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Today we have an awesome post by Ben Lovell, the Gothic Optimist.

“He who would travel happily must travel light.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There’s a poignant scene in the 1986 Oscar winner Platoon in which the tough, but protective, Sergeant Elias (Dafoe) quickly goes through the pack of neophyte Taylor (Sheen), chucking almost everything as worthless weight. “You’re humpin’ too much stuff,” he explains as he relieves the grateful Private of half his gear.

In my experience on the open road, there is an inverse ratio between a traveler’s experience and how much luggage they schlep with them. While it’s important to remember the essentials, it’s just as crucial to slim down the accessories, especially if you’re going to be flying or physically hauling your gear. If you truly want to do some single-bag trekking, let’s take a detailed look at the secrets of minimalist packing for a solo trip.

Part I: Ditch These Items

If you’re going for discreet, take the time to differentiate between ‘want’ and ‘need’. It’s also important to consider what would happen if your luggage got lost or stolen. What could you survive without and what would cause major devastation in the wrong hands? Let’s look at some things that are better safe at home.

1. Jewelry & Valuables

I bet you want to look great in your travel photos, and nothing says ‘Wish You Were Here’ better than a selfie with all your favorite accessories, right? First of all, this falls clearly into the want category. It takes up extra space and weight. More importantly, in terms of dollar value and sentiment, these items are some of the least replaceable. Leave this stuff at home. If you feel the need for jewelry, go for light, inexpensive, durable, and secure.

2. Clothes that Require Ironing

Sorry, but if you’re going to pack one piece of luggage, it can’t be a hanging bag. Also, ditch the portable iron or steamer. Even if you iron in advance, it will take up too much room trying to lay everything out flat. If you’re going on an outdoor excursion, this should be a no-brainer. However, if your trip involves a more formal setting, this may take foresight. Research some styles and materials that wear well coming straight out of a pack.

3. Paper

This is a weird one, I know.  Be it books, magazines or your office files, the weight and volume of paper in your pack adds up fast, and it’s almost always replaceable by a lighter electronic form.  As much as I LOVE my library, I have to admit that a tablet or e-Reader packs better than a book.  If you’re considering bringing office files, pack a laptop instead. It’s lighter and a much better way to secure your intellectual property on a trip.

4. Credit Cards & IDs

This isn’t as much a matter of physical weight as it is security.  Generally speaking, most of us have upwards to a dozen payment cards and IDs on us at any given time: passport, driver’s license, credit card, debit card, loyalty card, library card… you get the idea. There are two problems with traveling like that.  First, identification and forms of payment are notoriously hard to replace while traveling. Second, if lost or stolen, they can put you at a HUGE risk of identity fraud, which can be even more dangerous if you’re out of the country.

Do some research and carefully select the IDs and cards you need. The US State Department recommends bringing only ONE credit card on international trips.  Leave what you can at home, and take the credit card with the most travel rewards.

Part II: Wheels or Straps

Now that you’ve saved Sergeant Elias the trouble of chucking your unnecessary gear, it’s time to pick how you pack.  Since this article is dedicated to the proposition of single-bag trekking, the only question is: Wheels or Straps?

1. Wheels

Believe it or not, until the early 1970s, Rolling Pullmans didn’t exist.  Sure, people had stuck some awkward wheels on the top-heavy hard-sided suitcases, but when Massachusetts innovator Bernard Sadow envisioned the modern Rolling Pullman, he changed everything about travel.  If you’re traveling for work or if your journey involves more planes, cabs, and sidewalks than it does tents and trails, I strongly recommend a Rolling Pullman. They’re sturdy, discreet, easily accessible, and they cause the least possible physical strain.

2. Straps

For reasons of style or pragmatics, you may eschew the suitcase in favor of a backpack-style bag for your single-bag trekking. The main advantage here is that you can keep the bag off the ground and close to your body. Backpacks are efficient, versatile, and secure.  If you’re going to use a backpack as your only piece of luggage, I suggest what is usually referred to as a ‘Day-and-a-Half-Pack’. This is a piece of shoulder-mounted gear that is larger than a bookbag/daypack but smaller than a full-scale framed backpack.

Importantly, a day-and-a-half-pack has many or all of the outdoor-savvy bells and whistles as its larger counterpart, including a hip-belt, a sternum-strap, and an external water-bottle holder.  If you’re relatively young, in good shape, and you’re going to be hoofing it for a large portion of your trip (whether on trails or across urban centers), I highly recommend taking the straps over the wheels.

Part III: Don’t Leave Home Without These

You’ve ditched the useless newbie-gear and picked the perfect pack for your excursion.  Now, let’s make sure to check off the big boxes, the must-haves.

1. Fantastic Footwear

For travel, dress from the bottom up.  Think of your itinerary, select the footwear that you absolutely need, and then coordinate the rest of the ensemble.

Shoes can be bulky, heavy, expensive, and easy to mess up.  For these reasons, buy shoes that are as nice as you can afford (they hold up better) and that multi-task.  For instance, if you’re going to be taking a cab, a plane and then a cross-town hike before your first meeting, wear shoes that look dressy on top but have substantial padding and grip on the bottom.

Bring shoes that you can get wet, that you can wear all day, and that you’re proud to put on. It’s worth paying the extra for one great pair that can accomplish all of this at once.

2. Layers

The key to wardrobing for savvy travel is to reconcile two contradictions: pack for all conditions and pack light.  The secret is layering.  Don’t pack multiple versions of the same clothing.  Pack clothing that will give you as many options as possible.  To illustrate the power of layering, consider two examples – each with 4 articles of clothing.

  • 2 T-shirts and 2 Sweaters – This gives you at most three options: T-shirt, Sweater, and T-shirt + Sweater.
  • 1 T-shirt, 1 Polo, 1 Fleece, and 1 Light Jacket – This gives you at least eight options that are all comfortable and stylish, while covering a broad range of temperature conditions.

3. Small Gadgets & Chargers

I’m more of an old-school kind of guy, but I can’t deny that gadgets (from phones to tablets) are getting lighter, more secure, and more powerful.  As with the shoes, it’s my opinion that more expensive gadgets can be worth the cash if you make informed purchases and take care of your property. Buy protective cases from suppliers like Otterbox and Lifeproof.  Allow the permissions (e.g. Google Sync) that will enable you to find your phone or other devices if they are lost or stolen. Do your homework and protect your devices when you travel.

CRAZY TIP THAT NO-ONE TELLS YOU:  If you ever find yourself without a charger, ask a hotel front desk.  They will have a whole drawer that guests have deserted in rooms upon check-out.  Trust me.

4. Scripts

No matter how much cash you have or how much of a globe-trotting badass you are, you will be in a world of hurt if you find yourself without needed prescriptions.  From corrective lenses to medication, this stuff is critical for fun, health, and sometimes life. It’s expensive and, more importantly, it’s really difficult to obtain when you’re out of your element.  Put items like prescription medication on a physical list to check off before you depart and give yourself redundancies in case you’re in a bind. This might include a pair of contact lenses hidden in a separate zippered pouch or a prescription refill tucked into your wallet.

Part IV: Good Talk – See Ya Out There!

One last piece of advice.  Write your packing list three days before you leave.  The next day, actually pack your bag. Give yourself one final day to unpack the unnecessary crud or remember that last-minute life saver.  I personally think that travel is more exciting the less stuff you lug around.  Take a chance on packing light, and you might learn a little extra about yourself.  Once you get back, I’d love to hear about it. See ya out there.

About the Author:
Ben Lovell is the Gothic Optimist.

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