Fitting my Life into 18 Liters

Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Think you’re already traveling light? You can probably travel even lighter. Three months into long term travel I’ve realized that I really don’t need as much as I first thought. Setting off from a developed country it was easy to think that I would be constantly bored and without clean clothes, water, or a comfortable place to sleep. It turns out that I need very little every day, almost everything can be bought on the road, and carrying less is always more pleasant than lugging something I don’t need.

The contents of my bag.

Recently I’ve redone my packing list to fit into an 18 liter day pack. Most travelers that I’ve seen at the airport are forced to check a 40-60 liter backpack. My first pack was 26 liters and fit comfortably into an overhead bin, my new 18 liter pack1 slides under the seat in front of me in economy class.

The fact is, most people traveling Southeast Asia could go far lighter. I’m carrying a Macbook Pro and a full frame camera kit for producing this website. I’m also carrying full winter gear: a down jacket, thick socks, long underwear, hoodie, and a wool cap. If you cut all of this from your pack, just carried an iPhone as your camera and computer, and only wore minimalist sandals you could probably travel with 10 liters.

Most of this shockingly small pack is based around dual use items. I’m still surprised at how small it is. I no longer carry shorts, I just wear my swimsuit. I no longer carry a sleeping mask, I just use my wool buff pulled down over my eyes. For a while I carried a Canon S120, which is a fantastic camera, but the last time I went to use it had sat idle for so long that the battery was dead. I found a good deal on a used iPhone and just use that as both my phone and point and shoot camera now.

My backpack is an 18 liter Boreas Larkin. When I first saw it in Bangkok I was actually considering buying a larger pack so that I could carry a full sized tripod, but the Larkin was so comfortable that I decided I could just cut a few more things from my gear list and carry everything with this2. Now I can use my travel pack as a day pack around town, wearing it all day with no fatigue. I don’t even think twice about going out for an afternoon without the bag — there is no reason not to carry it.

The packed bag, next to my shoes for comparison. All in it weighs roughly 6 kilos.

The Boreas Larkin works great as an every day around town pack. I keep my stuff organized into what I need all the time, what I need in my hotel, and long term storage of things I rarely need (emergency medications, passport photos, tape, etc). When I arrive in a hotel I leave the clothes, long term storage bag, and the toiletries in the room and head out to explore with a 5-6 pound pack containing my laptop, camera, rain jacket, and kindle. Having my laptop always with me is kind of awesome because any excuse to sit down and relax for a while on the road is also a chance to get some writing or work done.

Below is my revised packing list.

Everyday Clothes

Extreme weather clothes

Computer and camera stuff

Accessories

There are a few really tiny things not worth itemizing: earplugs, headphones, antibiotics, my lock and chain for securing my bag and a flashing light to go on the back of the bag — but basically that’s it. Living with so little is kind of awesome.

As I travel I repack my bag every day and am forced to think about what’s in it and what can be discarded. My friend Steve Davis calls this my “packing kaizen”. When the contents of my bag got smaller I realized there was no reason to keep my laptop in a dedicated sleeve, this meant that I could bring my laptop with me everywhere, which in turn means I probably don’t need my dedicated power bank to charge my phone, and that in turn means I probably don’t need a dedicated USB wall charger. Over time these refinements build on each other and keep making my gear list smaller.

  1. I no longer recommend the Boreas Larkin for extended travel. After a month the pack is showing signs of wear and has minor leaking in heavy rain (my laptop got wet!). I need a pack that’s got a bit more waterproofing and durability for my upcoming trip to India. In a pinch I’d recommend the Synapse 19 or the GoRuck GR0. I’ve ordered both of these for testing and will have results soon. 

  2. I may still get a Gorillapod or a Zipshot for long exposures, although I’ve tried both in the past and not been too happy with them. The Gorillapod is hard to straighten out for storage and the Zipshot isn’t very stable.