Minimalist Travel: How to Travel the World with a Backpack and Little Else

Minimalist Travel: Jon Santiago in Stockholm

Anyone who’s ever traveled will know the scene I’m about to describe.

Unzipped and unpacked, your bags lie open on the floor. Shirts, sweaters, shorts, and socks. Pants, passport, phone, and plugs. Your room is ground-zero for pre-trip chaos.

As a result, anxiety starts to kick in. In less than 24 hours, you’ll be on a plane, en route to somewhere foreign and far from home. At the last minute, you’re scrambling to pack, wishing you had started much sooner.

For many of us, packing is a burden. It’s tedious and the least fun part of the adventure. What should you bring? What should you leave? These are the questions that boggle the minds of many.

But, there is a solution. I’ve found that it lies in the art of minimalist travel, the idea that you can explore the world more with less.

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Why Minimalist Travel?

Whether you’re gone two weeks or two months, a minimalist approach to travel helps in a myriad of ways. But, there are two reasons in particular that stand out.

Reduces Travel Stress

Airports are hectic. Long lines at check-in counters and security checkpoints are a pain, even if you’re running on time. A lighter bag is one less hindrance to manage in such a busy environment.

A lighter bag also can be the difference between visiting one place or more. For ambitious travelers, minimalist travel allows you to move at a much faster pace. Early in my first long-term trip around Europe, I visited 10 countries in the opening two months. Know what helped? Traveling with one, carry-on-sized backpack.

Differentiates Needs vs. Wants

For most of us, the line between needs and wants is hard to see. The modern age has brought wealth, but it’s also brought excess, too. We’re living in the most prosperous era in human history. And as a result, most of us have a tough time separating the essential from the non-essential.

Minimalist travel teaches you how to differentiate between your needs and your wants. By practicing its principles, we can develop a better sense for what is and isn’t important.

Having a sense for what matters isn’t only relevant to travel; it’s applicable to the rest of your life, too. Just ask the Minimalists. Your world becomes a lot less complicated when you to decide to declutter.

My Principles of Minimalist Travel

Experience has been one of my greatest teachers. Since 2016, I’ve visited close to 30 countries and counting.

When I first started traveling, I turned to Google for guidance. I read travel blogs and listened to travel podcasts about the topic of packing. Over time, I took bits and pieces of others’ advice and combined them with my own.

Through experience, I also noticed patterns emerge about traveling with less. And as a consequence, I’ve extracted their essence into a set of five principles I try my best to follow. The best part? They’re applicable to any length trip.

Principle #1: Your Bag Is a Friendly Constraint

Minimalist travel begins with the bag you use. The suitcase or backpack you choose will influence how much you pack. The bigger the bag, the more you’ll bring. The smaller the bag, the less you’ll take. So, what do you do?

Choose a bag you can stow in an overhead storage bin. Each airline is different, but usually the maximum dimensions of a carry-on are 21” x 14” x 9” inches. As long as your bag is no bigger than that, you should be fine – even if you decide to check it in.

Using a carry-on bag caps what you can bring. You’re forced to focus on the things that you need, like your passport and clothes, as opposed to the things you don’t. What doesn’t fit gets left out.

It helps to look at your bag as a game. For me, I see packing my bag like a puzzle to solve. When I make a conscious effort to pack light, I win.

For most of my trips, I lean on one main bag: a Tortuga v2 travel backpack. I bought it ahead of my first long-term journey in 2016, and it’s been reliable ever since. It adheres to most airlines carry-on requirements, so I’ve rarely had to check it in. Tortuga has since discontinued this bag, but they have new models that are likely better.

Principle #2: Choose Versatile Over Fashionable

When I lived in Las Vegas for a year, I had an old colleague who loved high-end fashion. For the sake of this story and his privacy, let’s call this friend David.

He’d often come to the office wearing this black track jacket his girlfriend gave him for his birthday. The jacket was nice, but nothing special (Sorry, David). It shocked me to find out this jacket, which happened to be Gucci, cost around $300 to $500.

When I travel, I never wear anything that bourgeois. Instead, I bring clothes I can wear across different climates and occasions. Versatility is my main priority when I’m in the market for travel clothes.

Most of my clothes are synthetic rather than cotton. Synthetic clothes are breathable and light, making them less of a burden to carry. Synthetic clothes also dry faster. This is particularly helpful when doing laundry.

Most of my clothes are also plain. You’re more likely to find me wearing a solid blue or black t-shirt than anything else. I go into more detail about the kinds of clothes I bring in a section below.

Principle #3: Think Short-Term, Not Long-Term

Minimalist travel requires you to think in days, not weeks or months. When preparing for any trip, I pack like I’m traveling for no more than 10 days.

This arbitrary limit simplifies my process of packing. The 10-day cap encourages me to think about what I need versus what’s nice to have. As a result, I subtract more than I add to my bag and have less stuff to worry about when I travel. It helps me to ask one simple question:

What’s one outfit I can wear per day?

For trips that last weeks or months, I know I can always do laundry when I run out of clean clothes. You’ll have to wash more often, but lugging around a lighter bag is a worthwhile tradeoff.

Principle #4: Leave What You Can Buy

I don’t pack stuff I can buy or find on the road. Things like toiletries are all items I could pick up at a local pharmacy or grocery store. It’s easy to find compact forms of those kinds of things, too. You don’t have to worry about settling for an oversized version you likely won’t finish.

Leaving items you can buy on the road saves space for your essentials. And for those of you that choose to carry-on rather than check-in, it makes airport security less of a hassle, too. No need to worry about the 3-1-1 rule many countries adhere to for air travel.

Principle #5: Accept That You’ll Forget

Nobody is perfect. We’re all prone to making mistakes, including when we travel. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll forget to bring something.

Usually, the thing that you forget wasn’t that important anyways. If it was, you likely wouldn’t have left it. More often than not, true valuables, like your passport, are rarely the things you leave behind.

But of course, sometimes you might leave something that actually matters. If this happens, don’t beat yourself up. Easier said than done, I know, but all it takes is practice. Use every moment of error to try going easy on yourself, and as a gentle lesson in patience.

One Last Word About My Minimalist Travel Principles

These principles are recommendations, not absolute law. They’re meant to advise, not command, if minimalist travel is your goal.

Make exceptions if you want, because what matters to you may not matter to others. For example, backpackers might not need a laptop whereas digital nomads do. In the end, exercise judgment as best you can.

What Do I Pack For a Long-term Trip?

Minimalist Travel: My Backpack

I’ve found there are 12 categories of essentials that I bring with me on all my extended trips. I define a long-term trip as one that lasts at least a month. The following things are stuff I don’t travel without.

Identification

I always bring two forms of identification with me: my passport and driver’s license. I used to carry a third form of ID, an American passport card, but I lost it when I visited Japan. Situations like that are why I carry more than one ID.

When I’m out and about, I rarely carry my IDs. I’ve found it enough to keep a picture of my passport on my phone to show if asked for identification. It doesn’t hurt to keep a paper copy on hand, too.

Credit and Bank Cards

I carry two credit cards with me on every trip: the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Barclays Arrival+. Both earn redeemable points on travel rewards like free flights. They also don’t charge fees on overseas transactions. Their annual fees ($95 for Chase and $89 for Barclays) aren’t cheap. But, they’re worth the price considering how much I travel.

I used to travel with an ATM/Debit card that was connected to a checking account with Charles Schwab. With Schwab, I could withdraw local currency from ATMs with no added transaction fees. Schwab refunds the surcharges at the end of each month. I’ve since canceled my Schwab account after finding out that my Chase checking account could serve the same purpose.

Packing Cubes

These are a lifesaver when it comes to organization. I use packing cubes to make travel a much more manageable experience. They’re helpful for separating clean clothes from dirty ones.

Soft-shell Jacket

This item aligns with my minimalist travel principle of versatility. With a fleece inner-lining, a soft-shell jacket keeps me warm in cold climates. But at the same, its lightweight and breathable to wear in warmer ones. Its synthetic exterior is also great for staying dry in the rain and protected from the wind.

I bought my soft-shell jacket at a Columbia outlet store a few years ago. But other brands, like North Face or Patagonia, have great options too.

Shoes

Rather than bringing different shoes for different situations, I wear trail runners. My pair, which I bought for $30 at an Adidas outlet store, are versatile enough for hiking or a casual night out.

Sandals

Sandals are a great break from shoes. Wearing them also allows me to pack fewer socks. I bought a pair of durable sandals from the Columbia store where I purchased my soft-shell jacket.

Socks

As I stated in minimalist travel principle No. 2, most of my clothes aren’t cotton. I try to leave cotton socks at home because they absorb more odor and take longer to dry. Synthetic or merino wool socks are better because they’re lightweight and dry faster. Adidas Climalite and SmartWool are two types of socks that I wear.

Shirts

I usually wear long-sleeve and short-sleeve Heattech shirts by Uniqlo. From exercise in the gym to a casual evening out, these plain-colored tops are great for any situation. I also bring at least one collared shirt in the event I attend a more formal occasion.

Shorts and Pants

There are three types of shorts that I bring with me on every trip.

  • A pair of Patagonia board shorts.
  • One or two pairs of basketball shorts for exercise.
  • A pair of khaki shorts for casual situations.

For pants, I have a pair of cotton jeans that I bought at the Gap. I also like to have a pair of sweatpants, which are comfortable to wear on long plane rides.

Underwear

Can’t explore the world without some good boxers! I use underwear from ExOfficio. They’re lightweight and dry fast, which makes washing a cinch.

Electronics

Since I work online, I bring my laptop with me wherever I go: a Mid-2012 Macbook Pro Retina with a 15.4-inch screen. I also never leave without my iPhone, which I’ve unlocked for international use. An international travel adapter is a must, too. I use one that’s made by ConAir.

I also bring one pair of bluetooth headphones with me. I use Apple Airpods for listening to music and podcasts.

Writing Materials

I keep a journal that I write by hand. It’s part of a mindful practice I started at the end of my first long-term trip. To do this, I always carry a notebook and pen to jot what’s on my mind every morning.

Eyewear

I can’t see without glasses or contact lenses, so I always have these on hand. I wear glasses most of the time since I use disposable contacts. Wearing glasses frees me from overpacking more lenses than I might need.

Daypack

Since I usually travel with one bag, I also carry a daypack. Having a small bag comes in handy for carrying a couple things on a hike or going grocery shopping.

See and Do More With Less

Travel can be transformational. Don’t let thoughts of what to pack weigh you down. Simplify instead by traveling with less. You might surprise yourself with what you learn when you do.

Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. I earn a small commission if you decide to purchase some of the items mentioned.

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Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.

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