By Colleen Sinsky
Here’s an uncharacteristically *travel bloggy* post from me. I wrote this on request from a number of folks who’ve asked how I travel with just a carry on. Two years ago, my chronically overpacking self would never have believed I would someday be able to spend three and a half months between Santorini beaches, Muslim countries, cold mountainous regions, refugee camps on Lesvos, and the occasional fancy Spanish dinner- out of the same carry-on sized bag. It’s totally possible, but does take a bit of planning to get there comfortably.
I’m not an expert traveler by any means, but I’ve been on enough of a diversity of trips to have developed a philosophy and corresponding packing list that work for me. These tips on traveling light are based partly on my backcountry travel experience, a desire to only ever have a carry-on bag, and my tendency to visit a variety of climates on a single trip. I’ve learned by trial and error, and am constantly researching and making improvements, so feel free to share your tips in the comments!
1. People manage to live in the places you are traveling to.
Even if they speak a different language, they probably have similar hygiene needs to you. You can almost always buy what you need abroad- especially in the large city that you fly into. Seeking out a local grocery store to buy a big bottle of 2 in 1 shampoo/conditioner and a tube of toothpaste has become a fun tradition in my travel routine.
2. Don’t worry so much about how you look.
Easier said than done, right? Especially if you’re heavily documenting the whole trip on social media. Most of my trips look like one long day, where I switched between the same two shirts. But that’s not what I’m noticing when I look back at pictures. Embrace the fact that you might not have the perfect shoes or purse for every event. Do you really notice what others are wearing that much? It’s freeing really. After spending time living out of a small backpack, you might find yourself craving simplified choices once you return to your overwhelming closet back home.
3. The more you own, the more it owns you.
This is true in travel and in life. If you own something that you’re going to spend your whole trip worrying about, don’t bring it! Really, whether it’s a laptop, DSLR camera, latest iPhone- leave it safely at home. I travel expecting that my electronics will be lost/stolen, and plan ahead accordingly. I only buy refurbished or used electronic gear, and so while I do take care of my stuff, my trip wouldn’t be ruined if my backed-up $180 early model, used iPad got stolen. Same for my camera. I love that thing to death, but I intentionally bought a model that I could afford to replace if needed, rather than be convinced into a fancier, more expensive model. I think it’s also worth noting here to invest in protective cases for your electronics. My iPhone and iPad have been around the world with me and are both in LifeProof cases, so I really don’t have to worry about damaging them (and I’ve taken some cool underwater photos!) I also bring a folding bluetooth keyboard so that I can type onto my iPad.
(This setup is how I produce all blog posts when I’m traveling.)
I recently upgraded to a nice, interchangeable lens camera. To me, it’s become worth enduring the added stress to try my hand at exploring photography, but don’t automatically be convinced that you NEED to own a DSLR camera to document your trip. Smartphones take great photos, and it’s a wonderful thing to not have to worry about. With that said, as an entry-level photographer who’s into light travel and a tight budget, I love my mirrorless Sony A5000. Among other features, the built-in wifi is nice so that I can transfer photos to my iPhone and to edit in Instagram and PhotoShop mobile wirelessly.
4. Be smart. Prepare for the worst.
This means planning ahead. Bring photocopies of your passport, a few passport-sized headshots, hide a stash of USD somewhere in your bag, register with the US state department, buy travel insurance, do your research, keep your bag in sight or preferably on your person, spread out your valuables & cash, learn from locals, have a plan for when you lose your wallet. My wallet has been lost/stolen twice while on long-term trips, and neither time was it a very big deal. I kept a backup credit card that I could use to access cash in a separate place, didn’t keep a lot of cash on me in the first place, and was able to make arrangements to electronically transfer money to nearby friends who could withdraw cash for me.
5. Bring a UV water purifier.
Unless I’m traveling only in so-called “developed” countries, this is the top of my packing list. I prefer the CamelBack UV filter, which, like the SteriPen takes about 90 seconds to kill contaminants in a liter of water. At $75, you might initially balk at the price, but know that after 4 liters/day of drinking water & brushing your teeth, it’ll pay for itself in roughly 15-18 days of travel, plus you’ll be saving that many water bottles from being added to landfills. I usually travel with a duct-tape wrapped Nalgene, where I do the actual purifying (and, inside a sock, it can be used as a hot water bottle to warm up your bed or sleeping bag), and will buy a plastic bottle that I can refill with my purified water. UV filters can be used in the backcountry in the US as well, and are a great addition to your zombie apocalypse/earthquake preparedness kit (paired with a portable solar charger). Mine goes for about 4 days without a charge, and has the added bonus of ensuring hilarity when you have to explain through sign language what bizarro witchcraft you’re doing with your illuminated water in the corner of the Tibetan tea house.
You can buy a proprietary mesh filter, or just filter through a t-shirt if your water source is less than ideal.
(Mysterious Morroccan mountain berries- did not get sick.)
(Greek wine- always on tap)
(Roasted guinea pig, or “cuy” in the mountains of Ecuador is tastier than you’d expect.)
(And sometimes, food is just calories in.)
5. Bring a paperback.
One you’re not too attached to, and can trade out at a hostel book library when you’re done with. I like to have a digital subscription to The Economist, which I read on my iPad, as well as a few other downloaded books, but it’s nice to just have a paperback fun read. I also always have a journal, and a few pre-downloaded movies or documentaries on my iPad. Note: if you’re traveling with someone, a headphone splitter is an awesome thing to have. When I traveled through Morocco with a boyfriend, we loved being able to listen to podcasts together on long bus rides. I’m all for this kind of escapism entertainment on a long trip, just be sure that you’re isolating yourself occasionally for the right reasons (like diarrhea), and not hiding from experiences and exposures you should be having.
Pondering the map on the Manaslu Circuit Trek in Nepal
6. Creature Comforts
Even when packing light, there are a few things that I don’t skip on. One is a mini bluetooth speaker, like this. (It’s way cheaper on Amazon if you actually decide to buy that one) For an impromptu dance party, using a white noise app to drown out loud ambient noise when I’m trying to sleep, or just listening to a podcast while I do my physical therapy & workout routine in the evening, it’s awesome. Just be conscientious of not drowning out the sounds you should be experiencing, or of being that obnoxious person blasting their music. I also like to bring a scented candle (in a tin, not glass), or at least buying a cheap pack of candles upon arrival. Your bag might get searched at airport security, but they’ll let you and your candle through. The hotel manager may not love it, but if you’re careful and don’t burn the place down, they’ll never know, and you’ll have some delightfully cozy ambiance. I also bring my electric toothbrush. Don’t laugh. Dental hygiene is important! Maybe your thing is a deck of cards, your watercolors, or your favorite perfume. Whatever. If it’s small and brings you joy, pack it.
7. Research Ahead
One of my best trips was to Ecuador, when I bought a last minute ticket on miles and spent almost NO time researching before I left. But, (and this is the part that doesn’t make it on Facebook), I feel like I had to make up for my lack of preparation once I was there. In Quito, I had to spend several hours holed up in a restaurant, flipping through my Lonely Planet and scrolling through my iPhone, trying to decide which city to go to next, rather than exploring the vibrant city. It was fine, of course, but in hindsight, I’d have benefitted from a better balance of spontaneity and planning- even if that planning meant just having skimmed through the Lonely Planet ahead of time.
(This is the scene that was waiting for me once I ventured outside in Quito.)
In contrast, when I went to Cambodia, I’d had months of prep time and had read a few books about the history of the country, and departed home armed with knowledge of the Khmer Rouge massacres, the historical, spiritual, and artistic significance of Angkor Wat, and a bit of the Khmer language. I’d read this great book about being an ethical tourist in Cambodia, and we were able to seek out the businesses that empowered local communities. I feel like I get so much more out of travel when I have the background to be able to appreciate what I’m seeing, and have put in the work to be as ethical and conscientious as a privileged American tourist can be.
I’m also a proponent of learning as much of the local language as possible. This can be overwhelming, especially if you’re country-hopping, but the few hours spent on YouTube and taking notes will pay off in a richer experience for you, and more positive experience for your hosts. Some phrases I like to learn, after greetings of course are “Excuse me, do you speak English? My name is Colleen, I am from California, USA. What is your name? Thank you. This food is delicious. Where is ……? How much? That is beautiful. I love your country. Can I take a picture?” People will generally also love to teach you how to say things, if you ask nicely. In Nepal, I found a local my age who I paid to give me daily Nepali lessons over chai, and I ended up having a valuable experience learning about Nepali culture in addition to the language.
8. Lady People Only
I’m not going to delve into the whole philosophy of solo gal travel, other than to say “heck yeah!” People will try to scare you, because your fearlessness scares them. Don’t give in. The world isn’t nearly as dangerous as ‘they’ want us to believe. Trust your gut, follow the lead of locals, find allies, and don’t be hard on yourself if you feel best and safest springing on a decent hotel room, locking your door, and reading yourself to sleep, rather than forcing yourself to explore the night scene. Inform yourself, be aware and confident, and do what you’re comfortable with. Read travel blogs by other solo gal travelers and embrace it.
Master a hairstyle that hides a few days without a shower. Mine is the side frenchbraid swept into a bun– which takes about three minutes once you get the hang of frenchbraiding your own hair. Add some local swoopy earrings, and you’re set! Simplify your makeup routine. I opt for tinted sunscreen (repackaged into a smaller container) + a brushful of Bare Minerals + mascara. Actually, that’s become my daily routine since returning from travel too!
If you’re switching to a new method of birth control, talk to your doctor, and allow several months for your body to adjust before travel. I’ve heard a horror story or two of disastrous complications there. Tampons can be hard to find. I got sick of dealing with my period, so went from 3-month birth control, and then to an IUD, and now I don’t have to deal with it at all while traveling. But as a result, I don’t have a whole lot of helpful advice about dealing with your period on the road. Friends say great things about using a DivaCup, but I imagine that keeping it clean while backpacking would be tough. Maybe I’m wrong. Reviews and various communities online will have more information than I do. I’m a fan of the “Go-Girl” which I affectionately call “my purple penis.” I think that it has more limited application than advertisements would claim. If you’re on a long river trip, in a harness for a long time, or otherwise in a place where you can’t just pop a squat, it’s great, and you can pee standing up alongside the road like the best of them. But unless you’re in one of those situations, just pop the squat. On that note, once I got used to them, I began to actually prefer squat toilets to our Western ones. I always carry baby wipes with me (and dudes should too!)
(Image stolen from here, because I never think to take pictures of this type of important thing. Honestly, now that I’m used to using these squat toilets, I choose them over Western toilets when given the choice.)
I found a bra I love and I’ll never wear anything else. This started out as my “travel” bra, but I’ve since been converted and now solely wear this Patagonia bra. I bring two for long trips. Why are bras so expensive? It’s not fair.
I always bring at least one container of Dr. Bronners multi-use soap. It’s great for washing clothes in the sink, or yourself, or your Chacos, or anything else. That, plus a solid length of parachute cord, plus a carabiner to make a clothesline, and you’re set! (The biner/p-cord setup can have a variety of applications, including keeping food off the floor of the rat-infested stone shack you’re sleeping in at 16,000 feet).
I’ve found laundry readily available everywhere I’ve traveled, whether I’ve had to spend a few hours near the laundromat, or a pay-per-kilo drop off and pick up deal. It’s a good thing we don’t have that service as readily available and inexpensive here in the US, or I’d never do my own laundry.
I plan on doing laundry about once every 7-10 days and pack accordingly. I wash undergarments in the sink in between.
10. Don’t Overpack
In order to travel for a long time with minimal stuff comfortably, some clothing staples are important. For me, it’s these trail runner shoes (lighter than hiking boots, sturdier than tennis shoes, cuter- in my opinion- than the average outdoorsy shoe) Chaco type sandals, a long skirt, a few basic colored v-neck t-shirts, a decent cardigan, lightweight hiking pants (bonus points if convertable to capris), long wool underwear (mine double as black leggings), a basic wool thin zippered jacket, collared shirt (for dudes), a shell (aka raincoat. aim for a GoreTex-like material), jeans (some lightweight advocates would say to skip this, but I couldn’t go without), thin wool socks, a beanie-style hat, black workout capris (for sleeping or working out), maybe shorts, a versatile dress like this, maybe a fleece jacket, tank top in a basic color, and a lightweight down jacket (plus a pillowcase stolen from the plane=pillow! Note that the one I linked to is REALLY expensive. I got mine half off, but probably would have endured the full price in hindsight. Looking back at my photos, I’m wearing it in nearly every trip I’ve done in the past few years.) It’s fun to buy a local scarf or shawl type thing. I usually bring rain pants, a watch, and a few pairs of sunglasses. I also like to have a travel towel, a combo lock, and not one, but two headlamps . Naturally if you’re doing an expedition of some kind, or will be doing something off the grid, you’d have major adjustments and additions. Keep in mind though, that rentals are often available, wherever you go.
I use this Mountain Hardware duffel in small (45 liters). It’s stealthy black. It’s nearly waterproof. It’s been strapped to yaks, camels, tossed into tiny planes and the back of dusty pickups, and it’s always kept my gear safe. I take advantage of the internal compression strap inside to really squash my gear in, and use the mesh side pockets for my little stuff. I managed to get mine for half off at the MH employee store, but even with the steep $140 price tag, I’d actually call this a good investment.
Usually I start the trip with this rolled up inside my backpack, but will inevitably expand to fill this as well. It’s nice to have a separate pack for day hikes, and this one isn’t much of a volume or financial commitment. Mine has gone on so many adventures that the purple has faded to a dirty lavender, but it’s still running strong. I usually keep a few plastic grocery bags in the internal pocket, in case it starts raining, so that I’m able to protect my camera or other gear.
(Flashpack rolled up for storage, sunglasses for size comparison.)
(Bonus points if your purse matches your comforter.)
For walking around cities, and for travel days, I like a zippered over-the-shoulder purse that’s made out of a material that allows me to roll it up and pack it when I’m not using it. I got mine for $2 at a thrift store and surreptitiously clip a figure-8 biner between the main zipper and the shoulder strap to act as a small deterrent for pickpockets. I also like having an external pocket or two for a water bottle and for the trash I pick up. For toiletries, I like this North Face bag. I also bought a small, premade first aid kit and modified to my preferences.
Whew. Overwhelmed yet? I am. This might all seem totally unattainable. If so, know that it took me YEARS, and a lot of trial and error, and a lot of failed trips to the REI used gear store before I feel like I got a system that works for me. I’m fortunate that Portland has a great used gear store, Next Adventure, and I am able to take advantage of friends’ connections and my own access to pro deals. People have been traveling for thousands of years before GoreTex was developed, and people continually manage to survive without DWR-coated down. Having the latest and greatest gear is nice, but don’t let access to that stop you from exploring. If you don’t want to invest in this gear, or don’t care about traveling as light as I like to, that’s awesome too! There’s no right way to do anything.
Happy traveling! Comment or email me if you have further suggestions or questions.