To travel happily, travel light

26 minute read

My only real superpower is travelling well. I’ve crosscrossed and lived all over the world now, and a big part of the secret sauce has been a single, carry-on bag approach to travel. This is my setup.

« Pour voyager heureux, voyagez léger »
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
(To travel happily, travel light)

Why travel light? It lowers the cost of moving, both in terms of inertia and money as well as the pain and slowness of modern travel to allow you to seize more travel opps and enjoy yourself more. I travel 25-50% of the time, and abuse my vacation time every year, so I’ve worked hard getting down to a pretty bulletproof setup (for me. YMMV) and people keep telling me to share and asking gear questions. This setup has allowed me to travel virtually indefinitely for months at a time (I think the max is about 3 months steady travel) and covers almost all my business and vacation use cases with a single carry-on backpack (the exception being trips requiring special gear like snowboarding etc., but see below). As with all things, YMMV, but my fervent hope is you can take away some ideas to make your own travelling better and enjoy your experiences more.

The Gear

Bags

Minaal Carry-On

I wouldn’t describe myself as a bag nerd, but I did spend more than a bit of time trying to fund a replacement for an years-old, well-made (before they got crappy) Jansport I used to use. I did try a Tortuga carry-on (which was good, but felt like I was a turtle carrying my house on my back), but have to say, I shelled out for the last version of the Minaal travel backpack and it has been superb. An almost perfect bag in every way. It clamshells, makes you feel light and fast moving through airports, planes or streets and is discreet and easy to carry. I can’t say enough good things about the Minaal. My complaints on it are virtually non-existent. If you’re thinking about it versus other ones, just shell out the money. I’ve not regretted one penny of the cost. There’s a new 2.0 improved version, but I get the feeling my original will bury me due to quality of construction and robusst materials.

Tortuga Daily Carry - Setout Packable Daypack

In addition to the Minaal (and just to give a nice nod to Tortuga’s efforts), I also have Tortuga’s packable pocket backpack as a day pack (that being a knapsack which is stuffable into its own pocket so you have a very small pouch to throw in the bigger backapack above.). It’s sleek, light and handy (but provides no protection whatsoever to the laptop you will most likely be carrying in it), but has served well to date and while it’s a little flimsier than I would like, looks fashionable, discreet, and carries well. I’ve already had to replace one though which ripped, though they are cheap enough to be easy to replace. Another one you might like as an alternative to this and looks like it’ll last forever is the Patagonia Tote knapsack which is sturdy, well made, has lots of handles, but felt was a little too conspicuous and bulky for my personal tastes (despite my love of Patagonia’s products and as a company). YMMV.

Thule Stravan 12” Macbook sleeve

My laptop is critical to all my work, so needs protecting. I have a nice, tight Thule Macbook 12” nylon protective case that is water-resistant and fits snuggly. The other nice thing is that the zipper pocket on it is just big enough to fit in my Kindle Oasis, a whack of cables, the USB-C tri dongle for USB-C, USB, and an HDMI for monitors, and the little charger puck for the MacBook. Well designed and portable, it’s been a nice buy.

Clothes

I basically travel with a week-ish set of clothes. It looks a little like this (with one set worn while travelling):

  • 8 pairs of underwear
  • 9 t shirts (one for workouts)
  • 3 pair of pants
  • 3 pairs of socks

Underwear

ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Boxers

Comfy, understated, you can walk around in your hotel room in them and not feel too porn king, and the are light, easily cleanable, dry fast, and have odour guard (whatever that is) that means you can travel with these with far fewer pairs than I do.

Pants

PrAna Men’s Brions

My sneaky secret is that I’m actually wearing yoga pants every day, though these are cut to look like business dress pants. They are awesome and life changing. I’ve been wearing black versions of these to work (and recently even an opera) and no one had any idea until I’ve explicitly told them that they’re anything but black slacks. They make you look dressy enough, are ridiculously comfortable, and stretch wherever you need to if you’re doing something slightly more athletic. They clean up easily and dry quickly if you need to wash them yourself and are super lightweight. I use these now instead of jeans and seriously need to find and thank the blogger who mentioned something similar to these pants that made me biy a pair as an experiment. They are the bomb and a billion times better travelling than almost anything else I’ve ever tried. Buy now.

Shirts

Uniqlo crew cut tees

Embarassingly, even though I should probably be dressing more like “an adult” at my age, I have a tendency to just get easy-to-wear t-shirts in multiple plain colours that I can just wear the crap out of. Living in Asia, it’s hard to get good fitting shirts for my frame, so I’ve been exploiting the hell out of Uniqlo’s standard Crew Tees and just putting a whack of them in various colour combos in the bag. The only place this has made me feel severely underdressed to date was Milan and when I snuck out to buy a new Italian jacket and shirt for the opening night of an opera in Verona in the amphitheatre.

Shoes

Salomon SpeedCross trail runners

Actually shoes are probably the hardest part of travelling light. What you really want are sneaky shoes that can pass as both walking, hiking, business, and running wear, but I’ve yet to find anything that didn’t suck or cause serious leg issues, so I have tendency to just bite the bullet and wear a seriously good pair of trail runners with good support quite a bit of the time. My friends tease me about this, because the last set I managed to find that held up ok were a fire-orange pair of Salomon trail runners which have been crossing continents for a while now. I’ve seriously had maitre d’s look me up and down stare at my shoes, sigh, but let me in to most fancier restrauants, at least in Asia and Italy.

Socks

Darn Tough ankle socks

Darn Tough ankle socks came up highly recommended due to tough construction, merino wool additions and having a couple of pair of these have been great for both running and business wear. I do get a look once in a while when I cross my knee over my ankle sitting in a business meeting and show ankle, but so far it’s not something I’m worried about. Very handy and fine for working out as well, which is their big bonus. Not too hot and still keep your feet warm in cool climes. Have not tried them out in full-on super snowy snow-past-the-ankles winter conditions but other than that, have been super happy with them. Lightweight and dry reasonably quickly as well.

Workout Gear

Nothing special here. I have a really baggy pair of black Nike shorts which go just past my knees and are great for running, lifting, or basic team sports all the way up to climbing, and a Solomon very lightweight running shirt which seems pretty good, wicks sweat and is easy to clean up after a run. I sometimes swap this out with a heavier duty/longer short of the same sort of quick dry fabric if I know I will be in the sea a lot since it also acts as a rashie while underwater or surfing. Super handy and so lightweight anyway, it adds virtually no weight whatsoever to the bag and keeps me on track for my “sweat daily” habit.

Belt

Sea to Sky Nylon Belt

(with secret stash money zipper!) Sadly, it appears Sea to Summit no longer makes this, but this is a simple mesh belt with a lightweight fold over mehcnism. Super light and unobtrusive, but it has a nice little inside zipper with enough space to fit a couple of folded over bills inside (in case you’re travelling in places where mugging might be a possible issue.). Nothing to really phone home about here now it’s not made, but I like the fact it weighs nothing and had the secret zipper pocket. The fact it is nylon and plastic is also handy in that I don’t have to take it off going through airport security as I do quite often. Basically, any of the nylon mesh belts with a plastic “cinch” buckle will do, this is just the first one I ended up finding that was decent and rugged.

Swim trunks

69 Slam board shorts

A must. I kind of realize I can measure howq well I think my life is going by how much time I spend in seawater chasing marine life. I have an surprisingly awesome pair of boardies from 69 Slam with a psychedlic feathers pattern which I live in fear of wearing out (and were randomly found on Gili Trelawney when I ripped the butt out of my then existing swimmers on some rocks.). They are board shorts (not budgie smugglers) and very comfy. Great for snorkelling or ac tual swimming, but if you’re a serious open ocean long distance swimmer, you probably want something more streamlined. These work for me though.

Jacket

Arcteryx Alpha jacket

This was something I would normally never buy, but ended up getting because I wanted a lightweight but waterproof shell for when I was climbing Kilimanjaro and I was thinking layers. It is ridiculously lightweight (and very bright orange-red) Acteryx Alpha jacket if I know I’m going somewhere rainy. It is overpriced though so I’m sure if weight is not that serious a consideration for you, you could find something almost as good and cheaper you could scrunch up just as effectively in the bottom of your pack. This ends up being a great waterproof windbreaker layer above something handy like, well…

Fleece/Mid-Layer

Arcteryx Vinton fleece

Along with the jacket above, I grabbed an Arcteryx fleece thing. I believe it’s a Vinton since it’s a wool blend thing, not a synthetic fleece and looks suprisingly sharp and is great for wearing on trips to colder climes and on chilly airplanes. Sadly, like most Arcteryx stuff, it seems to be made for spidermonkeys rather than more muscular manly men, so it’s actually a bit snug and long in the arms for me if I have to zip it up, but it is warm, fashionable, and most importantly capable of keeping me warm even at low temperatures in colder climes. Note: In actual fact, this is a bit of a cheat. I usually do not have this in the bag, but wear it on the plane with me wherever I’m going if I am going anywhere cold. I use to have a simple Columbia fleece I used along with a Columbia jacket especially when heading in to the Northern hemisphere in winter but this works surprisingly well for anything down to about -10C. Below that, you need to be thinking about special gear.

Misc

Toiletry bag

Eagle Creek Slim Pack-It

I actually just bought my second one of these in a decade since the zips on my old one had rusted out and died. This was actually really hard to find this time around and even more difficult to get despite Amazon and looking online through a bunch of places. I”m not sure if Eagle Creek is phasing these out, but this thing has been great. The new, black one, is holding up just as well and works great for getting through airports without hassle and so that everything is in one carry-on (Make sure you only carry stuff under 100ml obviously). It is a tri-fold wallet type deal with mesh pockets that allow security to see your stuff (so they don’t check), a hanging hook for hanging on doors/sinks, and a little mirror if you’re really in the wilds, though I’ve yet to ever need that. Great product unless you are super high maintenance.

Toiletries

Nothing fancy here really. Colgate toothpaste (< 100ml of course), normal toothbrush, Bodyshop stick deodorant and liquid shower gels. I used to love Body Shop when it was under Anita Roddick, but they’ve made so many bad calls since moving to L’Oreal. I used to love the fact I could grab something semi-ethical almost anywhere in the world and have it be roughly the same as I was used to, but I’ve had to give that up, particularly for things like shaving creme (since they ditched the 100ml size).

Gillette Mach 3 with disposable le blades (I’d use a straight razor but it’d never got on the planes) and you can get Mach 3’s globally. Electrics never shave close enough for me despite the fact I’ve got no real beard.

Two foo foo things here. I currently use the 100ml scent-free Trufitt and Hill shaving creme (since I noticed it at my barber’s) and I have been using Acqua di Georgio 100ml after shave lotion post-shave (since picking it up in the freebie bag on a Qatar Airways flight). It smells nice, but not overwhelming, and makes me feel reasonably ok smelling when on the road. Oh, I have a silly little pair of nail clippers as well. In the tropics, I find my nails grow crazy long, very fast, so… )

Medical

Even though I am often on the road for extended periods, I seem to be blessed with very good health (knock on wood). I do keep all my vaccines up to date (seriously, I have next shots in my calendar and get them wherever I happen to be, regardless of cost, and since my former Dr convinced me I am an “extreme traveller” (I don’t think I am but his definition had academic backing, so I have kinda given in), I also get a quadrivalent flu shot every year. Seriously, I think the flu shot every year has done more than anything to keeping me healthy, at least in Singapore which has 2 brutal flu seasons and gets hit with both the North and South flu season. When travelling though, I keep things pretty simple: I carry some sort of analgesic like Panadol, aspirin, or what have you, chewable Pepto Bismol for tummy issues (it is a miracle cure, I tell you. If you take one thing away from this long list, it should be chewable Pepto), and usually a serious emergency dose of some broad spectrum antibiotic in case of being somewhere very isolated, not having access to medical care, and having infection (usually Azithromycin or such). If I need antimalarials (and I often do for my travel), I generally take good ‘ol doxycycline (despite the fact it makes you sun sensitive and the pre- and post- taking period are longer than alternatives) since I’ve found it gives me no tummy problems and has the additional benefit if you’re in rough country it also acts as a prophylactic against ricketsia and things like bush typhus (seriously, I don’t know why more people are not aware of this.).

Electronics

Macbook 12”

This is pretty simple though I have to admit I kinda ❤️ this laptop. It’s been surprisingly great and probably the sole reason I’ve stayed in the Apple ecosystem. I have a maxed out early 2016 MacBook (8GB RAM, 512GB SSD, 1.3Ghz m7 processor) that has been a superb travelling and working laptop. Surprisingly tough, ridiculously lightweight, bright legible retina screen, powerful enough, and with no moving parts its not had anything break down. It’s what I’m typing this up on right now. Unless I can find a better piece of hardware to move to Linux I’ll be buying the next iteration if it’s at all similar. My entire team when I was running Neo teased me about it, but it’s been fantastic as laptops go and I can’t say I’ve felt the need for anything else. I would love it if it were more Linux friendly as I’d like to move towards a freer, open-source system again. I’ve got the padded Thule sleeve for it (see above) which gives it extra protection and lets me fit plugs and cables and pens in with it as well. It also fits the Kindle below.

Kindle Oasis

I have the first generation of this thing and it lasts a solid week with the battery cover and has been nigh indestructible despite me bouncing it off floors and such when falling asleep in hotels and the like. You can store an entire library in this thing, so that and it’s weeks’ battery have been great. Should probably upgrade at some point shortly, but can’t really see a reason till it dies or the battery starts getting titchy. My only major beef with it is Amazon’s proprietary format and the fact ebooks went from being a much cheaper option when you were buying them than dead tree versions to now being more expensive than paper books, which is obviously just gouging. The entire book industry needs a revolution like music imho. I want open alternatives, I own, not rent. The fact Amazon has the power to delete my entire library at will is very uncool.

iPhone 8

My iPhone 6 finally started getting too slow with iOS updates and started having weird malfunctions, so before my last trip I replaced it with a new maxed out 8 which has 4 times the memory and is noticeably faster (as well as taking much better pictures in its defence.). Really though, I feel duped, as I just paid $1.5k for what effectively was the same capabilities my iPhone 6 had 3 years back. I’d love a simpler phone that takes good pictures and syncs reliably with the eventual Linux laptop I want to replace the MacBook with, but for right now this seems to be working fine and can’t complain, though the cost of mobile phones have gotten ridiculous for what you get. I want something simpler, secure, and syncing. The fact of the matter is, the main thing I use the phone for is as travelling mail, browsing, IM, photos, and tracking, so these needs should be fulfillable for much, much less than the cost of my last laptop.

Olympus Tough camera

(for underwater pictures) When life is going well, I seem to spend a nice amount of time underwater, chasing poor, unsuspecting marine life and getting photos of it. I love snorkelling and free diving, and virtually everything I’m interested in that doesn’t require a submarine is in the first 10 metres of ocean anyhow (and diving tried to kill me twice). This camera is surprisingly great at getting underwater pics and videos for me, though I am still living for the day there is an underwater camera that can reproduce precisely what I see in the colour fidelity I see it in. Seriously, if you have not snorkelled in the tropics and on beautiful reefs, you owe it to yourself to go someplace beautiful and isolated and do this. There’s an entire world you are missing. My one beef with the Olympus Tough is the cables which should be a USB avoid having to carry another entire extra cable solely for it.

Operating System

I’m using OSX and iOS. To be honest, I want to move back to Linux and use something not quite as tied to Apple’s increasingly consumer device and service oriented ecosystem, but since I use the iPhone for photos, it syncs and back-up pretty effortlessly, and I have to admit the apps are super handy and useful, it’s hard to argue against this though I keep trying to experiment with what moving back to Linux would look like. My current favourite distro contender is Solus running the Budgie desktop which has been very reliable and excellent as a non-critical system so far. Weirdly, it’s apps like Taskpaper, and Bear and such that I’d miss the most as not entirely convinced emacs org-mode and other things around Linux aren’t going to make my life slightly worse off. Part of the problem is that Apple makes excellent hardware despite peoples’ complaints. I have yet to be able to find a laptop I could run Linux on which doesn’t feel like it’s a step down from MacBook usability and quality at the moment. And much as I feel paying as much as a laptop for a phone is ridiculous, the new iPhone I have with the better camera, is pretty sweet. I wish the Google Pixelbook would run Linux without its Chromebook-deness and I’d take a look at a Pixel phone as well but wonder if I’m not just trading one evil master for another. Im often torn between tinkering and experimenting and just trying to get things down though, which makes it hard to not just pay the money for the Apple stuff when I have it.

Fitbit Alta HR

In the spirit of trying to track my exericse, I went and bought a slim Fitbit AltaHR (the HR is for Heart Rate since it also tracks your heart rate) when a messed-up medical test really made me worry about my health. As it turned out, the measurement was a mistake, but the Fitibit stayed and despite the fact I could only find a ridiculous purple band for it, the time, steps, exercise tracking, kms, and heart rate (and you could track cals and water as well) end up being a kinda nice tracker to remind me to do my running and weights. You feel pretty good in the morning to see you’ve already slammed through a task for the day, and in general it just reminds me to take better care of myself. My only two beefs about the Fitbit Alta is the stupid charger (which is like some weird alligator clip thing) you need to carry exclusively for it, and the fact that it should be waterproof so I can wear it in the sea and swimming. I’m sure some future version will improve on both of these things as well as making it even thinner, and looking forward to resolving these tow small niggles and the fact they gouge you on the cost of the wrist bands to secure these things.

Kikkerland UL03-A Universal Travel Adapter

This works great with a European or North American plug though the British (huge) tri-prong plug is a bit of a squeeze. I’ve considered whether it’s just not better to use the European one and this great little converted travel kit instead (though, when living in Singapore you are forced to use the Brit plug.). I will be very happy as more places start to install multi-plug outlets in hotels, coffeeshops, and co-working spaces (or everything can start being charged from a USB or USB-C port.). This takes up virtually no space though and is super handy in a pinch. It also means you can carry the teeny US plug for your puck and plug it in almost any plug.

Beyond Regular carry

Hiking

Salomon Men’s Quest 4D 2 GTX Hiking Boot

If I am doing an expedition-y trip, things change up a bit here. I’ll generally throw shoes into the bag (the Minaal has an excellent lower pocket for this), and will wear a pair of serious hiking boots. Technically, you should think about these boots as more like trail runners on steroids, but they are amazing and based on the boots Salomon created for US Navy Seals. They are completely waterproof up to where the lip begins (I can attest to this taking them up Kilimanjaro), light, sturdy, and while I feel they keep your feet a bit warm in hotter climes, they kick ass as far as a great hiking boot goes. On top of that, they do not need to be broken in which is such a bonus, you should run right out right now and buy a pair if you are doing any serious hiking. I have beenb super happy with these. Great boots. Highly recommended.

Snowboarding

It often amazes me how much great stuff Solomon makes. If I am going gon a snowboard trip, which I like to do at least once a year (I need to find an employer that gives me more real time off or is not too fussy about remote work), you are going to be carrying more than the Minaal bag above due to snow gear. You need thermal underwear and an underlay (I like the pricey but excellent merino wool-infused Icebreaker gear), proper snowboard pants, and a decent jacket to move and flex with you.

Snowboard (pending)

Pending - My old K2 snowboard (“Lucille”) is now 16 years old and the last time I went snowboarding and looked at new boards, the not-so-young whippersnapper at the ski slope shop mentioned how much he loved “vintage” boards. I would have not let it slide so easily, but the amount of tech that has been incorporated into snowboard design is somewhat on par with advances in spacecraft design, and it is unbelievable how flexible, light, and yet stiff and fast new tech incorporation has made new boards. Need to change for my next trip in February (plan is for Hokkaido), but could seriously use some recommendations. Right now, I carry this stuff in a Salomon board bag which is awesome, and use a combo of Icebreaker long underwear and an undershirt to keep me warm on the slopes. I also need to replace my goggles as well.

Snorkeling

Mask and Snorkel

Cressi Big Eyes mask and Evolution snorkel

I highly recommend always packing your own mask if you want a nice snorkel experience, especially in SouthEast Asia. Nothing ruins a snorkel trip faster than a mask that fogs or leaks. I recently switched up my mask (mostly because I may need to put prescription lenses in it at some point) and am using a Cressi Big Eyes now which seems amazing compared to my older, but very serviceable entry-level diving mask I had. Flippers you don’t need to bother with. You can usually get those wherever you are going and they’re good enough almost always as long as you can get something that fits your feet properly.

Improvements

In the end it ends up being all about trade-offs, though I often feel ike I should have a pair of formal clothes in reserve for when I need to go someplace nice like a fancy restaurant, the opera, or say… Milan (*cough*). I’d love a way to sneak a set of formal clothes into the Minaal in some way. It does have these great shirt/pants divider things which hook onto your bag and theoretically allow this to happen but the proper shirts and pants I had tailored here in Asia don’t hold up well after dry cleaning and throwing in there and wrinkle quite a bit on long term trips. I need something which looks fancy, but won’t necessarily win me awards on the red carpet at Cannes or such.

I honestly wonder sometimes if I could add a few simple things to this list and travel indefinitely and be a complete nomad. I briefly pondered giving up my place in Singapore recently as I was bouncing between it and Jakarta so much and my landlady was being a pain, but for some reason, worry about completely untethering from a normal place and life. If I had a place to store some keepsakes and things like my snowboard that was globally accessible and shippable, some quality of life items like a small UE Boom 2 for music and the like, I could possibly even work completly nomadically (though I do worry I’d need a large monitor at a co-working space or short-term rential if I went that route and full-on nomad (also, I think a couple of extra things would oput me above the 7.5kg carry-on limit)

Anyhow, please hit me up if you’ ve got suggestions or ideas or gear I should check out. I like the increasingly back-to-my-nomadic-ancestors approach and am hoping it’s increasingly going to give me other liviing options and opportunities I might not otherise have at the moment.

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