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Don't Be a Pack Rat—Tips For Packing Lightly

Travel is about freedom and nothing gives the traveller more of that precious commodity than packing light. Our first trip saw us leave a trail of sweaters, toiletries and gadgets behind as we snaked our way through Europe and North Africa, metal-framed packs bursting at the seams as we struggled under the weight—never again, we vowed.


Lots of room for our large packs in this truck. The friendly drivers picked us up as we hitchhiked through Algeria.(1975)Photo: Noel Van Raes

Now, whether we’re travelling for four weeks or four months, carry-on only is our mantra. It gives us freedom from extra fees, freedom from the luggage carousel, freedom to hop on-and-off buses and trains with ease, freedom from constantly packing and unpacking, and the freedom to change our plans on a dime.

But packing light doesn’t mean resorting to dirty-hippy chic, it means planning ahead, thinking outfits out in advance and downsizing what you can’t leave home without. Here are the tips and tricks that have seen us through nearly five decades of roaming the globe.

1) It starts with luggage. Keep up-to-date on airline regulations and choose a carry-on bag, pack or suitcase that meets carry-on restrictions. After forty-seven years, I still stick with a backpack; it’s portable and easy to maneuver on crowded buses and trains. Backpacks that open on the front can also provide the benefits of a suitcase, preventing constant rummaging as you look for clothes and gear.

Luggage has to fit on your lap in this old retrofitted school bus in Sri Lanka. Photo: Noel Van Raes

2) Make a list and check it twice! Organize it into categories of clothing, toiletries and electronics. Don't let this become the “what if” stage. What if I need this? What if I need that? Don't give in! List only what you'll definitely need. You're not leaving the planet—if you really need something you can buy it at your destination.

3) Clothing can add up quickly, but by mixing and matching a few versatile pieces you can create a capsule wardrobe. Don’t bring things you “might” wear! And choose fast-drying clothing: or you may end up like me, waddling through a quaint town in your husband’s pants because yours are still soaking wet.


4) Pack reversible clothing, whether it’s a reversible skirt made from recycled silk saris, a bathing suit with two pattern options of even a shirt that can be worn inside out, variable clothing gives you options while letting you leave the bulk at home.

5) Practice. Seriously; lay everything you think you need out on your bed and practice cramming it into your pack, see what actually fits and what doesn’t. Then, reconsider what you need—be brutal and take no prisoners! I've never heard anyone complain about carrying too little while travelling.

No problem fitting this into my pack. I always wear my running shoes on travel days.

6) Decant toiletries into smaller space saving containers. And remember—it’s usually possible to buy more at your destination. If you have sensitive skin and need a specific product, do your research before leaving and see what’s available at your destination and what’s not, but be realistic; you don’t need a litre of shampoo, you just don’t.

Make the switch to solid toiletries whenever possible.

7) Change from a liquid to solid state! Toiletries like soap and shampoo also come in bars—meaning you don’t have to worry about carry-on limits.

8) Electronics. How many devices do you really need in the age of the smartphone? I take only my phone and a blue tooth connectable miniature keyboard to expedite typing. Also look for multipurpose chargers to cut down on all those wires.

This miniature keyboard saves time.

9) Get on a roll! No, seriously, roll your clothes instead of folding them; you’ll save on space and keep wrinkles at bay. No one wants to look like they slept in their clothes—even if they did.

10) Mind the gap! Don’t waste the space inside your shoes or in those awkward spaces around pockets and zippers, cram in your socks, undies or loose cables.

11) If you’re like me, you still prefer old fashioned guidebooks. But I don’t take the whole book—to save space I cut out the relevant sections and leave what I don’t need at home.

For me nothing beats a real book.

12) Make a space-splurge for the one thing that brings you extra comfort and peace. Maybe it’s a comfy hoodie or an inflatable pillow. My one concession to weight is books; I just don't like reading on E-readers. My husband brings books as well and we usually manage to find at least one book store along the way with a few English titles. You can also cut out the chapters you’ve finished along the way to reduce weight or leave books behind as you finish them.


Waiting for a bus with our packs in Ghana. Photo: Noel Van Raes

And there you have it! Happy packing!

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