How to Travel for a Long Time with only Hand Luggage

Let’s start with why anyone would bother travelling lightly. What are the advantages? What does travelling lightly mean? When is travelling lightly possible and when is it not appropriate?

I define travelling lightly as meeting the carry-on criteria on most airlines. This would be a bag weighing less than 7kg and a handbag or laptop bag. I travel with a 25 litre Lowe Alpine backpack and a handbag.  A roller bag is really nice when you’re not travelling light, but when you’re only handling 7kg’s a back-pack should OK.  Back-packs also tend to be lighter, which means more pay-load.

With only a small backpack and my handbag, I’ve travelled Europe, USA, South America, Asia, Morocco and parts of Australia. The longest duration of travel with only these items was 10 months. I’ve also done a 5 month trip and a 3 month trip travelling lightly.

I really love the security and ease of having less stuff to deal with when travelling. I don’t have to worry about the airline losing my check-in luggage or tampering with it or stealing from it. I am close to all my possessions at all times so they are more secure. My backpack is small enough that I can have it next to me when I sleep on an overnight train.

With only a light backpack to carry, you have so much more mobility. We got off the plane in Mexico city and caught the subway to our accommodation. If I was dragging a massive roller bag, I would’ve felt too vulnerable to tackle a busy subway not to mention struggling to negotiate stairs with a heavy, massive bag amongst hordes of rushing commuters.

Obviously there are times when traveling light is not possible. For example, if you’re off skiing with loads of bulky gear.  Young kids and babies tend to need lots of stuff. Also, if you are going to places where the temperature is less than zero. You will then require more bulky items to stay warm.

So what are my top tips for travelling lightly…..

Be Ruthless – it almost goes without saying, but you need to review what you’re taking and make sure every single item is really needed and if possible will serve multiple purposes.  Think through each item and try to substitute it with something that’s smaller, lighter and more useful.  For example we have a single compact worldwide travel adaptor that also charges two USB devices at the same time. This gets a lot of use!

Layer for warmth – Carrying a thin long-sleeved merino thermal top takes hardly any room but adds a lot of warmth. Worn in combination with a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, a soft shell jacket and a sarong around my neck as a scarf, I’m quite happy in temperatures down to 0 degrees Celsius. Merino clothing is quite convenient for travelling lightly because it’s very light and dries quickly, provides a lot of warmth for its weight and amazingly, can be worn for many, many times without getting smelly. I can confirm (somewhat sheepishly) that I’ve worn a merino singlet for about 50 times without washing and it didn’t smell bad at all. Amazing stuff! The big down side of Merino clothing is that insects love to make holes in it. I guess because it’s a natural material, insects seem to favour it over other materials and it’s not uncommon to get out an expensive Merino item and find tiny holes in it. It makes me really cranky and I hope that manufacturers find a solution to this soon!

Consider the weather when you are planning your trip. If you want to travel lightly, then visit places during the warmer seasons. For example, we headed to South America as North America moved to winter.

Wear your heaviest outfit when you are flying. The size and weight of your luggage will get the most scrutiny when you checking in for a flight. Wear your jeans, closed in shoes and jacket to minimize the size of your backpack.

Wash your clothing often at your accommodation – Naturally, if you don’t have much luggage space, you won’t have outfits to last you a week without washing. I like to say, we carry “one to wash, one to wear and one to spare!” We carry a small zip lock bag of washing powder and do a wash in the sink at the hotel. I tend to wash an item or two every night whereas my travel companion will store up his dirty laundry for a few days and do a much bigger wash.

A handy trick to substantially cut down on drying time is to place your hand wrung item into the hotel towel and wring the towel. The towel draws out even more moisture from your item of clothing and will significantly reduce the drying time. Place your damp items in well ventilated areas and increase the ventilation in the room if you can e.g. turn on the fan.

Quick dry fabrics from outdoor shops will dry overnight however I find they are really terrible in warm weather since they don’t breath.  In fact, I would steer clear of any quick-dry synthetic fabric shirts (even those with vents and flaps etc).  Quick dry pants, shorts and skirts seem to be OK. Natural fabrics like cotton, linen and merino breathes well and dries quickly.

You need a lot less toiletries than you think. These shampoo and conditioner advertisements on TV will have you think that to wash your hair, you need a handful of the product. They have a vested interest in making money by selling more product! I find that only a tiny amount suffices and it makes the small 100ml containers allowed in hand luggage go a LOT further. Slowly reduce the quantity of shampoo and conditioner you use at home and actually see how little will still leave your hair clean and manageable. The money you save from buying shampoo and conditioner, you can put in your travel piggy bank!

Roll, don’t fold! Rolling your clothes seems to minimize their volume in your backpack and allows you to pack more densely. It also leaves less unsightly wrinkles in your clothes.

Mix and Match and Multi-use. Pick a colour scheme and choose only clothing items that go with everything else in the bag. This maximizes how many combinations you can have from a small number of items. I also bring items that I use for multiple purposes. I bring a sarong which I use as a cover-up during swimming, a pillow during plane flights, a scarf in cold weather and a modesty scarf for temple visits. My long-sleeved travel shirt doubles as my swimming sun protection shirt. You get the idea! Yes, you will still be wearing the same stuff all the time and it does get boring but I think about it as my travel uniform and the energy I save from deciding what to wear in the morning can be channelled into more sightseeing!

Shoes – this can be a tough one, but I find that I can get by with one pair of decent walking shoes and one pair of light-weight sandals.  The shoes must be chosen carefully since you’re going to wear them a lot (so you’d better really like them) and to everything from a fancy dinner treat to a mountain climb.  It is possible cover a wide range of uses with one pair of shoes if you look for a pair of walking shoes that are low-key enough to pass as street shoes.  This is definitely not an item to scrimp on!  In the course of travelling for a few months and doing loads of walking, lesser quality shoes just won’t last. Trying to find great shoes when on the road is a real hassle, so don’t compromise. I pack a pair of sandals as well. I like to have them for the beach and in case the showers in a camp-site are of dubious hygiene. I used to wear Ipanema sandals which were amazingly durable. Currently, I’m using a pair M Dreams sandals. Both brands are compact, light and waterproof.

Shopping When you’re travelling light, shopping is often not possible. During my 10 month trip, I collected earrings as souvenirs because they don’t take up much space in my bag. For larger items like clothing, the rule is that if you buy something, you have to throw something away. Another alternative that some travellers use is to post things home, but in my experience, it’s rarely worthwhile once postage is taken into account. The most important thing to bring home with you after travelling are the photos you take and the memories you make!

Electronics are really important to travelling in this day and age. Being able to access the internet on the road is really useful, in particular for long trips to keep in touch with friends and family as well as researching the next stage of your journey.  Lots of documents and reference information can be stored on your devices. In particular, guide books are now available in electronic format and this saves loads of space and weight.  However, what would happen if you lost or had one of your devices stolen?  Think about this and pack a spare or a backup thumb drive with any important data.

Camping and Special Gear – we’ve been camping quite a bit whilst travelling and had some really great times doing it.  The trick we use is to buy camping gear when we need it, then on-sell it when we’re finished.  Since camping costs so much less than staying in hotels or even youth hostels, the extra cost of buying camping gear from time to time is almost always justifiable.

Still bring the important stuff! Just because you want to travel light, don’t neglect to bring the important stuff. I like to bring a copy of my glasses prescription and spare pair just in case. Bring an ample supply of your prescription drugs as well as your immunization records if they are relevant for where you are going e.g. yellow fever. Bring sunscreen and insect repellent. I bring photocopies of my passport and also a bank statement. The bank statement is to prove to countries that you have the means to leave their country even if you haven’t booked your outgoing flight as yet.

In most scenarios, you will still be able to buy something if you need it! This is the most important thing! Let’s assume you forgot your toothbrush or your sunscreen or you’ve run out of shampoo! In most situations, you will be able to buy these items on the road. It’s not a big issue! Even in the unlikely event that you get invited to a black tie function out of the blue, you are most probably be able to buy that gorgeous shimmering ball gown wherever you are. No need to pack that in your suitcase!

Hope you have found my tips useful. What are your most useful travel hacks? Do tell! I’d love to know!