Travel Gear Travel Tips

The Secret to Ultralight Backpacking

How do you define ultralight backpacking?

Sure it’s minimalist packing, but everyone seems to have their own definition of this idea. After all, on my 2010 Asian Adventure I thought I was packing light… I had enough sets of fresh clothes for 5 days and enough shirts for a week!

Here’s the thing… I didn’t know how to pack any lighter than that and I had plenty of space! But then, I saw the light this one day in China when I had to hike up a mountain with all my gear!

Hiking to Ping'An

Want to know the secret that I discovered to ultralight packing? It’s something so amazingly simple yet I bet you won’t be a fan of it! I sure wasn’t when I was first presented with the idea but I quickly became a huge proponent!

The secret to ultralight backpacking is to do your own laundry.

You’re probably thinking, “…What, WHAT? How do I do my own laundry??”

Easy, you pack a universal drain stopper, which takes up practically no room, a little detergent and use your bathroom sink!

Now, I know that this sounds like a totally crazy concept. But if you don’t do your own laundry (or have your laundry done every-other day), there simply is no way to pack ultralight!

Sink laundry is quite simple really…

1. Cover the drain
2. Start filling the sink with warm water
3. Add a few drops of detergent—the water will start to foam up
4. When sink is nearly full, turn off water
5. Insert clothing into sink and let soak for a minute or so
6. Rinse clothing items individually, wringing them out as much as possible
7. Roll items in a towel to remove as much moisture as possible
8. Hang items up to dry. If you invest in quick drying gear, they’ll be dry in a few hours! And if you bring a small, elastic clothesline, it will help you in this process!

Now, why is this necessary? From a realistic standpoint, you don’t need to pack any more than 2 sets of base clothes…1 to wash, 1 to wear. After I drastically downsized halfway through my 2010 Asian Adventure, my clothing packing list was as follows:

(If you noticed that my list is heavy on Merino wool products, there’s a good reason for that! It’s the best fabric for traveling and you can read more about that here!)

See, I faced a packing challenge. My travels took me from subtropical temperatures in Southeast Asia to upwards of 16,000 feet or 4,876 meters in the Himalayas. This required a smart layering system that I just barely accomplished (I was definitely wearing every single item I’d brought at those higher altitudes!).

But the key here is that the only way I could travel with so few articles of clothing is to wash them frequently!

Let me let you in on another little secret though. One word: “antimicrobial

This special treatment for clothing lets you wear your clothes longer before they start to smell. Now, with polyester clothing this is a nasty series of chemicals. But Merino wool is naturally anti-microbial and won’t stink at the end of the day like that polyester stuff does!

I know, I know, I’m suggesting that you wear “dirty” clothes. But think about it… The longer you wear your clothes, the less laundry you have to do! And let’s think about this realistically… It’s not like you’re going to be seeing the same people very much so who cares if you wear the same thing! And if it doesn’t smell, then you really don’t need to wash it after one use, now do you?

You’re probably reading this thinking that I’m absolutely nuts. Sorry, but if you want to pack ultralight you have to leave those stylish clothes at home…seriously nobody will care if you don’t look cute!

And as for washing your own clothes in the sink? Trust me…you’ll get used to it real quick!

What are your secrets to packing light?

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By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

52 replies on “The Secret to Ultralight Backpacking”

I’d go for buying things locally. Especially if you’re going to multiple countries for an extended travel period. It’s impossible to pack for all kinds of weather and for all kinds of activities that we’re planning to do. It’s much simpler to pack only the essentials and leave the ‘what if’ items to get on the road.

Great tip! Chances are the locals have clothes that are fit for their climates and chances are they are considerably cheaper than what you can buy at home!

I agree this is a great concept… I aimed for this myself (missing the mark by a ton in comparison to others I assume)

However, there are several things I have realized that can drastically impact such a plan:

1) Moist/Humid Weather where your clothes don’t dry overnight
2) Places where you cannot possibly hang clothes to dry

I am not trying to be a downer, but this is what I have encountered during the past 2 weeks in Mexico/Peru…

I agree with you wholeheartedly! I mean trying to get clothes to dry in SE Asia’s massive humidity is tough, but not impossible if you have the right gear. Inverst in items that dry quickly! Even in those massively humid days, the only thing that I had trouble drying were my socks and that can be remedied by not buying cotton socks! Merino wool is great for this!

I also hear you on not having places to dry things. I’m a big proponent of CouchSurfing and how awkward is it to ask if you can hang things up to dry in someone’s house (or in a hostel dorm). The alternative is to use a washing machine. Any good hostel will have laundry faciltiies. And as for CouchSurfing…well that’s a whole other story entirely!

I think I have the right gear… lol (still learning). I know the jeans wont dry overnight, but the REI convertible travel pants, SCOTTEvest shorts, UnderArmour Catalyst shirts & Vibram FiveFinger shoes are supposed to, right?


If there is direct rain where you are “able” to hang stuff to dry… it is obviously not going to happen. If you can find spots to hang them indoors (your own string, etc), good luck in a humid environ.

The REI Travel towel barely dries overnight when exposed to direct wind/dry conditions 😛

As for the Vibrams, I have given up. They will not dry in a day unless exposed to direct sunlight for at least 12 hours. (Not to mention the smell after only 3 uses) And, if you spent nearly 100 dollars on shoes are you willing to leave them out to dry in direct sunlight for 12 hours?

Still trying to figure this out obviously 🙂

The t-shirts I ended up going with are these: They’re basically running shirts, so they’re super absorbent (I sweat A LOT) and even in the most humid climates they dried in a couple of hours.

As for pants, I also had REI travel pants (mine were nylon), and again, never had a problem. I think the specific type of fabric matters quite a bit.

And I ALWAYS dried things indoors. Brought a small elsatic clothesline which helped a lot. I also didn’t do a lot of dorms so I had the space usually to spread it out. And as for heavier things, I waited to wash those till I was in a place where I’d stay for more than a few days so they’d have time to dry.

If it was too cold to wait a few days for drying, I either waited or went for laundry.

As for the Vibrams…they weird me out…

I’m a big fan of ultralight travel, and I use lightweight polyester shirts ( made for sports). They will dry overnight indoors even in South East Asia (heck, there’s where I live) if you have a fan or airconditioning, and if you towel-stomp them first. Here’s what I do :

1. Wash my clothes, and wring.
2. Hang them to drip while I take a shower.
3. Polyester does not retain water, so the water accumulates at the bottom of the shirt. I just give the bottom of the shirt and the sleeves a good squeeze, and water come gushing out.
4. Roll the shirt and other clothings in a bath towel (I use the one that I just dried myself with), put it on the floor and stomp on it. The cotton towel absorbs water from the polyester shirt.
5. Hang out to dry on coat hangers ( most hotels, even budget ones, will provide coat hangers) hung from chairs, door knobs, etc. It will dry by next morning.
6. If you skip rolling-stomping your clothes(step 4), they will still be slightly damp in the morning, but will dry by afternoon/evening. Which is still fine for most cases since you don’t need your clean cothes till then.

Great tips! You’re totally right that wringing out your clothes and then rolling them in a towel will almost guarantee they’ll be dry by morning!

I’ve since switched over to using merino wool shirts instead of polyester ones as they have the added bonus of not holding a smell. Those running shirts I used to use would reek by the end of the day. Whereas if you were in a bind, you could wear a merino shirt for days without it smelling.

Sounds like you’re still overpacking. I just wear the same outfit, and then when it’s time to clean up, I shower in it. This also saves from having to buy laundry detergent and a universal sink stopper. Kidding! Actually, I’m always torn between hating to carry stuff and loving to look fashionable. Shallow, yes, but it’s the truth. 🙂

LOL!! I was waiting for someone to accuse me overpacking! 😛

Haha…maybe I’m unfashionable but I don’t tend to dress to look fashionable at home either so it wasn’t too hard for me to do that on the road! And hey, if you want to overpack, that’s totally your perogative! 😛

Pretty close to my list

2 t-shirts (merino)
1 t-shirt (poly, quick drying)
4 pairs of underwear (merino)
2 pairs of socks
2 pairs of pants (convertible, quick drying)
1 swimsuit (used it maybe twice)
1 long sleeve shirt (undershirt, merino)
1 lightweight fleece jacket (big bird style!)
1 gore-tex shell jacket

Need to save room so I have somewhere to store gadgets 🙂

Nice list Dustin! What’s your laundry solution? And what on earth did you do for warmth in Antarctica??

Haha right?? It’s so easy to think you’re packing light (I though that too when I loaded up my 90L behemoth of a backpack) but you quickly realize once you start traveling that you could’ve brought so much less stuff!

This is such a dilemma! I’m currently making up my packing list for my upcoming trip to Belgium and packing light is definitely an issue. I’m pretty sure I can’t do the whole pack-only-two-pairs-of-underwear thing but I’m definitely willing to reevaluate what I think is necessary to take along on the trip. I’m rising to the challenge!

Congrats for rising to the challenge! Packing light is a whole lot harder than it seems because regardless of how much you bring it’ll feel like too much after a little while! Bring as much underwear as you’re comfortable with, just be aware that when you travel, you tend to not have all the comforts of home (incluidng a full wardrobe)…

Great post, glad you wrote this. I’ve gotten pretty good at packing light but I’ve also never taken a long term trip so almost never had to only bring 2 or 3 outfits. I do totally wear things several times b/c like you said, no one will know I wore the same shirt yesterday. I’m thinking of taking my 30L on my backpacking trip so I’m reading as many posts on packing light & what to bring/not bring as I can!

I just purchased a 32L pack, a HUGE difference from my previous behemoth of 90L! I don’t know for a fact that I can do it, but the list I posted here was what I had in my 90L after I downsized halfway through my travels. I’m pretty confident because even on short 4-day long trips I’ll just pack my tiny little daypack and bring 2 sets and be fine.

Realistially, you don’t need to pack any more for 4 months than you do for 4 days!


You make a good case that you can really pack light if you plan ahead. For me, it does seem like an initial up-front investment (buying wicking shirts, different socks, etc.) but I am realizing that an avid (or frequent) traveler really should make the investment.

One of the best moves I have made so far in my (limited) travels is bringing SmartWool socks. I can wear them multiple days if I leave them out overnight. This greatly reduces the laundry load and they are great for all kinds of weather.

Great post, man!

I think getting proper grear is imperative to packing light. Without anti-microbial and moisture wicking stuff, you’ll find yourself having to bring lots more. Plus moisture wicking is better for me as I sweat a lot and in hot places like Southeast Asia…

Thanks for the great tip on SmartWool socks! Do they dry quickly?

Fantastic reading. Each long trip I do my amount of clothing is dropping – as you realise better ways to use and pack clothing. My next trip is likely to be with only a 30L backpack, however, so I’m *really* going to have to learn to cut down, tips like this are great 😉

I totally hear you! I always realize after I’ve left that I’ve drasticaly overpacked, which is how I devised this scheme. Realistically, I can make do with this in terms of clothing. The big question is everything else (toiletries, medications, electronics).

I’ve definitely become a huge proponent of cutting back and I’m thrilled others are “seeing the light!” 😛

Glad you found the post helpful!

Got a laugh with this one Aaron. When traveling lately I use the sports style T-Shirts for this exact reason. You hand wash them yourself in the basin and hang em up and there dry in an instant.

The reason why I said I got a laugh above, is because I was a notorious light packer in my younger years and if people look at some of my old photo’s they will notice I’m wearing the same clothes in most of them. Nothing to strange about this, but it was for ‘5’ years….lol

Haha! Most of my pictures from my time in Asia are the same way! Same shirt with the occasional addition of a jacket!

And I love the sports shirts…definitely what I use travel these days!

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

That’s good to know about the shampoo and handsoap! I traveled with a mini bottle of detergent. The bottle said you were supposed to use half of it for a load of sink laundry, though I found that a few drops were more than sufficient, so it lasted a real long while!

Bah… I will still overpack…. I just can’t help it. I want to look cute in those travel photos you know!! One major thing that takes up most of my pack is my sleeping bag… and I know that most of the time you do not need it, but for that one time that you DO need it, I am always so so thankful to have it. Overnight busses or trains are impossible for me to sleep on unless I am warm, and those places are always kept way too cold.

Yes I can see how a sleeping bag would take up a large amount of room!

I travel with a silk sleeping sack (sometimes called a sleeping bag liner) which is somewhat warm but also great for hot climates when you need a sheet. Best of all, it becomes roughly the size of a bottle of vitamins! And for warmth, I always travel with multiple layers to wear for those situations.

Most outdoor gear companies make some products that are antimicrobial. A good place to research this is any outdoor or sporting goods store, particularly if they let you sort by what technical abilities a garment has on their website.

Actually, now I can recommend a brand of antimicrobials. SmartWool. Merino wool in general is amazing for not smelling. Be forewarned though, it ain’t cheap!

Charlie’s Soap powdered laundry soap is great to travel with. Lightweight, dissolves quickly even in cold water and is vegetable based so it rinses clean, quickly. It’s also hypoallergenic. Does a great job cleaning and you need a very tiny, tiny amount for sink washing.1/4 to 1/2tsp per load is plenty. It is also good for removing stains and removing any backpacker funk your clothes might have. A tablespoon or so per week is plenty to do a small load every night!

Wow , I don’t hear much about ultralight backpackers , so it’s nice to see you all.

Aaron , on those trips you make – do you sleep outside as well?

I switched from hardcore backpacking to ultralight , but sometimes I still sleep outside, thus I had to invest some money in air mattress and micro sleeping bag in order to put them in my 30L Osprey manta.

Hi Mark,

Not usually. I travel ultralight, but usually end up CouchSurfing or staying in hotels & hostels. That said, I do know folks who backpack ultralight with smaller packs than me (26L) who also pack a fold out mattress that’s elevated. More power to you if you can comfortably fit all that into 30L! Knowing Osprey, I’m sure you can attach them externally too if need be.


ahhh packing light! it’s been my bigger headache for months! the clothes are not my problem though…. i can manage with 2 changes, my problem is toiletries, electronic and other stuff…any advice on how to cut that??? 🙂
i bought a 55lt backpack, and the last time that i tried to put all the stuff in, the weight was around 9 kg…im sooo petite that the backpack is bigger than me 🙂
oh what adds up a LOT is my camera..i love photography and can not imagine myself without it for a trip like this (8 months in SE asia)..
any suggestion??
Thanks for your tips!!

What camera do you use? If you carry a massive, heavy DSLR, there’s nothing you can do to make it lighter short of swapping it for something else or use a smaller lens. I love travel photography too, but I love lightweight travel more, so I’ve swapped my DSLR camera for a travel compact camera that does 24-300mm and fits in my pocket.

I bring electronics too : GPS data logger, camera, smartphone. I ditched my laptop and tablet. The accompanying chargers and cables are a nuisance, but I’ve tried to streamline them. I use tiny universal chargers that can charge my smartphone batteries and camera batteries. I use retractable USB cables that are easy to put away when done. I use a USB hub that allows me to charge several devices/batteries from 1 USB charger.

On my last trip to Indochina, my pack, a 32L Jansport Wasabi rucksack, weighed 3.8kg fully loaded, which is 0.8kg heavier than what I had planned. Small last minute additions sure added up quickly.

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of having the weight of your gear under control. You never know what scenarios you may find yourself in which may require that you lug all your gear around with you. Every kg makes a huge difference.

I’m down to a laptop (hard to blog without one), smartphone, pocket-sized camera, small, bus-powered external hard drive and a backup battery for my phone. That’s it! And my smartphone is quickly replacing my camera in nearly all situations.

hi Aaron,

Quick question : what chargers do you use for your camera/phone batteries ? The original ones that came in the box, or special tinier versions? How do you handle charging multiple batteries? With multiple chargers?

I’m wondering if there is a better way.

Well, at this point, I’m just using my phone as my camera so that eliminates a charger there. Generally though, yes, I do bring special, thinner versions, especially if its a bulky charger. I’m a big fan of some of the retractable cables that are out there as they stay contained nicely. And I travel with this portable surge protector, which not only protects my gear and gives me 3 outlets in one, but it also gives me two USB ports, so I don’t need to bring adaptors for any USB powered devices, which is a nice space saver.

Sadly I can’t really help with camera gear. A big reason why I lack a DSLR is because of the size and the impact that would have on my travel style. I know a lot of folks with camera gear will carry it in a smaller daypack that you can wear in front of you while carrying your big pack. (yay…”turtling!”)

As for other electronics, you can invest in more compact charges than usually come with products, including cables that retract, which can be a nice space saver. I also use a mini surge protector that comes with two USB ports so I can charge my phone off that, it protects my gear and I only need one adapter.

Hope this helps!

Do you use any compression sacks or bivvys for your clothes? I am attempting to use a 25L pack and looking for the most efficient way for my clothes — I am taking the ultra light approach very similar to the list of clothes you have in this post. Thanks!

Yes, I use one larger bag to put all my clothes in and then roll the air out. I prefer the Space Bag branded bags as they have thinner plastic than other brands I’ve tried, which equals more space! Good luck!

After much research and development I have got it down ten pounds or less.

I modified an Outdoor Research Tough Stuff Sack so that it’s a backpack with a three point
hitch system. No sternum strap needed. Straps and pack weigh eight ounces! It’s very reliable.

The stuff inside is the bare minimum needed on a trip. Rule of thumb, If you use it every day here you’ll use it everyday there. And that’s ALL that goes!

Everyday toiletries, dry versions. Smart phone [Nokia 1520] and charger kit.

A homemade laundry kit consisting of four 15 inch long PEX tubes with 550 cord hanger loops knotted through a hole in the middle and a loop for hanging a variety of ways, dry sheet Purex laundry soap, four S-hooks, shower curtain hooks for more ways to hang,and a sink stopper.

ONE set of hand wash quick dry clothes in basic black and white, worn, and a duplicate set packed.

A nylon windbreaker and rain hat. A long sleeve poly shirt that doubles as a sweater [worn] and an under shirt. This combination is good down to 40F with a wind blowing!

I like RailRider pants! They are light weight, durable and dry fast after a quick hand wash.

I wear just one pair of the most comfy shoes I have with Gold Toe Fluffies socks.

I like Terramar underwear. Light weight, they wash and dry fast. They don’t take up much room either. A pair fits a jacket pocket with room to spare! Spare socks can go in a pocket too.

My camera goes around my neck.

So much easier to travel now. No hard manual labor carrying forty pounds of stuff i would never use!

Very impressive! I’ve got my load down to about 20 pounds. Thanks for sharing your list!

How does a three-point hitch system work to re-distribute the weight? What do you do if you end up in an area that’s colder than 40 F? I also don’t always want to “advertise” the fact that I have an expensive camera so I still want to be able to fit it into my bag (then again, that’s why I got a compact camera system).

I still do carry a couple of items that I don’t use every day, including my silk sleeping sack which has come to my aid a number of times, between hostels, cheap hotels in the developing world and some CouchSurfing experiences, it’s great! I also carry a mini first aid kit. Thankfully, I’ve never needed it, but better safe than sorry, right?

We travel to Europe in “shoulder season” , the Goldie Locks time. Not quite Winter but Summer heat is gone. Colder than 40F is not encountered. Winter months are reserved for Caribbean cruises and Florida or California. I have tested the long sleeve shirt+under shirt and wind breaker combo where I live. Most Winter days here are very windy and cold. It works! Sometimes the dash from the parking lot at the airport to the terminal IS a little cool….

I use a vest and belt pouches to re-distribute weight BELOW the belt line. Two or three pounds comes out of the pack this way!

I wear a pack low so the weight rests on my bum. I have three bad disks and two wonky vertebrae. Anyway, six or seven pounds is NOT hard to carry!

I am torn between my Nokia 1520 camera or my Olympus EP-2…it’s easy to hide my camera in my very roomy 45 Liter eight ounce modified stuff sack!

I made a bicycle brake cable and plastic tubing camera strap for Europe. They can’t cut that! I carry a cane to establish a security zone around me. They can’t get close enough to strike! Those belt pouch flaps are secured with big beefy rubber bands cut from a bike inner tube. I felt them probing me many times in Europe getting on trains but they couldn’t get in. I saw a lot of goofy facial expressions too! What would we do without our bikes???

Besides being a weight weinies [sic] we try to stay in at least 3 star hotels or maybe a clean Hostel. I carry an UV flashlight to look for stuff…

Look for Archtek Tooth Paste Tablets on Amazon or the net. They are dry and you can carry a lot of them! I have NO 311 bag as ALL my personal things are dry versions. I use alcohol swabs for hand cleaner. Dry, small and you can carry a lot of them. BD brand seems to be the best. Look for them on Amazon.

I hope this helps to take some of that !!! Twenty !!! pounds??? off your back…

Well the brilliance of the waist strap is to redistribute the weight so it basically feels totally weightless. I’ve literally walked around for 7 hours nonstop while wearing my fully loaded pack. Plus the waist strap serves a dual purpose of keeping my back from sweating up a storm! 😛

I hate the cold and have tended to visit desert or subtropical places, so I don’t tend to need that much cold weather gear either. I did put my system to the test in the Himalayas though, where it was below freezing in mid-May and I did ok with layering. An upcoming trip of mine is also to Europe for New Year’s when it’s bound to be chilly! We’ll see…

Haha I just got myself a Samsung NX300 and love its slim profile. That’s a very clever camera strap you’ve come up with, though I’m less concerned about someone slashing the strap and more concerned about getting mugged, which has happened to a number of friends of mine, particularly in South America. I travel with a number of electronics, including a MacBook Air and, thankfully, have not been mugged. I don’t want to advertise that I have expensive things for this reason though.

A cane, eh? Doubles as a walking stick when you need one, right? And you can chase away angry monkeys and potential thieves? A UV flashlight is a great idea!

I found some similar toothpaste tabs from Lush in Portland, which a fellow travel blogger told me I simply had to buy for the same reason your describing. Haven’t tried them yet. Not to mention that toiletries in general are very easy to come by just about anywhere in the world.

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