The Top 8 Benefits (and a Few Considerations) of Ultralight Travel
You’re probably painfully aware by now that I’m a huge proponent of ultralight travel. For the uninitiated, ultralight, or one-bag travel generally means fitting your entire packing list into a backpack, usually about 30-40 liters in capacity. I’ve written about my packing list, which I use for every trip. What about a month-long safari, you ask? The length of the journey shouldn’t matter; with the right gear, you should be set indefinitely. Though this might seem insane and way too inhibiting, it’s arguably the one decision that will instantly elevate your travel experience. Below are 8 immediate benefits (and a couple drawbacks) of ultralight travel:
Mobility. First and foremost is mobility. You know when you’re rolling that damn rollaboard and the stupid wheels get all turned around? Or walking down the airplane aisle and your duffel bag keeps hitting the seats (or people) you’re walking by? Well, with just a backpack, that doesn’t happen. When you’re traveling, mobility is critical. You can be walking through crowded airports, subways, or cities without even a concern. Your overall sense of space and awareness is vastly improved.
Transit between locations is a breeze. You know that awkward time after you checkout of one Airbnb and your next won’t let you in until 3pm? Whether you’re hopping between different cities or just changing locations within a single town, sometimes there’s a time when you’re all but homeless. If you have two or more bags with you, this moment generally sucks. I mean, it always sucks. But with just a backpack in hand, it sucks a little less. You can walk around, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the sights, and not waste any time during your trip.
No baggage fees. Sure, there are a few credit cards and methods to get around this one, but baggage fees still suck for the majority of people. Especially if you’re traveling on some budget European airline, like Ryanair or Easyjet, where they charge you for every bag you bring, not to mention the air you breathe on the flight. But with just a backpack, you’re in good shape. Even if the pack is technically a little bigger than the allotted personal bag dimensions, you can probably get away with it. I’ve found that as long as the backpack doesn’t peak above your shoulders, gate agents won’t question it much.
No need to worry about overhead compartment space. On a related note, overhead compartment space is no longer a problem. We’ve all been at the boarding gate when the agent comes on the speaker to announce the lack of space available for carry-ons. Look around at that moment, and you’ll likely see all those people with a purse, duffel, rollaboard, AND shopping bag begin to break out in a nervous flop sweat. Well, instead of crowding around the gate, waiting to throw some elbows over that last coveted overhead spot, you could be back at the airport lounge crushing one more gin martini so you can promptly pass the fuck out during the flight.
Cobblestone can remain quaint and austere. Have you ever tried to drag a rollaboard across cobblestone? If you have, you’re probably already on the backpack bandwagon with me. Even if you haven’t personally gone through that hell, you’ve probably seen or heard someone riding that struggle bus. to make this a little more real, it’s story time. Once I was on a trip with a few friends, one of which brought a rollaboard. Through the majority of the trip, this didn’t pose much of an issue for her. Inevitably, though, we got to a street in Edinburgh where taxis couldn’t drive, and it was full of, you guessed, cobblestone. After about a half-mile of her dragging it through the streets and relentless laughter from the rest of us, she no longer brings her rollaboard to Europe.
Packing is easy. I pretty much pack the same things every trip. Sure, maybe there’s an extra sweater for winter or a pair of baggies for summer, but for the most part, my packing list is the same for every trip. Some may call that boring. And while occasionally this strict regimen does require me to leave my short-sleeved aloha shirt at home, I save a lot of time and fretting over what I have to pack.
You’ll look less like a tourist. Nothing really says you don’t belong here like a rollaboard or duffel bag. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing innately wrong with being a tourist, in fact, I think the whole “travel like a local” sentiment is crap. But it’s also not the best idea to stick out. Sure, your Gucci duffel looks dope, but you now also look like a target. Fortunately, I’ve never had issues with pick-pocketing during my travels. Maybe it’s because I blend in seamlessly with the crowds, or maybe it’s because I don’t look like I have anything worth picking my pocket for in the first place. However you want to interpret it, backpacks look less conspicuous.
Two free hands. Maybe this seems silly, but having both hands free while traveling is essential. You have to pull out passports and boarding passes, look up directions, call hotels, find places to eat, pay merchants, swipe away on Tinder, just to mention a few. The constant setting down and picking up luggage to do these tasks gets old pretty quickly.
There are a few drawbacks to all the virtues of ultralight, one bag travel that I’ve just laid out. None which should deter you from taking the plunge, but definitely worth considering:
Souvenirs are hard. If you like bringing back souvenirs on your trips, this one can be a bit tricky. The 30-liter backpack is usually packed pretty tightly, so there isn’t a ton of leftover space for souvenirs. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible; you’ll just need to get creative. Artwork generally works pretty well because it can lie flat and won’t take up a ton of space. On a trip to Porto, I found an artist who made custom Azulejo tiles that were incredibly unique and fit easily into my backpack.
Shoes. When you only travel with a backpack, shoes are likely to take up the most space. Especially when you’re traveling during winter or a shoulder season where boots are essential. I usually bring two pairs, one for working out and one for my everyday walking around. The tough part is honestly making sure both work well with each of your outfit options and can pack down easily. A few companies out there are making shoes that look pretty good and can serve a few purposes (I’m a fan of Allbirds at the moment), but it’ll take some research to find something that fits your style. Which, ironically, is a nice segue into the next drawback….
The gear can be expensive. As you’re looking to embark on this journey into ultralight or one-bag travel, you’ll probably get down a few rabbit holes about what gear to buy. What’s the right backpack for me? Do I need new shoes? How many pairs of merino wool t-shirts do I need? What about a new jacket that can pack down into a small pouch? And this goes on. My recommendation is that you probably don’t need a ton of new gear, at least at first, and you’ll do just fine with what you have already. If you do want to buy some new stuff, then take it slow and don’t get overwhelmed. Check out my packing list as a good starting point, and then do some more research.
You might have to wash some stuff. Ok, so you know how I said the length of the trip doesn’t matter? Well, that’s about half true. At some point past 10 or so days, you’ll probably need to start washing some clothes. Probably underwear. Yes, this is not the most glamorous of activities to do while you’re boozing your way through Spain, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. If you use some soap like Dr. Bronner’s, it can double as a detergent. Just let the clothes soak in some warm, soapy water, give it a little scrub, and then let it air dry overnight. Done.
So there you have it, all the reasons you should need to take the plunge into ultralight travel. Sure, there are some drawbacks and considerations, but they are all tremendously outweighed by the benefits and overwhelming sense of freedom you have while carrying your life on your shoulders. Just challenge yourself on your next trip to give ultralight travel a chance, I promise you won’t go back.
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