How to travel light — really light

By | May 7th, 2017

It’s one thing to preach about the virtues of traveling light. It’s quite another to practice them.

For years, I’ve done just that — written about the virtues of minimalism and packing light. But with three kids in tow, I’ve hauled a lot of stuff around the country on our trips. Too much stuff.

A few weeks ago, I embarked on an unexpected adventure. A spring cleaning exercise mushroomed into a project to downsize all of my earthly belongings into a few small boxes. I had to sell the house and move suddenly. I’ll spare you the drama.

It became clear that I would have to do that thing that I’d been talking about for so long: I’d have to travel light. Really light.

My father, a retired minister, probably would have comforted me with the words of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life.” That’s excellent packing advice: take nothing!

Perhaps appropriately, Job’s own life was beset by tragedy. But I digress.

Here, then, is my light packing advice from someone who has done it for real:

No more paper.
Paper weighs you down. I took two decades worth of receipts and tax returns, correspondence and memories, to a professional shredder and let ’em have it.

Receipts from the Fish House in Key Largo, circa 2001? Shred! The 1990 University of California commencement bulletin? Shred! Letters from the ex-girlfriend? Shred!

Boy, that felt good. Paper weighs a lot. It certainly has its uses (boarding documents, confirmed itineraries) but as my daddy used to say, you can’t take it with you. You know, when your number is up.

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How much can you really wear?
If you’ve ever tried to wear more than one pair of pants, then you know it’s not possible. So why do you own so much? Do you ever wear it? I had a closet full of clothes I never wore. Some were no-brainers, like the pair of size 40 pants I wore when I tipped the scales at 230 pounds. Yeah, that was 2002, and it was all baby sympathy weight. (I’m around 160 now.)

Other items were not so easy. The hat collection, built over many years of travels around the world. I was fond of one or two fedoras. They are in a better place now, which is to say, they are not cluttering my closet.

Find out what really matters.
As all of the excess fell away, it became clear to me what mattered. My valuable data was backed up to the cloud, and I’d downsized to a MacBook Air. I’d pared down my clothes to a few changes by season, enough to fit in a box. Everything else was donated. What remained was important.

My children were still there, thank goodness, and they are the most important thing to me. When all the furniture is gone and the dust settles from the last garage sale, and you have three children still standing there, that becomes very clear. Stuff doesn’t matter; people matter.

My greatest regret? Having to say goodbye to my three cats. I had to give them up for adoption a few weeks ago. I can barely bring myself to write those words. They are with friends, and I’m sure I will see them again, but I am heartbroken.

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So the next time you pack for a trip, remember these simple words of advice. Leave the books and papers at home. Pack only what you’ll wear. And don’t forget the things that matter to you the most — the loved ones in your own life.



  • Alan Gore

    This article seems to be more about living light than traveling light, but I will respond to the headline. The easiest way to save the weight of paper on a trip is to bring your books and magazines along on your devices, rather than on paper. This is more important than you may think, because the fear of boredom when sitting around in airports causes people to schedule too tightly, a leading cause of the disasters we have to mediate here. If there is unexpected traffic on the way to the airport or a thunderstorm rolls through your departure area, you will miss your cruise. This doesn’t have to happen if you can schedule knowing you have the cushion of a reading library on your iPad.

  • Rebecca

    Having grown up with someone that likely still has cool whip containers and margarine tubs from my childhood – and I was born in 1981 – I can tell you that the likliehood you’ll actually need all that crap you’re not throwing away is very low. I purge anything I haven’t used about every 6 months, with minor obvious exceptions like interview suits and power tools. And I don’t remember the last time I wished I had something I’d previously thrown away. I’m sure it’s happened, but I literally can’t remember an example. I have a general phobia of things being thrown into a closet and being swallowed, only to be cleaned out years later when you move away or die.

  • redragtopstl

    I agree with you about donating to smaller, local charities. “Charity begins at home” is my modus operandi.

    We keep trying to downsize our possessions … although hubby has done a better job of it than yours truly. We keep a pile near our front door, and every so often bag or box it up and tote it to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for their thrift stores. If it’s big (like the dining room set from his mom’s house that we couldn’t sell on Craigslist and sat in our basement for 5 years), they will pick it up (but you have to haul it up to the first floor).

  • Patrica

    Yes. In our area (Mishawaka Indiana) donating to Resale to the Rescue supports various animal rescuer groups AND gives great bargains to others. Too many people believe that these volunteers are government supported..they are not and give so much of their own $ and time.

  • Patrica

    OH I feel so badly about your cats…Up till then, I was so enthused about writing that I went to London for a week with only a vest pack ( a vest with pockets and a teeny back pack). I also flew to CA with just it for a week . The delight is that when I returned from London, I blew through customs because my vest pak was now empty. I really travel rather light under any circumstances and try to follow the same philosophy in my dwelling places.

  • Travelnut

    I’ve just recently started purging belongings and shredding documents. I moved into my house in 1996, and I had just tossed documents into a huge box for years. Long story as to why I just let it accumulate; like you, it’s personal misfortune, as well as out of sight out of mind. It’s taking literally months to go through the archaeological dig and decide what to keep and what to shred, piece by piece. Likewise with stuff in the closets, desk drawers and garage. Ultimately, I’ll be traveling lighter through this life and better positioned to pick up and move if necessary (the impetus for the effort). I actually already feel lighter. It’s good.

    I didn’t realize you were in my city (San Antonio) a couple of weeks ago. It would have been interesting to meet you. Sounds like you had a great time. I hope your new life in your new city is a happy one.

  • vmacd

    Huh, you give up your pets as part of your spring cleaning??!!! Disgusting.

  • technomage1

    Dude, read the article. There is a lot more going on than a simple spring cleaning.

  • pdxmom

    on the other hand, there are things I *know* are in this house, and I think: I need *that* — but I can’t find it! So yes, there are things I use frequently, but then I want but…where the heck are they?

  • pdxmom

    well, i’m going away for two weeks and while I’m trying to pack light, I am still in awe of you. I have a small suitcase, but may need to use the bigger one — because I have to bring things with me to leave there…

  • Maria K. Telegdy

    I traveled with a backpack when I was 20, I travel with a backpack now at 66, no check in luggage no waiting for luggage, all is in my backpack, off the plane and starting the adventure, if I accumulate to much souvenirs for friends on the road, I make sure to send it home by mail. And I’m usually gone for 3-4-5 months consecutively. There’s always water and soap in a Hotel room to wash my underwear and socks, the rest when it’s dirty nobody knows what it looked like when it was clean…..Usually there are laundromats or laundry service in cities and Hotels/motels. Happy traveling all.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Best wishes on the life change, whatever it was. I hope you scanned in any documents that had personal meaning and took some photos of your hat collection (because digital images don’t weigh that much ;)

  • ChelseaGirl

    I’m sorry that the downsizing circumstances were not happy and I hope you get to have your cats back at some point.

  • michael anthony

    EXCELLENT article, thanks for sharing.

    I truly empathize with you on the loss of your beloved companions. Although you can take great comfort in knowing that they are being well taken care off, it still causes great pain. Ill keep you in my thoughts and wish you well. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Lindabator

    true – but when the wifi is iffy on LONG flights, I have one book as backup

  • Lindabator

    get baskets you can hang in the garage or storage area — label them and use for electronic cords – small tools, etc and small baskets and dividers in your drawers will keep tape, paperclips, batteries etc in one place neatly enought to actually find when you need

  • Alan Gore

    I mean books loaded onto the tablet. I never use wifi on a flight.

  • Lindabator

    true – but sometimes have to – or use a UBS port so you don’t lose battery on a long flight

  • Lee

    I did a shedding, so to speak, not too long ago for various reasons. I had not known that I could have a professional shredder come to my house, load up a huge (300 pounds!) bin with all my papers, take it down to the truck – with me along – to watch it all shredded within 4 minutes of the person putting it into the shredder truck so I could see it all actually get shed. Cost: $100 – best money I have spent in years.

    Fast moves do force one to face things they may not have for years – It can be such an emotional experience going through old photos, letters, etc while sorting – and, in the end, you do usually realize you don’t need to hang onto to all that much –

    Having to say good-bye to the pussycats must have been heartbreaking. I so hope you can have them back someday.

  • John McDonald

    last September(spring in southern hemisphere) Jetstar, (Qantas’s low cost airline, known to many as Junkstar) advertised a return fare to Queenstown New Zealand for AUD$200. This was incredibly cheap when you realise the govt taxes & charges were around AUD$170, so the airline was getting AUD$30(around USD$22) for roughly 7 hours flying in an A320. Yes the legroom wasn’t fantastic, no there was no checked baggage allowance & no free food or drinks, but toilet, toilet paper, water to wash hands & stairs FREE. Decided that would try & go skiing with only 7kgs of carry on. (wife doesn’t like me spending anything on ski trips).
    So wore my ski jacket on the aircraft(it was a cold wintery 6am departure & Jetstar don’t use airbridges, so had to walk outside to board) & filled pockets with various other items of clothing, ski goggles etc. Most decent ski jackets have lots of big pockets. They actually weighed my carry on & it was almost exactly 7kgs. Hired skis, boots & poles & even bought the boss a gift & still managed to get home, without paying any extra baggage charges. Not I didn’t take 10 changes of clothing. It was a boys trip & only took 1 pair of jeans(it doesn’t actually get that cold in NZ in September, not like Utah or Colorado in winter) & luckily, the place we stayed at, had a washer & a dryer in the apartment.
    Have been skiing in USA where checked baggage limit was 23kgs(50lbs) inc skis & although usually right on 23kgs or slightly over, it can be done. Skis boots & poles can weigh up to 17kgs including the bag, without any other clothing. So yes you can travel light.

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