How to pack light for a RTW trip covering multiple climates

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While the 3 Cards, 3 Continents challenge doesn’t necessarily mandate an official “round the world” trip, Greg, Nick and Stephen will be facing some of the same challenges with a 3-Continent trip that you’d find with a round-the-world itinerary. For instance, how do you pack when your trip includes multiple climates and activities?

While I’ve never actually booked an official “round the world” ticket, I’ve been living out of a single, carry-on backpack for almost a year now, traversing climates from the mid 40’s of the Himalayas after sundown to the upper 80’s and 60% humidity of Puerto Rican summertime. When Nick asked for packing tips in our team chat this week my first response was that no matter what you pack, it will feel like too much and too little at different points throughout the trip. (Too much when you’re running around the airport with it on your back for an hour and too little when your only pair of sneakers gets soaked in the rain.)

But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t collected a few Do’s and Don’ts for lightweight, multi-climate packing over the years.

Strategies for lightweight round-the-world packing: Do’s

My packing arrangement for most of the last year has included this “small” backpack and my laptop bag (which I can cram inside my backpack if required.) This has taken me from US to Asia to Europe and back.

Do try to stick within carry-on luggage if you can. Many of you probably have this rule already but for the rest of you, consider this: checking a bag limits your flexibility to take a lucrative bump when a flight is over-booked, and adds the stress of potential lost luggage (which is getting more and more common these days). I push that practice even further and try to limit myself to a discount airlines’ interpretation of a “personal item”. In most cases this means a basic backpack of ~30L or less or basically a size which would readily fit underneath the seat in front of you. If you ever need to change your travel plans mid-trip, you’ll be glad for the ability to include discount airlines in your replanning options.

Do bring a rain jacket. An umbrella is a single-use tool, but a rain jacket can double as a layer for warmth as well, and typically packs down very small. (I don’t always bring this, but I almost always wish I had when I don’t.) Travel is hard on rain jackets though, so don’t overspend on this.

Do bring a warm layer, even if you don’t pack it or don’t bring it all the way with you. I have had multiple occasions where I talked myself out of bringing a bulky coat, telling myself that I could handle 50 degree weather in just a light jacket only to buy myself a warmer layer once there. Heck, even airports can get cold enough to make me wish I had a warm layer. Nowadays I don’t even try to cram my warm layer into my bag – I just carry it over my arm. Annoying, but worth it if I get anywhere in the 50 degree range.

Do bring some sort of lightweight laundry bag – even just one of those reusable cloth shopping bags will do. I like using those lightweight, felt reusable shopping bags as laundry bags because they’re porous enough to provide ventilation for your gross, sweaty clothes but can also double as a beach bag. I also try to pack my dirty clothes bag at the top of my backpack so I don’t forget to take it out at each location. For the sake of your dirty clothes and the rest of your clean clothes, you don’t want your laundry bag to just sit at the bottom of your backpack day in and day out. (Or…as you can see in the background of this photo…in actuality I just throw my clothes all over the place… Do as I say, not as I do!)

This kind of reusable shopping bag makes a great laundry bag because it’s fairly porous.

Strategies for lightweight round-the-world packing: Don’ts

Notice I’m wearing the same pair of off-white Reeboks (left to right) for my anniversary dinner, sightseeing in Budapest, and hiking in the Himalayas.

Don’t bring more than two pairs of footwear. Shoes take up so much space. I usually try to bring just one pair of sandals in case I come across a beach and one pair of all-purpose, decent-looking tennis shoes. The “decent-looking” part can be sort of a puzzle in and of itself, but I just try to stick to neutral colored tennis shoes and it does the trick, at least in a bear-minimum-acceptable sort of way. (I won’t be turning any heads as the bell of the ball in white tennis shoes, but if I pair them with black jeans and a white blouse, I at least won’t turn any heads for being a disgrace either.) Sometimes I switch it up and choose a pair of sandals which can sort of double as my “nice” foot wear, but I don’t prefer this since some dress codes specify “close toed shoes”. I have legitimately worn the same pair of off-white Reeboks hiking up the side of a mountain and eating in up-scale restaurants.

Don’t rely on quirky little folding or rolling techniques for fitting as much clothing as possible into your backpack or suitcase, (and don’t pack to full capacity). These techniques might be fine and even fun when you’re all excited for your flight before you leave home but they get real old by the time you’re on your third destination and none of your stuff will fit in your bag unless you fold it in that same special way all over again.

Don’t bring brand new clothes. Traveling is very hard on clothing – sometimes in ways I can’t even fully understand. I’m constantly discovering stains and holes in clothing I feel like I haven’t even worn that much. Not to mention there’s always the chance that something you haven’t worn that much will be less comfortable than you expected. We went hiking with a friend who brought brand new hiking shoes and had bleeding heels on day 1.

Don’t forget to account for cultural sensitivities. For instance you may want to bring at least one pair of long pants if you have any likelihood of visiting religious sites of any kind. Or for example I try to make sure I have some t-shirts (not just tank tops) since many religious sites don’t allow bare shoulders.

Don’t assume you’ll be able to replenish just anything, just anywhere. I’ve been surprised at how hard it can be to find simple things like contact solution when traveling. This is true for certain medications too. You might be able to find a workable alternative or you might not. This is true for adapters too – if you’re staying in all five star accommodations you might be able to get away without an adapter, but otherwise you’ll want to be prepared with a Universal adapter. (And don’t expect to be able to find the exact US adapter abroad – some destinations get more UK or Russian tourists than US and you’ll find plenty of adapters which are useless for your US outlets.)

Strategies for lightweight round-the-world packing: Conclusion

My number one rule when it comes to packing light for multi-destination travel is to lower your standards. Lower your standards for how photogenic you’ll be at all times, how geared out you’ll be on your hikes, and how clean and fresh your clothes will be each day. This might honestly be a good tip for life in general, but I find especially with travel, it can be a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. (Damned if you bring too much, damned if you bring too little.) So you might as well get comfortable with imperfections. I try to make sure everything is either versatile, or enables me in some important way.

 

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Ryan del Mundo

I’ve been on the road for most of the past 3 years and can agree with the “Less is More” motto. Checking bags costs $10-$40 now per flight, with many LCCs having a 7-8kg requirement. You can buy what you need when you get there for cheaper than that. Umbrellas in Asia run for $3 at 7-11 for instance. I haven’t had a raincoat in forever! Local markets (or even in the front of their “walmarts”) in less developed countries are packed with cheap clothing (if they have the “X” size that might fit you!:) that you can wear and then give away when you leave. If you’ve left home with too much, give it to someone who needs it more than you, you’ll feel good letting go of too much stuff. I have a compression sack to put my socks, undies, tshirts, and fleece in. Can cram a lot into one of those when squeezed down. I usually have sandals and shoes, and wear the shoes on the plane along w my “warm” shirt as its chilly on the plane, then use a carabiner to strap my shoes on the side of my bag when its not a “shoe” travel day (ie on the bus). Cheers for the tips!

LarryInNYC

Back in the 70s and 80s there was a book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe about long-term, super cheap travel. In addition to information about where you could sell your blood and a table of coins showing which coin of lesser value could be used in a different country’s machines in place of a more valuable coin from the second country, they would feature, in each subsequent edition, tips from readers. My favorite was someone who wrote in to suggest carrying only a towel OR a scarf, because you never need both at the same time. This later showed up in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

I always take a merino wool V neck zip-up pullover and rain shell. Together, layered on a long or short sleeved shirt and t shirt can handle lots of conditions. Also, a watch cap for warmth.

Otherwise, unless you have technical requirements, it’s mostly a matter of how often you’re willing to do laundry.

Jon Einar Visser

Like, I know what it feels like to do activivities with minimal equipment and I’ve done kind of stupid stuff. Like an overnighter in the moubtains with limited clothes, an gear in a 12L pack.

That one was also with the wrong shoes: leather sketchers skateboad shoes. The first 3-4 km to the hut were barefoot: I hated these shoes! Lol They were damn comfortable in muddy wet Norway afterwards when I went to search for my mom who came from another parking area to the hut (which was a bit longer) in tve middle of the night (poorly marked trails). Luckily I could see the street lights at the place where she was, but I didn’t knew where exsctly she parked lol

I’ve gone on 7 hour long runs (35km) and felt fresh right afterwards (almost) and have done 7-8 hour bike rides in Austria too…

What about a winter overnighter in a 10°C bag? I din’t even felt close to freezing. I felt chilly yes but not that much as you’d expect. Just as much chilly as you would feel at home with your window open in freezing winter!

I know, it feels comd when you sleep but actually you’r fine when not sleeping has anyone else the same? Im only talking about feeling ca. 1°C too cold at max before you even have goosebumps, so warmer than that.

I’ve flown with only hand luggage before, so that isn’t new. I’ve had many funny thinh before, because I’m a biathlete. We need .22 long rifles for this sport. I’ve actually only flown once with it but the experience back home from our croatia camp was really a story: nearly missed my flight bevause the personals checking the weapons were terrible at reading the registration numbers…

Once I needed to do an inbetween stop at Oslo, and I couldn’t just go to my transfer plane! I had to go check out and go through customs! My firat flight was in the cluntry, Trondheim Oslo, and the net one Oslo Munich cross border. I already did go through customs in Trondheim folks… Not that I misded my flight or anything but it was really weird LOL.

My skies once didn’t arrive too (this cannot be hand luggage unfortunately). But it was driven to me at home believe it or not the next day. Very cool!

Missed flights in Oslo due to gravel delay, you name it.

I’ve had my weird stories, and heard weird stories from othe biathletes because we have the .22 long rifle:

My team mate (who has retired already now from biathlon) had something funny (his mom). They found a bullet inside the jacked seam somwhere (the was a hole) and asked why thete was a bullet.

“My son is a biathlete” (this was in Norway so they know that stuff).

“With this bullet?” They asked, because in fact it was a huge shotgun ammo.

Nope, but dad hunted sometimes. That’s plsusible, but it was on the inside of the kacket inbrtweet the fabric. Idk why though!

I have managed to travel with scissors in hand luggage. You might think they didn’t see it, but actually they detected kt, looked at it and let me go with it. Dumb øeople what are rules for

Anyways I can pack minimal and know a lot of stuff. I can live with minimal hygene (if nescesarry, but a shower is nice), minimal clothes and what not. I’m never sick (only a few minor fevers as a kid and junior plus one minor bacteria infection that didn’t affect my health long term anyways just inconvenient coughing). Other than that I’ve never broken any bones, or had big injuries. Not even after wedging my hand tightly inbetween a car’s door, not after a skier skied into me because he fell and flew right through me while I was stanfing at the edge of the trail and I made I don’t know how many summersaults afterwards and crashed how Idk. I had nothing, Iwas like stretch superman or something who cannot break wtf…

Call me a mirracle, but I’m just really tough I guess…

That makes me an ideal candidate for a round the world trip i guess!

rich

I learned after one Europe trip to minimize luggage. You wear the same clothes several days. I only have one pair of shoes which are casual dress and goretex from Ecco.

I’m sorry but I’m not going to be lugging a bunch of suitcases because someone thinks they need 3 pairs of shoes or some fancy dress outfits when you are on vacation.

I recall asking one lady about traveling and she went on about all of the stuff she has to take. Lets say she never was invited on a trip with me.

Jon Einar Visser

For normal vacational travel and what I do I need at least 2 pairs of shoes: normal shoes (which look good plus are durable) and running shoes. This is because it’s really bad practice to daily wear your running shoes you run in and I do trail running (so I might choose trail runners) and the shoes get really nasty when I do so.

Who want’s to wear wet and muddy shoes around town? Especially if you’r not coming home from the run, and also not when going, because wet and muddy shoes are awfull. People will look at you, you might not even be allowed in some places (fancy restaurant for example).

Folks, if you plan to hike anywhere in Norway please bring 2 pairs at least (one you wear and one in your bag). Most trails here are ultra wet: it’s like a mud run!

Only if you plan to do through hiking I would find it acceptable to bring only one pair, because a second pair might not fit in the bag. It can be good practice to bring some lightweight slippers that dry fast, like flip flops, crocs or similar. They might fit in your bag and are mostly acceptable in town. You won’t go to a fancy restaurant anyways.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jon Einar Visser
Joe

If I’m parking at one place and have my ground transportation figured out for me (i.e. traditional resort stuff), by all means, check and bring the kitchen sink. I’m not a resort person though so this is rare.

Much more likely I’m going to be mobile and making my own way using transit, in which case I’m all about a Tom Bihn onebag + “uniform” dressing. I’ll even happily pay overinflated hotel laundry for the luxury of being unencumbered. I’ve also been known to stack my itinerary such that I’ll be crossing through an AirBNB with laundry facilities at a key time on the trip.

satellite

The second photo looks like Budapest to me (Hungarian Parliament), not Vienna. There’s even a Hugarian flag on the building. 🙂

Last edited 1 month ago by satellite
Jon Einar Visser

Could you explain that? I’ve looked at every photo and didn’t find any hungarian flag anywhere. Plus, it might even be the hungarian ambasady in Vienna, tvey’d have flags too. Who knows!

Satellite

The second photo in the 3 photo collage (below the yellow bag photo) is in Budapest in front of Hungarian parliament, not “sightseeing in Vienna” as the caption states. Hungarian flag is very small but visible on the Parliament. That’s not an embassy.

Stan

What about for men?

LarryInNYC

Pretty much everything in this article applies equally to men and women.

Ethan

I’ve counted many travel YouTubers I follow eventually gave up on carry-on only lifestyle and start checking in.
There’re so many times I just wish I have a full 28″ suitcase for my stuff……

Bear

Pretty obvious to me most of you in favor of this method 1) aren’t overweight with large (XXXL) clothes, 2) over 55 and out of shape, and 3) someone who uses a CPAP or similar. With the CPAP, even though it’s a “medical device” – it’s just easier to check bags.

LarryInNYC

I often choose to check my CPAP machine to avoid having to unpack it at security although that’s getting easier with the new machines. I also have a travel model when space is at a premium — but even with the full size one I can generally pack for a week in a carry-on. And, of course, in extremis you can take it as an additional carry-on item.

Gman58

Oh, to be young again, eh Bear? At 6’6″ , 64 yo and a member of the chapter club, I feel your pain my brother. There young travel bloggers are great sources of information. But as it is when you’re outside the norm, you gotta pick what works for you and wish things that don’t did!

Gman58

Sorry.. cpap club…

Ken

We traveled full time for years out of carryon Osprey backpacks all over the world. The key is everything being quick dry polyester. It rolls tighter, dries quicker, and lasts longer than cotton or natural fibers. And it rarely wrinkles. The biggest thing we regretted on our first RTW month long trip was each of us bringing a fleece zip up that we rarely used. It was huge and took up so much space that we ended up strapping both of them to the outsides of our backpacks or wearing them on travel days which was not ideal in climates like Bangkok or Singapore. We had an elastic clothesline and washed clothes in hotel sinks with the dissolvable laundry detergent sheets. 13-14″ ultrabook laptops also helped along with having all our devices charge from the same type-C connector so we could have 2 compact laptop chargers charge all of our stuff including small shavers and camera gear. We originally had a big, bulky 15″ laptop with a giant power brick that we sold in Bangkok as quickly as possible and lost money on that, but our backs thanked us every travel day.

whocares

bring puffy if you go high altitude.

and how can you not mention the scottevest?

with that said…I always check a bag — in the past and future. done it on 3 RTW trips and many non. some shorter trips I have gone w/o a check-in.

scuba trips in past w/ my own full gear on a couple of trips. now, just snorkeling gear, camping gear (Done a lot of fly-drive camp trips), tripod.I always find a reason for a check-in. in the past – various guidebooks (especially on a RTW). Though I seldom to never use guidebooks these days. but information not always so plentiful online. PLus there are specialized guidebooks that one may want to bring – hiking guides, camping, etc… have you seen the australia camp gudiebook? the size of it? Road atlases — if you rent a car and don’t rely on digital versions.

other gear which takes space (Not on every trip) — n/c headphones, klean kanteen water bottles, EMF gear, beach tent (especially more remote beaches), regular sandals, water sandals, hiking shoes (I wear 10.5 6E – so they are very big), hiking poles. why suffer, if one doesn’t need to?

really…the size of my hiking shoes alone is enough to bring a carry-on. Yeah, I do wear them sometimes on plane, but I don’t like to.

do I always use everything i bring, no….

the minimalist strategy is over-rated.

derek

I’ve arrived in hot Singapore (30 degrees C, 86 degrees F) with a heavy winter coat. Ha! I prefer going to one place rather than a RTW. However, a RTW will likely put you on a flight where most passengers are a different nationality such as Australian, Singaporean, British or Chilean, French, Australian.

Frank

If you have to go from a really hot climate into a very cold one (think Thailand to Japan, or Vietnam to S. Korea, both in December), or vice-versa, ultra-thin, long-sleeved, long-legged silk underwear is a lifesaver. Super light, takes up almost no packing room, and allows you to wear the same pants and shirt you wore in 90 degrees in 30 degrees (with the addition of a light jacket, gloves, and wool hat).

Eddie ed

Came here to say the same. Except I use smart wool long underwear.

For me: Osprey 46L porter pack is perfect as a max carry on backpack; it can be checked if a must, but never “requested” unlike roller boards. It has an easy access laptop compartment

In front flap, I use a rip stop to eagle creek organizer insert (blue) and put my in-flight gear in there. It can be pulled out quickly or attached via a few of the d-rings I keep on outside of the bag

Also, I snap a j-pillow around the handle

Like Caroline, I err on the small side for the personal item, but I usually pack a “3rd bag” to expand into when not flying so I don’t have to tightly repack. It does allow temporary accumulation of extra stuff like food, but always a risk to decisiveness & must eject when needed

I’d never carry a coat around my arm! Anything not in a bag or my pocket inevitably ends up lost somewhere. Usually can make do with layering and a thin coat that I can wear if I must. Rain coat works, but scotchguard can too. I also don’t mind getting wet but if I wound up in rain season of SE Asia or something by I’d just by a poncho or a coat there.

Havianas are a good 2nd “shoe” (flip flop) and you can tie your sneakers to outside of backpack if you need the space.

Biggest trick is to keep mobility and weight off your shoulders. I’ll strategically use hotels as short to medium term storage if I’m going on a side trip. Sometimes you can mail yourself stuff. Did that in Australia – mailed a duffle real slow to a post office and they hold it up to 30 days

Spud

Good tips. I often use the plastic bag meant for laundry in hotel closets as a laundry bag. A national and international packing list is really useful as I am amazed sometimes how I would have forgotten some of the most basic items when doing the checklist before I run out the door. Also – pro tip, take one of the disposable coffee cups *and lid* from your hotel room and leave in your bag – as it is super useful for a drink when leaving a lounge where you often can’t get them.

Michael Tarlow

I’ve been traveling sans checked bags for years. One of my go to is a light weight safari style vest with LOTS of pockets. I pack it with my electronics, sunglasses, travel docs and essential meds and anything else youd keep in your pockets. It’s lighter weight than a jacket (assuming you don’t need one at your destination) and easy to take off, fold in half and place in the TSA tray. That way you can carry more, not worry about emptying pockets at security and usually find a small space in the overhead.

Miles

Excellent post Caroline! My wife and I are in week 4 of a carry-on-only vacation, looking a little worse for wear but not being refused service anywhere.

I found some good convertible pants by Magellan in the fishing section of a sporting goods store. They are black, so no one will know if the underwear you washed last night didn’t completely dry. They themselves almost always dry overnight. The label says “Fish Gear.” The zippers are plastic, so you can pass through TSA metal detectors if you have a nylon belt. (Note: some nylon belts are too wide for the belt loops.)

I’m also a fan of compressible packing cubes. Stuff one full of garments, zip the white zipper closed. Then crush the cube while closing the gray ‘compression’ zipper. Amazing how much smaller it gets!

bill

This was a fun, thoughtful post! I just have one question: how many days worth of clothes can you really fit in a budget airline’s personal item-sized bag if you’re also not rolling or folding the heck out of your clothes?

Spud

I did a 7 week round the world trip recently with my wife and 11 year old. I insisted that we had to bring carry-on only as we had 20+ legs. Despite resistance they survived it really well. Doing laundry really isn’t such a big deal with a little planning and not having to lug so many bags and deal with checked bags is really worth it – let alone the carbon footprint.

Beth B

I have the compression bags and fit around 12 outfits in my backpack along with one pair of sandals and a pair of water shoes.