Minimalist Travel Packing: How to travel the world with just a backpack

Minimalist Travel

What is Minimalist travel?

So what does minimalist travel even mean? Minimalist travel is a form of packing that includes taking only what you need. Well to most, that sounds pretty obvious and straightforward. I can just hear all you eternally knowledgeable blog readers saying, “Well duh John, I always take only what I need….and it fills my whole suitcase”

We as individuals and as a society need to seriously reevaluate our “needs”. When you realize the majority of your needs are actually wants, your suitcase magically becomes a lot smaller.

Minimalist travel is the art of taking exactly what you need, and nothing more. Figuring out exactly what you truly do need is a long and enjoyable process that you perfect over many trips and destinations.

I used to pack a hell of a lot more, but now my backpack shrinks with every trip. Each time I return from a trip I reevaluate everything I didn’t use, and If I truly don’t need it I leave it at home. There are a few exceptions to this rule for emergency equipment (i.e. medicine, flashlight etc.) that you really want to have when you need it. But more on this later.


So what’s the point? What are the advantages to minimalist travel?

Travelling with less stuff allows you to be less of a tourist, and experience the culture and world around you. Looking like a local makes you less susceptible to crime as well, as criminals often target flustered and ignorant tourists.

When I travel with just a backpack I get treated more like a local. I pick my next city and accommodations as I go, because I’m not plagued by the anxiety of having to store a heavy suitcase. Since my pack is the size of a carry on, I never have to pay checked bag fees or pay to have a hotel hold my bag.

The greatest benefit of all is the mental freedom. When traveling with just a backpack I feel like a wanderer, and not a tourist. I can walk anywhere or do anything on a whim. Not until you travel this way, will you understand how truly stress free and enjoyable it can make your travels. This also means abrupt and unplanned schedule changes cause you far less heartache.

Step by step guide:

1. Start with a good pack.

Your chosen backpack must be small and durable. Durability and ergonomics are the two most important factors. I travel with a Marmot Kompressor Plus. It is designed like a stuff sack with one main compartment, which I find is the best for fitting multiple items. Too many compartments in a backpack just robs you of valuable space. 

The Marmot Kompressor Plus has a capacity of 20 liters, which is about a standard school sized backpack. The fabric is light but tough, and the whole bag weighs only 13 oz. The type of pack you get is up to personal preference, but make sure it’s reasonable light and will hold up to any abuse you plan on putting it through.

When choosing a pack, always buy the smallest reasonable size . The bigger the pack, the more you’ll try to fit into it. A 20L backpack is all you need unless you are in a professional trade such as photography or blogging. You’ll be very surprised at how much you can fit if you select your items carefully.

2. Pack efficiently and smart.

Take the smallest and lightest form of everything that you need. If you need a flashlight, leave your 10 pound Maglite at home and bring a small penlight. Like to watch movies on your laptop? Watch them on your phone instead and save yourself 5 lbs. of weight.

When it comes to clothing, you have to be smart. Clothing is usually the bulk of what people pack and the best place to start when looking to save space. Cotton clothing stinks quick and doesn’t keep you warm when wet. Synthetic fabrics are better, but still stink quickly and don’t breathe very well.

The best choice for clothing is Merino Wool. Clothes made with Merino wool can be worn several days in a row with no issues. By packing Merino Wool clothing, you can take 1/3 the amount of clothes you would take if packing cotton. 

3. Always obey the “what if?” rule.

The “what if?” rule is the cardinal rule of minimalist packing. If you pack an item such as an umbrella, and justify it with a “What if it rains?” statement, leave it behind.

Do you really need that bar of soap? If you plan to spend every night at a hotel where toiletries are provided, then you probably don’t. At worst, you can always buy what you are missing at your destination.  Judge every item you put in that pack like your life depends on it. Once you get rid of it, I promise you wont miss it. 

The only things in my pack that aren’t necessities are a few emergency supplies, which I keep as small and as light as possible.


My Packing List

So here’s the basics of what I carry in my pack. You can use my list as a guide and add or takeaway items as you see fit. 


As I stated above, the Marmot Kompressor Plus is a good bag, but anything small, light and durable will do. Most people really don’t need much more than 20 Liters of space. 


Merino Wool Travel Clothing

The thing to remember here is Merino Wool. When most people think of wool, they think of the itchy sweater Grandma made you. Merino Wool is quite the opposite. It comes from the hair closest to the body of the sheep which is very fine and soft. Overall, Merino wool is one of the best travel fabrics you can buy.

Merino wool never stinks and is anti-microbial. It’s breathable in hot weather, and warm in cold weather. It wont lose its insulating properties when wet either. Clothing made with Merino wool can even be worn several days in a row with no odor issues.

Instead of bringing seven pairs of cotton underwear, you can bring two or three pairs of merino wool briefs, thus saving you space. And when it’s time to do laundry, Merino wool is an extremely fast drying fabric. You can wash your two pairs of underwear in the sink, and have them dry a couple of hours later. All of my Shirts, underwear, and socks are Merino Wool.

Icebreakers makes great Merino Wool clothing although there are several brands out there. This is what my pack looks like:

3 Icebreaker Anatomica Underwear

3 Pairs Darn Tough Merino Wool Socks

1 Icebreakers T-Shirt 

1 Icebreakers Tank Top 

1 Mountain Khakis Granite Creek Pants

1 Volcom Surf and Turf Dry Hybrid Shorts

I carry one pair of pants and one pair of shorts. The best material for below the waist wear is nylon. Nylon is very durable and doesn’t hold water like cotton.

Most travel pants are nylon and work fairly well. I carry a pair of Mountain Khakis that have zip up pockets for extra storage and security. My shorts are made by Volcom and are hybrid swim trunks that look like dress shorts. 


Travel Toiletries1. PackTowl Personal– The Packtowl is a super absorbent and fast drying travel towel. I use it to dry myself after a shower or at the beach. I have the extra small version and its more than enough to dry my whole body. 

2. Crew Fiber Hair gel Because it’s important to look good. 

3. Dr Bronner’s Soap This soap is all natural and concentrated. I use it wash my clothes and as a body wash and shampoo.

4. Toothbrush/toothpaste/floss- A travel toothbrush and travel toothpaste are perfect. The travel sizes save on weight and are available everywhere.

5. Ben’s 100% Deet Spray This bug spray is so highly concentrated, you can only spray it on your clothes because it burns your skin. I don’t like bugs very much so this is good to have on hand. 

6. WAHL Micro Trimmer I use it to trim everything. I mean everything. 

7. THAI Crystal Deodorant Stone– This originally came in a tube but I pulled out the stone to save on weight. Crystal deodorant is all natural and is made of mineral salts that kills the bacteria. 

8. Burt’s Bees Chap stick Weather changes while travelling always make my lips chapped. 

9. Condoms – Safety first. 

Buff Headwear scarf

Buff Headwear selection

The Buff Headwear scarf is the most versatile item I carry. I use it as a beanie, eye mask, headband, balaclava and more. I have the original Buff, but they also make a Merino Wool version


Travel Smartphone

A smartphone is a great asset to any traveler. Even as a minimalist traveler, I carry a smartphone wherever I go. I use it for GPS, online guides, photos, notes, emails, calls and messaging.

Be careful though. Overusing your phone to stay connected back home can make you feel lonely and degrade your travel experience. 

Check out my article on the best phone and cell service for travelers.

Go Pro Session

Go pro session

For most of the pictures I take, I use my cellphone. But for videos, I use the Go Pro Session. Its extremely small and is waterproof to 33 feet. I carry two mounts with me. A mount that allows me to attach the camera to my backpack, and a headband mount. They have the original Go Pro Session and the Go Pro HERO5 which is more expensive but has 4K video.  

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle

I love to read. It’s one of my favorite travel activities. Reading is meditative, educational and relaxing. The Amazon Kindle holds thousands of books and the battery lasts forever. Plus you can download books instantly instead of having to buy paper books online or in a store. 

Streamlight Flashlight

Streamlight Stylus Pro

Darkness is everywhere. Whether getting lost in a Panamanian jungle at night, or searching through your pack in a dark hostel dorm room, a flashlight is good to have. At 90 Lumens, the Streamlight Stylus Pro has a lot of power in a small package. 

Travel Wallet

Travel Wallet

A travel wallet will keep your valuables secure and out of sight. I use it to keep my money, credit cards, ID and Passport. I keep daily spending money in my pocket so I never have to access my travel wallet in public. 


I hate being hungry. When hunger strikes, finding something healthy to eat can be difficult. I usually carry calorie dense foods such as Epic meat snack bars and almond butter


Travel Earplugs

Earplugs are great. Often, sleeping in noisy places such as hostels, planes or trains is your only option. I also used to carry an eye mask, but now just use my Buff Headwear Scarf.


Travel Headphones

I use my headphones to listen to music and watch movies on my phone.

USB Charger w/ Travel Adapter

Travel Charger

In order to keep my pack weight down, I make sure all my electronic devices use one type of charger. My Kindle, cellphone and Go Pro all use the micro USB charger that I carry with me.

I also carry a universal two pronged travel charger. If I’m going somewhere with a unique outlet type, I just buy the adapter when I arrive. 

Emergency Supplies

Minimalist Packing Emergency

Generally, I don’t carry anything unnecessary but I make an exception for emergency supplies. It’s important to me to be prepared in case something goes wrong. I carry a small survival kit with a space blanket, fire starter, duct tape and fishing gear.

I also carry a full medical kit with antibiotics, bandages, burn cream, medicines, and even sutures. I’ve used my emergency kit several times over the years for various injuries and illnesses. 


I carry a few other items that aren’t necessities, but personal choice. These include a Sawyer Water filter, a Toaks Titanium cup and spork and a Moleskin notebook.

The Sawyer water filter is extra peace of mind in countries with questionable water. It filters out most types of bacterium and water borne parasites. 

The Toaks Titanium cup and spork is super light. By having your own eating utensils you can eat more readily out of grocery stores and save money.

The Moleskin notebook is good to take notes, journal or write down my ideas.  

So thats it.

Most people don’t need much more than this. Everyone’s situation is slightly different, but the concept and principles remains the same. 

Good luck and happy travelling. 


Disclosure: Some of the links in my posts are affiliate links. If you purchase the products, I receive a small commission. However, I only recommend products or services I personally use and highly value.

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