2018 Ultra-Light Travel Guide: My Gear & Mindset

“Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
~ Confucious 

When I think about the way I travel, I’m not surprised at how simple my set up is, I’m surprised as how complicated it is for everyone else.

In many ways, minimalism has made me an outcast. There’s almost no material possession you can give me that I’ll want to keep, and I don’t participate in the religion of consumerism the way some of my friends do.

And make no mistake, it is a religion.

People’s relationship to the things they own is as closely held as any religious dogma. That’s because we’ve been conditioned to derive a sense of safety and security from our possessions.

Take a lawnmower for example—here’s how owning a lawnmower keeps us safe. Most houses own a lawnmower, but our neighbors have lawnmowers too, and it would take only a few minutes to walk over, knock on their door and ask to borrow it—but we don’t. What’s our excuse?

We don’t want to bother them.

If we asked to borrow the lawnmower, the next thing you know we’re borrowing their shovel, then their car, then meeting their kids, then inviting each other over for dinner, then hanging out on holidays, then supporting each other through hard times and making friends for life.

That’s called intimacy, and it’s scary. Having a lot of stuff keeps us safe from the dangers of being connected to people.

For me, minimalism isn’t just about having a clean closet (or no closet at all), or having more space in your apartment, it’s about living a life that’s not so isolated and lonely. It’s about embracing life outside the comfort zone of your “stuff”.

That’s where travel comes in. I make a distinction between traveling and vacation. Vacation is a break from life, traveling is a deeper engagement with it.

Are there times we just need a break from life? Absolutely, vacations are essential for that. If you’re raising three kids and working a full time job, please, for God’s sake—give yourself a luxurious vacation, you deserve it.

For me, I don’t currently need a break from my life so I use travel as a chance for adventure. Traveling about diving into the unknown, and the ticket to entry is being willing to put yourself in a position where you don’t have everything totally planned out and prepared for.

This is my list of gear needed for indefinite world travel, not vacation. For a vacation you would probably need more. With only this backpack I could take off today and be fine in any climate, anywhere in the world, for as long as I wanted.1 That may be hard to believe, but remember that this isn’t just about what I bring, it’s about how I think about “stuff” and what it means to be resourceful.

As you go through this list of gear, there may be things you would absolutely need, and by all means you should pack what you absolutely need—but also consider that some items are “just in case”.

Which brings me to one of the biggest ways people can reduce the amount of things they carry.

1. Avoid Packing “Just in Case” Items

One of the comments I get a lot when I’m showing people my gear is “what about this?” Or, “what if you need that?” These items are often things that I might need, but I also might not.

They are “just in case” items.

I heard a rule from a minimalist named Colin Wright, which I believe he calls it the 20/20 rule. If he can buy something for less than $20 that takes less than 20 minutes to find, he won’t feel the need to pack it. I love this.

Take a scarf for example. When it’s cold and you need a scarf it’s really nice to have one, but is it worth packing? How often do we incorrectly guess what the weather conditions are like where we’re going?

The truth is, if you show up somewhere and it’s cold enough to need a scarf, you can buy one there. Not only do you then not have to pack and carry it, but what you buy becomes a memento of the place you are at, and buying funky stuff from other countries is a fun way to add interesting pieces to your wardrobe.

You can also borrow things from friends (good for bonding), rent it so you don’t have to own it, or just go without the item and see what happens (could be a nice chance to get out of your comfort zone).

2. Multi-Use Items Save Space

Almost everything on this list has multiple uses, whether it’s my shoes, my pants or the electronics I bring. Doing this not only reduces the amount of things you pack but it also saves you money.

It takes research and testing, but one of the things minimalism has taught me is the importance of quality over quantity.

3. Use USB Charging Devices

As you’ll see in the diagram below, every device I have is USB charging, so I don’t have to carry any disposable batteries, or use a wall plug.

This serves a few functions. First, I don’t like disposable batteries, and even rechargeable batteries would mean I’d have to carry a charger and extra batteries, which takes up a lot of space and weight (I did that for a few months and I was glad when I stopped).

Second, I can go anywhere in the world and charge these devices. Outside the United States most countries run on 220V, and my MacBook (and every MacBook) is rated to charge with anything between 100V-240V, so I can charge my computer, then charge my devices from my laptop. All I would need as a simple adapter so the plug fits into the wall.

Here are all my devices (iPhone is being used it to take the picture), they all can be charged with either micro-USB to USB, mini-USB to USB or Apple’s lightning to USB.

4. You Don’t Know How It Feels

If you’ve never traveled this light, you’re probably just used to wheeling around a few suitcases, paying fees for checking bags, waiting at baggage claim, having to deal with lost luggage, and taking hours and hours to pack for a week long trip (and still forgetting things).

I used to do those things, and although it seems like a past life, I remember thinking that there wasn’t another way. I didn’t want to make my friends feel bad by only packing a small backpack, I didn’t want to return gifts, or say no to that free tee-shirt, and I didn’t know how to be myself in a world that seemed to want me to be something else.

I stopped all that, and while it makes some people uncomfortable, it’s the best decision I ever made, and I’ve never looked back.

I hope that for you as well.

Alright, let’s get into the gear.

Note: Some of the links are affiliate links, so if you buy the item from the link I’ll get a small kickback.

Everyone has different needs, so my list is by no means a prescription, it’s what works for me through years of testing a research. I encourage you to take inspiration from my findings, but less so from what I carry and more so from the approach I take, in hopes you can apply some of those principles to create your own ultra-light travel backpack.

The Backpack

This is the Minaal Daily. I’m in love with it.

I heard about it through Tynan, who has been a huge inspiration for me and my own ultra-light travels. There are few things I love about this bag.

  • The pockets open fully to allow the bag to lay flat on a bed (see pictures below). This makes accessing gear and packing a whole lot easier. I never realized how convenient this was until I started using this backpack.

  • It holds the computer, my external keyboard and electronic gadgets in a separate pouch, which can be easily accessed without disturbing the other compartment.

  • When full, it fits nicely in the “personal item” bin on Spirit airlines (and Frontier which now has the same baggage policy). That means I can buy super cheap flights and not have to pay for carry-on luggage that normally off-sets the cost. Here’s proof.

It’s not cheap ($249) but so far I’m really impressed.

Check out the Minaal Daily Bag

Warning: It doesn’t hold “that much stuff” so don’t make the mistake of thinking that because I can fit all my stuff in there that you can too. You might want a little bigger bag, in which case I’d recommend checking out their slightly bigger sized bag, which is also a backpack.

Check out the Minaal Carry-on Bag

Clothes & Footwear

Let’s just get this out of the way. Everyone say it with me… That’s it?!?!? Yes, that’s it. I’ll tell you why in a minute but first let’s go through what’s there.

Pants & Shorts

These Vuori pants and shorts are now going on their second year of being the only pants or shorts I own. They happen to have their HQ where I live in Encinitas, but I don’t wear these clothes as an homage to where I live, I wear them because they are amazing.

The funny thing is, Vuori mostly makes clothes designed for movement and working out, but they have this odd-ball in their collection called the Abrasion-less shorts and pants which is basically all the mobility of gym shorts with the cut of khakis.

I’ve worn the pants running, with a suit, I’ve slept comfortably in them, they are the ultimate multi-purpose pants and the cut is slim and modern looking. I can’t say enough about these pants, and I’ve tried a bunch of different brands.

It’s April of 2018 when I’m publishing this and I don’t know how long these shorts and pants will be around for, so check them out and grab a pair now.

Abrasion-less shorts from Vuori
Abrasion-less pants from Vuori

Footwear

It’s possible that I may never go back to shoes that don’t hug the earth.

I know it sounds cliché for me to love “minimalist” shoes, but I’m totally hooked. Not only do I like the way they look at feel, but they are actually the most multi-purposed shoes out there. They are designed for bare-foot running, so I can use them for every day wear, hiking, working out and they can get wet and will dry very quickly.

I’ve noticed that after wearing these and being able to feel the ground beneath me, regular shoes feel totally different. Do you know that feeling of wanting to take your shoes off when you go inside so you can feel your feet on the ground? I get that all the time, and funny enough when I go inside I rarely want to take my shoes off.

These are great shoes, but I’ll warn you—it’s a commitment to a whole different kind of footwear. But you may never go back.

Check out Earth Runner sandals here (I own the Circadian model)

Shirts

This is one area I haven’t totally got dialed in, but I’ve been experimenting. Last year I tried out a few shirts from Ably, which are stain repellant shirts made from a material called Filium, which wicks off liquid.

They were better than an average tee-shirt, but I didn’t fall in love. It also wicked away sweat from my arm pits, which meant that any sweat ran down the side of my body. Also, after a lot of washes the effect wore off, which is a problem for me because I want my clothes to last a long time.

Lately I’ve been trying out shirts made of marino wool, and this one is from Wool & Prince. Again, better than the average tee-shirt but I didn’t fall in love. It’s soft, but it’s not as soft as cotton. It does resist smells more than cotton, but not a crazy amount more.

Alas, I’ll continue my search for the perfect shirts, but here is what I’ve got this year, and it’s working for me so far. The tank top is from Vuori, super comfortable but it’s basically a regular tee shirt, no other properties besides looking good and feeling comfy.

  

Jacket

I’m still rocking the Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket and so far so good. It’s not the easiest thing to keep from get stained, and any kind of oil stains (especially around the neck line) tends to stick out, but it’s still the jacket I’m carrying around. You can’t beat how warm it is for it’s size. If I were to get another one I would go for the black color (for stain hiding).

Button-Down

This shirt has been rocking my world lately. It’s not really super special, other than the fact that it fits me really well and it’s a good color on me. I don’t know why it took me so long to get hip to short sleeve button downs but I’m hooked. Having my elbows free makes a huge difference in comfort for me.

I got it for $20 from a thrift store. Sometimes it’s nice to just wear something that works and not spend a bunch of money.

Socks

If you’re going to pack socks I recommend packing thick socks, because when you need socks you’ll want something warm. This is one of those items that you don’t want to compromise on, in my opinion.

I’ve had these smart wool socks for a few years now and I love them.

Laptop & Stand

I will never stop raving about The Roost Laptop stand. At this point I’ve personally created so much business for this company and they deserve it. It’s an amazing product.

Here is a picture of my set up.

You’ll need an external keyboard and mouse, but I happily carry all of those with me, because this set up makes working a joy. Also, I have the 2nd generation keyboard and mouse which is rechargeable, the 1st generation takes AA batteries.

Check out the Roost Laptop Stand

Apple Magic Keyboard (2nd Gen)
Apple Magic Mouse (2nd Gen)

One of the comments I often get is “you know you don’t need the external keyboard, stand and mouse, why don’t you get rid of those”? For me, minimalism is getting down to the essentials, but also about asking what really optimizes your experience. For me, I spend a lot of time on my laptop, so having this gear makes a big difference, and since I don’t have much other stuff I have room to bring them.

It may seem counter-intuitive when I’ve been preaching “only bring what you need” but if you find that bringing three jackets makes you really happy, do it. At the end of the day, we are the ones carrying our stuff and as long as we have weighed the cost versus reward, it’s totally fine to bring things that aren’t essential, if we do it mindfully.

Headphones

That’s right, I’m carrying two sets of headphones. I’ve been experimenting with these Bose headphones lately and I really like them. I’m a musician, and an audio snob so for me that kind of quality makes a difference.

I also carry AirPods because my sister got them for me and I wasn’t expecting to love them so much. They are so convenient and going wireless is so nice. The AirPods also come in a nice little carrying case (also a charger) which is very convenient for travel.

These are the Bose headphones I have, I’m personally not a fan of noise cancelling technology so I have the regular ones, which I love.

Bose SoundLink Over-Ear Headphones 
Apple AirPods

Phone + Wallet

I don’t have much to say about the phone, it’s an iPhone, you know about it. However… the slim wallet case has changed my life. Not having to carry a wallet is amazing and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

One note about how I’ve changed things since letting go of a wallet—I almost never use cash anymore. If I need cash I have USAA as a bank, and they refund ATM fees, but I rarely need cash.

Going cash-less has been great and I only expect it to get easier in the future. If I did need to carry cash I would do it with a simple money clip, which are easy to acquire (or make from office supplies).

Check out the Silk iPhone Wallet Case

Miscellaneous Electronics

I’m not going to talk about these individually, but I’ll share a few highlights that are important to me. At the end I’ll list everything in the picture.

  • I mark everything with colored electrical tape. This just makes sense if you’re going to be around other people. I use purple because I’m a Prince fan.
  • I bring an HDMI cable with me. You’d be surprised how often you want to hook up your computer to a TV, especially to watch movies.

iKlip 5-in-1 Smartphone & Camera Stand
Movo LV4-O Lavalier Microphone (for podcast interviews)
Apogee MiC 96K USB Mic (for audio/podcast recording)
Blue Icicle XLR to USB Adapter
Mini-USB to USB cable
Micro-USB to USB cable
Apple lightning to USB cable
Apple USB AC Adapter (I think this one the best because it’s small)
Apple 85W MagSafe 2 Power Adapter 
Pocket Juice Portable Charger (I don’t love this one)
WD Elements 2TB Hard Drive

Accessories

There are few things here worth mentioning.

Headlamp

I recently broke my old headlamp and I’m psyched to have found this one. Guess why? It’s USB rechargeable! It charges with my micro-USB cord, which is great because my old headlamp was the last thing I needed disposable batteries for.

Check out the Petzl USB Rechargeable Headlamp

 

Multi-Tool

This thing is tiny and it’s come in handy more times than I can count. It’s only $10 on Amazon. Totally worth it. Also it’s travel safe, I’ve taken it on countless planes through security and it’s never been flagged.

Gerber Curve Multi-Tool

Toothbrush

I’ve experimented with several of these over the last couple years. I had the Quip for a while and that wasn’t very good. Not only was the vibration weak but the plastic head broke a few months in.

Last year I decided to fork over the big bucks and get a nice Sonicare and I haven’t looked back. The reason I also love this one is you can charge the travel case with a mini-USB cable. Brilliant. Dental health is important, and it’s worth lugging this thing around for a better clean.

Sonicare Diamond Clean w/USB Charging Case

Condoms

Because safe sex is important and it’s not weird to tell people you pack condoms. We’re humans who occasionally have sex, hiding that is childish. Also, the pink thing is a vibrator, not USB-rechargeable unfortunately but I’d like to find one that is, ideally a mini-Magic Wand that’s USB rechargeable.

In Conclusion

Some people will look at this and say “you don’t need X, Y, Z, why do you carry all that”? Some will look at it and say “I can’t believe you don’t carry X, Y, Z”.

There is no formula for ultra-light travel. Some of the things that are important to me don’t matter to other people, and vice versa. You gotta do you, but I believe it’s possible for everyone to “do them” without a huge carry on or checking bags.

It takes more work, but once you go ultra-light, you may never go back.

Thanks to James Clear, Tynan and the many other minimalists who inspired this post and the gear in it. Got a suggestion for something you love? Tell me in the Facebook thread.


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Footnotes

  1. Note: Of course finances play into the ability to do this, and while it costs a lot less than you think, it does take financial planning, which I won’t be discussing in this essay.