Blog Travel in general
My experience travelling ultra-light
For my recent 10-week trip to Mexico and Central America, I had decided to travel ultra-light, replacing my regular 30-liter backpack with a 20 liter one. It is a Deuter Speedlite 20L Backpack that has handy elastic additional pockets. Moving to a warm climate helped in this decision, although Mexico-City isn’t that warm in January (needed the sweater and the raincoat a few times). I had already tried this configuration out on shorter trips in Europe a few times. This travel style sparked a discussion about stinky clothes in our WhatsApp group, so I don't want to keep it away from a bigger audience!
Some of the packing rules I applied
- Do not bring anything “Just in case”. If you lose something, replace it locally. This strategy may not work in Chad or the DRC, but will in most places and certainly in Mexico and Central America.
- Only bring clothes that you really like wearing - because you’ll have to wear them over and over again! And verify whether they will dry quickly enough.
- If there is something that you only need to use once during the trip, then rent it or buy one locally and then discard it. I did so with a sleeping bag and inflatable mattress for my 1-night camping in El Pinacate, which I rented for a small fee from the tour company.
What did I bring?
- Laptop (Dell XPS 13)
- Phone (iPhone SE 2020)
- Chargers for laptop and phone, plus 2 cables to connect them
- Converter plug Europe -> Americas (here I saved a bit on space by not bringing a multi-country one, but a small single-purpose one that I once bought in Panama)
- Kindle (did use it only a few times, maybe use the iPhone app only next time)
- Small mp3-player plus in-ear headphones
- Headlight (only used in El Pinacate and Tikal)
- 1 sturdy folder where I kept my dollars (between a folded piece of cardboard so they stay crisp), vaccination booklet, passport. And added the entrance tickets of the sites I went to, which are the only souvenirs that I keep. The tickets aren’t pretty in this region anyway. In the past, I have used those thin plastic folders to hold these papers, but I found that they started to be flattened or crumbled by the laptop that goes in the same pocket of the backpack.
- Credit and health insurance cards which I usually kept in my wallet (which is a small key purse by the way). I had a bank card as well, and a Dutch public transport card to get home.
- 1 pair of cotton long trousers
- 1 pair of bermuda shorts
- 1 long-sleeved sweater
- 2 polo shirts
- 3 t-shirts (bought an extra one in El Pinacate, because it looked nice but also because I could use a “warmer” t-shirt in Mexico)
- 1 lightweight rain jacket
- 1 pair of trainers
- 1 pair of sandals
- 3 pairs of socks
- 10 pieces of underwear
- 1 nightdress
- 1 bag for the fresh clothes and 1 bag for the dirty clothes
- 1 small ziplock bag with toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, body wash. I replaced them with the free stuff you get in some hotels. I also bought mosquito repellent after I got bitten a lot in Copán. You’ll need it for Quirigua and Tikal as well.
- 1 small toiletry bag (it actually is a pencil case!), with a toothbrush, hairbrush, nail clipper. It also holds a tiny set of needles/threads/pins (also handy for exchanging your sim card) and my “pharmacy” (1 strip of paracetamol and some bandaids against blisters). Plus earplugs. And a set of plastic cutlery (spoon, fork, knife).
- In Mexico, I bought a bag of 50 facemasks (for 50 pesos only!)
- Foldable Nike drawstring bag that I use as a daypack
Overall it worked out well, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again on a similar long trip (for the shorter trips this has become my standard already). It's also fun to see how others react to it - "Lady! Lady! Your luggage!" yelled one of the porters of the San Pedro Belize ferry, when I stepped off it and walked on directly towards my next destination without a care in the world with the small pack on my back.
Negatives: the biggest sacrifice is not being able to bring my bigger zoom camera – I took all photos with my iPhone. I only missed it at Hospicio Cabanas (details of the murals) and for some birds at Copan and Quirigua. Going through security on domestic flights was a bit of a hassle too as it is all packed quite tightly (fortunately the Mexican staff didn’t want to look too deeply & helped me re-packing it sometimes).
Positives: It especially works well with public transport, it turns you into an Agile traveller. Especially in El Salvador and Honduras, space on the buses can be tight. I always managed to keep my bag at my feet. Also, the weight is so minimal it’s no problem to visit a site with all of it (I did so at El Tajin). In 90% of the cases, I liked having the iPhone better than my bigger camera. It is lighter! You can snap an easy shot. It did well in difficult light circumstances, with the contrast between the dark shade and the bright sun.
Els - 20 March 2022
Esteban Cervantes Jiménez (vantcj1) 24 March 2022
Really interesting, Els. It was definitely great for you to travel light, pretty impressive considering that it was a couple of months.
Personally, I am pretty bad at traveling with very little, even on hikes here I tend to have several things that I find useful, in such cases I tend to use a typical hiking backpack. I am also quite forgetful, so for longer trips I make a list of things I will carry in my luggage and take it with me, so I won't miss anything I'll use, I check everything again when I am about to leave.
As in your case, I don't carry now a camera and rely fully on my Smartphone features (it is one i I bought mainly for its excellent camera). Of course the charger is something I always carry , as well as a portable charger, so some extra charge may be available if I need it. On electronics, besides that, I don't tend to use more than that. I sometimes pack binoculars when I hike in the mountains.
Clothing is the #1 crowding factor in my case. I tend to not only carry shorts and T-shirts, but at least one pair of longer trousers and more formal/longer-sleeved shirts. At least in Mexico they came in handy a couple of times. For sleeping, I tend to use a different pair of shorts that I don't wear outside. A sweater or jacket is a "just in case" I also end up using most of times. I also tend to splurge in socks and underwear, I try to bring a number of days+1 underwear items. Being in a pandemic, every reusable face mask came in handy, I washed them at the hotel. In the end, even with the fact that I brought quite an amount of clothing, the number of days there traveling made necessary to pay for a laundry service for some of my clothing items, to be able to use them again.
I also tend to -even when most hotels provide them- bring my own soap, and shampoo, I never forget at least the sunscreen, toothpaste, dental floss, hair gel, skin care products and so on. That would of course mean a lot of space lost, but I pour most of these products into smaller containers before going.
Of course, places with colder weather and traveling on rainy season may require bringing things like an umbrella, or rain cape.
I also let some extra space for possible souvenirs, in Mexico (due to the low costs) that was most a good amount of space in my luggage.
In short, I try to be as sensible as possible in what I carry, but still that would be much for most travelers here.
Els Slots 24 March 2022
Thanks for all your comments. Seems that there is a trend indeed to ditch the large cameras!
A few reactions to points that have been brought forward:
- the Powerbank: I would have taken it if I had more space. But I was lucky that my iPhone was brand new, so it easily performed for a day (let's say 9-17) while taking pictures, whatsapping and navigating. I sometimes also could recharge it in buses.
- the stinky clothes: I change and wash the shirts & underwear after 1 day, a bit longer for the socks (which aren't necessary at all in Central America) and pants
The water bottle I put in one of the elastic outer pockets of the backpack.
Nan 24 March 2022
I used to travel with a small backpack but upgraded to a medium sized one, that still fits as hand luggage. Its not that I take more luggage, but I wanted free space to store food and drinks or put stuff away without cramming it into a small backpack. I always carry a water bottle, may take off a sweater ...
With regards to how much I think most underwear and tshirts can work two days, especially if you don't use them as nightgown. More is a bit tricky, but 2 weeks requires 6 sets and that's not a lot of space. Pants, shirts and sweaters is where I go limited with max one replacement.
On weather, I don't see much difference. Cold means X layers worn continuously. Warm means less. Main challenge is changing weather where you need to carry luggage just in case.
Last bit electronics. Rethinking moving to a high class smartphone myself instead of a camera. Weight and hassle are just too much. Powerbank and earplugs are a must. Spare headphones make sense too.
Astraftis 20 March 2022
No discussion about how to treat stinky clothes? :-P
Congratulation for your level of lightness! I am still wondering how all of this can fit in such a small bag, one probably has to try for himself to be convinced. Anyway, as you say, this light pack is largely made possible by a warm, relatively dry climate. If you are travelling during a rainy season or in a cold climate where it is impossible to let things dry, there are more "logistical problems" to be solved. Or also during trips with tighter schedules (departing early - arriving late). For example, I think 3 socks is really a bare minimum, even "risky"!!!
With regard to the nightdress: I also take one with me... I mean, a pajama. Apart being comfy, I think it's a good choice in a perspective of clothes sparing: it's better to not sleep in the same clothes you use during the day. But it's true that in warmer climates you can simply forgo a pajama (but then, it also depends on where you sleep...).
You say that you don't keep any souvenir apart from tickets, and you also have no book... this would be impossible for me, or at least excruciating! D-: Most souvenirs by themselves don't take much space and are light, but I usually end up doubling the weight of a hand luggage because of books and other papers that I then sort at home.
Also, to answer to Solivagant: I think that having different devices (smartphone, kindle, mp3) still is more practical than all in one. Both because of recharging, but mainly because you can spread the usage among them. Doing everything by means of a tiny plastic box is tiring and not too efficient in the long run, in my experience. Or maybe I should upgrade my smartphone. By the way, I have stopped bringing an mp3 with me, simply because I stopped listening to music when I am around: I want to feel immersed where I am and I feel using earphones alienates me instead.
Lastly, do you think a compact camera is still not better than a phone? I do when comparing the pictures I take with both. I also think it is more options. It doesn't take much space: I keep it in a pouch which comes handy for other things too.
Zoë Sheng 20 March 2022
I don't take my camera anymore either, which is a really shame because for nature shots the phone quality still doesn't cut it imho, but camera + lense adds quite a bit of weight and space.
One tip: take old clothes you can spare, especially tshirts, and ditch some on the way. It will make your latter portion of the trip more enjoyable.
nightdress for me means tshirt and shorts :)
Solivagant 20 March 2022
A "Nightdress"??!! It must be a "female thing". Mrs Solivagant always insists on packing hers too. That is one "luxury" which could certainly go.
A bit surprised at the plethora of Electronic boxes - Phone, Kindle and MP3 Player. What is wrong with the Apps for the latter 2? I would also always carry a powerpack for those long days (or camping nights) with no power/heavy photography etc etc. Even the Headlamp seems "de trop".
Agree entirely on the change which has occurred across recent years on the balance between phone and camera photography. I still carry the camera as am not trying to cut down on weight as much as you but find I use it from choice less and less. Back up is better too with auto upload to a Cloud app taking place without the bother of having to sling them via a phone.