This article is part of a series. You can read about what prompted the 5 week holiday here; dive into my spending here; or get tips on saving here.
I had one goal as far as packing for my trip was concerned: as light as possible. This was for a few reasons:
- I like packing light! It’s easier and less stressful to move around.
- I have a shoulder injury. It goes back a few years, but essentially my right shoulder is pretty weak and liable to partially dislocate if it’s put under too much strain.
- Knowing that I’d be taking buses, potentially riding trains, and also staying in hostels, I wanted to be able to handle my luggage all on my own, with as little fuss as possible. I also didn’t want to attract unnecessary (or unkind) attention.
The general principle of packing light is easy enough to follow for a weekend away, but when it comes to 5 weeks that’s a whole other story. Moreover, I was going to be in two different hemispheres, experiencing summer and winter. Plus I had to factor in everything from a wedding to working on a farm. Let me tell you how I did it!
The first thing I had to figure out was what luggage I’d be taking. I considered a suitcase, but ultimately decided on a monochromatic blue hiking backpack. That descriptor is a little hint at how much I love this bag! I bought it first for a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro, after I finished undergrad. It was so pretty, and served me so well, that I wanted to use it as often as I could. I didn’t think it would take this many years, but I was happy to finally pull it out of storage.
I chose my backpack because I wanted to physically restrict what I would be able to carry, and not be tempted to fill a larger bag. I also felt it would be easier to move around. With the weight evenly distributed across my body, I wouldn’t have to worry about hoisting my luggage up stairs or onto platforms. The bag has three main sections, so I figured I could organise things a lot better than I would be able to with a suitcase. Turned out I was right! The bag looked just as good as the first time, and with tons of pockets and ingenious compartments it was a pleasure to carry with me. I highly recommend one if you’re going on a similar journey.
The Abdul Rule
I needed clothes for three main categories: farm work, sightseeing, dressing up/wedding. With those in mind, I used what I dubbed the Abdul Rule to help me bring only what was necessary. Abdul is a cousin of mine who travels a ton for work and pleasure. He told me I should pack my bag, and unpack half of it. Then, to look at the things I’d only be wearing once or twice and get rid of them.
I didn’t feel like packing and unpacking, so I skipped that step and thoughtfully, deliberately laid out all my options on my bed. Then I made a second pass over everything and got rid of at least one item in every category.
Since I’d be staying longest in South Africa, most of my clothes were summer-appropriate: a few blouses, a pair of shorts, and a sundress. Knowing I wanted to do at least one outdoor activity there, I packed exercise wear that I could also use (or layer) on the farm in Italy.
As far as travel days went, I had a uniform: soft black pants and a long sleeved blouse. I wore the pants on the farm as well, and aside from those packed jeans and a pair of sweats. The sweatpants weren’t even on my pile initially, but when I finished and had space in my bag I added them in. This proved to be a crucial move because I used them all the time in all the winter places.
Buy clothes in-country (and leave room for them!)
In general, the care I put into choosing clothes paid off. For one, it kept my bag light, and for another, I used almost everything. Unfortunately, I never wore the jumpsuit I brought for the wedding braai/barbecue. A local told me they were super casual so I put on another outfit instead… only to show up and find that the other guests (not locals!) didn’t think the same. I was disappointed, but oh well, it’s not like the suit was bulky.
As far as my outfit for the wedding proper, I decided not to even try and bring something to wear. Instead, I left room in my bag for the yet-to-exist dress that a Cape Town tailor was going to make for me. Once I got there I’d find someone and see what we could come up with in a couple of days. My plan worked out perfectly! Although it was a pretty specific circumstance, I’m going to follow this principle moving forward. If I’m going somewhere with unique clothing that I’ll want to buy for myself, why not wear at least some of it during my trip? It makes for a lighter bag going over and more room to bring things coming back.
Pack things to leave behind
From the reverse perspective, I packed items that I could easily leave behind: winter sweaters, a towel and books. Once they served their purpose I left them at my sister’s flat or in little free libraries. This meant that I had space for the gifts I picked up along the way. At the end of my journey my bag was only 1 or 2 pounds more than the 24 it was when I left. If you’ll be in a similar position, do the same! I’m sure you can imagine how great it is not having to worry about overweight luggage or running out of space for souvenirs.
Shoes were more of a challenge to my ‘packing light’ goal. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a way to make farm-appropriate tennis acceptable at a wedding. Even comfortable, lightweight walking shoes weren’t going to work. I thought it was sensible to bring flip flops to wear around the hostels. They would be easy enough to carry, but also couldn’t double as walking or wedding shoes.
In the end I brought all four. I packed a pair of TOMS and my flip flops. To save on space, I decided to always travel in my tennis, since they’re the bulkiest. As far as shoes for the wedding, I compromised with flats. Although I really wanted to bring a cute heel, it wasn’t going to be worth the space. That decision led to another: my dress had to be floor length to cover my still-casual footwear. Knowing this made all aspects of designing my outfit even simpler, which was invaluable given the short window I had to sort things out.
Aside from my wedding flats every pair of shoes had multiple uses; I was happy to have all of them. And, because I always travelled in my tennis, shoes didn’t take up much space in my bag.
There will definitely be frivolous things you can leave behind when you’re packing light (cute coral top, I’m lookin at you) – basic first aid supplies are not one of them. What started out as a ziplock bag for a sheet of painkillers turned into a full fledged first aid kit. Better safe than sorry right? In addition to the paracetamol, I packed antihistamines, eye drops, cough/flu tablets, cortisone, and bandaids. In this same bag I put my laundry soap, extra contact lenses and ear plugs. I also packed lavender essential oil, which is great for itchy bug bites, and my homemade mosquito repellent.
I didn’t think I’d need much other than the painkillers for cramps, but when I tell you I used almost everything! It was such a surprise. I got sick the first week, had several days worth of a bad headache, sprained my ankle, was bitten by fleas… none of these things happen in my daily life, and certainly not so close together! Even if you don’t think you’ll need one, pack a first aid kit.
I was reluctant to bring an umbrella, but this ended up being something I was very thankful for. It doesn’t rain that often in The Bahamas, outside of our ~month-long rainy season, so I’m not one to think much about the weather. I read somewhere that you should carry an umbrella and figured it couldn’t hurt. Well, I used it twice in 10 days, and on a few occasions afterward! It’s a lot more convenient to have an umbrella (or poncho) in your bag, rather than having to look for one.
Some of you reading this might be wondering about my makeup bag. I am not really a makeup person; dressing up for me involves powder, mascara, lipstick, and maybe eye shadow. (And I only own one shadow!) So the makeup bag for me was pretty small. If I didn’t have the wedding, I would have skipped a makeup bag altogether in favour of a lipstick and mascara.
As for my hair, I had a friend braid it for me so I wouldn’t have to bother with it at all while I was away. I’m also pretty minimalist when it comes to hair care: I carried a bottle of coconut oil to moisturise, and that was it.
My camera and computer were the heaviest, most valuable things I brought. I debated bringing my computer, but I wasn’t sure I’d have enough space on my memory cards and wanted to be able to offload them if necessary. I also planned to do some editing and writing while in Wales. Both the camera and laptop stayed in my smaller carry-on backpack, so they didn’t burden my hiking bag.
This is probably the last thing you’d think of as you’re planning your amazing holiday, but travel insurance is another thing I recommend. It’s also the ultimate win for packing light because it’s both essential and weighs nothing!
Locking away your tech is just one step in being as careful with it as possible. In the terrible event something is stolen, insurance will go a ways toward a replacement. It’ll also reassure your parents if they’re the type to worry about things like travel injuries or illness. The insurance I bought covered everything from medical repatriation to replacing lost rental car keys. I had to pay extra for my technology, but overall it only cost me a couple hundred dollars. It was completely worth it for the added security.
Whew! I think that about covers everything. The last tip I’ll leave you with is to give yourself ample time to pack. It’ll be hard to make reasoned decisions, and to remember everything you’ll want to carry, if you leave things till the night before. A couple days before departure I took my bag from the attic and mentally reviewed the things I wanted to bring. The day of my flight I was basically ready to go, which meant I was relaxed, had brain space for anything I forgot and left for the airport on time. Pacing myself this way helped me to keep things streamlined. While I know there are people out there that are happily last minute packers – how do you do it? – I prefer this low-pressure approach for sure.
If you’ve got questions, or packing tips of your own, leave em in the comments! I’d love to see and help if I can.
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