Man vs. Bag: Minimalist packing for maximum flexibility

Man vs. Bag: Minimalist packing for maximum flexibility

It’s no secret that I like to travel light.

In fact, I like to give myself challenges to see just how “without” I can go when I travel.

For example …

  • Last September I went to Beijing for 4 days with nothing but a bag about the size of a small lunch box or mid-sized purse.
  • Earlier this year I traveled to 4 cities in China over 3 weeks with just a backpack and 2 changes of clothes.
  • In the middle of winter with sub-freezing temperatures I spent 10 weeks traveling to 4 countries and 21 cities with just one mid-sized backpack. (The picture above is from that trip.)

I’ve been asked what I usually take when I travel light so I thought this might be a good opportunity to share some of my light packing essentials.

These are the bare minimum things that I bring with me when I travel.

But I need to explain one caveat that is rather important. It was sort of a mind-shift for me when I started traveling this way and it’s worth sharing here.

Need vs. REALLY Need

So, let me explain what I mean by this statement …

There are certain things you probably need when you travel.

Toothbrush and toothpaste. A towel. A change of clothes. Deoderant. Y’know … the “necessary” stuff.

But a lot of these things are not things you really need. And when I mean “really need” I’m talking about Man vs. Wild type of necessities.

Think about that show (and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching it to get yourself in the minimalist packing mindset).

Bear Grylls goes in to the wild with nothing but a backpack, a knife and some flint. Maybe a bit of rope. Sometimes he doesn’t even have shoes.

If you were stranded on a desert island, would you really need those things we mentioned before? Toothbrush and toothpaste? A towel? A change of clothes? deoderant? Are those things actually necessary for survival?

Not really.

When you plan for a minimalist packing session, you need to have this sort of mind-set. Because if you come from this paradigm, then you really become good at only taking the essentials. Not the “essential-things-I-think-need” essentials. But the “I-will-literally-die-without-these-things-…-literally” essentials.

My priority matrix for traveling

When I look at traveling, I have a “priority matrix” that is a top-down view of the things I need most when traveling.

In order of importance, they are:

  1. physical protection
  2. financial resources
  3. travel documents
  4. communication

Let’s tackle each one:

Physical protection

These are the things you need to keep your body safe from the elements. Warmth and dryness are your friends. And the most important element here is to really know your destination.

I realize it might seem weird that my “minimalist” set of things to take with me changes depending on the location. After all — shouldn’t these be things I take with me no matter where I go?

But, knowing and understanding the environment you will be in is important, and if you happen to be going on a trip that involves a lot of different types of environments, then you can plan for that contingency. A trip to Siberia requires different things than a trip to Tahiti.

So, for my physical protection, I break up the list based on 3 different types of environments:

  1. Wet – lots of rainfall
  2. Hot – lots of heat (> 35C / 95F)
  3. Cold – super cold (< 15C / 60F)

And, of course there are combinations of these. You could be in a wet+cold environment (Seattle in the winter). Or a wet + hot environment (Hong Kong during monsoon season). Needless to say, you don’t often find a hot+cold environment. 😉

So, based on these conditions, I usually require the following as my minimum for physical protection. Again, we’re trying to emphasize being dry and warm. That’s the priority.

1. Wet Conditions

  • Rainproof jacket w/hood
  • Waterproof or water-resistant shoes
  • Baseball cap

Some people might say that you should bring an umbrella, but I’ve found that in certain places rain comes with a lot of wind, which makes umbrellas impractical. Also, if you are carrying anything, which is often the case when you travel, then you don’t really have the free hands to carry around an umbrella.

I focus on trying to keep my feet dry, because wet feet can be the biggest morale killer when you’re walking around in the rain. That’s why I try to have a pair of waterproof shoes, or at least shoes that are water-resistant.

I think the rainproof jacket w/hood (i.e. a parka or North Face type of jacket) is sort of a no-brainer, but the reason I don’t concern myself with the types of pants I bring is because usually your torso gets wet much faster and much more intensely than your legs. (Rain falls down, after all. And if you’re in a place where rain is falling sideways or upwards, then for heaven’s sake, get indoors!)

The baseball cap serves two purposes. When I’m wearing a hood on my parka I often find it difficult to turn my head because the hood stays still and obstructs my view. But with a baseball cap it moves the parka hood along with my head so I can still see clearly. This is why I prefer it in rain to a beanie.

Also, it ads an extra layer of rain protection from my face and eyes, and it also keeps my head just a tad warmer.

2. Hot Conditions

  • Shorts
  • Sunglasses

For me, my legs tend to get quite warm when I’m in a hot environment so I like wearing shorts. In a desert this probably isn’t a good idea because you need sun protection, but I almost never hang out in deserts. 😉

I usually focus on keeping the breeze on my legs because that is where I can often feel the best relief from any wind. Fortunately I have a pair of convertible pants from Exoficcio, which I highly recommend (affiliate link), so I’m only a few zips away from having shorts wherever I am.

I didn’t put a t-shirt in there, since I almost always have a t-shirt with me as one of my core clothing items. (more on that later). And even when I have a button up shirt, I can just roll up the sleeves. Often that is enough of a relief.

And I added the sunglasses, not just for protection from the sun, which often accompanies hot temperatures, but also because having that filter seems to provide a psychological effect which makes my brain think that it is cooler than it really is.

3. Cold Conditions

  • Inner Leg Layer
  • Beanie Hat
  • Warm socks
  • Gloves
  • Rain Jacket w/hood

Cold conditions tend to require the most clothing options and protection from the elements. Partially because cold weather often brings weather with snow or ice-cold rain, so I work against that possibility as well.

The “inner leg layer” is something that I can wear on the inside of my pants. I have a pair of thin workout pants that serve this purpose for most of my travel. The reason I don’t have long johns or thermal underwear is because those are a one-use item (depending on your fashion sense) and I prefer to carry things that can be used for more than one purpose. In this case, the workout pants can either be an inner layer for my legs, pajamas or workout pants. 3 uses in 1! That’s my kind of clothing.

A beanie is on this list because most of your heat escapes from the head. More than a baseball cap, a beanie provides better heat insulation.

And, again, warm socks are an essential item because cold feet are a real killer. Same with cold hands which is why the gloves come in at #4. With the socks, if you don’t have a thicker pair, then doubling socks up is also an option.

Some folks seem to think that a rain shell jacket isn’t a good option and that I should instead bring an insulated down jacket, but I’ve found that layering up your shirts under the rain shell work just as well, and also allow better flexibility. Also, most down jackets aren’t water proof. The hood is also a nice additional layer of head warmth if needed.

4. Combination Conditions

Now, if you get a combination of conditions, like cold + wet, then more things end up being taken. This is all about physical protection from the elements, and it is at the top of my packing matrix, so I am not afraid to make sure I am protected adequately.

5. Other clothing essentials

Now, I have a “core” of clothing essentials that I bring with me on a trip. You may find this list to be small, and sometimes I’ll bring more, but these are the things I consider “essential” for myself.

  • 1 pair of shoes (based on environment – waterproof or not)
  • 2 pairs of socks (based on environment)
  • 2 pairs of pants (based on environment – 1 is convertible)
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 1 button up shirt (oxford style)
  • 2 pairs of underwear (exoficcio’s again (affiliate link), I swear by these!)
  • light jacket
  • thin flip-flops or huaraches

And that is pretty much it for the “core essentials” of protection. Sometimes I don’t take the button up shirt, but I’ve found that it is handy to have a shirt with long sleeves in certain situations.

Financial Resources

The next item in my priority matrix are financial resources. Fortunately in today’s world this doesn’t take up much more room than a small wallet. Here are the things I make sure to take with me:

  • Debit card / credit card
  • Cash (local currency)
  • Bill fold, wallet or pouch to put them in.

And that’s it.

As long as I have those with me I am prepared for any situation. I also make sure I have a secure place online where I can access the information for my cards. Be careful about this, and be sure to use some sort of personal code to encrypt the numbers so that only you can understand them.

Travel Documents

This one is easy.

  • Passport
  • Driver’s license

I also make sure I have these in a secure cloud-based storage area. Some people make copies to take with them, but I’ve never found this necessary. If I have a copy on a smart-phone or online I can usually just e-mail it to whomever needs it. If there’s no email, then to be honest its never been that urgent.


  • iPhone / Cell Phone

The only communication device I concern myself is a cell phone. And I make sure it can swap out new SIM cards and is unlocked for the majority of destinations. Since my phone is an unlocked iPhone 4 I can also use it for a myriad of uses wherever I can get online through wi-fi or 3G. Google Maps alone makes it worth getting a 3G SIM card when I travel. it also means I don’t have to carry around a guidebook or any information on the local environment.

One of these days I’ll post up my method for preparing when I travel, but one thing I do is spend a day researching locations, information, time-tables, and whatever else I might need to know for a trip, and then sticking all of that on Evernote, which syncs up with my phone. That way I always have the most vital information about my itinerary and destination right in hand.

Things to keep in mind

So, that is pretty much my “minimum” travel list for what I pack.

Now, that isn’t to say that I don’t consider other things too. What minimalist packing requires is that you are well aware of the environments and situations you will encounter and are flexible and open-minded in your approach.

If I’m on a work trip or I know that I have work to do, then I’ll bring my MacBook Air. If I know I’ll be sitting around for long periods of time, then I might bring a book or load up some audio books on my phone. If I know I’ll be doing wushu, then I’ll probably bring my feiyue’s or budosaga shoes, knee sleeves and maybe a spare t-shirt or workout shorts for practice.

Start with the essentials, and then build up from there.

What about toiletries?

You probably noticed I didn’t put toiletries on this list. Why is that?

Well, to be honest (and if you read my “Own your age” post then, you saw this there) I don’t consider most toiletries as essentials. Wherever you go you can get toiletries. These are mostly disposable, so when I go to a place I just get a cheap toothbrush or toothpaste or soap there.

There are a few reasons for this:

1. TSA is a pain in the butt. I really hate the regulations, so I avoid them by not having to take anything out in clear plastic bags.

2. Travel-size toiletries are readily available — often in hotels or just go to a convenience store and you can find them there. Plus, they are usually some of the cheapest things you can find in stores, so it won’t break the bank.

3. I lose these sorts of things a lot of the time anyway. If I picked up a $1.50 stick of travel-size deodorant at the drug store I won’t feel too bad if I leave it behind when I go back home.

The only exception to this rule is that I will sometimes bring my toothbrush with me, but I don’t worry as much about toothpaste. Just having some hot/warm water, swooshing it around in your mouth, and then brushing vigorously with a brush does the trick. It’s all about keeping your gums healthy, right?

For some of you, deodorant might be difficult, but fortunately I don’t smell super bad when I sweat (at least not the first day) so as long as I shower regularly I’m okay. If you have pretty potent B.O. then you might want to consider this as an essential item (depending on who is accompanying you on the trip).

So, there you have it. As I said, be aware of your destination’s environment. That is what really dictates the “essentials” for minimalist travel.

As I continue with my travels I will post up packing lists and packing videos so you can follow along with what I’m taking.

If you have any additions or subtractions from this list I’d love to hear them. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

4 thoughts on “Man vs. Bag: Minimalist packing for maximum flexibility”

  1. Hi, been all over the net for the last year so can i get different ideas about packing below 10 pounds. I made through last year summer holidays with 14 pounds (camping gear included except stove and kitchen). My backpack is 32 liter and i will never go back to 65 liter like i did 20 years ago!! It feels wonderfull to travel lighter, the freedom is for real. I am apllying minimalist life style to my daily life too for a while and i am doing great. I am 45 and i am a woman.
    Thanks for the tip of baseball cap with rainjacket and for keep it simple and clear!!


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