One of my missions is to show people that traveling is easier the less you carry. It’s easier to walk around in the heat looking for a place to stay, easier to take local transport like motorbikes, and easier to carry-on everything on airplanes.

Every time I see somebody wearing a gigantic 85 liter pack, I die a little inside. Just what do they have in that pack? Sleeping bags? Boots? Seven shirts? They don’t need that stuff!

My main pack, a 32 liter North Face Surge II, weights only 10 kg/22 lbs. My secondary pack is only 20 liters, and that holds photography stuff that most people don’t need.

I would be just fine with only the 32 liter pack. I even mailed a bunch of stuff that I never used home.

Don’t Worry About What Ifs

The key to a small pack is to not take items for situations that MIGHT happen. Only take items to deal with situations that WILL happen.

For instance, people take sleeping bags because they’re worried they might not be able to find a place to sleep. That’s never a problem in South East Asia.

People take big boots because they might go hiking. Flip flops work better 99% of the time in South East Asia. Take smaller shoes for hiking or running shoes instead.

People carry big PacSafe bags because they worry their bag might get slashed. That’s probably not going to happen. Usually in South East Asia private rooms are cheap. In dorms, there are usually lockers. In a pinch, lock your valuables in your backpack. It’s not going to get slashed.

The other secret is to take items that can do double duty. Worried you might want to go to a nightclub? Bring hiking shoes that look like normal shoes.

I find it helpful to pack everything into little bags. Then I can easily fit the little bags into my big bags, Tetris style.

All my stuff, packed into little bags.
All my stuff, packed into little bags.

So here’s what I have.

Big bag of clothes

  • REI synthetic shirts (2) – Unlike cotton, these are anti-microbial, so they resist odors. You can wear them for a few days, so you only need two of them. Unfortunately, one got a hole, and they are impossible to replace in Asia, so now my second shirt is cotton.
  • Collared shirt – for dressing up and wearing at night. It’s always nice to be able to put on a clean shirt at night.
  • Shorts – Picked up a cheap pair in Bali
  • Swim trunks
  • Sleep pants – I’m allergic to bedbugs, so I had to pick these up in the Philippines after being bitten twice.
  • Thin base-layer top – this long-sleeved shirt keeps bed bugs off, and could double as long underwear in a pinch.
  • Long-Sleeved Shirt – I picked up a $10 athletic shirt at Wal Mart. It’s easier and more effective to just cover yourself when you’re outside, rather than dealing with sunscreen. Ideally this would be a polyester blend like my short-sleeve shirts, but I can’t find those in South East Asia.

Other Clothes

  • Columbia travel pants – I hate these pants. They don’t fit right and look dorky. But they are not too hot to wear in Asia. It’s often better to wear long pants, because that’s what the locals wear. They are synthetic, not cotton, so are easy to clean. I may replace these with something that looks normal in Bangkok, but things like this are very expensive here.
  • Jeans – The controversial item. If you’re on a short trip of less than a month, don’t bother. Even then, I’m still not sure. I’ve only gone to nightclubs in beach areas, where shorts are OK.
  • Chaco Hiking Sandals – flip flops would be more practical in South East Asia, where you often have to take your shoes off before entering a building. And these are terrible for hiking. Every time they touch wet or smooth rock, I go flying onto my butt.
  • Hiking Shoes – I got some that look like normal shoes, so I could wear them on a night out in a pinch.
  • Puffy Jacket – Extremely useful. I wear it often on freezing busses and airplanes, and when I’m actually in a cold place. Unlike a bulky fleece, it easily stuffs into my small pack (don’t carefully fold it, just stuff it).
  • Rain Jacket – I’m not sure. I picked up a poncho while I was motorbiking, so I think I can get rid of this.

Small Bag of Clothes

  • Underwear (5) – To keep your pack light, you do laundry. But I’m thinking of getting two more pair for the convenience. In Asia quality underwear is expensive, so it’s better to bring from home.
  • Hiking Socks (2) – I brought four pairs, but I wore shoes to hike twice. I mailed two back. The ones I have are black, so could do double-duty as fancy socks.
  • Riding Gloves – Essential when spending all day on a motorbike. I picked up a cheap pair in Bali.

Bag of Electronics

I keep these in a ziploc bag. I may upgrade to a waterproof bag. They are expensive in South East Asia, so bring enough big Aloksak bags from home. You can’t find those here.

  • Portable Hard Drive – For backing up photos. Most people don’t need.
  • Spare phone battery – Essential when using maps often, since GPS eats the battery.
  • Headlamp – Essential when traveling in the Philippines, where it’s dark at night and the power goes off a lot.
  • Beard Trimmer – Easier than shaving when on the road.

Big Bag Of Stuff

A bunch of random things like sunscreen, bug repellant, old passport, tissues, ear plugs, spork, carabiner, chargers

Small Bag of Medicine

Stuff like bandages, tiger balm, antiseptic, Tylenol.

Small Bag Of Cables

USB is an industry-standard, but you need a different one for every device. So I have a whole bag full. It also contains chargers and camera accessories.

Bag Of Toiletries

Those fancy hanging bags are huge. I just have a regular bag.

Other Stuff

  • Camelbak All Clear Water Bottle – Plastic is a scourge, especially in Asia. I try to do my part by filling this up with tap water, then using the UV lamp to purify the water. It also saves money.
  • Travel Towel – A little quick-dry towel is essential when you get off the beaten track.
  • Kindle – I only used this a couple times. All my free time is spent working on this blog.
  • Sarong – A cheap one I picked up in Bali to get into temples. Probably not necessary any more.

Photography Gear

Don’t bring this stuff unless you have a good reason to.

  • 13” MacBook Pro – This trip put this expensive piece of gear through a lot. It got infested with ants. The screen is messed up. I now keep it in a waterproof bag I picked up in Bali. Instead of this, just use your phone for email. Bringing a computer also means bringing a bag of cables.
  • SLR Camera – Don’t bring unless you know how to use it. For most people, a small point and shoot, or even their phone, work fine.
  • Wide-Angle Lens – I question if I need this. But sometimes it’s nice to have.
  • Tripod – Big, but essential for me. It’s a total waste for most people.

Stuff I got Rid Of

  • PackSafe Travel Safe – We all worry about our bags getting slashed. This big bag has an un-slashable wire skeleton, and a sturdy wire you can fasten to furniture. It’s big and heavy, and I never used it. It’s totally unnecessary in South East Asia, where you usually get your own room. That room usually doesn’t even have any sturdy furniture to fasten it to anyways.
  • Bluetooth Speaker – I can’t believe I brought this. My MacBook has its own speakers, so this is totally unnecessary.
  • Magic Mouse, Charger, Batteries – I do just fine using the trackpad for everything.

So there you have it, a snapshot of what I have now. Even this could be further optimized. And if you don’t do photography, all you need is one 32 liter bag.

Don’t over-think and worry about what-ifs. Just bring essential items you know you’ll need. For unexpected problems, there’s always local items available.

The bags are small, but still feel heavy.
The bags are small, but still feel heavy.
I'm Terry, former cubicle-dweller, and now traveler, photographer, writer, and entrepreneur. I quit my job in 2014 to travel to US national parks, then to South East Asia. I write about independent, flexible, long-term, budget travel. Sign up to my newsletter to get the latest news on what I'm up to. I hope you join me on my trek around the world.

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