How To Travel the World Indefinitely With an Ultralight, 18-Liter Backpack

Hola Ustedes! Como estan?

I’ve been in Colombia for the past five weeks, primarily practicando mi español (still bad, but getting better). I’ve been living, working, and traveling with only an 18-liter CamelBak Cloud Walker pack. My father gave it to me four years ago, for my 20th birthday. It’s been on countless trails, climbs, and adventures with me. Now, it’s taken me all across Colombia.

Everyone I meet has been amazed at the size of this bag.

Since I get asked about my pack so often, I’ve written a detailed breakdown of exactly what’s inside it, as well as my reasoning. I’ve also included a downloadable packing list for your own use.

The Backpack

IMG_5744

Pictured: me, with everything I own. Guatape, Colombia

As I said, my bag is an 18-Liter CamelBak Cloud Walker. It’s pretty old, so it’s been through the wringer already, on hikes and climbs. Before I left, I did two things to make my pack more suitable for traveling:

  1. I removed the hydration bladder so I could use the back pocket as a laptop sleeve. The pack has mesh pockets for water bottles, and as anyone who has used a hydration pack inevitably knows, they tend to leak at the worst of times. For my purposes, a computer sleeve was much better.
  2. I sprayed the entire outside of the pack, thoroughly, with water-repellent DWR. (This is the exact product I used — I’m very happy with the results). Since my pack is so small, it doesn’t have a built-in rain cover. In Colombia (where it’s currently the rainy season), that was a big problem. So I skipped buying a dedicated cover, and simply made the whole pack waterproof. Obviously I need to avoid getting caught in torrential downpours, but this setup has worked pretty well for me so far.

The Clothes

IMG_5820.JPG

My pack, my shoes, and all my clothes (minus one short-sleeve shirt, the athletic shorts, and one pair of socks — I’m wearing those).

This is where your real space savings will happen, as a backpacker. Packing fewer clothes is the real secret to packing light for extended travel. I have been on four international trips in the last two years, and each time, I take fewer clothes.

So, what clothes did I pack for a two-month trip to Colombia?

Colombia’s pretty easy, because I was able to focus entirely on one, warm climate. Although I envisioned lounging by the beach in shorts and sandals, that wasn’t what I went for. My traveling companion Dylan, who had been to Colombia two years prior, informed me that Colombians, in general, dress quite nicely. “Only tourists wear shorts,” he said.

So with that in mind, I put together a slightly dressier package:

1 pair raw denim jeans

The bulkiest item in my bag, raw denim jeans are perfect for a number of reasons. One, they look good. Like, real good. Two: You actually aren’t supposed to wash raw denim — enthusiasts say you should wash them anywhere from once a month to once a YEAR. For a backpacker who wants to avoid doing laundry, these are the perfect pants. I bought mine on sale in Bozeman, Montana, for $80 a pair, which is still pricey, but in my view, has more than paid for itself.

1 pair light brown pant

I brought these pants on my trip to Thailand a year and a half ago, and I found them perfect when I wanted a dressier look in a hot, humid climate. Slightly less dressy than jeans, a good light pair of slacks packs down small and pairs with almost anything. The manufacturer, toddland, calls them the “greatest pants in the universe,” and after using these for three years in some thirteen-plus countries, I have to agree. They’re great.

1 pair athletic shorts

Since I was traveling with my friend Dylan, a personal trainer, I knew working out was going to be a big part of my trip. Athletic shorts were a necessity. Since I’m a man, these also double as my swimsuit.

1 pair Clark Desert Boots

A key decision I had to make was what shoes I wanted to bring. Shoes are big, smelly, and heavy. So I only brought the one pair. The Clark Desert Boots are the perfect shoe for my needs as a traveler here in Colombia. They are stylish AND comfortable for walking long distances in (which is key when traveling). I also sprayed these with the DWR before leaving home — making them waterproof (or close to it).

IMG_5845.JPG

Here’s a photo of my boots after I got caught in 2 hours of rain on the streets of Santa Marta. As you can see, they look pretty wet. But my feet stayed dry, even after I walked through flooded streets, thanks to the waterproofing I applied.

The Clarks, for me, split the difference between an everyday tennis shoe, and a more specialized hiking boot, while still managing to look more fashionable than either. A win-win, especially in style-conscious Medellin, where I spent a month. Although they weren’t perfect for the job, I was also able to work out in them at many of Medellin’s free outdoor gyms.

Now, I’m up north, at the beach. Here, the Clarks are a little less than ideal. But, they work. I even spent three days bushwacking through the jungle in Tayrona National Park, crossing streams and generally mistreating these babies — and they came out the other side looking fine. Maybe in need of a little leather protectorant.

An often-overlooked fact of travel, especially as you sit behind your computer at home, is that you can buy anything you need in the country. So if I’d decided I wanted flip-flops at the beach, I would have bought some — for a lot cheaper than at home, probably.

Many people like to have flip-flops for the hostel shower — I skipped this in favor of packing ultralight. I wash my feet thoroughly.

3x pair underwear

Besides the shoes, the other two obvious choke points for ultralight packing are underwear and socks. I chose three pairs of underwear and five pairs of socks. Two pairs of underwear are fancy Ex-Officio travel underwear, which I think is great. For an ultra-minimalist packing list like this one, the synthetic underwear comes highly recommended. It’s smell-resistant, packs down small, and needs to be washed less often. When you DO need to wash it, it’s basically designed to be washed in a hostel sink.

5x pair socks

Again, a trouble spot. I went with five pairs, because in my experience, socks get dirty, gross and smelly faster than underwear, and are less easy to reuse. Two pairs are hi-tech SmartWool socks — which are smell-resistant, sweat-wicking, and can be worn a few times more before needing to be washed. If you’re asking why aren’t ALL my socks SmartWool socks — to be honest, it’s because I can’t afford ‘em. At $10-$20 a pair, these babies are like rocketships for your feet. The only reason I own ANY of these at all is because my father gives them to me as Christmas presents.

2x short-sleeve button down

Perfect for pairing with long pants on a hot day. Great look. One of these shirts is a 100 percent linen one that I bought in Thailand — performs amazing in hot weather or when it’s drenched in sweat. The other one is a beachy teal shirt. Good color on me and a perfect shirt to pack for colorful Colombia.

1x long-sleeve button down (dress shirt)

I always like to dress nice when I fly, so this is primarily a outfit for flying. Having a dressier option also came in handy for going out clubbing in Medellin, and going on Tinder dates. (No matter how fancy your shirt though, it won’t save you from your bad Spanish)

3x V-neck T-shirt

I like v-necks. Probably one of these should have been a crew-neck.

1x Light Sweater

The item that brings it all together. In Colombia, where the temperature rarely falls below 15 degrees (60 F), you don’t need winter gear. But sometimes, like after a rain, it can get a little chilly. That’s where this ultra-light Egyptian cotton sweater from Alternative Apparel comes in handy. Layer it over a button-down for a preppy/dressy look, or I can also wear just the sweater, with nothing underneath.

They don’t seem to sell the exact sweater any more, but it’s something like these.

1x Arctery’x Alpha FL Rain Jacket

IMG_5848 2

Comes in this lovely, hi-vis shade of orange, too.

 

The Arcteryx Alpha FL is a very technical jacket, actually designed for alpine climbing. It’s amazing. I love it. It works perfectly, fits well, and packs down pretty small. I happened to have one, so I brought it. You don’t need such a fancy jacket yourself — but you DO need a rain jacket for Colombia. (And most places that aren’t Colorado, it turns out). Especially need one if you’re planning on staying a month in Medellin, during the rainiest period of the year (like I did). In case of a serious downpour, I use this to cover my pack.

1x Pair Light Gloves

I did not end up needing these at all. If I had the opportunity, I’d replace these with another pair of underwear. Or simply leave space for souvenirs.

Digital Nomad Gear — What Gadgets to Pack for Working From the Road

IMG_5813.JPG

Lonely Planet Book borrowed from the hostel — everything else travels with me.

I have been running this blog and also doing some paid freelance work from the road. This means I needed to bring some electronics gear I wouldn’t have needed otherwise.

On my last trip to Eastern Europe, I packed all my digital nomad gear, including my my Roost Laptop Stand, a wireless keyboard, and a wireless mouse. I found I didn’t end up using them much last time, so I left these behind and went fully minimalist.

The only electronics gear I brought:

Macbook Air

After being used for three and a half years and traveling to 20+ countries, this baby is beginning to slow down somewhat. Still, the packability combined with the performance means I won’t be buying anything else until this one bites the dust.

If I didn’t need it to work, I would probably travel without a computer entirely.

iPhone

Camera and navigation device. Everyone who has been on the South America backpacker circuit for a long time seems to have either broken their phone or had it stolen, so… eyes open. A cheap Android would do the job nearly as well as the iPhone. When this one dies or I sell it, I think I will replace it with an Android device. An iPhone, although quality, stands out a bit too much in certain areas.

16000 mah RavPower Battery Bank

Power banks are ubiquitous these days — I’m sure you know why you need one. They’re great for extra peace-of-mind on that long day trip, or on that oh-so-cheap long-haul bus that doesn’t have charge points. 16,000 mah is a bit overkill (that’s about 5 full iPhone charges), but I like the convenience.

Amazon Kindle

Using a Kindle to travel is WAY more efficient than bringing paperbacks. Although, I will admit, I find myself picking up books from the hostel book exchange more often than I find myself turning to my Kindle. I once brought a 1,000 page Murakami book HOME from Serbia, while I was traveling with a Kindle, so… YMMV.

Chargers

2x Lightning, 1x USB micro-A, 1 x Macbook Charger, 1x Charging Block

Microfiber Cloth

For cleaning screens.

Journals

I also carry two journals: one contains my trekking journal from Nepal, which I’ve been using to finish writing my book about my time in that country. The second journal, the bigger one, is a “Pieces of Life” journal, a scrapbook of sorts for the trip. I’ll elaborate further on this concept in a later post.

Miscellanea

Rubber Bands

Super clutch item while traveling. Use em to compress your clothes, bundle up your cables nice and neat, or even seal off the top of a 5-liter bag of water (Colombia’s weird with that last one). Buy em at home because small things like this always prove impossibly frustrating to find while on the road.

A few spare Quart-size Ziploc Bags

Your toiletries ziploc is going to get destroyed. Probably sooner rather than later. And you’ll be glad to have the spares when that happens.

Passport Wallet

FullSizeRender 16.jpg

I use this Visconti Leather Passport Wallet ($25). Great purchase. Holds my passport, all of my cards, and has two compartments for cash. Bonus: it looks really good. I get a lot of compliments on this.

First-Aid Kit

I rarely travel without one of these. Although you CAN acquire most medicines in most places, it’s always just easier to have some of your favorites with you. For instance, when I flew to Amsterdam with the flu, I was unable to purchase night-time cold medicine there. (The Dutch say it’s unavailable because it doesn’t work — sorry here Dutch people, but you’re incredibly wrong). My stay in Amsterdam would have been a lot more pleasant if I had more NyQuil.

This kit contains stuff like bandages, antiseptics, painkillers, cold medicine, antacids, etc. Nothing too intense — I fly with it all the time and although no one’s ever inspected it, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble if they DID decide to.

Toiletries

Toothbrush, floss, soap, contact lens case, etc.

Water Bottle

I use a contigo auto-locking water bottle for travel. I find the act of bringing a bottle helps me cut down on my waste and plastic consumption. It also helps that in many of Colombia’s major cities, the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.

Travel Towel

I use a small camp towel I bought at REI. I use this when a hostel tries to charge for towels, or when I need to dry my hands. It packs into a tiny pouch about the size of an egg, and I hang it off the outside of my pack with the included tiny carabiner. In a pinch, it works well enough to dry your entire body after a shower or a swim.

Locks

Two of these, one big beefy combo lock, and a smaller keylock. Lockers at hostels vary in size, so it’s helpful to have locks that can accommodate a range of sizes.

Spanish Flash Cards

My primary reason for coming to Colombia was to practice my long-neglected Spanish, so I’ve made sure to spend time learning and practicing new words, in addition to speaking the language as much as possible.

Why did I include these on this list? To show you that even with such a small pack, there’s space for the personal items that YOU want to bring.

So, the real question is:

WHY Travel With Such a Small Backpack?

IMG_5849.JPG

I’ll be honest. Since I was traveling to and from Colombia using a combination of VivaColombia and Frontier, (both budget airlines with strict luggage rules): I didn’t want to pay luggage fees.

With all of that inside, minus the outfit I’m wearing on the day of travel, that pack weighs less than 7 kilograms. It’s small enough to fit under the seat on any airline, no matter how budget. And because it looks like a daypack — it is a daypack — I am never asked any questions about it.

This pack would fly free on budget airlines on four continents, including RyanAir, AirAsia, VivaColombia, and Frontier. I’m not sure if it would fly free on Spirit or not — I’ll let you know if I try.

By my estimation, packing light saved me at least $70 in luggage fees on the journey to and from home. In addition, it gave me additional flexibility to use VivaColombia to fly around Colombia for cheap — if I wanted to.

Plus, as any backpacker will tell you, traveling with a big pack is kind of a pain. Small and light saves you a lot of hassle, a lot of money, and a lot of lower-back pain. So let’s just say you can’t put a price on comfort.

Let’s Talk About Laundry

FullSizeRender 16 copy.jpg

I need to do laundry about once a week, or once every two weeks if I want to really stretch it. Since in most backpacker hostels and llavaderias (street laundries), prices are based on weight, I don’t end up spending any more money on this than any other traveler. I just need to get it done a touch more often.

What Are the Downsides to Traveling So Light?

  • Especially in Colombia, where you’re sweating a lot, things can get a bit smelly
  • Obviously, laundry is a bit more of a concern when you have less clothes.
  • You have no daypack because your daypack is your main pack
  • If your small backpack happens to get stolen or break, you’re really fucked. But I’d argue you face the same issue, regardless of your pack size
  • You will look the same in all your pictures

In my opinion, these are all small issues — easily outweighed by the savings in weight, cost, and hassle.

Would I Do It Again?

Absolutely!

Traveling this light has been absolutely liberating. I understand it may not be for everybody — and certainly not to this extreme — but it is for me. One of the lessons everyone learns while traveling is that stuff, ultimately, isn’t that necessary. I view my pack as an extension of this lesson.

I know what I need to live the life I want — and all of that stuff happens to fit in 18 liters.

 

Downloadable Ultralight Packing List!

Want to try and pack super-light for your next trip? Click here to sign up for my e-mail newsletter, and I’ll instantly e-mail you a printable checklist of my packing system! Replicate it exactly, or just use it as a guideline.

 Pin It!

Carry On Packing List Frontier Airlines Ultralight Packing For Long Term Travel tips for packing incredibly light.png

 

This post contains affiliate links. Affiliate links help support this blog. My packing choices are not affected by affiliate links — my comfort is worth a hell of a lot more than the few dollars I earn from affiliate marketing. 

Advertisements

31 thoughts on “How To Travel the World Indefinitely With an Ultralight, 18-Liter Backpack

  1. Hahahahaha! This made me laugh a lot! RESPECT man! I actually tried to travel with a lighter one … I bought a smaller backpack I could use for hand luggage only. Oh man! How proud was I… well I bought a small trolley too that fits into hand luggage. Now I ended up using both lol

  2. Solid advice here! I’m currently hauling a 4-wheel handcart across America, but I’ll definitely use this list as a reference for future travel once I’ve made it to New York City. Happy trails!

  3. I always take a medical kit to Spain or wherever I go. Nurofeen meltlets, sea sickness tablets helps a dizzy spell, diarrhoea tablets and dioralyte to add body salt back incase of acute diarrhoea, Lemsips air conditioning can make a throat dry or sore, mosquitos protection and plasters as flip flops can make toes sore walking in the heat.

    • All good things to include in your medical kit!! I always keep some duct tape in mine-folds over onto itself super easy, and is useful for all sorts of repairs and blister prevention 👍🏽👍🏽

  4. It is a wonder how you can make everything that fits the bag work! Especially with a lot of sweating in the places you go. That’s amazing. I think doing your own laundry isn’t a bad thing either.

  5. ¡Excelente! I’ve come to many of the same conclusions over the years, especially regarding clothing (zip-off legs if you must have shorts), & one pair of shoes. However, I’ll add in a Steripen for water. Of course, when and where you’re traveling makes a difference.
    d(^_^)

  6. Going from 66L to under 20L is going to be a real challenge, but I’m up for it and will try and pack lighter for my next trip. Thanks for the tips!

  7. As someone who really, really struggles to travel light, this post is food for thought for me. I guess I will keep working on paring down. An interesting read, thank you.

  8. Intriguing post. I would definitely go for the flip flops for the shared shower! And I hope to see a shout out to your favorite sister who introduced you to pieces of life (and provided the journal!) when that post rolls around:)

  9. Nice read Dan, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was curious to see what all you fit in there, but definitely seems pretty doable. My day pack is 15 I think, wonder, wonder if that’s possible. Miss ya and see you soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s