Minimalist Packing: I’ve Been Traveling Nearly Constantly for Two Decades—Here’s What I Learned Is Worth Carrying, and Not Carrying

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-10-14
PUBLISHED ON  2020-03-27

Your Travel Guide

Mose Hayward


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

  • 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 kit

Ready to sew back on a button or make other minor repairs? While this is not strictly necessary, it’s also very small. A 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 Farpoint Wheeled Travel Pack (marketed to men) and Osprey Fairview Wheeled Travel Pack (marketed to women, but really they’re the same—get whatever is in stock and cheaper). These are expensive, but Osprey pieces hold up for years and years, unlike the other such rolling backpacks I previously used. I currently use the 36L Farpoint version with the travel daypack add-on. There are also larger 65L versions at those links.

Osprey Farpoint Wheeled 36L
Light, multipurpose, has wheels, backpack straps, works as a carry-on

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.

Zoppen Travel Documents & Passport Organizer
An ideal thin passport case like this organizes and protects your passport, tickets, cards, foreign and home currencies, and keys. This ensures that when you go out for the day you can leave most things organized here and only take what you need as you are out — reducing the things to get 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.

Osprey Ultralight Zip Organizer
Light, but incredibly durable (I’ve had it for three years, no holes or tears); crucially, it has a hook so you can hang it anywhere

A Larger Toiletry Bag (e.g., with Room for Makeup)

]The 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

Nalgene Travel Kit
Since I switched a few years ago to these travel bottles for shampoo, soaps, coconut oil, etc., I’ve never again had to worry about leaks, breaks, or exploded bottles. They’re very well made and BPA-free.

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 Towel

A Microfiber 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.

Tampons/Menstrual Cups

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
  • Condoms
  • Sunscreen
  • 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 Chromebooks in terms 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.)

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.

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.

Epicka Travel Plug Adapter
Connect one device with any kind of wall plug to any kind of socket, plus simultaneously charge via three USB-C and two USB-A ports; triggers fast-charging via USB-C

A Kindle: Not Strictly Necessary but a Light Way to Carry Tons of Books — and Learn Languages

The latest Kindles still work great in bright sunlight (unlike phones or tablets)—but also have backlights for reading in the dark

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 e-books you might buy on your phone or laptop via the Kindle Cloud Reader, and those are fine options. But the reading experience on a Kindle 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. Here’s more about how I use a Kindle for language learning.

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 a bit cheaper with the “lockscreen ad-supported” option, but it has been fine. Ads really only are displayed 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.

I also never see the ads because the Kindle is closed in a case when not in use. And it is absolutely advised to get a hard cover like these to protect it; many travelling friends’ Kindle screens have gotten easily ruined otherwise. I’ve never had issues, but I’ve always had mine in a cover.

Any hard plastic cover will do for the Kindle—but having one is an absolute necessity as the screen can be ruined if other things are set on top of it.

Other Possible Travel Electronics

While hair dryers are often provided in places you’ll stay, a small, portable hair dryer that works on the local electrical current can be useful for some.

Miscellaneous Other Trip Planning

Travel Insurance and Medical Travel Insurance: Your credit card likely already 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 medical coverage when outside of your “home” country.

I’ve used World Nomads in the past to cover specific trips and destinations; I find it to be one of the more responsible companies out there, and it is clear about what is covered and what is not.

But for the last several years I’ve switched to SafetyWing for travel medical insurance when I’m outside of my “home country” health insurance coverage area. I use SafetyWing because it covers nomadism in a way that other travel and medical insurance companies don’t. It is set up for people like me that see travel as a constant way of life. You don’t have to try to figure out what would be considered the “beginning” and “end” of your trip, or what specific countries you’re planning on visiting in the next weeks, months, or years.

With SafetyWing, you just sign up for a subscription and let it renew each month. The one slight hiccup is that at the end of the year you have to manually sign up again, but SafetyWing sends you a reminder when it’s time to do so. It’s pretty painless to ensure you don’t lose coverage during years of wandering.

SafetyWing is also quite cheap compared to other types of medical insurance that cover travel. This is likely because it caters more to younger people, has a $250 deductible (so you’re not going to use it for most single doctor visits for a cold, for example), and has a separate add-on pricing if you travel to the USA, where coverage is generally more expensive. Trip cancellation, interruption, and lost checked luggage are also covered in limited ways.

My SafetyWing insurance was also accepted recently by government bureaucrats as a health and liability insurance for a particular country wherein I was applying for a residence visa. Your results may, of course, vary, but SafetyWing is a very cost-effective way to get such insurance that is often necessary for visas, and SafetyWing makes documenting your insurance for these purposes dead simple.

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

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