These days being a minimalist is trendy. There is even an international bestselling book on how to tidy up and declutter your home. But, for the purpose of this guide, we are only interested in how minimalism can be applied to make travel better.
“What is minimalism? If we had to sum it up in a single sentence, we would say, Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”
– The Minimalists
We define minimalist travel as one bag travel with peace of mind and freedom of movement. You only pack what you need, not what you can fit, into a carry-on size bag. There is no checked baggage. No anxiety of what you may have packed or forgotten. No extra fees or issues complying with an airline's baggage restrictions. There is no stress at the airport check-in desk or fumbling around at the security line.
Minimalist travel helps you simplify travel. You travel with confidence. You do not anticipate trouble or worry about things that may never happen. You pack light and go fast. Each item you bring has a purpose. You minimize time spent at airports as there is no need to check-in baggage, wait at the baggage carousel or report lost baggage. When disruptions occur, you can adjust your travel plans and find alternative routes.
There are situations where one bag travel is not possible, recommended or desired. But minimalist travel is about mindset, not one bag versus conventional travel. You may not have the same agility, mobility and freedom of movement, but you can still travel with confidence, happiness and peace of mind. Declutter your mind, the way you pack and avoid anxiety, stress and worry when you travel.
“The best part about traveling is the forced minimalism. My life at home, as it has evolved, is quite complex and full of stuff. On the road I’m reduced to what I carry in a small backpack and hand bag — clutter becomes a physical burden. I really enjoy this simplicity as it helps me focus. One of my favorite things to watch as a friend or colleague travels more is how their bag gets smaller and smaller with each trip.”
– Matt Mullenweg
How to Travel like a Minimalist
This section presents practical tips on how to pack light and travel like a minimalist.
Start with a carry-on size bag. This will force you to make do with fewer items and be selective with what you pack. Lay out all the items you want to bring and ask yourself, "Do I really need this?" Repeat this process until you are left with the items you actually need. These are what you pack into your carry-on bag. Do not be surprised if you put away more than half of the items you initially laid out.
Use the same process even if you need to travel with checked baggage.
- Create a packing list before you leave. When you return from your travels, review what you brought and used, and note down what you would do differently next time.
- Your packing list will be similar whether you travel for a week or month.
- Bring clothes you can mix and match to create different outfits instead of items you can only wear once.
- Bring clothes that are functional and can be used in different settings, such as a pair of shorts that can be used at the beach, gym or around town. The same applies to shoes.
- Think in terms of layers. Layers will offer more flexibility in unpredictable and cold weather than heavy duty clothing.
- Wear your outer-layer when you travel.
- You can pack your clothes in different ways to save space. We suggest a combination of rolling, folding and the use of packing organizers. Be creative: fill shoes with socks, fold clothes within clothes, etc.
- You do not need that many shoes. Apart from the shoes you wear during travel, a pair of flip-flops are usually enough.
- Set aside a small travel fund for items you do not pack, but can instead buy on location, such as toiletries, to minimize the size and weight of your carry-on bag.
“It’s OK to wing it. Just get on the plane and go. You can pick up a nicer shirt, shaving cream, and a toothbrush once you get there.”
– ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever
- If possible, leave your laptop, tablet and other electronic devices at home. Disconnect.
- There are no standard carry-on bag size and weight limits. Make sure you are aware of your airline's restrictions. The International Air Transport Association has set guidelines on size, but these are not mandatory for airlines to follow.
- Optional. Bring a daypack that fits within your carry-on bag. At your destination, use the daypack for any activity that involves more gear than you can carry in your pockets. A daypack is also a safeguard if you are required to check-in your carry-on bag at the airport. Remove you daypack and only pack what you do not want to check-in.
“The primary rules are: be prepared to give away, lose, or not-figure-out-where-it-went everything you bring; and secondly, learn from the locals: where do they eat? How do they sleep? You know? Do you really need a sleeping bag, do you really need a flashlight, do you really need sunglasses? So I strip my stuff down to the bare minimum with the full expectation that I'm going to give away almost everything I bring.”
– Robert Young Pelton
Travel Baggage: Checked and Carry-on Baggage
You have four options to consider with travel baggage: a conventional suitcase, duffel, backpack and carry-on bag.
Although different in type, there are certain factors to consider that apply to all options. These include:
- Appearance, Brand and Quality
- Ease of Carry
- Ease of Use
- Features and Functionality
- Material and Durability
- Size and Weight
As with the items you pack, you want a lightweight bag. If your carry-on bag weighs empty 3.5 kg and the airline limit is 10 kg, you have already lost 35% of the allowed weight. The same applies to checked baggage. You will often face a tradeoff between weight and cost. Lightweight, technical fabrics are expensive.
The next factor to consider is size. The more space you have, the more stuff you will pack. As a minimalist traveler, more space is not always preferred. Be restrictive. If your carry-on or checked baggage comes in different sizes, look at the features and proportions to determine which size fits you best. Verify that your bag is carry-on or check-in compliant.
The material of your carry-on or checked baggage is important and something you should consider. Do you need a pack that is waterproof highly durable, ultra lightweight? Beware that some materials although highly durable, are abrasive and when carried, the friction can cause damage/piling to your clothes.
The next factors to consider are ease of use, features and functionality of the bag. Can you access and pack your gear with ease? Does the bag open flat, as a clamshell or from the top? Are there internal pockets and dividers in the main compartment or is it only a large compartment? Does your bag have an internal frame or is it frameless? Does your carry-on have a separate laptop compartment? In terms of functionality, can you use your bag for more than travel, perhaps for work or the gym?
Another factor you should consider is ease of carry. A bag with wheels is more convenient than carrying, but if you are traveling to a location that has mostly unpaved streets or rugged terrain, it is not. A backpack offers most flexibility in terms of movement. Assess the ways a bag can be carried and which method of carry works best for you.
Brand, build quality and appearance are also factors to consider. Some packs draw attention. Others make you look like a hitchhiker or tourist. In some locations, blending in with the local population is preferred and requires a more discreet bag. Build quality is important, especially if you plan to buy a bag for life. Some manufacturers offer lifetime warranties.
Many of the bags we feature for minimalist travel are expensive, but with care they can last many years. There is a certain nostalgia associated with traveling the world with the same bag. But at the end of the day, it is just a bag.
Hardside, Softside and Spinner Baggage
Luggage with spinners (wheels) are convenient for travel. Make sure that the retractable handle and spinners are sturdy and the bag can be rolled in an upright position in multiple directions. There will be occasions when you need to carry your bag so consider ease of carry. This is especially important for baggage without spinners.
Most models open as a clamshell. This makes packing easier with two compartments, but when open requires more space. Some models offer an internal organizational system. Checked baggage will take space to store when not in use and do not have much purpose except for travel. Expect dents and scratches to your checked baggage.
Brands to consider include: Briggs & Riley, Rimowa, Samsonite and Tumi.
Duffels are highly durable bags that offer flexible storage. Most models offer one large compartment for easy access and packing. As they often lack an internal organizational system, your stuff will move around during transport if not packed full. A solution is to use packing organizers. Duffels can be difficult to carry, especially if they are oversized, but most offer several methods of carry, such as backpack straps, carry handles and end grab handles. Duffels can be easily stored and used for more than travel.
- The North Face Base Camp Duffel. The duffel comes in a range of sizes from 31L to 150L. Offers lifetime warranty.
- Patagonia Black Hole Duffel. The duffel comes in a range of sizes from 30L to 120L.
- Other duffels to consider include the Osprey Transporter series, Red Oxx Safari Travel Luggage, Topo Designs Mountain Duffle and Best American Duffel. An inexpensive option is a military surplus duffel bag.
Carry-on Baggage (Hand Luggage, Cabin Baggage)
We prefer a backpack for minimalist travel as it offers agility, mobility and freedom of movement. A backpack can be worn with ease for long periods of time, across varied terrain and environments. It can be placed under the seat or in the overhead bin of an aircraft, and is easy to bring on buses, trains and other transport mediums. A backpack takes minimal space when stored and can be used for more than travel, such as for work and the gym. We believe a backpack makes for better travel.
A good size for a minimalist travel backpack is in the range 20 to 45 liters. A smaller pack may limit you too much. If you need more capacity, your packing list is probably not focused enough or one bag travel may not be right for your needs on that occasion.
The most important factor to consider with a backpack is fit. One size does not fit all. Too many people buy a pack that does not fit their torso. You need to try on different packs with load. You also need to make sure you wear the backpack correctly as often it sits too low on the back and this can cause discomfort. Shoulder straps are also important to consider for fit and comfort. Are they adjustable, padded and durable? Some backpacks come with a sternum strap and hip belt. These are great if you intend to carry for long periods, but can otherwise add unnecessary bulk and weight to your pack. Check if these accessories can be removed or added if they are not standard.
Which backpack should you get? It depends. You need to decide what you value and need in a backpack. Do you need a separate laptop compartment, internal pockets, waterproof fabric? Be strict and do not decide on a backpack based only on aesthetics.
- GORUCK GR1 or GORUCK GR2. The GORUCK comes in two models and four sizes (GR1: 21L and 26L, GR2: 34L and 40L) and offers curved straps for women to ensure a better fit. You also have the option to add a sternum strap and hip belt. The rucks are durable and GORUCK offer a lifetime guarantee on repairs. The rucks have internal and external pockets, padded straps as well as a separate laptop compartment. The GORUCK rucks are almost ideal for one bag travel, but they are not lightweight.
- Arc'teryx Blade 28 (28L)
- eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible
- Minaal Carry-on 2.0
- Osprey Farpoint series (40-80L)
- Osprey Porter series (46L/65L)
- Red Oxx Sky Train Backpack Hybrid Convertible Carry-on Bag (38L)
- Tom Bihn Smart Alec (26L)
- Tom Bihn Synapse 25 (25L)
- Tortuga Outbreaker Travel Backpack (35L/45L)
- Other brands to consider include: 5.11, Maxpedition, Mystery Ranch and Triple Aught Design for military/tactical style backpacks. If you are interested in a hiking hybrid backpack, consider the Arc'teryx Khard and Tom Bihn The Hero's Journey.
Shoulder and Carry-on Bags with spinners
Alternatives to the backpack include a shoulder bag (also known as a kit bag or messenger bag) and carry-on bags with spinners.
The shoulder bag is our preferred option for one bag travel if we do not use a backpack.
A shoulder bag is similar to a duffel bag with a large compartment for ease of access. It also shares many of the benefits of a backpack. As with a backpack, the most important factor to consider is fit. In addition to the shoulder strap, some shoulder bags come with backpack straps, carry handles and end grab handles. If you plan to carry your bag for long periods, a backpack is the better option as the uneven weight distribution and lack of back support will wear and tear on your body in the long run. Make sure the carrying strap is adjustable.
Carry-on bags with spinners are often down-sized versions of the checked baggage we discussed earlier. They share the same characteristics.
- GORUCK Kit Bag (32L). The GORUCK Kit Bag is similar to the GORUCK GR1 and GR2, but has fewer features and is more lightweight. A padded shoulder strap is not included, but can be bought separately.
- SDR Traveller D3 Traveller Duffel (39L). An ultralight, durable and discreet bag that supports a range of carrying styles. It is expensive and its minimalist attitude is not for everyone.
- Arc'teryx Covert Case C/O (40L)
- Patagonia Headway MLC (45L)
- Tom Bihn Aeronaut (30L/45L)
Brands to consider if you are interested in a carry-on bag with spinners include: Briggs & Riley, Rimowa, Samsonite and Tumi.
A daypack that fits within your carry-on bag or checked baggage can be a useful addition to your packing list. At your destination, use the daypack for any activity that involves more gear than you can carry in your pockets. A daypack is also a safeguard if you are required to check-in your carry-on bag at the airport. Remove you daypack and only pack what you do not want to check-in.
A good size for a daypack is in the range 10 to 15 liters. A daypack can also be used for more than travel, such as for everyday carry. A daypack shares the same characteristics as a backpack.
- GORUCK Bullet Ruck (10L). A smaller, streamlined and simpler version of the GORUCK GR1 ruck.
- Fjällräven Kånken (16L). Iconic Swedish design that has been around since 1978.
- Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Travel Day Pack (20L)
- Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack (18L)
- Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack (16L)
- Topo Designs Trip Pack (8.4L)
In addition to your baggage of choice, there are accessories that can make travel more convenient, but they are not essential. These include packing organizers, dry bags, a toiletry bag, travel document organizer and backpack rain cover.
Packing organizers help organize your stuff and make it easier for you to pack, find and access items in your baggage. Use packing organizers for clothes, shoes and gear. Packing organizers are functional and can also be used for toiletries and around the home. A packing organizer with a carrying handle can be used as a bag or pouch on its own. Packing organizers can be used in all sorts of baggage, including backpacks and daypacks.
Packing organizers come in a range of sizes and models. For most use cases, we suggest you look at Small and Medium sized packing organizers, not Large. As an example, if you only travel with a daypack you will have more use of two small packing organizers than a large one that may not fit. Packing organizers come as cubes, folders, compression, shoe bags and more.
Many of the brands we have covered in the Travel Baggage section, such as GORUCK and Tom Bihn, also offer their own packing organizers.
Brands to consider include: Eagle Creek, eBags and Sea to Summit.
In addition to packing organizers, you may want to look at a dry bag if you need to keep your stuff waterproof. A dry bag is functional and can also be used for organizing your stuff or as a laundry bag. A toiletry bag may be of interest, but a packing organizer can be used for the same purpose. A dedicated holder for your travel documents and passport is a good idea.
If you travel with a backpack it may be worthwhile to look at a rain cover. The cover will prevent the exterior and interior of your pack from getting wet and absorbing rain.
There are several factors to consider before you decide what clothing to pack. These include:
- Comfort and Fit
Merino is regarded as among the best fabrics for travel. Merino is comfortable, lightweight, durable, odor resistant, breathable and moisture wicking. The fabric provides natural heating and cooling, is easy to wash and dries quickly. Merino can be worn for days without looking dirty and with proper care last many years.
Merino is a functional fabric and can be worn throughout the year. Unfortunately, merino is expensive and although it is a durable fabric, it will naturally pile. The quality of the merino fabric is important, but even merino from quality producers will pile and may develop holes after a fair amount of use.
Other materials to consider are synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics share many of the same properties as merino, but are not as breathable and tend to develop odor quickly. They are more affordable and durable. Cotton is fine, but it does not have the same breathability, odor resistance and quick drying properties as merino and synthetic fabrics.
Pack clothes that are functional and can be used in different settings, such as a pair of shorts that can be used at the beach, gym or around town. The same applies to shoes. You should also think in terms of layers. Layers will offer more flexibility in unpredictable and cold weather than heavy duty clothing. Basic layering consists of a base layer, mid-layer and outer-layer. Functional clothing and layering will help you pack fewer items without limiting your clothing options.
Dark-colored clothes are generally more convenient for minimalist travel. They are easier to mix and match to create different outfits for both casual and formal settings, and they hide dirt and sweat better than light-colored ones.
Comfort and fit should override the factors outlined above. If you do not like or feel comfortable in an article of clothing, you will not use it even if it is deemed ideal for travel.
Many of the brands we feature here for minimalist travel are expensive, but with care they can last many years. But at the end of the day, it is just clothing. Sometimes the best travel gear is what you already have. Do not make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Arguably, the base layer is the most important as it is worn next to your skin. Underwear should be comfortable, breathable and moisture wicking. Underwear should also be easy to wash and dry quickly.
- Arc'teryx Phase SL Boxer
- ExOfficio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs
- Icebreaker Anatomica Boxers
- Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Boxer Brief
- Under Armour Underwear
- UNIQLO AIRism Boxer Briefs
Brands to consider for cold climates include: Icebreaker, Patagonia and Smartwool.
There are two types of socks to consider: regular and compression socks.
The most important factor with socks is fit. Thereafter, consider the other factors outlined in the Clothing section. Crew is probably the most functional sock length for use throughout the year.
Brands to consider include: Darn Tough (lifetime guarantee) and Smartwool.
Compression socks are great for long-haul flights as the compression of the lower leg increases blood flow. This helps make your legs feel better. There is also scientific evidence that suggests compression socks help prevent leg swelling during travel and reduces the risk of blood clots in the legs, known as deep vein thrombosis.
A t-shirt for minimalist travel should be functional and work in different settings, such as around town and the gym.
- Ibex Merino Wool Short Sleeve Tees
- Icebreaker Tech Lite Short Sleeve Crewe
- Outlier Ultrafine Merino T-Shirts
- Patagonia Capilene T-Shirts
- Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Tee
- Wool&Prince Merino Wool Crew Neck T-Shirts
The shirt is one of the most functional pieces of clothing. A shirt can be worn in casual and formal settings, and be worn for extended periods while still looking fresh. Opt for a long-sleeved shirt and roll up the sleeves when desired to get the most out of the shirt.
- Ibex Merino Wool Taos Plaid Shirt Long Sleeve
- Icebreaker Departure II Long Sleeve Shirt Plaid
- Outlier Shirts
- Smartwool Summit County Chambray Long Sleeve Shirt
- Wool&Prince Merino Wool Button-Down Shirts
Shorts should be functional. A pair of shorts can be used as swimwear, exercise and in casual and formal settings.
- Myles Apparel Everyday Short
- Patagonia Wavefarer Stand Up Shorts
- Olivers All Over Short
- Orlebar Brown Bulldog Short
- Outlier New Way Shorts
An alternative to jeans is a technical pant that is comfortable and breathable as well as odor and dirt resistant, lightweight, durable and can be used in different settings.
- Bluffworks Original and Chino
- Mission Workshop The Travel Chino
- Outlier Slim Dungarees and Futureworks
- Prana Brion Pant
Sweaters and Jackets
Keep your mid and outer-layers lightweight for the purpose of functionality and layering. Your mid-layer can be a hoodie, sweatshirt, henley or pullover. Remember to wear a mid and outer-layer when you travel to save space in your pack.
- Arc'teryx Atom LT and Beta LT Hybrid Jacket
- Marmot Minimalist Jacket
- Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket and Torrentshell Jacket
Travel in shoes that are comfortable and functional. An example is an athletic shoe or sneaker that can be used around town, the gym and for other activities. If you need hiking boots or similar wear these during travel to save space in your pack.
Brands to consider include: Adidas, Converse, Merrell, New Balance, Nike and Vivobarefoot.
You do not need that many shoes. Apart from the shoes you wear during travel, a pair of flip-flops are usually enough.
We consider Buff Headwear to be an essential part of a packing list and for everyday carry. Buff provides multi-functional headwear that can be worn in at least 12 different ways. It can be used during the flight as a neck gaiter if it is cold or a sleeping mask. Other uses include a hat, helmet liner and hair band.
How many of each clothing type should you pack? It depends. This packing list also includes the clothing you will wear during travel. The list is only for guidance. Use it as such and modify it to fit your needs.
- Underwear: 3-5
- Socks: 3-5
- T-shirts: 2-4 (includes a t-shirt that can be used for exercise)
- Shirts: 1-3
- Sweaters: 1-2
- Shorts: 1-2 (includes a pair of shorts that can be used as swimwear and exercise)
- Pants: 1-3
- Jacket: 1-2
- Shoes: 1-3
The last part to consider of your packing list is what gear to pack. We suggest you leave your electronic devices at home. This will make for better travel. Unfortunately, disconnecting is not always possible.
An external and portable hard drive for backup and storage. The LaCie Rugged offers protection to the hard drive, but is bulky. Lightweight options include the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim and the Western Digital My Passport Ultra.
For compact point-and-shoot cameras consider the Ricoh GR II, Fujifilm X100T, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS100/TZ100, Sony Cyber-shot RX100 IV and Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II. For an action camera consider a GoPro.
There are many different headphone types to consider such as wireless, in-ear, on-ear, over-ear and noise cancelling. Be aware that some headphones leak sound and therefore are not appropriate in all settings. Bring an adapter for the headphone jack if you have an iPhone 7. Headphones to consider include: Apple AirPods, Beats Solo3, Bose QuietComfort 35, Grado SR80e, Sennheiser HD 598, Sony MDR1000X and 1MORE Triple Driver.
A portable charger is useful for everyday carry and travel. Avoid the need to constantly look for a power outlet. You will need to consider the tradeoff between portability and capacity. The more capacity you need, the greater the size and weight of the charger. Brands to consider include: Anker, such as the PowerCore 5000, PowerCore 10000 and PowerCore 20100, and Mophie, such as the powerstation, powerstation XL and powerstation XXL.
You may need an adapter plug in order to charge your electronics when you travel abroad. An adapter plug makes it possible to plug your device into different types of power outlets. Note, an adapter plug does not convert electrical output current and voltage. Check your device's label to determine if you also need a voltage converter.
Ear plugs to reduce noise during travel.
Pen & Notepad
A towel that is compact, lightweight and quick drying such as the Raqpak Microfiber Travel Towel, Sea to Summit DryLite Towel and The Friendly Swede Microfiber Sports & Travel Towel.
Carabiner, Paracord & Rubber Bands
A carabiner, some paracord and rubber bands. The use of these items will surprise you and often you will not know you need them until you do. They are multifunctional. A carabiner can be used to attach gear to your backpack, such as a pair of shoes or water bottle. Paracord can be used to string a clothesline, keep items rolled up, secure a tent, replace frayed shoelaces, etc. Rubber bands can be used as hair ties, a wallet, bag sealer, wrist strap for your camera, etc.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.”
– Fahrenheit 451