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Travel light, live cheap

I was reading a backpacking website this morning that had a suggested kit list for a round the world backpacking journeys. It was ridiculous! Captain Scott and Edmund Hillary did not have as much fancy gear as this list was suggesting. And the cost of it all would mean that, if I bought all their suggestions, then I would only have enough spending money left over for a weekend break on the Isle of Wight rather than a once-in-a-lifetime round the world odyssey.
So this week I am going to play devil’s advocate and suggest an alternative way to the backpackers I have seen in many countries, hot-faced and stressed, hiking from bus station to hostel with a massive pack on their backs and another one on their front.
I am going to suggest travelling light. Really light.
My suggestions are based on two key points:
  1. There are already people living in the country you are going to. There are shops there where you can buy stuff if you need it. You do not need to carry with you everything you may need for every imaginable scenario.
  2. An important aspect of backpacking is to leave your normal life behind for a while. A little simplicity and basic living is no bad thing for a while.

I once spent three months travelling round the Philippines. I travelled only with hand luggage. I had one pair of trousers, one pair of shorts, one shirt, one raincoat, one pair of socks, two pairs of underwear, a pair of shoes, and my flip-flops.
I had to wash my clothes in the sink at night. I look identical in every single photograph from the trip. But the experience was so liberating. Towards the end of the trip I began giving away all the items I needed no longer. So I landed at Heathrow with only the clothes I was wearing: shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops and a conical straw hat that I had swapped for my shirt. By the time my train home arrived in Yorkshire I was very cold and looked massively out of place. But those days of travelling light are still some of my fondest travel memories.
Here then is my alternative kit list for a backpacking adventure. It matters not whether you are going for a week or year: you still need just the same amount of stuff. Let’s assume you are going to a warm part of the world and are not planning to do any hardcore trekking etc.
Here is all you need to take. It’s cheap and it’s simple. Sexy, it ain’t! Remember: you’re going on an adventure, not planning a military invasion and siege!

  • 1 long-sleeved shirt. Roll the sleeves up and unbutton the front when you are hot. Do the reverse when cold
  • 1 rain coat. Also acts as an extra layer if you are cold
  • 1 set of underwear.
  • 1 swim suit (can also double as underwear).
  • 1 pair of socks.
  • All-purpose shoes
  • Flip flops or sandals
  • 1 pair trousers that convert into shorts, or 1 dress
  • 30 litre backpack
  • Silk sleeping bag. Packs down tiny, keeps bed bugs away, very warm for its size
  • Mosquito net
  • Basic toiletries. Suncream and mosquito repellent
  • Camera
  • Diary and pen
  • One reading book. Swap it when you’re done
  • Guidebook. If you must
  • Map of the country
  • Sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Penknife (though if you plan to fly with only hand luggage you have to leave this behind)
  • Mug (great for eating breakfast cereal from too)
  • Spoon
  • Water bottle and water purifying tablets
  • Passport, credit card, cash etc. Back your files up online before you fly.

That’s it. Recover from recoiling in horror at my omission of laptops, special outfits for partying and vast first aid kits. Internet cafes can be found worldwide and party frocks don’t belong on an adventure blog. And think about what citizens of the country you are in do should they suddenly get haemmorhoids, a bee sting, or a sore throat: they go to a chemist and buy a medicine. Don’t feel the need to carry with you a treatment for everything you might never catch.
Although I anticipate that you will probably carry more than this on your next trip (and so would I), I hope that it has provoked you to question what you really do need, and what you can live without for a few weeks or months.
What do you think? Am I a stinking hobo, or do I have a point? Let me know in the comments…
Shed a load and hit the road.

This piece first appeared in Wanderlust.

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  1. I’d carry a bit more, but you’re absolutely right! You need very little to enjoy a backpacking trip. It’s easier to do in places like the Philippines, I’ve travelled there with a carry-on bag too. But you don’t need a sweater for months at a time in the tropics.

    I hitched around Europe in the 80’s and got my backpack nicked on a beach in Greece when I was swimming. I lost all my kit (a blow because I was sleeping rough on the way home), passport, air ticket back to South Africa from Amsterdam, and my travellers cheques. Once I got over the loss, I felt totally liberated. I spent six days hitching back to the UK (had to go there to get another passport) in little more than shorts and t-shirt. Slept rough and had my faith in humanity restored by the kindness of helpful strangers.

    I realised that all that “stuff” can detract from the experience rather than enhance it. Less is definitely more, even if you don’t go the the extremes suggested in your post! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Love the ideas, so tempted to pack exactly that and drive to the airport!
    unfortunately my mind tells me different, with a camera (I’m a photographer) I’d feel id need at least a solar charger, and something to back up /transfer my photos too (I came back from my last trip to Tanzania with 30Gb of photos/video) ideally a laptop. I WANT to travel light but i always seem to feel I need more (half my pack was camera kit, most of which I used but didn’t need). its not a need, but a want. I feel comfortable with more, I think I need to break out of my muchness mode and break in to a muchless trip – any suggestions? everywhere I go feels like work, I need to break that mould so much!

    thanks for the advice on packing! here’s hoping I get to use it soon!

    • Maybe just get a Canon G11 and go…?

    • Octavian Posted

      SD cards are dirt cheap now. You can just buy 5 different cards and forgo backuping to Laptop

    • Buying and bringing more is easy, but bringing less, being efficient, consolidating, minimizing, getting more out of what you have…now that’s power. Less is more. Take better pictures, not more. Carry less gear, not more. Simplify your camera. Lighten your load. I’m on a round the world trip and only using my iphone camera since I didn’t want to carry more. Prioritize and only take what you need…nothing more. Good luck downsizing.

  3. Jonny BB Posted

    Just out of curiosity, which website were you looking at?

  4. Great list! I’m amazed at the times I visit hostels and every single person (well, almost everyone) has a laptop. The whole point of getting away is to have an adventure, and that’s not possible when you’re constantly hooked up to internet or weighted down with too much luggage. It’s not about what you could do with taking, it’s what you can’t do without. One of my best adventures involved cycling 1000miles through Europe, not using the internet for 1month, it was a liberating experience and everything was still there when I got back.

    “That’s right. I’m out of here. Do not chase me down or text me or try to talk me into going out for lunch. I don’t have time to figure out if I have time for a run. I’m just going. The world will not fall apart in my absence. I might miss somebody’s birthday cake or a discussion of last night’s season finale. Even if I do, who caes. I’m coming back with a state of mind three coffees, two flirtatious emails and a week of vacation can’t buy.” Nike – Just do it

  5. I think the most important item on the list is the 30 ltr backpack. The larger your backpack, the more you are tempted to fill it with stuff you don’t need. So, a small capacity makes you think hard about what to pack.

    I pack the same way now for the business travel I do and I always laugh when I see the people at check in with suitcases bigger than themselves. It’s surprising what you don’t need, liberating, less stressful and saves you money.

  6. Amen. A couple of summers back I hitched from Armenia to England (8,000km) with a poncho, pen-knife, mobile (camera) and wallet, plus the clothes I was wearing. It was bloody miserable at nights when sleeping rough, and I stank, so therefore I would take a few more bits from your list if I did it again… but it was so so awesome to be able to jog and hitch around the Near East and Europe for a couple of weeks with practically nothing to carry.

    You could bring a smartphone and chuck the diary, guidebook, map, reading book, camera and torch. Still to test this theory; waiting for the stupid things to become a bit more affordable…

  7. Anand Teke Posted

    Sounds perfect except for number of clothes. Clothes generally take more than a night to dry, wont u take at least a couple of shirts and trousers?

  8. nation harris Posted

    i over packed with bike spares. any spare i could think of i took. then through the peak district, on a huge climb (biggest ive done) i got terribly angry, threw the lot away, barre a chain, spokes and general tools.

  9. Jordan Posted

    The only extra thing i would take would be a few more pairs of socks. Need to look after your feet when travelling and dry, washed socks is a good place to start — both for yourself and for those within wafting distance.

  10. Have you checked out Rolf Pott’s trip? He did 6 weeks around the world with only what he could wear on his body. He said the same thing, he had to wash clothes each night, but it actually felt so liberating to not have to worry about carrying anything, and by the middle of the trip he thought he had still brought too much! He called it the “no baggage challenge” the site is here, I found it to be pretty interesting to follow along, and realized I am a huge over packer.

  11. Hi Alistair, no, you are not a stinking hobo(!), and yes, you do have a point. I spent many years landing in foreign countries with very little luggage,…and even less money. If you’ve got some guts, a desire for adventure and a belief that you are doing the ‘right thing for you’, survival is almost guaranteed. It could be uncomfortable and stressful at times but if the will is there the highs will always out do the lows. Just do your best to visualise what you are after and it invariably happens. Great website!

  12. It fascinates me that the outdoor industry has spend millions in recent years making gear lighter and “better”(read nice looking things that dont last as long) though I wouldn’t trade my exped for a foam mat again, So we spend thousands getting our baggage to a minimum in weight.

    Only to spend another thousand on laptop,e-reader, ipod and take kilos of gadgets, cables, batteries and chargers with us…….

    15 years of evolution has created a weight reduction of 0kg…..The only thing that has gotten lighter is my wallet.

    Shane (who on his next trip will also have a laptop to save sitting in an African internet cafe for 6 hours to write 1 update).

    • Alistair Africa Posted

      1 word – iPhone
      It is basically a laptop and anything you can do on a laptop you can do on an iPhone in a smaller but functional way….

      • Ever tried doing a 1000 word website update with an Iphone in a country that doesn’t have 3g or wifi?

        Long live the far too heavy laptop:)

  13. Just another little thought,

    The gear you need for a weekend is almost the same as for a week or month, but I find myself having great difficulty not packing a spare shirt and zip off pants just cos I’m going for 2 years…..

    Clothing, tools and spares is my greatest area for improvement. Half of which I WOULD leave at home if I was travelling in Europe or America. Honest….

  14. Packing like this can be a liberation but also it’s just another way of doing things, I spent three months in Nepal with very little 2 zip off trousers , 1 pair of shorts and 3 t shirts, boxers and socks. but then there is other things where u need the extra kit.

    I also had a load of trek specific kit with me for that purpose. I think the argument for fast and light kit by outdoor companies being pointless is valid. I think it is a very select market but certain people will enjoy the benefits. If i can take a couple of kg off of a bag and be super comfortable with shiny latest tech stuff then I’ll take it but again I feel when away on an ‘adventure’ I like the challenge of living differently to how i would at home and i guess thats where i get my buzz!

  15. 1 board a kite and 35 litere backpack is all I needed for a month kitesurfing 2000km up the coast of Brazil. I stuggled with what to take but asked myself 2 critial questions which helped the packing process: does this piece of kit keep me alive and does this help me progress. It is amazing what you can pick up on the way when you really need it.

  16. I basically agree with you, although think maybe you are a bit hardcore… One pair of socks? Surely a second pair of socks can’t take up that much space? 🙂

    Laptop is not really akin to “proper” travel, for instance if you are caught out in a tremendous rainstorm in a little boat you will be worrying about it instead of enjoying the experience. I have backed up photos by burning 2 CDs and posting one to the UK.

  17. With all that stuff you could probably get away with ever smaller backpack.
    Maybe even somethink like 10-15 liters 🙂

  18. Dammit Alastair, you make me want to pack my bike and just go. Now where would I pack the wife and kids…

  19. I agree entirely. I miss it terribly. I always travel light and people think I’m strange as girls seem to need 30 pairs of shoes to go anywhere and horror of horror you should wash your undies every night!!
    I wish I could just have my backpack stuff now sometimes, just to get rid of all the ‘stuff’ I have!!!

  20. Just going through this for my next trip. One thing missing that I wouldn’t leave without: a compass! I find it pretty easy to get lost and, when there are no people about, you suddenly realise exactly how handy these things are 🙂

  21. I’d add a flashlight since I mostly travel to developing countries and lighting can be iffy to say the least. I’ve never taken mosquito netting. If you need it it’s provided or available very cheaply. Oh, and I’ve never taken flip flops so far, but after my last trip, that’s going to change.

    Most of the time, I’d add a thin sweater or fleece. I’ve frozen my butt off in Thailand, Laos, India, Vietnam, Latin America, Australia and all over Africa. It can get really cold at night, even in supposedly hot countries. You can buy something local, but it’s usually heavier and bulkier than what you can get at home.

    All my stuff and my large DSLR fits into a JanSport book pack. The only downside is that I always get stopped at US customs to explain why I don’t have luggage when I get home from a multi-week trip.

    P.S. Ditto on the iPhone. Take a second battery and ditch the book. Smaller, lighter, almost every hostel has WiFi nowadays, and you can read in the dark.

  22. i am looking through your blogs for any lists or ideas for my friend and i (2 women) leaving for a 3 month bike trip in south east asia…would love to see a kitlist you made for that if you have one!!??

  23. Aaron Posted

    A few years late to the party, but can’t agree more on the 30L pack. Even with 30L you can end up with a lot. Poking around the internet planning a round the world tour, found your Mekong adventure trying to sort out one of my own river adventure ideas. Great blog! Your friend in minimalistic travel, Aaron.

  24. Brilliant write up! been thinking and doing this for years. I live and travel in a area in Asia where there are many western backpackers. I’m always amazed at what they have. 60+ liter backpack with a 20+ liter front pack. Makes being highly mobile highly impractical. Carry less, do more.

  25. Gary Benton Posted

    You don’t need a 30L pack for that small amount of stuff. i use a 20L dry bag (keeps things dry) inside a 19L pack. I use an iPod Touch for my camera, for a computer, for a radio/music, for offline maps, books/magazines, for Skyping, for boarding passes, email, etc. I prefer it to an iPhone and it is much cheaper. Some features only work with WiFi, though. I must have 2 – 3 pairs of socks to protect my feet, and take a change of clothes as wet clothing is no fun on cold days in temperate climates. Really love the dry bag in wet weather. Merino wool works great for my travel.

  26. Virginie Posted

    Agree on there are local shops.. But, I would like to point out that if you go to Peru or Asia people are smaller than us (me at least!). And therefore do not think you’ll find cheap local shoes or garment Easily on the markets at your size…. Thought, we always find a solution don’t we ?!

    Anyway, I should try your way.
    Today I’m lazy, and like to have the possibility not to wash every night. I bring three shirt (one short sleeve for exercise, one long sleeve for exercise that I use when the other dry / &for cold, one for the evening a bit more fancy that stays clean). Two very hot long pair of socks combined with keens which is good for walking bare foot with & going into water. Otherwise I follow pretty much your different kit lists. Also I wouldn’t go anywhere without a hamac nowadays… :~\

  27. Love your basic packing list and couldn’t agree more. Someone told me some very sane packing advice long ago that I never forget; “lay out what you’d like to bring, bring half as much and twice as much money”. I’ve never forgotten this advice and I always bring too little as opposed to too much and never regret it. You’re right, you can always buy things along the way IF you ever need it. Packing light frees your mind and body to explore more deeply and widely, move faster, more comfortably and for longer. Besides, it allows you to buy a shirt or two or pair of pants that is in style where you’re traveling and helps you blend in and adapt to/respect the local culture/custom. That way you won’t stick out like a total tourist and look like you don’t belong, even if you don’t. Nothing worse than seeing travelers that have no clue how to dress, stick out like a sore thumb and draw attention to themselves. It can be dangerous, un-mindful and disrespectful, in my opinion. I’m currently traveling around the world for one year with a 60 liter pack and about 15kg of gear and this is because I’m hitting warm and cold places (Middle East desert trekking and winter climbing in Nepalese Himalayas). Felt strange carrying a down jacket, hat and mittens in my pack in Dubai, but some things just can’t be avoided. Great blog, excellent information and awesome message, Alastair!

  28. I realize it’s an old post, but who knows. I totally agree with the notion of “minimalist” backpacking and after I’ve gone around New Zealand with a carry-on only, I know I can do it… if I stay at hostels. If I want to camp or be prepared for the possibility of no shelter, I would need extra stuff that doesn’t pack in my 30l Porter.
    How do you solve that? Do you pack with a certain trip in mind?

    • Alastair Posted

      What’s wrong with old posts?!
      For trips more than a couple of days I think a 50l pack makes life more comfortable and sustainable.

  29. I get out of the military in exactly a year. And I’m originally from half way across the country. It’s gonna be long walk home and I cant wait.



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