Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a modern-day explorer. I caught the travel bug early and started venturing to faraway lands at every opportunity. Fast forward to 2020 and I’ve been to over 50 countries and to every continent. I now consider my travel style fit for every purpose and fully adjustable. On this basis, here are my 10 principles of minimalist traveling.
Most seasoned travelers will be familiar with the concepts of over- or underpacking. When I first started traveling – way back in 2012 – I packed a million things I didn’t need and left crucial items like sun cream and emergency cash at home.
It took me a while before I devised my minimalist traveling style with astute packing hacks and the right travel gear. I don’t adhere to the idea of “ultra-minimalist travel” – that is, packing the absolute bare minimum into one carry-on bag.
Is it possible to travel the world with nothing more than 40 liters of carry-on? It certainly is. Does it work for every traveler and more importantly, every travel style? Definitely not.
After trying it for myself, I realized that hardcore spartan traveling didn’t suit my personality nor my principles of minimalist traveling.
So, what are those principles?
10 principles of minimalist traveling
The following are 10 golden rules for minimalist traveling – tested and tweaked over more than 8 years of constant globetrotting. They naturally concern packing, but also your general approach to traveling.
1. Determine your essentials
When drafting a minimalist packing list, the same question keeps cropping up: how much do you need?
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer. The exact amount of pants, shoes, jackets, and electronics depends entirely on the traveler and partly on the trip itself.
The major challenge lies in defining your essentials. It took me a while to figure this out, but once I knew exactly what my essentials were, it saved me heaps of time with packing decisions.
In concrete terms, try to identify your essentials by setting a fixed number of items you are 100 % sure about. These items should take up around 60-70 % of your luggage.
Essentials are usually clothes, toiletries, and other travel accessories. They should be versatile and usable in varied climates and locations.
Once determined, the essentials will form the foundation of your minimalist packing list. This base luggage can then be supplemented by all the stuff you might see as useful but not necessarily indispensable as well as destination-specific gear.
For example, my foldable day-pack is an essential and practical everywhere in the world. My dry-bag, on the other hand, is convenient in countries where I plan to do lots of water activities but unnecessary in cities or deserts.
2. Use packing cubes and dividers
I have been using Gonex packing cubes for a couple of years now and they are a truly ingenious solution to the challenge of luggage organization.
Cheap, light, and inconspicuous, packing cubes create an intuitive division of your luggage – sorting it into categories like t-shirts, pants, electronics, and swimming gear. And there is more.
Half transparent dividers also speed up the process of packing by separating your luggage into various small compartments.
Accordingly, you’ll spend less time wondering where to put your microfibre towel and your shorts – their location inside the suitcase will be defined by the corresponding packing cube.
3. If you have doubts about packing something, don’t pack it
The first time I came across this rule, I was skeptical.
What if I decide later on whether I need something or not?
After years of globetrotting, I am convinced that there is no “deciding later” when it comes to minimalist traveling.
Numerous attempts yielded the same result. If I had my doubts about packing an item, it always turned out to be unnecessary. This might result from the fact that if you are unsure about something, you already subconsciously know that you don’t need it.
If you truly needed it, you wouldn’t question its usability or necessity. There might be very rare exceptions, but as a rule thumb, this mantra has served me well over the years.
4. Take enough everyday clothes for 10-15 days
This rule applies to long-term traveling – ie trips lasting more than one month. Even if you are sojourning in the middle of nowhere, you’ll likely find a washing machine every 10-15 days.
Some hardcore minimalist travelers would lessen this benchmark to 7 days but I have experienced situations where I couldn’t find a washing machine for over 7 days.
Consequently, 10-15 days’ worth of clothes is a reasonable amount and usually enough for any adventure.
5. Take versatile clothes and check color combinations
When it comes to minimalist travel clothes, versatility is key.
As with lots of minimalist purchases, try to avoid single-purpose clothes that only fit one outfit.
Opting for discrete, sober colors like black, grey, and navy blue is one of the best minimalist travel packing hacks. All of these colors are easily combined and don’t make you stand out as a tourist.
Leave your American-style college t-shirts and baseball shorts at home and go for something more subtle instead. You’ll feel less conspicuous and you’ll need fewer clothes in total.
6. Leave space in your luggage
I used to fill my luggage with everything I could. It felt like the natural thing to do.
But I have a big suitcase, shouldn’t I use all of its space?
No, you shouldn’t. Just because a certain bag has 80 liters, you don’t have to cram these 80 liters full of stuff you don’t need. Consider this: you wouldn’t clog up your car’s trunk every day just because the trunk has X amount of space.
I nowadays adopt an 80/20 rule. 80 % of the luggage is used and 20 % remains empty for travel mementos like local delicacies and the odd purchase on the road.
This prevents me from carrying swelled bags and it also works in conjunction with my 60-70 percent “essentials” rule.
7. Practice makes perfect
My principles of minimalist traveling didn’t originate overnight. It took many years, countless adventures, and lots of packing fails to develop my system of minimalist traveling.
This is why you shouldn’t expect to get your minimalist packing list right from the getgo. The more trips you go on, the more you’ll discover your ins and outs of traveling light.
You might not know how to dress in layers if you live in a country with a hot and humid climate. After several trips to colder areas, you’ll comprehend the meaning of clothing layers and also its usability when it comes to minimalist traveling.
8. Don’t stack up on easily available toiletries
I always got that one wrong. I used to take two sets of toothpaste, shampoo, different deodorants, and lots of unnecessary tissues.
If you plan on traveling light, your toiletries shouldn’t take up half of your luggage. Besides, most toiletries can be found everywhere in the world, often at considerably lower prices.
There are obviously exceptions – suncream in beach towns for example – but in most cases, taking excess toiletries does nothing more than adding surplus weight to your luggage.
9. Ultra minimalist travel is not for everyone
As mentioned before, I have traveled with the absolute minimum and didn’t like it. Using nothing more than a carry-on is a bit restrictive in certain cases.
For instance, if you carry a lot of electronics – in my case camera gear – they already take up most of the bag and leave very little space for stuff like underwear and pants – you know, the things you actually wear.
This doesn’t mean that ultra minimalist travel cannot be appealing. I have come across lots of fellow travelers who make it work for themselves.
You’ll simply have to find out whether smart essentialist traveling – using a minimalist but adjustable approach – might be the better solution for you.
In my experience, no-nonsense spartan traveling works if you stay in the same climate all the time and don’t need too many electronic devices. If this applies to you, ultra-minimalist travel could be a viable method of roaming the planet.
10. When buying minimalist travel gear, always favor quality and durability
As with general minimalist buying habits, travel gear should comply with the notions of quality and durability. You’ll be amazed by how long certain bags and other travel-related goods can last if you choose wisely.
My Osprey Sojourn has now been to 5 continents and over 30 countries. Even though it starts showing signs of usage, it can still handle everything from rainforests to dusty cities and tropical beaches.
The same applies to my North Face insulated rain jacket and my Eagle Creek day-pack. You’ll notice a pattern here. Sturdy gear is a prerequisite for challenging terrain and this sometimes entails higher price tags.
Useful links on principles of minimalist traveling
- more in the section “Life”
- read intentional consumption explained – a minimalist consumer mindset
- read the best minimalist purchases to simplify your life