I haven’t always been a travel minimalist. In fact, when I was a teen I was very much a maximalist in general (my weakness has always been cute clothes dammit!).
However it all started with a cheap 35l backpack. Lugged through muddy fields at festivals, stuffed to the brim with secret stashes of alcohol and dumped in damp tents, it was always my trusty festival go-to.
Then in 2014 I decided to set out on my first ever trip. And that trip was probably the biggest trip anyone could take for someone who had hardly left the country before – a whole year across 4 continents. Oh, and completely solo.
That backpack was going to come with me.
I wasn’t sure if it was the fond sentiments associated with it or the fact I was just naive (or perhaps more like too stingy to buy another). But without hesitation, I packed it with everything I thought I’d need for a year on the road. Turns out, I actually brought more than enough.
That year of backpacking, with everything I needed to live comfortably in only one bag (the size of a day pack), changed me. It’s a cliche, but travelling so light really did change my life.
So here’s my story of how travelling made me a minimalist in my everyday life, and my top tips for minimalist travel.
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A New Desire To Collect Experiences And Not ‘Things’
If I was lying on my deathbed right now, at the tender age of 29, would I be thinking, “oh I wish I had more stuff in my house?” or “I wish I bought that huge telly on special!!”? Hell no!
I know I’d be pining after all those places I desperately wanted to visit around the world. All those delicious flavours I have not yet tried and all those incredible, like-minded people who would fill my life with laughter and joy that I would now never meet. I don’t need more ‘things’ to feel fulfilled. I want more experiences.
Whereas many people get a buzz from a shopping spree, I get a wave of anxiety now. And it’s not only from the crowds of people. I’m paranoid about collecting more ‘crap’ that is ultimately going to end up in landfill, as well as my plastic footprint that is harming the world. I’m worried about where I am going to put things when I already feel like I have enough. And what if I move house or go abroad? Well, it’s just going to make everything a lot harder lugging even more stuff in tow.
This new attitude of not wanting tonnes of ‘things’ has even seeped into my one true weakness – clothes. I haven’t bought new clothes in over a year now and when I do, I have a ‘one in and one out’ wardrobe policy!
In true Marie Kondo fashion, I think twice before I actually buy anything. There are two reasons for a purchase. It either has to be something I really need that I will use for a long time (or something specific I’m required to have, such as for work). Or it has to be something that really brings me joy. That can either be through consumption like a nice bottle of wine, or something to hold on to. Like a new record from a band I love for the record player I inherited from my grandad.
My purchasing and life mantra: quality over quantity and experiences over excess.
Seeing people with so little
If there is one thing travelling does when you’re from a ‘wealthy’ country, it’s to dish you up a huge slice of humble pie.
After experiencing the grotty favelas of Kingston in Jamaica or the barefoot kids in Cambodia selling items on the street to make money for their family, I’m always left feeling embarrassed at my ‘first world’ problems. Every single time I travel, I am reminded of how truly fortunate I am to have been born where I was. Most importantly, it reminds me I need to do more in my own life to give back to people less fortunate than I.
Here I am with a house and room full of crap I do not need. Things that cost me hundreds of pounds that I may only use a couple of times. Things I am hanging onto for no particular reason which would be better off in the hands of someone less fortunate, who’d actually use it. Charity can most definitely start from home.
I can’t deny that this discomfort at the frivolous way I live my life, compared to so many others, has changed my mindset for the better. We really do not need as many ‘things’ as we think we do. It’s just our social and economic conditioning.
The concept of consumption and having more and more to enhance our lives is so ingrained in the fibres of our being and workings of everyday life, that it’s almost impossible to see. It’s only when you extract yourself from your environment and see the plight of others first-hand, and then take a good hard look at your own life, that you realise how our own society isn’t built on community, kindness and humility – it’s built on greed, consumption and selfishness.
Taking a step back and seeing humans happy with so much less, inspires me in so many ways – including to make a change.
The Realisation That Everything I Need Can Fit On My Back
When I travelled on my year long trip with my 35l backpack, I had everything that I could possibly have needed. I even had some clothing that I didn’t even wear for the first 6 months and so I gave it away. I’ve learnt that realistically, and on the most simplistic level, there are only four things you need to travel:
- Money/bank cards
- Clothing and footwear
- Basic toiletries
Of course things like a mobile phone and charger makes life more pleasant and convenient, however if you strip it back to bare essentials, that above list is basically it.
That idea of minimalist travel – only relying on a few possessions which can fit into one bag – really makes me feel free. Weirdly, it also gives me a lot of comfort. And that idea of comfortable minimal living on the road has spilled into my life at home too (though of course I own more than a bag’s worth of stuff – it’s more the sentiment of the less the better!)
When it comes to one trip with different climates, this is somewhat more of a challenge to prepare for. It certainly calls for more organisation when you’re travelling with only one bag. However packing a few key staples as well as having the openness to swap, give away and use second hand is the key.
Possessions only hold you back
The more possessions you own and are paying off on credit, the more you have to work in order to pay for them, and the less likely you will be in a position to travel. I have no mortgage, no car on credit, no loans and therefore no debt or monthly payoffs.
And it’s not just financial commitments that I’ve realised hold you back, there’s emotional commitments and connections to possessions too.
If you have a house of things you’re attached to, that is also a factor as to why it can seem so hard to let go for any extended period of time. Excuses such as “I can’t leave my house, it won’t be safe“, or “I need to stay to water my garden/plants” get in the way. The less you have, the easier it is to pack it all up and go, or leave it behind.
Granted, the older I get the more tempting these commitments, such as buying a house gets. But I constantly aim to get rid of surplus items so they don’t hold me back from the spontaneous travel life I wish to lead.
Learning the important skill of organisation
With living out of a bag for any period of time comes the new skill of being organised simply because it’s the only way you can cope without going insane. The constant pulling things in and out and repacking can get tedious and irritating.
It’s always the way that you want that thing right at the bottom when you’ve just finished packing it.
But when you think ahead and plan what items should go where in your luggage, it makes it tonnes more bearable. The beauty with minimalist travel is that you take less and only the essentials. You therefore have to make these things accessible and easy to find in your luggage so you actually plan where they go.
Rolling clothes, organising items into packing cubes and having a place for everything in your bag makes life on the road so much easier.
My tips for minimalist travel:
Travelling minimally does come quite naturally to me. Minimalism is a mindset my mum has and craves, so I am conscious it’s probably rubbed off on me too.
I understand that for others, it’s a much harder concept and even harder to emulate.
So now that I’ve given you some background on how travel has shaped me into the minimalist I am today, I thought I’d shared some of my tips for travelling and packing minimally for those who may not be a natural!
1. Aim for hand luggage only
Taking hand luggage forces you to be organised and bring only the essentials with you due to the limited space. The bigger the bag, the more likely you are to fill it, even if it’s not needed. It’s sort of bag psychology!
Not only is it cheaper to use hand luggage as you don’t have to pay for the bag to go into the hold, it’s quicker too. You can literally exit the airport and waltz right off without having to wait ages for your bag.
If your bag is small it also means you’re less likely to fill it with souvenirs and odds and ends you pick up as there’s no room!
The bigger the bag the more stuff you fill it with, so take a small one – it’s as simple as that!
2. You can do laundry!
I once met a lovely Argentinian guy in a hostel in Florence in Italy. He had the biggest backpack I’d ever seen in my life as well as a suitcase for only 4 weeks of European travels. I asked him why all the baggage and his answer was “I didnt realise I would be able to do laundry”. So yep, he’d literally packed a fresh outfit for every single day of his 4 week trip.
I don’t mean to pick on him as he was absolutely lovely, however this just proves that so many people just don’t consider the fact that laundrettes are everywhere around the world.
Weeks and weeks of outfits are not required. You only need a few as you can easily arrange for your clothing to be washed. Often hostels and hotels have their own laundry service so you can go out for the day and forget all about it.
I also hand wash items quite regularly as it’s sometimes easier to grab a small bag of laundry powder and wash a couple of things in a sink. You can even get great eco-friendly multi-purpose soaps that do laundry, dishes and even your body!
3. You’re Not Going to the Moon
Sometimes I feel like people pack as if they’re going to another planet. Shops do exist where you’re going, unless you’re headed somewhere very remote!
So on the off chance that you need to buy something that you didn’t decide to pack, you can! We’re all human and the products that you are after will be available in one form or another in a different country too.
I often leave these ‘just in case’ items out because from experience, you rarely actually use them and they take up valuable space!
4. Leave the makeup behind!
Ladies – ditch the makeup! And this is coming from someone who has worn makeup daily since they were 13 years old. I would even put makeup on to pop out to do a grocery shop just in case I bumped into someone I knew.
Humid, hot climates and sports/activities makes wearing makeup impractical. Especially if you’re travelling solo (or with a partner or friend) no one cares that you haven’t got a full face on!
Leaving makeup behind means you’ll not only save space and weight, you’ll also give your skin a break!
5. Use A Packing Cube For Clothes Only
I had always heard so much hype about compressible packing cubes. Then I borrowed one off my partner and realised why!
You can fold up clothes in a bag, zip it up, then use the second zip to compress it even further. It definitely keeps your clothes organised and saves loads of space in your bag or suitcase.
If you want to travel minimally, I’d only recommend bringing a small packing cube. The way it packs clothes so tightly means you can fit in more than you think. So a small one does the job. Packing cubes are especially great if you have a backpack as there’s no more rifling around from the top trying to find the item you’re looking for.
Also – stick with just one for clothing. If you use any more than that you’ll be tempted to add more things to fill it!
6. Take Solid Toiletry Products (If Required)
Solid toiletries such as deodorants and shampoos are one of my staple travel products. Not only are they better for the environment due to no plastic, they’re just so transportable. They are light, small and you don’t have to worry about a bottle exploding in your bag.
If you follow point one, solid toiletries can also be taken in your hand luggage which is extremely practical.
Sometimes you don’t even need to bring wash items. If you know you’re staying in a hotel that will provide toiletry miniatures, just use those instead. Often hotels have a recycling scheme for unused soaps and shampoos so you need not always feel bad for leaving them behind.
7. Check the weather before you go
I know this may sound super obvious, but checking the weather for both day and night so you know what type of clothing to pack is definitely something I have failed to do in the past. Also I’d recommend doing your research about altitudes.
I have travelled New Zealand in a van in winter when I thought it would be warm. Similarly, I have frozen my butt off at Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia at high altitude because I didn’t realise how cold it could get. It meant that I had to ditch some clothes I had brought and buy some jumpers instead which could have been avoided if I had only done some research.
8. Think must-haves not nice-to-haves
It’s so tempting to pack things because they’re attractive or just because you like them. Often pretty does not equal practical. It really helps to look at every item and think “is this a must-have or a nice-to-have?” This is a great test to see whether everything you are packing is worth it.
9. Plan well in advance
If you pack last minute like you’re fleeing a zombie apocalypse, you’re more likely to not only pack more but pack inefficiently. For example, you’ll bring shorts that don’t go with any of your tops or forget something.
Everything you pack should be thought out and serve a purpose. I always write a list at least a week in advance to ensure everything is planned.
Then, when it comes to a few days before a trip, I’d advise lying all your intended items out in front of your and get rid of anything that you deem to be surplus.
As you can see, minimalist travel has transformed my outlook and spilled out into many aspects of my everyday life. These minimalist travel tips just scratch the surface, but I hope they have helped you to think about packing and travelling a little lighter.
Going travelling Soon? Don’t forget these essentials!
Flights: compare and search for the cheapest flights using Skyscanner
Accommodation: hotels to hostels, glamping to apartments, I always use Booking.com
Tours: to find the best group tours and activities worldwide (with up to 20% off), use Viator
Visa: don’t forget to check the entry requirements for the passport you are travelling with
Inspiration: to kick-start your next adventure, how about Lonely Planet’s Guide to the World?
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*This post may contain affiliate links meaning should you purchase a product via this link, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These are still products I use or believe in regardless. See my privacy and disclosure policy for more.*