What to pack: Going light doesn’t have to mean going without

Given all the fees airlines are levying against passengers for baggage these days, it’s never been more important to think about how you pack and look for ways to go lighter.

Indeed, baggage fees are probably the best thing to have every happened to the one bag, carry-on movement. Even if people slim down their packing just to save money, they are bound to realize what die hard like packers have been saying for years: Lightening your load will keep you more flexible on the road and improve your travel experience. Once you go light you won’t go back.

But does going light have to mean going without?

Ultra-minimalists would say yes, because they’re goals in terms of packing are a little different than your average traveler. They go super light and super small (in terms of luggage), which they maintain gives them the maximum amount of freedom on the road.

I respect these types of travelers, the kind who travel months on end with only a change of clothes (I’ve even done this myself). Most people, however, are not ultra-light packers and often worry when they read the packing lists of one, viewing such lists as a little unrealistic.

You can afford to bring a few more things and still feel comfortable that you’re going light. The key is to pick good gear that is functional and versatile.

Here is what I pack for a standard one-month trip, where I am out of cities just as much as in them. All this fits easily into one carry-on bag, with room to spare. This list is also flexible enough that I barely tinker with it going between cold and hot climates. If I was traveling for a few months or a year, the list would still look the same.

Here’s what I bring:

  • 1 day pack
  • 1 fleece jacket
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 pair of shoes (wearing)
  • 3-4 techwik t-shirts (wearing one)
  • 4 shirts (wearing one): 2 wrinkle free cotton oxfords | 1 nylon long sleeve shirt | 1 nylon short sleeve shirt
  • 3 pants (wearing one): 1 nylon cargo pant | 1 nylon regular pant | 1 pair of khakis
  • 1 lightweight sweater
  • 1 toiletry kit
  • 1 waterproof pouch for notebooks, pens, travel documents, etc.
  • 1 iPod + small speakers

I’m also likely to pack a navy blazer if there are a lot of cities on my itinerary.

A note on the color black: A lot of my stuff is in black. I’m not a goth. I just don’t like to stick out too much when I travel and I find things in black are pretty nondescript.

Day Pack

A day pack is key, and it’s got to be compressible. There are a few on the market. Kiva makes a good one, for example. Mine is a Rick Steves’ Civita ($24.95). It’s pretty much as compressible as Kiva’s (mine fits into a small Eagle Creek PackIt cube), has enough room for a camera, books and fleece, plus it’s got water bottle holders, and it’s one of the cheapest available.

Fleece Jacket
Mine is a Eastern Mountain Sport Stretch with Gore Windstopper ($150), but pretty much any fleece will do. You want to make sure it’s at least 200 weight, and I recommend looking for those outfitted in Gore Windstopper with at least one horizontal pocket on the chest for your passport and other items you need easy access to.

Rain Jacket

The Marmot Precip ($100) is simply the best rain jacket you can buy for the money. It’s super lightweight, packs to nothing in your bag and keeps you dry against the hardest rainfall nearly as well as Goretex PacLite I never go anywhere without mine. In fact, when someone stole mine in Montenegro last year I was out of sorts until I was able to finally purchase another.

The perfect travels shoe is pretty much the traveler’s white whale. Does one exist? There isn’t one clear suggestion for a travel shoe, though there are certainly some ridiculous ones. I’ve gone through a lot of recommendable ones (Merrill, Keen, Clark’s) but I usually return to Timberland’s SMART line of shoes. They have bomber soles, are waterproof (I treat mine with an additional coat of NikWax) and feel great both on the trail and street. They are on the heavy side, though. If I were traveling in a hot climate, say Asia or the Middle East, I’d probably swap them for a pair North Face M Ultra 104s. They’re super light and totally waterproof (they have a Gortex membrane). You lose a little bit of the style look, however.

No matter where I’m going, I pack a few non-cotton T-shirts for my base layer — and you should do the same. First, they’ll wick away sweat, dry fast and deftly handle the odor that comes with wearing a shirt a few times without washing it. Second, they give you much more freedom in what you choose to layer over them (you don’t have to necessarily ditch cotton!) My pick are Eastern Mountain Sport’s TechWick t-shirts ($25). Why? Made of 100% polyester, they’re stylish on their own, do all the things a good base layer should and are not nearly as expensive as other options on the market. For really cold weather I choose a long sleeve version.

I’m probably one of the few who maintain that the old fashion cotton oxford shirt is the best travel shirt going. For years I wore old Gap ones — they’re amazingly comfortable (nothing beats cotton in terms of comfort) in hot and cold weather, durable and inexpensive. But travelers like to hate on cotton — it tends to wrinkle too much and doesn’t dry quickly. Luckily, I’ve found the answer: I pack two LL Bean’s wrinkle-free cotton oxfords ($29.95 each), which are comfortable, look great even having been rolled up, and are treated with a membrane that makes them stain resistant and easier to dry. I also throw in a North Face nylon long sleeve ($55) shirt for more rugged duty, and a North Face short-sleeve nylon shirt ($45) for Happy Hour.

Jeans are the absolute worst thing you can pack: they’re a lodestone on your back and take days to dry. Instead, invest in a pair of North Face Paramount Convertible Pants ($65). They’re roomy, comfortable to travel in, 100% nylon and easily zip off into a pair of shorts (which you can use as a bathing suit). I like these pants because the cargo pockets rest on your thighs, not on your side, so they’re easier to get at and the pant bottoms do not bunch at the heel like other nylon pants; they go over shoes and hiking boots very nicely (there’s even a zip flap at the pant legs to make them fit over thicker boots). I also throw in a pair of North Face Trekker Pants ($65), also 100% nylon but with a slimmer fit and no cargo pockets (they’re my day to day pants). Finally, I pack a pair of basic khakis ($29.95 at Old Navy) for evenings. I like ON’s because they’re more rugged and inexpensive.

I observed the sheer versatility of the Banana Republic Cashmere-Silk V-neck Sweater ($100) long before I owned one. My brother swore by his, wearing it everywhere from the beach after a swim (with wet trunks) to a hike to dinner to the theater. I can now say that it is the world’s best travel sweater: Ultra functional, thin and versatile, it keeps you warm in cold weather and is just about perfect for a cool evening in a warm climate. If you want to go less expensive, look for marino wool. If I’m going someplace really cold, I’ll swap this out for a beefier wool sweater.

Toiletry Kit
We’re talking shaving oil, razor, electric razor, toothbrush and deodorant — all of which fit easily into a small Eagle Creek PackIt cube. The rest I buy wherever I am.

Portable filing cabinet
I use a large Eagle Creek PackIt sack as a roving filing cabinet. It’s waterproof, so I put my notebooks, maps, travel documents, paperbacks and even my laptop, if I’m bringing it, in there and it keeps everything together.

I am not a gadget guy, and I honestly don’t understand those who insist on traveling with all the cords, adaptors and chargers that gadgets require. I make an exception for an iPod (or any MP3 device), easily the most useful gadget you can have for forging connections with different people. I throw in a very small, cheap set of portable speakers ($7), which work surprisingly well on just a few batteries. If I am traveling on assignment and have to take a laptop, digital camera and voice recorder, my small amount of accessories fit into a Eagle Creek toiletry case.

Did I leave out anything essential?