I learned how to travel light from lightweight backpacking, then found it was just as useful to keep it light on trips overseas or driving across the country. The last time my wife and I went to Ecuador, I had 10 pounds of luggage, all in one carry-on bag, and Ana had just 8 pounds in her carry-on bag. This wasn't a short trip. We spent six weeks in Ecuador, at times on glacier-covered mountains, and at other times lounging on Pacific coast beaches.
Why travel light? Travel simplicity. Everything is simpler when you travel light. With only carry-on luggage, we were on our way to a restaurant in Quito, while others were still waiting for their checked luggage. When we took busses our luggage was safely with us, not on the roof or in the hold below being cut open, like one time when I was in Mexico. While others struggled down the street with three heavy bags, we had our hands free and were walking comfortably because we use daypacks or small backpacks. We had less to lose, less to be stolen, less to wait for, less to pack and unpack in hotels, and less to worry about.
Light Travel Issues
There are a couple minor problems when you travel light. First, expect an extra question or two from the customs officials at the airport (Six weeks with only this?). Second, a small bag won't work if you plan to bring back many souvenirs. In this case, you can still go light. Just plan to buy a second bag at some point during the trip, to carry your acquisitions. As for the seemingly obvious issue of not having enough clothes and other things all in one or two small bags, I'll explain below why that isn't as big a problem as you may think.
How To Travel Light
Silk shirts weigh 3 ounces, and travel well if rolled up. Nylon dress socks weigh less than an ounce, and they are cool and comfortable. Poly-cotton blend t-shirts weigh 5 ounces. Supplex or other lightweight travel slacks weigh 9 ounces, and are sufficient for a fine restaurant or a walk in the woods. All of these weigh less than half of the typical travel choices, and take less space, yet function the same. There is no sacrifice involved here. For this exercise in travel simplicity, you even get to go shopping for new clothes.
You don't have to buy new clothes, however. You don't have to buy a scale and count ounces to travel light. Just choose the lighter alternative whenever you can. Set aside your lightest jacket, socks and pants for your next trip. Travel simplicity is the goal, not more complicated planning.
More Ways To Travel Light
Money replaces weight, especially in the form of a debit or credit card. Why carry two pounds of your favorite shampoo when you can simply buy small bottles as you travel. It really won't cost much more to buy things wherever you go, instead of carrying your bathroom and wardrobe with you. Also, you really don't know exactly what you'll need, particularly on an overseas trip. Buy what you need as you need it, and you won't have a pile of useless things in your luggage. Don't we all regularly unpack things at home that we never once used during the trip?
Take a lesson from long-trail hikers (backpackers who travel a trail for months). They send things, such as new shoes, to a post office on their route, ahead of time, so they'll be waiting for them. They also send home things they no longer need, such as a winter coat. The latter may be a useful practice for other travelers. If you buy bulky gifts for family or friends, why carry them around for weeks? Put them in the mail.
A Light Travel Example
What I Took For Six weeks in Ecuador:
- 8 pairs of thin nylon socks (less than an ounce per pair)
- 2 silk shirts for restaurants and discos (3 ounces each)
- 4 poly/cotton blend t-shirts (5-6 ounces each)
- 5 pair of light underwear (2-3 ounces each)
- 1 extra pair of lightweight slacks (9 ounces)
- Single layer nylon shorts for hiking or swimming (2 ounces)
- Thin gloves (1 ounce)
- Thin hat (1 ounce - honestly)
- Thin wool sweater (11 ounces)
- Waterproof/breathable rainsuit (14 ounces for the set)
- Light plastic camera (3 ounces)
- Sunglasses (1 ounce)
- Small chess set (3 ounces)
- Bathroom kit (5 ounces)
- Maps, notebook and various small things (3 or 4 pounds)
My pack weighed ten pounds, and my wife's weighed 8 pounds. We never felt deprived. I'm not suggesting that you start counting the ounces (that comes from my backpacking days), or that you buy all new lightweight things. Without spending money or thinking about it too much, you can just start setting aside your lightest shirts, socks, etc., so you can travel light on your next vacation.
Steve Gillman first hit the road on his own when at sixteen, and traveled alone across the United States and Mexico at 17. Now 40, he continues to travel and backpack with his wife Ana, whom he met in Ecuador.