By packing lightweight and quality gear with multiple uses, you can greatly reduce the weight and volume of your travel backpack. The end goal in switching to an ultralight style of travel is to pack all of your clothing and gear into a carry on-size bag without sacrificing anything in terms of functionality, comfort, fashion, or preparedness. One thing I want to clear up is the fact that traveling ultralight isn’t about doing without. It’s about packing in a smart and strategic manner. This ultralight travel packing list is designed to help you achieve that.
In this guide, I outline every piece of gear that you need to pack and its uses. Some ultralight packers are more hardcore than others. I will indicate which items are optional and which you’ll want to pack. This guide also contains info on camping gear.
What does Ultralight Packing Mean for Travelers?
For hikers, ultralight traditionally means keeping your base weight below 10 pounds (about 4.5 kilos). For travel, we generally need a bit more gear. Mostly clothing. Most airlines allow up to a 22 pound (10 kilos) bags as a carry-on. The bag must measure less than 45 linear inches (115 centimeters). Our goal is to fit within those limits.
Benefits of Ultralight Travel
- No checked bag fees- You save $20-$50 per flight by carrying your bag on rather than checking it.
- Lower likelihood of losing your luggage- Airlines lose checked bags all the time. Air Canada lost my backpack on my first solo trip abroad. I learned my lesson. Now I only pack a carry-on and I will never fly Air Canada again.
- Lower likelihood of theft- You can carry your backpack where you can see it at all times. For example, on your lap, above your seat, or at your feet on the flight, bus, or train. You don’t have to store it in a luggage compartment where the risk of theft increases.
- Damage to your belongings is less likely- Baggage handlers are notoriously hard on bags. I cringed while watching African baggage handlers roughly lash my large backpack on top of buses. Now that I travel ultralight, I’m the only one to touch my bag.
- Reduced transit times- You don’t need to arrive at the airport as early to check your bag. There is no need to wait around the baggage claim after your flight. You can get on the bus early and score a good seat rather than waiting for the baggage handler to load your pack.
- You can walk further- I like to walk between the bus or train station and my hotel or hostel. Mainly to save money. Walking is a lot easier and more pleasant with a 20 pound backpack than with a 40 pound backpack.
- You blend in more- With a small backpack, you might be able to blend in with the locals. You don’t automatically look like a tourist. This lowers your likelihood of being targeted by scammers and criminals.
- It’s healthier- Heavy backpacks put a lot of stress on your back, knees, shoulders, and neck. Keep your joints healthy by carrying less weight. Your body will thank you for it in the long run.
Table of Contents- The Ultralight Travel Packing List
This guide is pretty long. Use the links below to help navigate the page.
- Camping Gear
- Additional Travel Gear
- Travel Documents
- Items to Leave at Home
- Final thoughts on Packing Ultralight for Travel
Packing Clothes for Ultralight Travel
In this section, I outline each item of clothing that you’ll want to pack for ultralight travel and its use. I also provide style and fabric suggestions. I’ll also suggest a few optional items and give some tips to further cut down on weight. Exactly which items you pack depends on the climate of your destination and types of activities that you plan to participate in.
When selecting the clothes that you want to wear during your trip, look for items with the following characteristics:
- Comfortable- This is the most important factor. Choose clothes that allow you to make a full range of motion and feel nice against your skin.
- Quick-drying- Because you’ll be packing so few clothes, you’ll have to wash them often. Chances are, you’ll also be sweating a lot. You want items that dry quickly. I recommend avoiding cotton. I generally prefer synthetics like polyester. Merino wool is another good quick-drying fabric if you prefer natural fibers.
- Multi-use- Make sure you can wear all of your shirts and pants mixed together. Try not to pack one shirt that only goes with a specific pair of pants, for example. Choose clothes that can be worn in a variety of social situations and weather conditions. Avoid anything too formal or casual.
- High tech fabrics- These are generally used for athletic and outdoor clothing. They are durable, pack down small, and dry quickly. Nylon and polyester are good choices.
- Reasonably fashionable- This is a personal preference. I feel like I’m treated better when I’m dressed reasonably well than when I look like a dirtbag traveler. Some people don’t care how they look.
Even if you’re traveling in a hot climate, you need to pack at least one pair of long pants. They protect your legs from the sun during the day and mosquitoes during the evening. You also need long pants for sightseeing in some countries. For example, many religious sites like temples and mosques require that you cover your legs. Many bars and restaurants also require that you wear long pants. In some countries, you should wear long pants at all times out of respect for the local culture.
You’ll also want to pack shorts. Even while traveling in a cold climate. Chances are, you’ll be wearing these often. When choosing a pair of shorts, the most important thing is to make sure they have pockets. You want to be able to carry cash, your phone, and hotel key with you. I recommend you look for a pair with a pocket that zips closed. This prevents your phone or wallet from falling out during physical activities and helps to stop pickpockets.
Pants you should pack include:
1 Pair of Jeans
A nice dark pair of jeans can work for your going-out pants. They are accepted pretty much everywhere in the world outside of formal occasions. Jeans are also pretty warm which comes in handy if you’re traveling during a cold season.
Some ultralight travelers will disagree with packing a pair of jeans because they are very heavy and bulky. They also take forever to dry. Having said this, I always miss having my jeans if I don’t pack them. This is one luxury item that I bring. I like to pack a classic pair of Levis.
1 Pair of Long Hiking or Travel Pants
These are your daily wear pants. Hiking or travel pants are lightweight, comfortable, quick-drying, and allow for a good range of motion. They should be durable. Preferably made of ripstop nylon. You’ll be wearing these a lot so you want them to last.
I like the prAna Stretch Zion Pant. They are durable, water repellent, and made of comfortable stretchy nylon fabric.
Tip: To save more weight, consider choosing a pair of hiking or travel pants that zips off into shorts. They may look a bit goofy but this function is nice to have. If you want to travel ultralight, you can just pack the one pair of pants and use them as shorts as well.
1 Pair of Shorts
Choose whatever style you like. I pack a pair of hiking shorts. They are durable and dry quickly if they get wet. Some travelers like cargo shorts. These are handy but are out of style. Basketball shorts are another option. They dry quickly but don’t have secure pockets.
1 Pair of Swimming Shorts
Try to choose a pair that can pass off as regular shorts as well. That way, you can wear them around while sightseeing as well as to the beach and pool. While traveling in tropical or beach destinations, I end up wearing my swim shorts more than my regular shorts.
Tip: If you don’t plan to swim often, don’t pack swim shorts. You can always swim in your regular shorts or underpants. You could even skinny dip. Alternatively, you could just pack swimming shorts and use them as your daily wear short.
2-4 Pair of Underwear
You can get by just fine with 2 pair is you’re serious about going ultralight. Wash one and let it dry while wearing the other. I like to pack 3 pair so I don’t have to wash as often. I wash my underwear in the sink then hang them somewhere to dry. The nice thing about underwear is that you can buy them anywhere in the world. When they wear out, just throw them out and buy some fresh pairs.
Pack whatever style you prefer. I like boxer-briefs. They provide more support than boxers and don’t look goofy like briefs. Remember, people will probably see you in your underwear if you’re staying in hostels. You’ll be changing your clothes in the dorm and sleeping. Choose a style that you won’t be embarrassed to be seen in.
Shirts and Jackets
Shirts are kind of a personal preference thing. Some guys prefer shirts with collars. Some prefer long sleeve. I recommend you pack 2-4 shirts in total. Make sure at least one shirt has long sleeves.
As for jackets, it’s important to pack one even if you’re traveling to a hot climate. Mornings and evenings can get cool wherever you are. You’ll also need a waterproof jacket to protect you from the rain. Here’s what you should pack:
These are lightweight, easy to pack and go with everything. They’re also so cheap that they’re practically disposable. I like to pack 2 t-shirts and buy a couple at my destination. They make excellent souvenirs. When they wear out, I just throw them away and buy another one.
Polyester athletic t-shirts work best due to their sweat-wicking capabilities, odor resistance, and quick drying. They also stay cool in the summer and provide warmth in the winter.
I recommend you try to avoid cotton t-shirts for travel. They take too long to dry and get smelly quickly if they’re not washed often.
1 or 2 Long-Sleeved Shirts
Your long sleeve shirt will come in handy often. For example, you’ll need it while sightseeing in some conservative countries where you’re expected to cover up your arms. You will also want to wear it to keep the sun off during the day and the mosquitoes off during the evening. It will also work well for going out. A long sleeve shirt can also keep you warmer on a cool morning.
The best two types of long sleeve shirt for travel are:
- Hiking or travel shirt- These are durable, comfortable, and don’t wrinkle too much. They also look pretty nice.
- Thermal base layer shirt- These are great for adding warmth. Merino wool is a great material for this type of shirt. I like the Meriwool men’s base layer shirt.
No matter where you’re traveling, you need to pack some type of jacket to keep you warm. Even in hot countries, the weather can get cool during the early morning and evening. The two best types of jackets for travel are:
- Down jacket- These pack down incredibly small, occupying less than a liter of space in your pack. They are also lightweight. Most weigh around 10 ounces. Down also provides a good amount of warmth so they work well for travel in cold climates. The only drawback is the fact that down doesn’t work when it gets wet. This means down isn’t ideal for wet or humid destinations.
- Fleece jacket- As an alternative to down, you may prefer a fleece jacket. These work better for travel in wet climates or humid climates because they dry quickly when they get wet. The biggest drawback to fleece is the fact that it doesn’t pack down very small. It’s not as warm as down either.
To help you decide, check out my down vs fleece vs wool pros and cons list.
For travel in a particularly cold climate, you’ll want to pack both a down jacket and fleece. When paired together along with a long sleeve shirt underneath, you can stay warm well below freezing.
Tip: Avoid cotton hoodies. They take too long to dry after they get wet.
1 Rain Jacket or Poncho
You need to pack some type of rain protection while traveling. Even while visiting a sunny climate. You don’t want to miss out on a day of sightseeing just because it’s raining. The style that you chose is really a personal preference. Options include:
- Rain jacket- A good rain jacket can keep you relatively dry in even the heaviest storm. One of the most popular rainsuits is the Frogtogs Ultra Light2 rainsuit. These are lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and durable.
- Poncho- For more protection, consider a large poncho. These can keep your whole body dry including your legs. You can also use the poncho to cover your backpack to keep your belongings dry as well. Some ponchos also double as a tarp that you can use for shelter. I’ll talk more about that later.
I prefer ponchos over rain jackets. They offer better protection and multiple uses. The main drawback is the fact that they aren’t as fashionable. To help you decide which is best for your trip, check out my rain jacket vs poncho pros and cons list.
Footwear for Travel
While traveling, you spend a lot of time on your feet. You walk between your hostel and the train station. You walk around museums, temples, and historic sites. I walk 5-10 miles per day while traveling. Because of this, it’s important that you pack some comfortable, durable footwear.
Footwear is one area of your travel wardrobe where you shouldn’t cheap out. You can buy cheap shirts and pants anywhere on earth. Finding quality footwear can be a challenge in some parts of the world. Particularly if you have big feet as I do. Sometimes large sizes aren’t available. Sometimes finding genuine name brand shoes is a problem. There are a lot of Chinese copies out there. I recommend you buy a new pair of shoes before your trip. Here are the shoes and socks that you should pack:
1 Pair of Shoes
Shoes are bulky and heavy. Try to limit yourself to one pair. While shopping for a pair of travel shoes, choose a pair that can do it all. You want to be able to hike a trail during the day then go out to a bar at night in the same pair of shoes. You also want your shoes to be supportive and comfortable. Fashion is another consideration.
I like trail running shoes for travel. They offer excellent durability because they are built for use on hiking trails. They are also comfortable because they are designed for walking long distance. Another nice feature is the tread. It could save you from slipping or falling down on a wet floor or icy road.
The only problem with trail runners is the fact that they don’t really fit in cities too well. Most look like hiking shoes. Try to find a pair with a simple, low-key design. I like the Solomon Speedcross 4 trail running shoes.
In the past, I always traveled with chucks because they are fashionable. I found that I just couldn’t put in the miles that I wanted to. My feet always hurt at the end of the day. I would get blisters as well. I ended up switching to running shoes or trail runners. Now I can walk as far as I like without any foot pain.
1 Pair of Sandals
Regardless of the climate of your destination, you should always pack a pair of sandals. They have many uses. Sandals are great for wearing around your hotel or for short trips to the store. You can also wear them in the shower or at the beach. Sandals protect your feet from bacteria or cuts. They are quick to put on and comfortable for lounging around in. The style you choose is up to you.
Most travelers wear flip flops. You can buy a pair for a dollar or two most anywhere in the world. They pack down small and last quite a while. I used to do this, but I have since changed my ways. The problem with flip flops is the fact that they aren’t good for walking long distance. They rub your feet wrong and just hurt after a few miles. They can also slip off causing injury. I like to hike and cycle when I travel. Flip flops aren’t ideal.
Now, I prefer to pack a quality pair of hiking sandals with straps. I wear them almost as much as my shoes so I need a comfortable, supportive pair. These days, I wear Chacos Z2 Classic Sport Sandals. They have thick, supportive soles and they stay on your feet well. The only drawback is that they are a bit bulkier and heavier than flip flops.
Tip: Switch off between your shoes and sandals to give your feet a break. This helps to prevent blisters and allows your feet to air out which prevents athletes foot. Take care of your feet while traveling.
2-4 Pair of Socks
You can get away with just 2 pair if you are serious about going ultralight. Wash one pair and let it dry while wearing the other. I like to pack 3 pair so I don’t have to do laundry as often. The nice thing about socks is that you can buy them anywhere in the world. When they wear out, just throw them away and buy some fresh. Choose whatever style you prefer. I like standard white ankle-length sweat socks.
If you are traveling in a cold climate or plan to do any hiking, I recommend you pack a nice thick pair of wool socks. I like these Meriwool Merino Wool Hiking Socks. They wick away sweat to help keep your feet cool and dry in the summer. They also keep your feet warm in the winter.
Additional Clothing and Accessories
After packing your basic day to day clothes, consider anything else you like to wear. Most of the following items are optional.
Hats come in handy often. They protect you from the sun. They keep your head warm in the winter. Hats keep the rain off your face. They also prevent your hair from blowing around in the wind. Pack whichever style you prefer. If I’m traveling to a warm destination, I pack a baseball cap or sun hat. In cold destinations, I pack a warm knit cap.
Tip: Hats make for excellent souvenirs. Consider waiting until you reach your destination to buy one.
While this isn’t a piece of clothing, it could potentially replace one. If you don’t like rain jackets or ponchos, you could simply pack an umbrella. It won’t keep you as dry but it works just fine. Umbrellas are more popular for travel to cities. Rain jackets are better for hiking and other outdoor activities. The weight is more or less the same.
If you’re traveling to a destination with a rainy climate, you may want to bring some rain pants to pair with your rain jacket. Alternatively, you could just wear some quick-drying pants when it rains. Or, you could pack a poncho which acts as a ring jacket and pants. This is my preference.
A Note About Jewelry
Jewelry is a target for theft. I recommend you leave your diamonds and gold at home with the exception of one item. A watch is a nice piece of travel gear to pack. Look for one that shows the date and includes an alarm. I like the Casio Sport Watch W800H-1AV. It’s inexpensive, durable, and includes a lot of useful functions for travelers. You can read my full review of the watch here.
A Note About Going out Clothes and Accessories
Everyone wants to look good while going out on the town. Unfortunately, packing a set of nice clothes just to go out in just doesn’t fit with the ultralight philosophy. Packing ultralight requires that you pack items that have multiple uses. There is really no room for going out clothes. Luckily, there is a solution.
By packing strategically, you can bring a decent pair of clothes to go out in. Pack a nice pair of dark jeans and one decent collared long sleeve travel shirt that can pass as a dress shirt. Choose shoes that look more casual than athletic. The idea is to pack multi-use items. Avoid packing anything twice. If you pack smart, you can dress well enough to get into most clubs and attend most non-formal events.
Packing for Ultralight Travel in a Cold Climate
If you’re traveling during the winter or visiting a cold destination, you need to be prepared. In addition to the above gear, you’ll need to pack a few extra items to keep you warm. Some items can be swapped out with their hot weather counterparts to cut down on weight. Luckily, with high tech, modern fabrics it is possible to pack ultralight for four-season travel and still stick to a carry-on bag.
The best way to achieve this is to layer your clothes to stay warm. Traditionally, you want to wear three layers. A base layer wicks sweat to help you stay warm. A middle layer traps heat. The outer layer protects you from the elements. Here’s what you should pack:
Thermal underwear make an ideal cold-weather base layer. They wick sweat away from your body and trap heat to help keep you warm in cold climate. Thermal underwear pack down small and weigh very little.
Several materials are available. Many travelers like merino wool. Some prefer synthetics. There are benefits and drawbacks of each in terms of durability, comfort, and odor control.
This is what you wear between your base layer and outer layer. A basic sweatshirt, fleece, or sweater works great as a middle layer.
If the climate isn’t too cold, you can simply use your puffer jacket described in the previous section as a middle layer.
This layer protects you from the wind and rain. Which outer layer you pack really depends on the climate of your destination.
- Extremely cold climate- You’ll want to pack a parka to wear for your outer layer. These are waterproof, windproof, and extremely warm. Unfortunately, they are also heavy and bulky. If you’re traveling ultralight, you’ll probably have to carry your parka as your personal item while flying.
- Cold but dry climate- You can use your puffer jacket as an outer layer in addition to a sweatshirt or fleece middle layer. This helps you save weight because the only additional piece of gear you need to pack is a warm middle layer.
- Cold but wet climate- You can wear your rain jacket as an outer layer over your puffer jacket or fleece.
Footwear for Cold Weather
You need to keep your feet warm and dry while traveling in a cold climate. To achieve this, you have several packing options:
- Warm socks- If you’re not going to see any snow at your destination, simply pack a warm pair of socks or wear two pairs of socks to keep your toes warm. This is the most ultralight solution.
- Gaiters- These seal the top of your footwear to prevent snow and water from entering. Gaiters a lightweight solution. The only drawback is the fact that you need to pair them with waterproof shoes or your feet will get wet as snow melts around them.
- Snow boots- If you plan to spend a lot of time walking in the snow, you’ll probably want some sort of waterproof boots. Unfortunately, these are heavy. Choose a pair that you can use as your only pair of shoes to help cut down on weight.
For travel in a cold climate, exchange your baseball cap for a warm knit hat.
How to Keep your Lower Body Warm
To keep your legs warm, use the same layering method used to keep your upper body warm. For example:
- Base layer- Thermal underwear. These trap your body heat and wick sweat.
- Middle layer- Jeans or travel pants. These trap heat to keep you warm.
- Outer layer- Rain pants. These keep you dry and protect you from the wind.
If you are traveling to an extremely cold destination, consider packing some down pants. These pack down small, weigh very little, and provide a lot of warmth.
Tips Packing Ultralight While Being Prepared for Cold Weather
- Remove any warm weather items that you won’t need in a cold climate- For example, may be able to eliminate your shorts a swimsuit. Carry one t-shirt instead of 3. This saves you some space in your pack for warmer gear.
- Down is your friend- It’s warm, lightweight, and packs down small. Remember, down doesn’t perform well when it gets wet.
- If you’re not warm enough, you can always buy more clothes at your destination- The people who live there need to keep warm too. Any cold weather gear that you may need is available locally. Sometimes this is cheaper. For example, if you save $50 on baggage fees by only bringing a carry-on, use that money to buy yourself a jacket at your destination. I’d rather support a local business than give an airline more of my money.
A Note about Fashion While Traveling Ultralight
Everyone wants to look good. While selecting clothing to pack for your trip, put some thought into how you’ll look. Pack neutral colored items that all match with each other. You don’t want to pack a shirt that you can only wear with one pair of pants, for example.
Also, try to pack one outfit that you can go out in. You’re not going to get into any high-end nightclubs in your ultralight travel clothes. You do, however, want to be able to get into a nice bar that has a basic dress code. This means, always pack at least one pair of long pants and closed-toe shoes.
Even if you couldn’t care less about fashion, it is still something to consider while packing. You don’t want to miss out on an experience just because you didn’t pack the right clothes. For example, while visiting Bangkok, I went to a sky bar with a couple of friends from the hostel. Their dress code required that you wear long pants. Any long pants were acceptable. One of my buddies didn’t pack any. He ended up waiting in the lobby and missing out on the spectacular view because he hadn’t packed properly.
Choosing a Backpack for Ultralight Travel
Your backpack is one of your most important pieces of travel gear. It needs to be comfortable, lightweight, and the proper size for carry-on use. Here is exactly what you should look for in an ultralight travel backpack:
Your travel backpack needs to fit within the airline carry-on size requirements. These vary by airline. The most common size is 45 linear inches (115 centimeters).
In my experience, check-in agents won’t measure your backpack unless it’s obviously too large. In fact, I’ve only had my backpack measured once. It was packed completely full and just looked massive. I was asked to place my bag in one of those metal cages to measure. It measured a few inches too long. Luckily, they let it slide as the flight wasn’t full.
While shopping for a backpack, you want one that is ultralight. That generally means less than 2 pounds (around 1 kilo).
The reason you need an ultralight backpack is because the total weight of your bag is limited by the airline carry-on allowance. Most airlines only allow you to carry-on 22 pounds (around 10 kilos). You don’t want to use a 5 pound backpack that takes up ¼ of your entire luggage allowance by itself.
The ideal storage capacity depends on what you plan to pack and where you are traveling. For example, if you pack camping gear, you’ll need a larger bag. If you’re traveling to a cold destination, you’ll need more space to accommodate cold weather clothing. Travelers who need to pack electrons such as laptops and photography equipment also need a larger backpack.
- 30-40 liter- This is the ideal size for a true ultralight traveler. This size is great for a traveler who is traveling in a warm climate, not camping, and not packing many electronics. This size fits within the carry-on allowance of almost every airline and bus company.
- 40-50 liter- This is the ideal size for most lightweight travelers. This size allows you to pack ultralight camping gear, small electronics, and be prepared for 3 season weather if you pack smart and strategically. This size fits within the carry-on requirements of most airlines. You’ll probably have to check your bag on occasion. You’ll also have to be careful not to go overweight.
- 50+ liter- Sometimes you need more storage capacity. This size pack allows you to carry full camping gear, some larger electronics, and cold weather gear. With this size backpack, you’ll have to check it much of the time. This isn’t really traveling ultralight.
When shopping for an ultralight travel backpack, you want a bag with the following:
- Comfortable- This is the most important. You’ll be walking a lot while traveling. Make sure the backpack fits your torso properly. Make sure it offers enough breathability so you don’t get too hot. Most outdoors stores have weights you can put in backpacks to test them out. Test the bag extensively before purchasing. You need to be comfortable.
- Compression straps- If your backpack is a bit oversized, you can use the straps to make it smaller. When my 44 liter backpack is fully loaded, it’s too big. The straps allow me to compress it small enough to use as a carry-on.
- Waist belt- You’ll want this for any backpack over 30 liters. A waist strap helps tremendously with supporting the bag. It moves much of the weight from your shoulders to your hips. This makes the bag much more comfortable to walk with long distance.
- Exterior straps- These come in handy for attaching bulky items to your bag. For example, maybe you need to carry a couple of days worth of food. Just attach your jacket to the outside of your bag to make space inside.
My Travel Backpack
I currently use the Osprey Talon 44 Hiking Backpack. I have found this to be pretty much the ideal size for travel. The bag itself is pretty light at only 2.45 pounds (about 1.1 kilos). It’s large enough to accommodate my ultralight camping gear and a small laptop alongside all of my travel clothing and gear. It’s small enough that I can carry it on most flights. I can also carry it on my lap or by my feet in most buses if I wish. The compression straps allow me to make the bag appear much smaller if I’m not carrying a lot of gear. For more info, check out my full review of the Talon 44 here.
Some travelers prefer to use a suitcase. If you’re undecided, check out my guide, Backpack Vs. Suitcase for Travel: Pros and Cons.
Toiletries, Grooming, and First Aid Kit to Pack for Ultralight Travel
This is one area that’s pretty personal. Everyone’s toiletry, grooming, and first aid kit looks a bit different. Exactly what you pack depends on where you’re traveling, medical conditions, and personal preference.
One important thing to remember is that everything you pack needs to be carry-on friendly. That means all liquids need to be in bottles smaller than 3.4 ounces or 100 millimeters. You’ll also want to eliminate any grooming tools with sharp edges from your kit as these may not be carry-on friendly with some airlines.
Toiletries to Pack for Travel
- Toothbrush- Some true ultralight travelers cut the handle off of their brush to save weight. This seems excessive to me. I prefer an electric toothbrush. It’s not ultralight but it cleans the teeth much better than manual.
- Toothpaste- Pack a travel size of less than 100 ml.
- Floss- I pack those little individual plastic flossers. They’re easier to use while on the go.
- Soap- To save space, consider packing one do-it-all soap. I use Sierra Dawn Campsuds. You can use this biodegradable soap as shampoo, body soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, shaving soap, hand soap, etc. The soap is concentrated so one bottle lasts quite a while. This is one of my favorite travel products.
- Razors- Just pack a couple of disposables. You can buy more anywhere in the world. I recommend you don’t pack a razor with replaceable cartridges because you may not be able to find the replacements that you need.
- Deodorant- So you don’t stink. Pack a stick-style deodorant. Make sure it’s less than 100 ml. Remember, you can’t carry-on aerosol spray deodorants.
- Sunblock- It’s important to protect your skin. Wear it whenever you go outside.
- Insect repellent- Protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks- I like Repel 100 Insect Repellent. It contains 98.11% DEET and protects for up to 10 hours. A small bottle lasts a long time.
Medical Items to Pack
- First aid kit- You need to be able to patch yourself up in the event of an accident. This also comes in handy for helping out fellow travelers who came unprepared. I like the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight and Watertight .7 First Aid Kit. It includes a lot of gear for a reasonable price.
- Pain reliever- Pack something mild for headaches and minor aches and pains. I like ibuprofen.
- Malaria prophylaxis- If you’re traveling to a high-risk malaria zone like sub-Saharan Africa, for example, be sure to pack the proper tablets. For more info, check out my traveler’s guide to malaria prevention, treatment, and tablets.
- Antibiotic ointment- This stuff comes in handy when you get a minor cut or scrape. It can save you from getting an infection.
- Anti-diarrhea tablets- If you travel long enough, sooner or later you’ll eat or drink something bad and end up with food poisoning or travelers diarrhea. This stuff can help you recover faster.
Vision Related Gear
- Sunglasses- You need to protect your eyes from harmful rays. Consider purchasing a pair of prescription sunglasses if you wear corrective lenses.
- Glasses- Don’t forget to pack your prescription just in case you lose or break your glasses. For more info, check out my guide: Tips for Travel with Glasses and Contacts.
- Glasses accessories- Including a microfiber cleaning cloth, cleaning solution, a hard case, and a glasses repair tool.
- Contact lenses- Be sure to pack a few extras in case some get lost or contaminated.
Contact lens solution- Make sure your bottle is less than 100 ml.
Additional Travel Gear to Consider Packing
- Mini hair clippers- This is one piece of luxury gear that I carry. As a bald guy, I have to keep my hair trimmed short. I also use my clippers to trim my beard. When picking out a pair of clippers, make sure they are comparable with 110-120v and 220-240v. This way they can be used anywhere in the world. Alternatively, you could buy a battery operated clipper. For more info, check out my guide Getting a Haircut While Traveling: A Men’s Guide.
- Small mirror- This comes in handy while shaving or cutting your hair.
- Nail clippers- Make sure they don’t have a sharp file or airport security may confiscate them.
- Lotion- If you get dry skin, consider packing a travel sized bottle. I like to wear a lotion with some SPF.
- Lip balm- This is particularly important for travel in cold, dry climates where chapped lips are common.
- Q-tips- Pack a small travel sized bag.
- Condoms- You never know.
Space Saving Tip: I know the above list looks like a lot of stuff to pack. Luckily each item is pretty small. To save space, take all items out of their original packaging. If something comes packed in a hard case, repack it in a soft bag so it takes up less room. Only carry the amount you need. If you’re on a long trip, carry a one month supply and re-stock as you run out. For example, if you’re traveling for a year, you don’t need to pack a years supply of sunblock from home. Just pack a small tube. Most of these items can be purchased wherever in the world you are traveling. All of your toiletries, first aid gear, and grooming equipment should only take up around 1 liter of space in your pack.
For more help, check out my guide: How to Pack Toiletries into a Carry-On Friendly Bag.
Electronics to Pack for Ultralight Travel
Even though electronics don’t take much space in your pack, they are heavy. This is one area that you can easily push your pack overweight if you’re not careful. While traveling, you need to pack enough electronics to accomplish the following:
- Taking photos- This one’s obvious. Everyone likes to take photos to remember their travels. You need some sort of camera.
- Navigation- GPS comes in handy when trying to find your way from the bus or train station to your hotel or hostel when you reach a new city. It’s also useful for sightseeing. You can walk around freely in a new city without worrying about getting lost. You need some device that can show you your location without being connected to the internet.
- Research and bookings- You need to research your destinations to find things you want to do. You also need some way of making reservations for hotels, hostels, flights, buses, trains, tours, etc. You need some sort of computer to accomplish this.
- Entertainment- This isn’t necessary but it’s nice to listen to music or a podcast to pass the time. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself on a 20 hour bus journey. Sitting by yourself in silence gets boring after so many hours.
Luckily, one piece of gear can accomplish all of the above. For shorter trips of less than a month, a smartphone is the only piece of electronic gear that you should pack. It does everything that you need to do and takes up almost no space in your pack. This is the ultralight option.
I do recognize that smartphones are limited. They are kind of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ The small screens make some tasks difficult and the cameras are just ok. For some trips, you need to carry some additional electronic gear.
When visiting those once in lifetime destinations, you want to pack a decent camera so you can take the best possible photos. While smartphone cameras are getting pretty good, they just can’t match the image quality of a camera with a larger sensor. Cameras also offer better zoom and more settings and features, in general, to help you take better photos.
While traveling ultralight, you’ll want to stay away from DSLR cameras. They’re just too heavy and bulky. They also require that you pack multiple lenses which take up more space in your pack. A modern fixed lens point and shoot camera offers great picture quality in a pocket friendly size.
One of the best cameras for travel is the Sony RX100. This camera takes phenomenal pictures and is small enough to fit in your pocket. It features a 1-inch sensor and 28-100mm ZEISS zoom lens.
Another popular camera for travel is the Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II. This pocket-sized camera has a 1-inch sensor which captures a great amount of detail.
Laptop or Tablet for Travel
For longer trips, it’s nice to carry a proper computer. A full keyboard and larger screen make getting work done much more efficient and pleasant. For example, I pretty much have to carry some sort of laptop to maintain this blog. A smartphone just doesn’t cut it for some tasks.
Unfortunately, laptops are heavy. Even lightweight ultrabooks weigh nearly 4 pounds and take up a significant amount of space in your pack. To stay ultralight, I recommend you limit yourself to a tablet or 2 in one style computer. These small devices usually have a screen that is less than 12.5” and weigh less than 2 pounds.
I like the Microsoft Surface Pro 6. It offers the functionality of a laptop in a tablet size. The detachable keyboard cover is excellent for typing. Best of all, it weighs just 1.7 pounds.
If you spend a lot of time hiking in the backcountry or visiting rural areas while you travel, you may want to consider carrying a stand-alone GPS. These don’t take up much space and give you a backup in case your phone fails. Most run off of an internal battery and AA batteries.
Of course, the ultralight option is to use paper maps instead. Most travelers don’t need a standalone GPS. Your smartphone will suffice.
If you like to read like I do, consider packing an eReader. This is a great ultralight piece of gear for entertainment. It weighs less than one book at only 6.8 ounces (182 grams) and can store thousands. Even though you can read on your phone or laptop, the e-ink screen is easier on the eyes. I use the Kindle Paperwhite. The battery life on this thing is incredible. I read quite a bit and only have to charge it once every couple of weeks. I’ve traveled with mine for years and it’s still holding up well.
- External battery- These allow you to charge up your phone or camera when you’re not near an outlet. Sometimes, while staying in hostels, I just charge my phone off the battery so I don’t have to leave my phone unattended. If my battery is stolen, I’m only out $20-$30. If my phone gets stolen I’m out a few hundred dollars at least. 10,000 mAh is a good size. I like the Anker PowerCore 10000.
- Bluetooth keyboard- If you don’t pack a laptop, you can pair a small Bluetooth keyboard to your phone or table to type faster and easier.
- Hard drive- It’s a good idea to back up your photos. Alternatively, you could just use the cloud to save weight.
- Headphones- So you can enjoy your music and shows without disturbing the people around you. Don’t be that annoying guy in the hostel or on the bus who blasts his music from his phone speakers.
- Outlet converters- So you can charge all of your electronic gear.
When I first started traveling in 2011, my electronics took up much less space in my pack. In fact, on my first trip, the only electronic item I packed was a point and shoot camera. Even though smartphones and tablets existed, nobody traveled with one. Nowadays, it seems like every traveler carries a laptop, camera, phone, and various accessories.
To pack as light as possible, try to stick to just packing a phone. A high-end smartphone does everything you need. It’s just not as pleasant to use due to the touch interface and small screen. Smartphone cameras are sufficient for most travelers these days.
Ultralight Camping Gear to Pack for Travel
Whether or not you need to pack camping gear depends on your destination and style of travel. If you’re only traveling through large cities or developed areas, you can probably do without camping gear. In this case, you can get away with a smaller backpack in the 30-40 liter range.
If you plan to visit any rural areas or participate in outdoors activities, you should probably be prepared to sleep outside. While accommodation is available pretty much everywhere, you’ll end up saving money if you have your own camping equipment. The drawback is the fact that you’ll have use a slightly larger backpack to accommodate all of your camping gear. Probably in the 40+ liter range.
Most backpackers don’t pack camping gear. I think this is a mistake. To read my reasons why, check out my article Travel With a Tent: Why Every Backpacker Should Check Out of the Hostel and Camp.
If you decide that you need to pack camping gear for your trip, I recommend you go with ultralight gear. A full ultralight camping setup can weigh as little as 3 pounds and takes up just a few liters of space in your pack.
While selecting camping gear for ultralight travel, you also need to make sure that it is carry-on acceptable. Some airlines don’t allow stakes and poles, for example.
If you’re careful with your gear selection, you can pack a full set of camping gear and stick to a carry-on size bag. The three main items you’ll need to camp while you travel include:
Ultralight Camping Shelter Options for Travel
While sleeping outside, you need some sort of shelter to protect yourself from the elements. While sleeping outside you may encounter rain, wind, cold weather, or critters. I recommend you choose the lightest and smallest shelter that will suit your needs. You will need one of the following:
- Tent- This is the classic camping shelter option. Tents are the heaviest and bulkiest shelter, but also the most protective. Tents include bug netting to keep the critters away and a rain fly to keep you dry. They also offer the most privacy. If you plan to camp in campgrounds often, a tent is your best option. I have the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1. It weighs 33 ounces. Check out my full review here.
- Bivy Sack- This minimalist shelter option is the smallest and lightest. A bivy is basically just a cover for your sleeping bag. These work great for travelers who want to wild camp because they are very low profile. Several variations of bivy exist. Some work as standalone shelters with bug and water protection. Bug bivys only offer protection from bugs and require a tarp to keep you dry. Some bivys leave the face open. For more info on bivys as well as a few recommendations, check out my guide Bivy Sack Vs. Tent: My Pros and Cons List.
- Tarp- This is an incomplete shelter option that can be used on its own for some destinations. A lightweight tarp can keep you dry and protected from the wind. Because it’s open on the sides and bottom, you’ll need a bivy or bug netting to keep bugs and critters away. For more info on tarps as well as a few recommendations, check out my guide Tarp Vs. Tent: My Pros and Cons list.
- Hammock- These work great for warm or dry destinations. Hammocks aren’t really a complete shelter on their own. You’ll at least want to carry a tarp to protect you from the rain while hammock camping. Possibly a bug net as well. If you only plan to camp in warm or dry destinations, a hammock works well on its own. Of course, in order to set up a hammock, you need something to mount it to like trees, for example. For more info about hammocks as well as a few recommendations, check out my article Hammock Vs. Tent: My Pros and Cons List.
- Bug net- This is a great ultralight camping option for buggy environments. Bug nets work great when paired with a small tarp. They can also be used as a mosquito net in hotel rooms.
For complete protection from rain, wind, and bugs, you may need to combine several of the above. After quite a bit of experimenting, I have found that an ultralight tarp and bug net is the lightest and most compact shelter available. This is my current shelter setup. Standalone waterproof bivy shelters are equally lightweight.
Ultralight Sleeping Bag or Quilt for Travel
Your sleeping bag or quilt is probably the most important piece of your ultralight camping setup. It keeps you warm so you don’t freeze during the night. A quality sleeping bag or quilt allows you to camp well below freezing and stay warm and comfortable. When it comes to choosing a bag, you have several choices to make.
- Quilts- These save weight by eliminating unnecessary material that sleeping bags have. Quilts are open where your body touches your sleeping pad. This is done because the part of the bag under your body doesn’t provide warmth while it is compressed under your body weight. Quilts also eliminate the hood and zipper. The weight and space savings make quilts perfect for ultralight travelers.
- Sleeping Bags- These take up a bit more space in your pack because they have full zippers, hoods, and more material in general.
To help you decide which is right for you, check out my guide: Quilt Vs Sleeping Bag: My Pros and Cons List.
When selecting a sleeping bag or quilt, you must consider the climate of your destination. Check the average weather for the dates that you plan to travel to help you gauge which type of bag you need. Common temperature ratings include.
- Summer sleeping bag- These have a temperature rating of 32° Fahrenheit or 0° Celsius and higher. A summer sleeping bag is sufficient for camping in warmer climates or low elevations where you know temperatures will never fall below freezing. A good ultralight summer bag weighs around a pound and will keep you comfortable down to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a good option for travelers visiting tropical destinations or traveling during the summer.
- 3 season sleeping bag- These have a temperature rating from 20° to 32° Fahrenheit or around -7° to 0° Celsius. 3 Season bags are designed for use in the spring, summer, and fall. A 3 season bag will keep you warm in temperatures down to around freezing. An ultralight 3 season bag weighs around 25 ounces (about 680 grams). This is probably the most versatile option. It allows you to camp in a good range of different climates.
- Cold weather sleeping bag- These have a temperature rating lower than 20° Fahrenheit or -7° Celsius. They are designed to keep you warm in below freezing weather for camping at elevation or during the winter. A good cold weather sleeping bag weighs about 2.5 pounds. This is probably overkill for most travelers.
- Down- This lightweight material compresses very well, making it ideal for ultralight travel. For example, my summer quilt measures 6” by 8” when compressed and weighs only 1 pound. Down is also pretty durable. A good down sleeping bag will last you many years if you take care of it. Down comes in two varieties: Goose and duck.
- Synthetic- While these materials generally don’t compress as well as down, they do perform better in wet weather. The main drawback to synthetic bags is the fact that they don’t last as long as down. The material just breaks down faster and loses warmth.
For more info, check out my down vs synthetic insulation pros and cons list.
Unfortunately, ultralight sleeping bags are pretty expensive. Your sleeping bag is one of the more expensive pieces of travel gear that you’ll carry. Warm weather bags start around $120. 20 degree bags start around $200. Quality cold weather bags start around $300.
Ultralight Sleeping Pad for Travel
This is the final piece of your ultralight camping setup. When it comes to choosing a sleeping pad, you have 2 options:
- Inflatable sleeping pad- Simply blow it up with your mouth. These lightweight pads pack down small. The only drawback is the fact that they can get punctured. Inflatable pads are also more expensive.
- Foam sleeping pad (CCF)- The main benefit to these pads is the fact that they don’t suffer from punctures. They are simply a piece of durable solid foam. The main drawback is the volume of space that they take. A small pad takes up around 10 liters of space. Because of this, you’ll need to strap your foam pad to the outside of your backpack.
The other thing to consider when choosing an ultralight sleeping pad is the R-value. This is a measure of the warmth of the pad. Sleeping pads with a higher R-value keep you warmer.
To help you decide, check out my guide Inflatable vs Foam Sleeping Pad: My Pros and Cons List.
I prefer a foam pad for travel even though it takes up more space. I bought the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Ultralight foam sleeping pad on Amazon. It’s durable and weighs only 20 ounces.
Tip: If you decide to use a foam pad, consider waiting until you reach your destination to purchase it. This reduces the bulk of your pack considerably. Foam pads cost around the same everywhere (around $10-$15) and are pretty easily available in most decent sized cities.
Additional Ultralight Camping Gear to Pack for Travel
- Camping Pot- For longer trips, I like to carry a small titanium camping pot. This allows me to prepare myself a hot meal or drink while camping. I strap my camping pot to the outside of my pack to save space inside.
- Camping Stove- The most ultralight option that I have found is a simple alcohol stove. I made my own out of a tuna fish can. For information on making your own, check out this guide from Vegabond Journey.
- Trekking poles- If you plant to do a lot of hiking during your travels, consider carrying a trekking pole or two. These can also be used to pitch a camping tarp.
If you really want to travel ultralight, skip the camping gear. You’ll save a considerable amount of space in your pack. Having said that, a tarp, summer sleeping bag, and sleeping pad weigh less than 3 pounds an open up a lot of options in terms of where you can travel. I always travel with camping gear.
A Note About Flying With Camping Gear
Some airlines and airport security don’t allow tent stakes, tent poles, in carry-on bags. This is problematic. After all, the whole reason we’re packing ultralight is to avoid checking our bag.
The best solution to this problem is to pack a shelter without poles or stakes. For example, a bivy, tarp, or hammock is carry-on friendly.
Alternatively, you can leave your stakes at home and buy new ones at your destination. Pretty much every decent sized city has an outdoors or sporting goods store where you can buy stakes for around a dollar or two a piece. These will have paid for themselves after one night of camping. When you need to catch another flight, you can just give the stakes away or leave them at a campground for someone else to use.
Additional Ultralight Travel Gear to Consider Packing
- Headlight or flashlight- If you plan to camp or hike often, a headlight comes in handy. You can use it to read or cook while you’re at camp. If you plan to only stay in hostels or hotels, you can do without one of these. Your phone flashlight works fine for navigating a dorm at night.
- Packable day pack- While you’re out sightseeing or on a day trip, you may want a smaller backpack to carry some snacks, water, sunblocks, etc. Your travel backpack is just too big to carry around day-to-day. Look for a packable day pack of around 20-30 liters. I like the Osprey Ultralight Stuff Pack. It’s durable, comfortable, and packs down incredibly small.
- Chargers- Make sure you have the proper chargers and cables for all of your electronic devices.
- Padlock- You’ll need this to lock up your luggage or valuables in hostel lockers. I recommend you go with a combination lock so you don’t have to worry about losing a key.
- A pen- Keep this handy when crossing borders. You’ll need it to fill out entry and exit forms.
- Money belt- This is one of my favorite pieces of travel gear. Hide your cash, passport, and credit cards in a hidden pocket around your waist to reduce the risk of falling victim to a mugger or pickpocket. I use the Eagle Creek Silk Undercover money belt. Check out my full review here.
Travel Documents to Pack
While traveling, you want to carry 2 sets of documents. One set in physical form and a backup set in digital form. Paper documents you should carry include:
- Original Passport- This one is obvious.
- Visas- Check the entry requirements before you leave on your trip. Some visas must be obtained in advance. Some must be obtained in the embassy in your home country.
- Copy of eVisas- Most countries that use eVisas require that you bring a physical copy of the document to present to the immigration officials when entering.
- Passport photos- Many countries require 1 or 2 passport sized photos to go along with the visa application. Check entry requirements before you leave on your trip. Make sure you have the appropriate sizes. The photos should be in color. Money saving tip: Take your own passport photos for free.
- Yellow fever vaccine certificate- If required for your destination.
- Drivers license- In case you want to rent a car or scooter.
- Credit and Debit Cards- I recommend you at least pack 2 debit cards so you have a back in case one is lost or stolen. A credit card is also nice to have. For recommendations, check out my guide: The Best Debit and Credit Card for International Travel.
- A copy of your traveler’s insurance policy- So you can show proof of insurance in case you are injured or need to make a claim. For travelers insurance, I use World Nomads. For more info, check out my travel insurance page.
- Bank statement- Some countries require proof of funds. They want to see that you have enough cash in your bank account to support yourself for the duration of your stay. Check the entry requirements of the countries you plan to visit before you travel to see if this is required. Print out your last bank statement and bring it with you.
- 2 copies of your passport- Color copies are best. Carry these in separate places in your luggage. You want a copy to show to your embassy in case your passport gets lost or stolen.
- 1 copy of your yellow fever vaccine certificate- In case the original is lost or stolen.
Digital Copies you Should Carry
I recommend you scan all of your important documents and store them on your phone, in the cloud, and email them to yourself. That way, if everything is lost or stolen, you can still print out your documents and have a copy as long as you have access to the computer. This can come in handy in the event of a catastrophic accident.
- Passport- To show your embassy if you lose the original and your copies.
- Any visas that you obtained before travel- To prove that you’re in the country legally if your passport gets stolen.
- Passport photos– So you can just print more if you run out instead of getting a new photo taken.
- Yellow fever vaccine certificate- To prove that you’ve been vaccinated if you lose the original and copies.
- Drivers license- If everything is lost, it may come in handy to have a second form of ID.
- You’re travelers insurance policy- To prove that you’re insured if you’re involved in an accident.
- Your glasses or contact lens prescription- In case yours are lost or broken and you need to buy a new pair.
- Credit and Debit cards- You may want to block the number. All you need is the bank or credit card company’s phone numbers so you can call them to cancel the cards if they are lost or stolen.
Items to Leave at Home
While packing for your trip, you may feel tempted to throw in some additional items. When considering adding an item to my pack, I ask myself if I will use the item at least once per week. If the answer is no, I leave it at home. Some items that you probably shouldn’t pack include:
- Anything you know you won’t use- For example, if you’re not a hat guy, don’t pack a hat. If you don’t like camping, don’t pack camping gear.
- Paper notebook- If you like to journal about your trip, you can save space and weight by just writing on your phone or computer.
- Jewelry- Wearing jewelry just makes you a target for theft. Even if it’s not valuable, muggers don’t know that.
- Guide books- I’m personally not a fan but I do recognize that many travelers find value in them. If you want to bring a guidebook, consider purchasing the eBook version and read it on your phone, laptop, eReader, or tablet. The paper versions are just too heavy and bulky.
- Anything with sentimental value- While packing, pretend that you will lose everything that you put in your backpack. It’s a real possibility. Theft is a risk while traveling. Don’t pack anything that you can’t easily replace. Leave irreplaceable photos and family heirlooms at home.
- Large sums of cash- It’s a good idea to pack a few hundred dollars in cash for emergencies and visas. Anything beyond that is just too risky. It’s better to just use your credit or debit card when you need to make a purchase or withdraw cash.
- Additional clothing- You may be tempted to pack an extra t-shirt or pair of shorts. You really don’t need more than 3 tops and 3 bottoms at the absolute most. Remember, you can always buy clothes at your destination. They make for great, useful souvenirs.
- Water bottle- It just takes up valuable space. You can’t drink the tap water in most places anyway. It’s easier to just refill plastic disposable water bottles if you have the opportunity.
- Playing cards or games- Someone always has a deck of cards or something to play.
- Weapons- Carrying a weapon is illegal in most countries. If you attempt to fight off a mugger, you’ll either get yourself killed if you lose or spend the rest of your life in prison if you win. It’s a lose-lose situation. Leave any weapons at home.
- Musical instruments- They’re large and heavy. Definitely not ultralight. They also annoy everyone within earshot unless you’re some kind of musical prodigy.
- Keys- Leave your house and car keys with a friend or family if possible. You don’t want to risk losing them.
- Gifts for locals- For whatever reason, some travelers feel the need to give away small trinkets or candy to local people as a gift. This usually ends up doing more harm than good.
- Voltage converter- These are heavy and bulky. Only pack electronics that are compatible with 110V-120V outlets.
Final Thoughts: The Ultralight Travel Packing List for Men
As you can see, there are a lot of little bits and pieces to pack. Fitting them all into an ultralight carry-on sized backpack is kind of like piecing together a puzzle. To make everything fit, keep packing and re-packing to find the most efficient use of space.
In order to travel ultralight, you’ll need to pack items that are multi-use, lightweight, high-tech, and durable. Consider both the volume and weight of each item. Remember that you are limited to around 22 pounds (10 kilos) and 45 linear inches (115 cm) to stay within carry-on range.
Consider packing one week before the start of your trip and live out of your backpack. Anything that you didn’t touch during that week, leave at home. You can live without it. The only exception is your camping gear. Even though I don’t use mine often, it saves me so much money, it’s worth the extra weight.
What are your thoughts on ultralight travel? Share your packing tips in the comments below!
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