Ultralight Backpacking

Now I don’t claim to be the biggest expert on ultralight backpacking, but I must say I’ve gotten better with backpacking light in the last few years. I’m heading to Nicaragua and Cuba for a month on Tuesday and thought it might be helpful to share a few tips on what to bring if you’re traveling ultralight.

I think ultralight backpacking distinguishes itself from regular backpacking because it means you’re willing to travel for longer than two weeks with a daypack. Mine’s a tried and true, ultra-dirty Kelty Blanca 200. If you intend to go ultralight, all of your belongings should fit in a pack that you can carry on with you whether you’re in a small bus or plane.
The trick to choosing what to bring with you is to bring only the stuff that’s has multiple functions and that you won’t mind losing while you’re on the road. A pair of zip-out pants double as shorts, for instance, is always a good (though kind of unfashionable) bet. Traveling is all about what you see, not what you wear, so bring the multi-purpose stuff, not the stuff that will bog you down or make you fret if you no longer have it.

So, in terms of clothes I’ve settled on this:

  • light raincoat
  • 1 longsleeve
  • 1 t-shirt
  • 2 tank tops
  • zip-out pants/shorts
  • capri pants
  • skirt
  • two sundresses
  • pajamas (that I can wear in public too, if I’m desperate)
  • 4 pairs of undies
  • 1 pair of socks
  • 1 bra
  • 2 bikinis (though you only need one, I plan on being in the water as much as possible)
  • pashmina scarf

Keep in mind I’m packing for tropical weather. If you’re headed for cooler climates, you can get by on three tops, three bottoms, and three pairs of socks. Bring clothes that you can wash by hand and dry quickly. All of my clothes fit inside a plastic vaccum sack, which you can buy at any good drugstore for $5.

As for shoes, I usually bring just two pairs — three if I’m going to a cold climate. For this trip, I’m just going to bring my flip-flops (here in Hawaii we call them slippers) and my awesome ultralight pair of Nike flex sneakers.

Then you have to think about toiletries/accessories. I usually put those in a separate kit that will fit in the front pocket of my backpack. I’m pretty much sold on my hanging L.L. Bean kit with Hawaiian print. It came in handy when I was in Vanuatu, and a lady I met on Erromango asked if she could have it, so I gave it to her. When I got home, I bought another one just like it. Here are my toiletries/accessories:

  • money belt
  • toothbrush & toothpaste
  • shampoo & soap
  • comb
  • earplugs
  • chapstick
  • sunscreen
  • Q-tips
  • sunscreen
  • mini-flashlight
  • earplugs
  • aspirin, dramamine, vitamins
  • powdered laundry detergent
  • nail clippers
  • hairbands & clips
  • tampons

A lighter daypack is a must, and for women, a purse for the evenings is a good idea.

There are also some things you can’t leave home without. For me, it’s a laptop. I hate handwriting things, but having a word processor is essential for me as a writer. I purposely purchased a pink Acer mini-PC (for only $299!) because I don’t want to travel with my precious laptop (which contains all of my important files) and risk losing it. Still, I have a cool laptop lock to keep my Acer safe when I’m not around. Throw in my camera, iPod, and a good travel book, and I’m pretty much good to go.

Traveling light is a really liberating experience. It taught me what I can live with or without, and made me feel so much more grateful for the things I take for granted. Enjoy your trip!