Travel Tips from Backpackers: Lighter is Better

5 weight-saving lessons every traveler can learn

Backpackers are known for counting ounces, and for good reason. Carrying everything you need can be an exhausting proposition, so much so that some ultralight backpackers are known to snip toothbrushes in half and trim material from their tents. The same goes for lugging your essentials around on vacation or a business trip. Here are some backpacker-approved tips for thinking light:

1. Bring lighter stuff.
Wear a synthetic down jacket or a fleece instead of your peacoat; bring an e-reader or magazine instead of a book; carry travel-sized toiletries—you don’t have to fill up those TSA-approved containers all the way, you know. Instead of bringing a full-sized backpack for your day-to-day activities, pack an ultralight daypack, such as the 2.4-ounce Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Daypack, which packs down to the size of an orange.

2. Wear synthetics and wool
There’s a reason backpackers call cotton a death cloth: it’s heavy, doesn’t breathe well and holds moisture. And did we mention it’s heavy? Being selective about your travel wardrobe is a great way to lighten your luggage and stay comfortable in changing weather conditions. Polyester or wool-poly blends are light, breathable and moisture wicking. Merino wool, in particular, is a standby material for backpackers because its fibers are very fine and it insulates far better than cotton for its weight. It also stays warm when wet.

If you’re traveling to colder climes, a packable jacket with synthetic Primaloft fill can save on both space and weight without sacrificing warmth. The North Face’s new Thermoball line of jackets are a neat example: each jacket packs inside its own pocket, forming a small rectangular package that can double as a small (but firm) travel pillow.

3. Bring less stuff.
Backpacking really drills this lesson in: you don’t need as much stuff as you think you do. Ask yourself how many changes of clothes you really need. Unless your goal while traveling is to impress, you can probably get away with wearing the same outer layer almost every day. And for inner layers, consider your laundry options on the road, or, better yet, pack a travel laundry kit. This would include small packets of travel detergent—dry detergent is lighter—a sink stopper (optional) and a length of rope for hanging your clothes. Keep in mind, if you shower daily and wear breathable clothing, you might not even have to wash more than your underwear.

4. You don’t have to bring everything you’ll need.
Think of water. A liter weighs over 2 pounds, and you need 3 or 4 liters of the stuff a day to survive in good health. That’s upwards of 8 pounds per day on the trail, not including water for cooking! Backpackers know this, and that’s why they carry either a filter or purification tablets. When you’re traveling, think of the drugstore as your watering hole: why load up on travel-sized this and that before you go when you can plan a quick pitstop after you arrive? That way you won’t have to worry about packing things like soap, shampoo or toothpaste. 

5. Shop at outdoor retailers.
This one is really a complement to the tips above. Outdoor outfitters like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports are where backpackers shop for light, clever space-saving gear and apparel. Needless to say, you don’t need to be a trail junkie to benefit from the latest moisture-wicking fabric or synthetic down. More to the point, these stores often carry travel-specific gear that borrows from backpacking technology, like compression sack-inspired luggage organizers and compact toiletry bags, and you can always browse the backpacking section for more ideas. Also see our list of websites for buying outdoor gear on the cheap.


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