Four years ago I read an online essay about a young couple who travelled in Southern Europe for three summer weeks without any luggage. Not even a carry on. They carried smartphones, passports, credit cards, and (I hope) toothbrushes in pockets (man) and a small crossbody handbag (woman). No other bags. They washed the clothes they wore in sinks and dried them overnight whenever that became necessary. I can’t find the link right now; if any of my readers have it, please send it my way, and I’ll update.
Maybe not the most conventional/ sanitary approach, but I was impressed and inspired. Just imagine the freedom of being able to get up and go, nothing to repack, nothing to fish for in the bags, no need to decide what to wear, no weight on your shoulders. Well, except the crossbody bag (hello! can we have some pockets, please?). And except when your clothes are drying overnight.
While I don’t think I can pull off carrying nothing at this point, and I suspect traveling that light creates avoidable waste, I saw that it was not necessary to pack much and aspired to pack as little as possible for my trips. Especially since most of them are only 1-2 weeks long. Turns out, I can travel this long comfortably with a commuter back pack that fits under the airplane sit, as long as it’s not for work or tango. (One-to-two weeks work or tango trips seem to require a small carry on.)
There are tons of packing lists and tips out there… which doesn’t stop me from publishing mine, because it’s a different perspective and all.
In general, while I want to pack ultralight, I also like to be comfortable, I am a little fancy, and I get cold. My main tricks are to pack multifunctional items, to go for high quality (and, if needed, price, aspiring to use the item regularly for a long time), to avoid washing if unnecessary, and to wash in the sink and dry overnight if necessary.
I’ll use my recent 1 week long trip to Iceland as an example, with possible diversions. It was in the middle of March, so a few degrees warmer than the coldest, but still pretty cold for a San Francisco resident who, remember, gets cold. I didn’t do anything particularly extreme, was based in Reykjavik, but I spent hours at a time outside, including when it was wet out or late.
The list includes specific items; it’s not comprehensive, just what seemed clever. The backpack I currently travel with is Patagonia Yerba 24L, which doesn’t seem to be available any more. I don’t know if I would have chosen it, but I got it for free, as company swag, and it’s fine.
By the way… affiliate mentions warning: with one exception so far, teeki, mentioned in the Swimming Outfit section below, nobody pays me for mentioning any products; I wouldn’t mind if they did, but they don’t. With teeki, I would get a commission if you purchase something after accessing from here, but I recommend their products for the same reason as the rest: because they worked well for me. Okay, let’s go.
A Long-sleeved Merino Wool T-shirt.
Aaand, right here, on item 1, I have an ethical problem. I avoid eating animal products and try to not consume animal products in general, which is easier to do in California than in other places where I had lived. Still, wool is so magical that there goes non-violence and all that. Thank you, sheep, and sorry about that. For the slippery slope, keep reading.
I had two of these: Smartwool Midweight Base Layer and IceBreaker BodyFit 260, which is a similar weight. One would have been enough actually. They are perfect: cool, warm, thin, light, and they don’t get stinky. If they do, a quick spot wash in the sink takes care of that; I don’t recall if I had to do that at all while traveling; maybe once. They are delightful next-to-skin layers, and they look stylish when exposed.
Of the two brands, I am biased toward the IceBreaker for two reasons. First, I owned that BodyFit 260 for 10 years, and it’s as good as new, while another SmartWool layer I purchased later and used similarly, developed a few runs. Secondly, I read somewhere that the sheep the IceBreaker wool comes from are treated reasonably well.
Pants need to be considered carefully, because they take up a lot of space when packed and they are an important part of the outfit for those of us who are a little fancy. My default used to be to wear a pair of jeans in transit or on urban excursions, if it’s not too warm, and pack other pants or skirts for other occasions.
What other occasions? Well, jeans are not that great when you are caught in the rain or wander behind a waterfall, which is all but guaranteed to happen in Iceland. They are heavy and get too hot, if it gets warm. The good looking ones are not that great for hiking.
How can I avoid packing pants then? Maybe wear cargo pants? Well, you see, my preferred style is “I just got out of bed looking perfect”. That is not achieved when I wear cargo pants. Instead, I look like I am dressed up as a hiker.
Leggings? On me, that’s the look of having forgotten to put pants on; plus there is the indignity of no decent pockets. The solution I’ve been content with on a few recent trips was North Face Hybrid hiker pants. While they still suggest that I might have forgotten to put pants on, they are sturdier and a bit less form-hugging than leggings; there is a decent size side zippered pocket (fits a passport); and the pant description suggests that they are nearly indestructible and great for hiking. They are pretty comfortable for both hiking and transit, and they double as yoga pants, if the yoga room is not heated.
A Long Warm Cardigan
It keeps you warm, mitigates the “might have forgotten pants” look, and doubles as a blanket on airplanes. No product recommendation link here: I own two of these. One, I knitted myself; another, picked up at a second hand store in Iceland, when I was there last Summer, and it had no tags. Once I put the latter on, local shop clerks and baristas started talking Icelandic to me, so a style win: not dressed up as a tourist. Ladies, I can knit you one for little more than the cost of materials and shipping. Seriously. It will take a few weeks or months, but if we can agree on design, conditions, and such, I’d enjoy making something unique for another person.
A Long Warm Water Resistant Coat
Obviously, you need a warm coat or jacket when going to a cold place. But since I almost went with a lighter and shorter jacket, which I would have regretted on multiple occasions, let me emphasize: whatever you choose to wear, make sure the area from the bottom ribs down to your knees is warm and waterproof. You are all but guaranteed to find yourself behind a waterfall or out in the cold rain or both, when in Iceland.
For the recent early Spring trip, I wore the Lincoln coat from Vaute Couture. Here is the link to the most recent version, 3.0, of the coat, which has even more pockets and more clever hood design than mine, 2.0. It’s not cheap, but it’s 100% vegan, excellent quality, made in the US likely by free adults, and looks nice enough for something that’s as big and warm as a sleeping bag. The company is female founded; they understand WARM. I was very happy to have this coat on when I found myself on the Atlantic Coast in hurricane strength wind and sleet.
In the Summer, I had the incredibly light Outdoor Research Helium Jacket on top of lighter layers and rain pants from RAINS. RAINS is a Danish company; they understand water falling from above. You stay dry even right next to a waterfall. I tried. That justified packing extra pants. Their coats look really nice, European urban style, and keep you dry, too.
One last point, at the time of this writing, Vaute Couture is running a sweet sale, on winter coats that they produce in small batches, so if you are looking for a warm coat that will keep you warm and happy for the rest of your life, go.
With Blue Lagoon, several Reykjavik geothermal city pools with most wonderful hot tubs, and hot springs throughout the country, there are plenty of opportunities to get into warm water that are too good to pass. Even if the water is outdoors and the air temperature is approaching freezing, it’s fine: I tried.
Rather than a proper swimsuit, I wore Sun Shorts and either a Lover Tank or Mermaid Tank from teeki. The Sun Shorts offer more coverage than an average bikini bottom, which feels good at a crowded unfamiliar place – not like I felt unsafe, but still. They can double as yoga pants for heated rooms or as shorts to run around in whenever the pants need an overnight wash and dry. The tops feel super nice on the skin, and can double as a sports bra (the Lover Tank) or tank top (the Mermaid Tank). The whole outfit dries faster and packs smaller than many proper swimsuits.
Like I’ve said above, I get a commission if you purchase something from teeki using my link. I signed up for their ambassador program, because I like their products and mission (US made using recycled materials), and commissions would be nice of course. I mean, JP wears teeki pants in the Ultra Spiritual Life video about yoga photos, so…
I do not recommend going to Iceland without long johns at any time of the year. The ones I have are from SmartWool. When not warn underneath pants, they look like ok leggings to wear with or without skirts (e.g. if the proper pants are being washed), or to double as yoga pants. They make life so much better whenever the temperature around you is below 5C/ 41F. Unless there is a hot tub nearby.
A Merino Wool Bra
I am not quite ready to go braless. IceBreaker Siren provides the next best option: comfort, support, no need to wash much. It’s sturdy enough for outdoor activities and sports, and is pretty enough to go under fancy or flimsy clothes. Which means you only need one and it’s taking no space in the bag.
I would recommend micro modal ones from Lululemon (this is a link to the main website, not the product). They are comfortable, light but present, long lasting, and, if needed, good looking. Lulu seem to be discontinuing my faves, which is too bad, but I should be good for a few years. Four pairs is more than enough. There is a sink, remember?
Here is another area where the balance between style, function, and packing space is challenging. If I want to avoid packing an extra pair of bulky street shoes, can I find something that’s warm, comfortable, water proof or at least resistant, good for rugged terrain, and at least vaguely urban? For the winter trip, I wore Merrell‘s boots that are insulated, waterproof, offer lots of ankle support, have “wet ice tech” written on the bottom, and are mostly black with red details. They still look like hiking boots, but they try. For the Summer trip, I wore Kodiak Acadia boots in caramel color. They are warm and waterproof enough and definitely look like city, almost dressy boots.
There are two unfortunate problems with both pairs. One, too much ankle support to ride a bicycle, if I wanted to rent one. I rode into a pole and almost fell off my own bike when I tried Kodiaks out at home, because I wasn’t agile enough, so wouldn’t even try on an unfamiliar bicycle. Another: leather. I don’t have 100% ban on leather footwear (because tango shoes), but it saddens me to have failed to find boots that looked good for cold and wet weather hiking that don’t have leather parts. Especially with those Merrells: the main waterproof parts are rubber and the inside lining is synthetic fleece, so why not go all the way.
Medium or Light Weight Merino Wool Socks
Two pairs. Three as a wet feet insurance in case the water sneaks in through the top of the boot. Thick enough to feel good in the boots. There are many brands worth checking out and the styles change all the time. Most of my store-bought merino socks are SmartWool, but that’s more out of habit than preference. Who wants hand knit socks by the way? That can be arranged.
To Be Continued
I started this list almost tongue in cheek and then a funny thing happened. It is turning into one of the longest pieces I have written. And I claim this all fits onto a traveller with a small backpack. It totally does, including Part 2, which would cover accessories, toiletries, and an app.