I’ve used the same 65 liter backpack for just about every trip for the past ten years. It’s come with me as I crashed on stranger’s couches in Europe, to the summit of Mount Rinjani, and all throughout Southeast Asia. On each trip, it was always too heavy and big to take as a carry-on bag, so I’d cram my laptop, camera gear, money, and anything I didn’t want to risk leaving to the airlines in a second backpack.
Over the past year, I’ve realized just how limiting this two-bag system is. I’d book a hotel walking distance from the train station or bus station, rather than the center of town. I’d choose the bus seat with a questionable stain on it just because it overlooked the luggage compartment — rather than one that didn’t look like it had curry surprise all over it. Getting something from the bottom of my backpack felt like a game of Tetris I was never bound to win.
After a trip longer than a few weeks, nearly everyone realizes just how few items you need to be content. Material belongings become less important than the experiences you have, and you often find a new appreciation for comfortable shoes and outfits that are simple yet stylish. I’ve often heard people say that they once had shopping addictions or hoarding tendencies — then, they went traveling.
I switched to one-bag travel after my drone was stolen out of my large backpack. I checked out of my hotel and left the large backpack in the reception lobby as it was too heavy to carry both backpacks around for the day. With just one small backpack, you can carry all belongings on you without it being a massive strain on your body.
Tips for one-bag travel
Make sure your bag is carry-on compliant. Some backpacks have long frames or are easily overpacked. Since it will house your expensive items as well as your necessities, you don’t want any risk of it getting checked in during a flight. Many companies, like Osprey, advertise specifically when their backpacks are carry-on friendly.
Pack a lightweight daybag into the backpack. This way, you can leave the bulk of your items at your hostel or hotel and just take your sightseeing necessities with you when you explore.
Choose your backpack or carry-on wisely. If you go for a backpack that is lightweight, you might be sacrificing support and structure. If you think you’ll be wearing it for long stretches of walking, then you might want to opt for a backpack with supportive hip belts. If you’re more of a business traveler, a carry-on suitcase might look more professional than a backpack. See the options here at REI.
Use what you have. Once you get into the one-bag rabbit hole, it can seem like every single thing you pack needs to be perfect. You don’t need to shop for the most lightweight shoes, the fastest-drying shirt, or merino-wool everything. The items you already own are good enough.
Learn how to do laundry in a hotel room. One of the only downsides of one bag travel is that you’ll obviously have to do laundry more often than when you pack 50 lbs worth of clothes. Pack quick-dry materials that you can scrub in the sink or in the shower. Yes, this can take a bit of time. In my experience, I still waste more time dealing with a heavy bag.
Pick a color palette. It’s much easier to decide what to wear if all of your clothes match one another. Just because you’re having a minimal set of clothing doesn’t mean you have to stick with neutral colors. Layers are your friend.
If in doubt, buy it at your destination. If you’re unsure if you’ll really need something, leave it and purchase it at your destination whenever possible. While obviously this doesn’t apply to medications, highly specific items, or visiting remote areas, it’s better to travel light and repurchase than lug around something for weeks or months at a time. Or bring it, but be prepared to ditch it.