The Science of Travelling Light

Motorbike & Red Earth

Red Earth Roads, Yunnan © Jo James

Eurgh – packing lists. I generally shun them as indicative of control-freakery, but given that my own packing is reduced to putting everything in a big pile, adding some things I won’t need, forgetting my toothbrush and then jamming the suitcase closed, I admit that it might be time to change.

While I was researching this post, I discovered the hidden world of hardcore ultra-light travellers. Take for example, the family of seven who travelled across Europe for three weeks with just a small backpack each, or letters from readers of One thing that they all recommend is using a packing list, so it looks like I’ll just have to get over it.

Beyond that, though, here are some guidelines for travelling light that I have arrived at myself, mostly through trial and much error:

Nyechen Tanglha Mountains in Tibet

High Heel-Free Zone, Tibet © Jo James

Be realistic about the kind of trip you’re taking and what you’re going to do on it
When I travel, I often take along aspirational things – books that I’d like to read but probably won’t, a yoga mat even though I won’t have time or space to practise, running shoes even though I don’t run regularly at home. Travelling can be a great way to stimulate personal change and growth, but there are limits; if you haven’t found time to do something at home, then why should you take it up when you’re on holiday? Likewise, taking along clothes that you merely hope you’ll have the opportunity to wear is often a waste of space – and I write this as someone who has took a pair of black stiletto heels on my first trip to Tibet, just in case we went for a fancy dinner. Tibet just ain’t that kind of place…

Think carefully and realistically about the trip you’re taking and pack only things that you know you’ll definitely use. If you’re not sure, or find yourself saying ‘Maybe we’ll go hiking after all, better pack the boots…’, then leave it behind and make do or buy what you need en route.

Road to Xining, Qinghai

Jackets required. En route to Xining, Qinghai © Jo James

Climate change
Admittedly, travelling light works better in some climates than others – sunny, warm and dry places being the easiest places to pack for. You won’t need bulky jumpers and sweatshirts and your laundry (see below) will dry in a snap. But what if the climate is unstable (hello, England!) or you’re travelling for a long time, through lots of different climate zones? In that case, it’s best to take one very warm jacket with you (I have this one), and one set of very light clothing, so that you have something to wear in very cold and very hot weather. Unless you’re going somewhere with arctic temperatures, the rest of your clothing can be thin layers – think about dressing like an onion.

Decanting toiletries into travel-sized bottles is the most time consuming thing that I bother doing but it’s for three good reasons: 1) It’s lighter. 2) You won’t have to check your luggage (unless you’re on a Chinese domestic flight, where they frequently don’t allow you to take any liquids through the security check). 3) You help to reduce the waste caused by using mini hotel toiletries – something that’s particularly important in rural places where this rubbish is likely to end up dumped behind the hotel…

Zhaoxing Main Street

Drip dryinh, Zhaoxing Main Street © Jo James

Laundry – a fact of life
The Lonely Planet’s advice to backpackers used to be to take two full sets of clothes (one to wear and one to wash), and a jacket – a practical, if occasionally pungent approach. You’ll have to do laundry on a long trip anyway, so it can be easier to pack light for a longer trip than for a short one. For a short journey, you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth spending time washing, and whether you’ll be able to dry your clothes as you go. If you’re backpacking or won’t have access to a tumble dryer, then take clothes made from technical fabrics – they will air dry much more quickly than cotton or wool.

Essential Luxuries
I doubt that a purist would say this, but I think it’s important to take a few things with you that you’ll really enjoy using en route. I remember reading of a war correspondent who had to submit a hefty compensation claim after her bag got blown up in Baghdad – she had a tough time explaining to her editor that expensive La Perla underwear was, for her, an absolute essential. Perfume, tea, PSP, whatever you fancy, as long as it’s portable.

Buy it if you really need it
The final word in packing light: Now that you can get almost everything almost everywhere, if you really need something en route, you can probably buy it. Unless, of course, you’re halfway up K2. (Although I might add that if you’re planning to summit K2 and are looking for packing tips online, you probably have more serious problems ahead.)

Now, to the packing list!

P.S. Soundtrack for today’s post: Nina Simone, Ain’t Got No, I Got Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s