Travelling Light – Backpacking with only carry-on luggage

“Travel Light”. It was in my tagline, and it’s one of my blog’s ‘niches’, but what does it mean to me? Well …
Obviously it’s partly metaphorical (travelling without preconceptions, without ‘mental baggage’ – something I supremely suck at!), but my main focus for it is literal – the pack on my back.

The backpack itself
A closer view of the pack, complete with decoration. No sense in keeping it plain and boring.

The pack I’ve had for the past couple of years is a Gelert Kessock 45L, dimensions H52 x L20 x W32. It fits comfortably in hand luggage on planes, in the overhead racks on coaches and trains, and with its side pouches, is easy to separate and store stuff as necessary. It’s pretty sturdy; my only issue has been some slight wear at the bottom of the shoulder straps. There’s no waist or chest strap, which suits me fine (easy to slip on & off) but others might find some issues with this. I’d been toying with something a bit more ‘hippyish’ but the ones I’ve got have been just that bit too small, as well as probably not being strong enough. That said, I take one of them along with me as well (they’re cloth, so they fold down into virtually nothing), to use as a kind of ‘daypack’.

These days I tend to travel with just hand-luggage – it’s much easier to haul around, and makes it far more efficient to go through airports – check-in is much quicker and it means you don’t have to wait around at the end for your luggage to come off the carousels. It does occasionally lead to some surprised officials at my destination airport going “have you forgotten to pick up your luggage?”.

There’s also a cost saving, as many budget airlines charge extra for hold luggage; this way I get to take full advantage of the cheapest fares available. As an aside, at the time of typing, one particular airline (Wizz Air) do charge a small fee for ‘larger’ hand luggage (anything over laptop-bag-sized) but compared with other airlines it’s not a great deal extra.

My main reason though for travelling so light is that, due to the style of my travel (always moving on, not staying in any one place) I’m going to have to be carrying it a lot. I’m not the world’s strongest man (I’m only my house’s strongest man by default!) so if I had anything too big I’d be an aching wreck after a short while. Having a bag that fits in hand luggage makes it easier to carry around, not just for everyday walking about but also for taking it on local buses etc. In some of the African ‘combis’ I’m not sure where I’d put anything larger anyway – my backpack and just about fit between my legs, and some of them don’t have any luggage space at all, invented or not.

The disadvantages are obvious – a lack of space means I have less choice about what to take, especially regarding clothing. Mind you, I figure if I’m away for more than 5 days I’m going to have to do some washing anyway; this means I pack the same amount of stuff whether I go for a week or for 2½ months. I’m also limited to relatively lightweight clothes – bulky coats and sweaters don’t work. That said, most of the world is warmer and drier than the UK so this is rarely a problem … 🙂 Essentially, I try to have 4-5 days’ worth of clothing with me; anything more just feels like a waste.

This leads to other, more obscure, challenges. Having only a small resealable plastic bag for liquids/gels means I oft have to prioritise – I’ve taken to carrying powdered toothpaste. It’s foul stuff. It also makes the airport scanners light up like a pinball machine sometimes anyway (it comes on their screens as bright green). On the plus side (YMMV) it means I can’t bring back souvenirs to clutter my house with.

What's in my backpack?
The contents of my backpack, for one of my trips. Amazing to think just how much fits in!

This is what I packed for my 5 or so weeks in Central Asia, and is pretty much the maximum I’d ever take. Each time I travel, I learn what I do and don’t need; note though that some of what I pack is destination-dependent. For example, I didn’t need walking boots for Australia or West Africa, which lightens the load considerably.

* 5 x boxer shorts
* 4 x light, no-iron, mostly short-sleeved, shirts
* 2 x very thin & light long-sleeved t-shirts (probably overkill)
* 1 x light fleece (lost very early on! Probably left on a plane)
* 1 x leggings
* 1 x pair walking socks
* 2 x pair normal socks
* 1 x walking boots
* 1 x minimalist sandals
* 2 x trousers (cargo pants)
* 1 x ¾ length trousers that just cover the knees
* 1 x lycra running shorts that serve both as insulation and as emergency underwear

* 1 x toilet roll
* 1 x pack of bandages
* 1 x pack of throat sweets
* 1 x pack of paracetamol
* 1 x pack of rehydration sachets
* 1 x tub of powdered toothpaste
* 1 x small bottle of shampoo
* 1 x small bottle of shower gel
* 1 x small bottle of hand gel
* 1 x small bottle of roll-on deodorant
* 1 x small toothbrush
* 1 x bottle of nail varnish
* 1 x flannel / facecloth

* Surface Pro Tablet & charger
* Camera (usually attached to belt on waist)
* Small tripod for camera
* Spare camera battery
* Small Torch
* Universal plug adaptor
* Mobile phone
* E-reader
* Plug
* USB lead (used for charging camera, phone, and e-reader as well as data transfer)
* Electric beard trimmer & charger (one of my worse ideas!)

* My hippy daypack (cloth, empty, easily rolled/folded in)
* 4 x handkerchiefs
* Book of writing paper for letters
* Several pens
* Pack of envelopes
* Russian phrase book
* Lonely Planet Guide Book
* A5 notebook for writing in

The whole thing came in at around 10kg. Future trips have seen me carry fewer clothing and toiletries (all those ‘health’-type products? Really?), and of course I’ve fully embraced the idea of having electronic versions of guidebooks; it’s more awkward as I can’t just whip it out when I’m walking through a street, but I just simply make more notes on paper beforehand instead. On my Southern Africa adventure, my backpack weighed just under 8kg.

What I have also noticed is that check-in staff see my backpack and don’t even give it a second glance, so I’ve never been challenged over it or had it weighed at the airport.

Travelling this light isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly working for me. Indeed, I’ve even been on trips with even smaller luggage – maybe I’m trying to push the limits of what’s possible?

I talk more about this on my podcast episode dedicated to travelling with only hand luggage.

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How I travelled for 5 weeks in West Africa with only hand luggage.
There are very few pictures of me with my backpack, so you get to see it again. In close-up this time. Try to concentrate on the backpack.

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