After years of wandering from country to country with just a carry-on, I’ve learned to minimize. That’s not surprising; travelling light becomes an art for any experienced traveller.
Each time I go, the load gets a little lighter as I realize what I don’t actually need. So what I’m left with for this list is truly the best of the best of travel gear.
I’ve been a nomad for most of the past 15 years, typically spending a few months in each country. Favorite spots have included Mexico, Brazil, India, France, Portugal, Catalonia, Germany, Ireland, Canada, and Mozambique. And no, I haven’t needed more than a carry-on for living well and adapting in any of these wonderful lands.
There are many benefits to minimalist travel and packing light. If you’re dubious, check that link for the full argument, but they boil down to easily improvised, carefree plans; more and better adventures; saving money on luggage fees and storage; and less anxiety about loss or theft.
Here then is what I’ve learned about what to take, and what not to take. I’ll offer my minimalist packing list below, some suggestions specific to men and to women, and even some tips for those losers who can’t manage to pack so light.
I also link throughout to full reviews of travel gear that we’ve investigated in depth; those linked reviews also suggest alternatives and adjustments that work well in some cases.
- Guiding Principles for this Minimalist Packing Guide
- The Minimalist's Travel Clothing
- Luggage for Travelling Light
- For Bathing, Hygiene, and Wellness on the Go
- The Minimalist's Electronics for Travel
- Laptop-Tablet Combo: A Chromebook
- An Online Backup Cache for Photos and Travel and Insurance Documents — and Paper Photocopies
- An Unlocked International Phone that Accepts SIM Cards
- A Portable Backup Battery
- A Universal Travel Plug Adapter
- A Kindle: Not Strictly Necessary but a Light Way to Carry Tons of Books — and Learn Languages
- Other Possible Travel Electronics
- Miscellaneous Other Trip Planning
- Wrapping Up
Update History of This Article
Guiding Principles for this Minimalist Packing Guide
- If at all in doubt, don’t take it. Avoid “just-in-case” items. You can purchase pretty much anything on the road.
- The few things you do take should be multipurpose, high quality, light, and small.
- Buying things locally while on the road gives you opportunities for travel experiences, and so is better than packing it. (E.g., try the local brew instead of bringing your own coffee gear.)
Below are my suggestions. Obviously they compose the best and only truly minimalist packing list in the universe, applicable to everyone.
But you may nevertheless disagree vociferously in the comments section, and offer your own lesser insights.
The Minimalist’s Travel Clothing
A number of travel sites recommend merino wool for its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties — it doesn’t stink on repeated wearings. However, in real world use pure merino wool shirts for example need to be washed by hand and this can make them inconvenient. It’s also quite expensive. I love the material in a blend for socks, however, as noted below.
Also, cargo pants with zip off legs that become shorts look rather silly and scream “tourist”, in my book.
Minimalist Travel Shirts, Shoes, Pants, Skirts….
I hesitate to tell anyone what to wear specifically, aside from socks (next section). But here are some general pointers that help most frequent travellers looking to minimize their load and maximize their ability to be reasonably comfortable and stylish anywhere.
- Black goes with anything, they say. Black jeans and T-shirts for men and leggings/skirts/jeans and tops for women can be coupled with a louder, more colorful scarf, sweater, skirt, or other adornment when the occasion demands it. Also white, and solid colors can be easily matched for a variety of looks. Don’t pack a flashy item that you’d only be willing to wear in one specific type of outing. Make sure every item is possible with multiple looks.
- Layers allow you to pack lightly and still adjust to a variety of temperatures. Instead of taking a variety of jackets for different sorts of weather, for example, take one waterproof outer jacket and then a series of sweaters and shirts that you can pile one on top of the other if need be.
- Pay attention to local norms. Packing light allows you to pick up an item along the way if you wish to adjust your look to fit in better (or just enjoy the local styles). It can be fun to stand out as well — I’m not suggesting that you must match the local dress style. But you may want to, at least somewhat. And note that there are local subcultures too to draw inspiration from; for example, punk rock kids in France dress punk rock much more meticulously than punk rock kids in Brooklyn or California. Enjoy emulating, where desired.
- Prioritize comfort — including especially for your shoes. You’ll almost invariably do more walking while you travel than you do in your daily life, and this is a great thing. Make sure the shoes you bring are well worn in before your trip, and can withstand some water. Bring a second pair of dress shoes, if you must, and a pair of shower flip flops perhaps.
Travel Socks: Indestructible Socks that Never Stink
Darn Tough makes a range of socks that are comfortable and that, thanks to the merino wool/nylon blend have natural microbial properties that inhibit bacteria. I’ve used them for years of constant travel and they’ve held up gorgeously — and I’m someone who goes dancing a lot and sometimes often in my socks (I hate shoes).
These socks are the real deal.
I recommend low-cut socks to minimize the space they take up in luggage and link to two like that below. But there are tons of Darn Tough styles, for example for colder weather or other specific uses. You can make do with two pairs if you’re alternating between them and washing by hand every day, should you wish.
Sewing kitA decent sewing kit has a few colors of thread, needles, a safety pin, and tiny scissors to evenly cut the thread (this allows you to easily thread the needle). So a true minimalist could actually just take those items and forgo the full kit.
Luggage for Travelling Light
Selecting a smaller bag than what you think you need encourages you to limit your gear as you plan.
On the other hand, if you get too ambitious you may end up carrying such a small case or pack that you end up adding a second bag at some point, defeating the whole purpose.
The Rolling Carry-On Backpack
I love the flexibility of a small backpack that can also roll; in paved cities and towns you’ll use the wheels, and on country paths, staircases in European city centers, and metro/subway stairs you’ll likely be thankful for the backpack straps.
We’ve covered this type of combo piece for years, and our review of rolling carry-on backpacks currently recommends hands-down the Osprey Meridian 60 as the best rolling backpack. It’s expensive, but Osprey pieces hold up for years and years, unlike the other such rolling backpacks I previously used. But I do also have a few cheaper suggestions at the link.
We like the Meridian in particular as it has a small detachable daypack that can fit quite a bit of more sensitive gear in an organized way and be used as your personal item on planes, and it’s great for day adventures like carrying a bit of water and sunscreen up onto the pyramids, as my dear sweet sherpa did in the photo below.
A Larger (Checked Luggage) Rolling Backpack Option
If you’re just not ready to go carry-on only, or if you’re travelling in a couple or with kids, you may want a larger shared checked bag, and yes, you can still consider yourself “minimalist” in my book. (But beware that a larger bag comes with the temptation to pack more.) There is an excellent larger version of the rolling combo piece above, the Osprey Meridian 75.
We fully review the Meridian 75 and other large rolling backpacks here, and we also have a comparison article showing the Osprey Meridian 75 vs. the slightly larger rolling backpack Sojourn 80 (for which detachable daypacks are sold separately).
Passport, Visa, Cards, and Cash Storage
Use something to protect your passport in particular, which should be the most valuable document you travel with and can be the most inconvenient to replace if it gets lost or stolen.
Many such cases are “RFID blocking”, which sounds nice but doesn’t actually do much as this type of theft is very unlikely. So don’t worry if your case doesn’t have that feature.
It’s also wise to have a folder for your printed copies of itineraries and other papers discussed below.
For Bathing, Hygiene, and Wellness on the Go
It’s worth investing in quality items here that don’t leak or break. I’m proud to have a few recommendations that have held up over years of road abuse.
Small Toiletry Bag
The minimalist’s toiletry bag par excellence in our opinion is the Osprey Ultralight Zip Organizer. Crucially, it has a hook, so you can have your stuff all accessible and yet not take up a lot of bathroom countertop space if staying with friends or using a bathroom that lacks such space. It has a clear bag for liquids for airports and smartly designed pockets including one that allows access from the outside if the bag is folded up.
Notice also how small it folds up, as below.
A Larger Toiletry Bag (e.g., with Room for Makeup)Eagle Creek Pack-It Wallaby Packing Organizer has the same features as the Osprey Ultralight Zip above, as well as enough space for those who wear cosmetics or have a variety of face creams, etc. Another option is to split your things between two bags, the Osprey Ultralight Zip and the Osprey Ultralight Padded Organizer for larger items.
Non-Leaking Bottles for Shampoo, Soaps, and Other Liquids
Ensure that you use bottles of less than 100 mL for flights, and that are explicitly marked as such. (The kit above also includes several larger bottles but most are under the limit.)
Every other such travel bottle brand that I’ve tried up to now has had durability or leaking issues.
All-Purpose Soaps and Skin Care (Coconut Oil!)
I just use whatever soap is on hand; soaps are provided by Airbnbs, hotels, etc. in general. Some people swear by combo travel soaps for body, clothes, dishes, etc. — but there’s nowhere in the world that you can’t buy soap. For me, it’s one more thing to eliminate.Coconut Oil is an excellent all-in-one alternative to skin and hair care products and lotions, and is a principal ingredient in many such products in any case. It can also be used for healthy cooking — and cooking oil is often something that is lacking in many rented apartments with otherwise well-outfitted kitchens. I always care a 60 mL Nalgene bottle of coconut oil.
A Quick-Drying Travel TowelMicrofiber Travel Towel packs up small, dries quickly, and can often come in handy. If you’re staying purely in hotels it’s not necessary, however, as towels are provided. It can be good for staying in hostels, couchsurfing with friends, and use at the beach.
My lesser version of the human form does not necessitate these, but the menstruating minimalist travellers in my life have urged me to note two things here:
- Tampons are less available in some parts of the world (such as Latin America), and finding your exact preferences can be challenging there.
- Menstrual cups can be a very convenient alternative — provided you have a clean place with a sink to change them when needed.
We’ll add more — perhaps a full article — on this issue as soon as my advisers find the bloody time.
For Wellness: First Aid, Condoms, Sunscreen, Medications…
Consider the following wellness items, depending on your situation and destinations:
- A first-aid kit
- Your medications (with a copy of your prescription to show authorities if needed, or for replacements)
- Vaccinations prior to travel (check with your doctor and country’s recommendations, such as this CDC page for Americans)
- Travelan for stomach issues
I’ve used that last item, Travelan, over the past year while in Brazil and India, and successfully avoided stomach troubles that I’ve often had in other such countries. The pills are taken with each meal and contain antibodies to common bacteria that cause traveller’s diarrhea, typically with local water sources that contain traces of fecal bacteria.
I should note that official government travel recommendations do not recommend this yet, and there has not been enough study of the product, despite encouraging results of double-blind, randomised, placebo controlled phase 1 and 2 trials. So take this recommendation with a grain of salt, but it’s safe, it has worked for me and others, and considering the pain and inconvenience of road diarrhea, may be worth trying.
Also drink only bottled water. But realize that it’s inevitable that you’ll consume a bit of the local water no matter how careful you are (in the shower, on washed vegetables, the ice in your drink, etc.).
The Minimalist’s Electronics for Travel
As elsewhere here, we go for electronics that serve various functions in order to carry as few items as possible.
I also tend to recommend not carrying expensive electronics. It adds to your stress level to have things that you can’t bear to lose. It’s better to have a cheap phone that you don’t mind taking out to snap pictures while in a samba party in a small bar in the streets in Salvador than an expensive camera that you’re afraid to actually use — or worse, that makes you afraid to even go out on rougher adventures.
Ensure that everything you do use is set to automatically back up to the cloud just in case.
Laptop-Tablet Combo: A Chromebook
Travelling with a cheap Chromebook and leaving all your documents and photos in the cloud means that you don’t have to worry (as much) if your computer gets lost, stolen, chewed on by wild animals, or fried when left out in the sun. It makes you a lot less nervous about leaving taking your laptop to a café or staying in dodgy areas. This sort of flexibility is the whole point to minimalist travel.
Chromebooks automatically store everything in your Google account in the cloud, so accessing your documents from anywhere is as simple as remembering your Gmail password.
But it’s hard to beat Google’s offering of super-cheap, fast, functional laptops that are entirely cloud-based. (Though yes, you can save your documents locally to work offline as well — they’ll sync right up as soon as you get online.)
I’m writing this on the Lenovo Yoga Chromebook, which is fast and has a very generous 15.6″ screen. There are cheaper quality Chromebook options, however, if you just need a secondary laptop for travel. And at the top end are the very best Chromebooks from Google itself, the Pixelbooks.
An Online Backup Cache for Photos and Travel and Insurance Documents — and Paper Photocopies
You should have a paper as well as online backup copy of your important documents.
Yes, you can check in for many flights and for European trains (if you’ve booked on a good platform) with only your phone — in most cases. But I still think you should carry a printed copy of your tickets, wherever possible. Paper is tangible and comforting and doesn’t run out of battery juice. It’s easy to quickly look up your departure info on it. And in some smaller airlines, airports, and train systems, it’s still mandatory to have a paper copy.
Other documents to travel with:
- A photocopy of the ID page of your passport as well as any travel visas, and in your online backup, supporting documents that allowed you to get the visas
- Travel insurance info
- Health insurance info
- Emergency contacts
- Itinerary, and notes on what you plan to visit, if you’re that kind of a traveller
- Medical information: Allergies, prescriptions (including glasses/contacts), information on existing medical conditions, and your home doctor contact info
Put these documents in a nice folder. And keep an online copy in the cloud.
Having a cloud copy that you can access from any device with just a password could save you a lot of trouble if your passport is lost or stolen, for example. It’s as simple as keeping an online folder that you drop documents into — and you can share it to give a trusted loved one back home access as well.
Apple’s iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Drive, and Dropbox are similar cloud services are all appropriate if you’re already entrenched in one of those universes. If you’re not, I find Dropbox to be the easiest of those for everyone. These can also be set to automatically save photos in your phone to the cloud — including the photos you take while travelling.
An Unlocked International Phone that Accepts SIM Cards
Most modern smart phones are GSM-compatible and thus work around the world — ensure that this is true for yours and that your phone is unlocked so that you can change to a local carrier for each country you travel to.
Having a local phone SIM is essential; it saves you from huge roaming fees or from having to constantly search for a WiFi spot where you can connect.
And yes, if you’re staying for more than a couple of days in a country, you definitely need a local internet service. How else will you contact the new friends you are making, use Google Maps or Moovit to find local transport options, conjure up Ubers or other app taxi services (which are safer and more reliable than regular taxis, as a rule), check area events, and the rest? Having internet on your mobile device allows you to make the most of your time in a new place. Just don’t use it to constantly Instagram your travel; know when to turn away from your phone and enjoy.
An excellent unlocked and cheap international phone is the Google Pixel 3a.
Google offers the very best phone plan for international travellers, but unfortunately it’s only available to those of us with a USA address and credit card. The plan is called Google Fi and with it your phone’s internet will work basically anywhere in the world without roaming fees, nor the hassle of buying local chips. It’s what I use, and my referral link for Google Fi ought to give you (and me) a discount.
A Portable Backup Battery
Running out of juice can leave us unable to find our ways home in a new city, unable to call a taxi, unable to access tickets and payment methods, and so much more.
A backup battery solves all of these problems; more people should use them. We reviewed USB-C batteries that are powerful enough to also charge USB-C laptops, as well as of course your phone, tablet, Kindle, headphones, and whatever else. Our favorite for several years has been Anker.
Yes, you can find places to charge your phone in airports, trains, and so many other places. But USB charging points could contain malware and a battery works absolutely anywhere, without scrounging around for a charge point. They’re even often useful for overnight charging in AirBnbs and hotels where the outlets are hard to reach or too few.
A Universal Travel Plug Adapter
A good plug adapter can work with pretty much any socket and any plug combination, anywhere in the world. It should take 100-240V and output the same, as well as provide multiple USB plugs and, for your newer devices, a USB-C out that triggers fast charging.
You generally do not need to convert voltage. Almost all laptops, phones, headphones, and other electronic devices that you’d travel with take 100-240V (you can double-check this on the plug’s converter brick (the boxy like piece on the plug). You simply need an plug adapter, that is, something to reconfigure the prongs and the holes so that they fit together.
I’ve reviewed USB-C travel plug adapters for years, the most recent recommendation is below.
A Kindle: Not Strictly Necessary but a Light Way to Carry Tons of Books — and Learn Languages
I love reading on paper, but carrying the books I want is not at all feasible. So the Amazon Kindle is a lifesaver. Yes, you can get the same books on your phone or laptop via the Kindle Cloud Reader, and that’s a fine option. But the reading experience is much more pleasant.
As a constant learner of multiple languages (especially while travelling) I particularly appreciate being able to look up words on the fly on modern Kindles just by holding down a finger on the word; you can get both the dictionary definition in English and an automatic translation of the phrase. It’s possible to load multiple dictionaries into your Kindle for offline use.
A Kindle Unlimited subscription provides access to a million books as well as audiobooks and magazines. Many libraries also offer E-books that you can check out and download to your Kindle, even while travelling; check the local library in your area.
I was hesitant to get the cheaper Kindle version that comes “with special offers” but it turns out that the ads that it displays are only on the lock screen, when you’re not using it. I honestly can’t remember a single book that these ads have recommended to me, so I wouldn’t say they’ve bothered me at all. They don’t show up while you’re actually reading.
Other Possible Travel Electronics
While hair dryers are often provided, a small, portable hair dryer that works on the local electrical current can be useful for some.
Miscellaneous Other Trip Planning
Travel insurance: Your credit card likely includes some level of travel insurance; check this out before purchasing anything and find out if it’s enough for your needs. Also check in particular if travelling abroad whether your nation’s or provider’s health insurance will cover you at the destination; in most cases you need additional coverage. I’ve used World Nomads recently, which seems to be one of the more responsible companies out there, and clear about what is covered and what is not.
Banking: And finally, check what fees you will be paying for foreign withdrawals, and the exchange rates as well. Check whether it’s better for you to withdraw cash or pay for purchases directly on your card. Try to get exact info; banks from many countries are quite opaque about this and charge high fees that can tack a huge surcharge onto your trip over its duration.
For Americans, Schwab Bank offers a free checking account with no ATM fees (my referral link — you and I may both get a bonus if you sign up with it). Schwab, crucially for international travel, even refunds the fees charged by any foreign ATMs. This is by far the best plan I’ve seen for Americans travelling abroad, as foreign ATM fees can really add up. The checking account otherwise has no monthly or annual fees. You will need to also sign up for a brokerage account in order to use the checking account, but don’t have to actually use the brokerage account or invest in stocks. You can just leave it sitting empty once you’ve opened the account with no penalty, and only use the checking account.
Whew, that’s a long article — but I’ve found that time spent planning on a few basic things can save a lot of hassle and time lost on the road. I hope it helps, and in particular hope you will write in or comment below with any suggestions, complaints, updates, and things I’ve forgotten.
And please, if in doubt for your particular situation, just don’t take the thing suggested above. It’s always better to pack lighter and freer.