En largo camino paja pesa.

On a long journey, even a straw weighs heavy.

Spanish proverb

What To Pack

Weight Watching

When attempting to attain travel packing nirvana, it's easy to lose sight of the goal. For two thousand years, experienced travel writers have admonished us to travel light, not travel small, or even necessarily travel with less stuff (my own packing list includes well over a hundred items). It's not that reducing bulk and complexity are unimportant, but rather that we generally do better with a task when we focus on a single goal. And weight reduction is both simple and easily measured, thus a goal highly likely to lead to more pleasurable — therefore effective — travel.

So, although the top priority remains an ongoing refinement of the type of packing list that I recommend (because you don't have to worry about the weight of items not brought along), the second stage in the evolution of a light traveller is a fairly ruthless quest to eliminate weight.

To Save Pounds, Shave Ounces

50 lb (22kg) digital scaleWeight accumulates, silently and stubbornly. The successful one-bag traveller will cultivate an almost obsessive concern with the weight of every single packing-list item. If you aspire to the sort of peak packing efficiency that most only dream of, consider making regular use of an effective scale. A decent digital postal-type scale, as pictured at right, is an excellent and inexpensive choice (frankly, if you don't use something like this, you're not yet really serious about travelling light). Many light travellers keep a record of the weight of each item on their packing lists.

You needn't drill holes in the handle of your toothbrush, or cut the tags from your teabags, though you certainly wouldn't be the first to do so. But removing unnecessary logo patches and other labels from luggage and clothing, shortening straps that are much too long for you to ever use, and eliminating (or downsizing) packaging are all simple and sensible ways to subtract extraneous ounces.

Find lighter versions of travel items that you consider necessary (better yet, find ways to make them unnecessary). When comparing two items, always consider their weights: for example, a AA lithium battery weighs about 15g/0.53oz, vs. a 23g/0.81oz alkaline, or a 31g/1.10z NiMH rechargeable (lithium cells offer many additional advantages as well). So you could carry twice as many lithium batteries as rechargeables and still save weight. And also eliminate the need for a charger.

It's an old adage: pay attention to ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves.

Items most likely to challenge your weight goals include the bag itself, liquid/gel products, and electronic gadgetry (laptops, iThings, and such), so choose particularly wisely in those areas. Don't be overly attracted to luggage and clothes with all sorts of extra pockets and other doodads, or get carried away with organizer pouches and storage cubes: every single one of those tempting "features" and accessories means more weight (and bulk) for you to haul around, so make sure that the "benefits" truly justify your choices. You'll know that you have finally joined the One-Bag Brigade when you realize that the first question you ask when learning about a new product is, "How much does it weigh?"

A Weight Limit?

an appropriate goalWhile in general you should strive to keep the weight of your packed bag as low as possible, it's nice to have a specific target. Ultimately, a loaded weight not exceeding 10kg (22 lbs) is ideal. On flights with very restrictive carry-on rules, weight will prove more problematic than bag dimensions if you wish to avoid checking luggage, and this is a commonly used limit. Further, much more than this will weigh heavily on your shoulders if you carry it for any distance. (Curiously, there is even some historical perspective for this particular weight!)

Finally, give some thought to your physical well-being. In 2008 alone, The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that more than 53,000 people were treated by medical professionals for luggage-related injuries. Yet another downside of travelling heavy!

Pushing the Limits

When trying to overcome what can sometimes be considered an unreasonable carry-on baggage weight limit (notice that they don't ban overweight people from the cabin), bear in mind that items carried on your person are not weighed. So transferring an item or two — especially anything particularly heavy (even a weighty shoulder strap, for example) — from your bag to your person can sometimes mean the difference between checked baggage and freedom.

It's certainly possible to become overly enthused with this solution, but it can occasionally be very useful, and you normally only have to endure it until you get past the weighing station (although some budget airlines have begun weighing bags at the gate, so be advised).

Most importantly (and unlike the inspired fellow in the above video), the skilled traveller does this in order to reapportion weight, not carry more stuff!

Specialized "stealth" clothing, in addition to its other benefits, can definitely make this technique more convenient, though keep in mind that "bells and whistles" are rarely devoid of consequences, so evaluate such solutions carefully.

Yet another travel hack of this ilk takes advantage of the fact that many (not all) airlines consider a pillow to be a comfort item, and do not count it as part of your carry-on allowance. Stuffing a zippered pillowcase with clothing then offers an additional sneaky way of smuggling extra stuff aboard. Although this sort of subterfuge is pretty much the antithesis of travelling light, some might find this of value.

SeV Stealth Clothing

The Weigh-In

Light is RightYou can weigh your bag on an ordinary household/bathroom scale; there's no need for a special luggage version. Just stand on the scale while holding your bag (keep it as close to the centre of the scale as possible for the most accurate results), and make a note of the weight. Then weigh yourself without the bag, and subtract that from the first number. Simple!

Whenever being subjected to a weighing of your bag(s) at an airport, it is useful to bear in mind that, on any given day, about 10% of airport scales give incorrect readings (as has been demonstrated by random testing). If you've weighed the bag(s) at home first — always a good idea — and are being given a different number by the airline, or even if you haven't, but are discovering that your bag is only just slightly over the limit, request that it be weighed on another scale.

And don't forget to remove the shoulder strap.

For the Travel Minimalist: Really Light Packing

Anders Ansar, packed for travelThose willing to forego certain niceties (notably extra clothing), and adopt a devil-may-care adventurous spirit,Anders Ansar's Luggage can travel with considerably fewer items than I suggest on this site. Some people manage casual journeys quite well with only a daypack; Ray Jardine addresses many of the issues associated with this form of travel, his solutions often involving some specialized do-it-yourself gear (although this is somewhat less true today than it was when Ray and his writings first pioneered the modern art of ultralight backpacking).

Some people travel with no bags at all. An early proponent of this (and one who addresses the challenge from an engineering perspective that is not unlike my own … a thought some might find chilling!) is Anders Ansar (pictured at left), who travels — in tropical areas anyway — with only the (customized) clothes on his back, albeit in a fashion that not everyone would find appealing. His nano-sized "suitcase" can be seen at right.

Squarely in the footsteps of Mr. Ansar, Scott Jordan's company once launched a "No Baggage Challenge" marketing program, promoting the use of their brand of multi-pocketed clothing in place of luggage. It's a matter of personal opinion whether this approach is preferable to dressing more conventionally and carrying a light bag of some sort (though the clothes themselves are quite attractive, and can certainly be used in less extreme ways, as mentioned above). That said, it unquestionably offers further proof that travelling successfully without hauling around a lot of stuff is not nearly as difficult as most people imagine.

We can go away right now. I pack light.
Everything we need is right here in my pants.

Leslie Nielsen, as violinist "Ryan Harrison",
to a woman in the film Wrongfully Accused (1998)