head to keep it clean. It’s as powerful as a normal one as far as we can tell. Finally, our quest for the perfect travel toothbrush is at an end.
Also in my wash bag is a bar of soap, a stick deodorant and a small travel towel. I try not to travel with liquids which hold you up at security and have a habit of leaking over everything at the most inconvenient times.
I’m going to let you into a secret, but not until the end of this section (that’s what we call a ‘hook’). It’ll be worth it though, I promise. Firstly, documents are important and you should look after them properly. It’s not the end of the world to get a replacement passport from an embassy, but it’s hassle you don’t need. Better to make sure you take care of them in the first place.
Mine live in a zip-loc bag, inside a sturdy zip pouch. I carry my Passport, 2 photocopies of mine and 1 of Holly’s. I also store my secondary bank cards. We have 2 joint accounts which means 2 cards for each account. We also have 2 emergency credit cards. There’s a print out of our Google 2 step authentication backup codes. We use 2 step authentication religiously, but would be in real trouble if we lost our mobiles. We treat these like a second passport.
All of this lives in the secret compartment in my Tom Bihn bag. There’s a void behind the top pockets, where with some industrial velcro you can make the perfect hidden pocket. It’d take more than the average pick-pocket to find them, short of stealing your whole bag. But you never let it out of your sight do you? DO YOU?
Here’s possible the most important tip of this entire piece. Never, NEVER be without a spoon. Got a bowl of pasta? A cup of beans? Good for you. How are you going to eat that with no spoon! Trust me, when you sit down at the airport food court after a 12 hour flight and realise that you forgot to pick up some silverware, you’ll feel like a king when you pull out your titanium spork.
Sometimes we take pictures, and for that we have the 3rd generation of the amazing RX100. Infact all the photos in this post were taken with it. Aren’t they pretty. It’s Sony’s nicest camera for the size and I’m pretty much in love with it.
Finally, aside from a sketchbook and a few pens, the last thing I want to tell you about is my mighty carabiner. I picked this up from Amazon. It’s rated for climbing so it won’t break and won’t seize up in a hurry. It’s also got a screw gate. And when you couple it with some ring pulls on your zips, you’ve got a near pick-pocket proof backpack.
It would be pretty easy for an unscrupulous person to steal something from my bag. It comes with nice big zip pulls. An experienced chap could undo one and pull something out in a second or less. You could padlock them, but then you look like you’ve got something to keep safe. Instead, get a screw carabiner. It’s enough of a deterrent to stop the opportunist thief, without having keys to loose or combinations to forget. You can also attach your bag to the chair you’re sitting on to stop someone running off with it too.
You might have noticed some weird colorful lumps on my kit. It’s not a tropical fungus, it’s an amazing material called Sugru.
It’s a putty which cures overnight into shock-absorbing rubber. It’s amazing and I’ve been a huge fan for years. It’s particularly useful when you’re travelling lightweight. I don’t own that many things, so the objects and equipment I do own need to their jobs perfectly. Everything in my bag is near perfect, or it wouldn’t be taking up precious room. Sugru lets me hack things and add features which make them completely perfect.
Take this portable USB charger for instance. It’s almost perfect because it’s near bullet proof thanks to it’s aluminim housing, the compact size and it charges from a simple micro USB port. It’s one flaw? It’s round so kept rolling off desks and tables. With a little dot of Sugru on the edge, the problems solved.
This sort of travel isn’t for everyone. Holly travels with the slightly larger Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45 and i’ve met travellers who can’t do anything smaller than a 70L hiking bag. But for me, there is no going back. To do this lifestyle we had to sell everything we owned. Beds, plates, books, everything. We didn’t own anything particularly nice so it wasn't that hard, but it did make me reconsider how I related to ‘things’. I now love not owning much. I love that I can pack up my entire life in 5 minutes (yes, I timed it). And I love that everything I carry has been carefully curated so that it’s reliable and fits in with my life perfectly.
James Turner @jamesturnerux
Why not read the June 2015 update of this packing list now you’ve finished
1 x Tom Bihn Cache laptop sleeve
1 x Macbook 15inch Retina
1 x Mighty mouse
1 x Anker wireless keyboard
1 x Mu folding UK USB plug
1 x Powergen US USB plug
2 x Threaded micro USB cable
1 x Anker Astro Mini 3200mAh portable charger
1 x Thin ethernet cable
1 x Thunderbolt ethernet adaptor
1 x Airline headphone adaptor
1 x Headphone splitter
1 x Magsafe 3 adaptor
1 x USB drive 32GB
1 x Bear extender
1 x Apple AA battery charger
1 x Audio line-in cable
1 x Sennheiser PX 100 Headphones
2 x Icebreaker Tech T t-shirts
1 x Patagonia CAPILENE 2 t-shirt
1 x Rohan Wayfarer shirt
1 x RAB Mid layer
1 x Oliver Apparel shorts
1 x Levi jeans
4 x Patagonia CAPILENE 2 boxers
3 x Tilley Travel socks
1 x Sports socks
1 x Patagonia Houdini Jacket (waterproof)
Transparent wash bag
1 x Oral-B Cross Action Power Toothbrush + heads
1 x Toothpaste
1 x Bar of soap
1 x Deodorant stick
1 x Small travel towel
1 x Ziploc bag
1 x Passport
1 x Photocopy of passport
1 x 2nd bank account cards
1 x Emergency credit card
1 x Google backup codes
1 x Running trainers
1 x Macbook charger + US charging cable + UK plug
1 x Kindle paperwhite
1 x Moleskin notebook
3 x Uniball Vision Needle pens
1 x Titanium spork
1 x Mini tripod
1 x Sony RX100 M3 camera
1 x Hard glasses case
1 x Spare glasses
1 x Carabiner
1 x Sea to Summit waterproof cover