The Ultimate Guide to Road-Tested, Minimalist Travel Gear
There are many posts about the pack load, and this one is mine. I do a fair amount of travel, I try to travel minimally, and I care deeply about the objects that go with me, just as I care about the objects that I surround myself with at home.
I figure that everything I bring along, I have to thanklessly lug up four flights of stairs when the escalator is broken. I have to put it on my back and let my whole upper body bear the load. I have to carry the weight. It behooves me to make that as little weight as possible, because every time I carry a thing, it compounds across over 100 trips to 38 states and 20 countries.
If you travel a lot, you need your gear to perform, period. Stuff that doesn’t perform gets tossed in favor of stuff that does. You need your backpack to survive a driving rainstorm. You need your rolling luggage to survive a pile of non-Euclidean cobblestones in Milan. You need to not freeze to death while waiting for your ride in Stockholm.
And you need your gear to match your own body and lived experience. So, caveat: I am a dude-presenting human with a tiny capsule wardrobe and some side-questy travel needs. If you don’t present as a dude and you want to travel minimally, know that it is eminently possible, more possible than you think. There are many resources for you, all written by femme-identifying humans, including Tortuga, Timoni’s capsule wardrobe, Girl With the Passport, Her Packing List, Carryology, and many others.
After reading this guide, you’ll 1) understand much more about the mindset that goes into a road-tested minimal travel pack load, and 2) find some excellent gear to take on your own journeys.
The pack load is separated into many different small loads. The goal is to keep things as modular as possible, with each load in its own bag. At minimum, I bring with me the following loads:
- The clothes load
- The toiletry load
- The liquid load
- The coffee load
- The tech load
The rest are optional:
- The long-haul load
- The international load
- The conference load
You pick what you need, leave the rest. Individual gear bags work best because they have their own internal organization, and because you don’t want to go fumbling in the pockets of your carry-on backpack for what you need most of the time – especially when it comes to tech or toiletries.
Fashion takes a back seat here. We need stuff to work. You can have the trendiest gear in the world, but if it falls apart when you’re 8,000 miles from home you’ll be cursing the day that you wasted money on it – and wasting sacred travel time trying to find a replacement. Invest more in your clothes and gear, and you’ll own it for life while looking good in the process.
And with that in mind, here’s everything I take while traveling, broken down by pack load:
- Carry-on bag: Tortuga Outbreaker 45L. The weight must be carried, and the best way to carry it is with a carry-on-sized backpack. Tortuga makes the best one in my experience. You want a 35L if you’re petite, 45L if you’re me-sized (5’8”, 140lb) or up. It’s full of pockets, deeply functional, uses ripstop cloth throughout (so holes don’t get any bigger), and hasn’t failed me across over 300,000 miles. While I think Tortuga is a little up-and-down across its product line, I can’t speak highly enough of the Outbreaker. The only significant downside is I need the hip pocket zippers to easily operate one-handed, and they don’t. It also has too many pockets, but most of them are ignorable.
- Luggage: Rimowa Salsa, black, international carry on-sized. This mostly goes on long-haul trips, where I need to carry an awful lot of things, including a lot of gifts and stuff back to Chicago. It’s durable as hell and absolutely worth the extra cost over Instagram luggage brands if you’re a serious traveler. When traveling for over a week, the Rimowa contains the clothes load, the toiletry load, the liquid load, and the coffee load. Note that international carry-on sizes are slightly smaller than domestic; you will always want the international size, even if you take just one long-haul trip with it, especially considering some stateside discount carriers are favoring international luggage size standards. Note also that I use two-wheeled luggage, because fewer wheels means fewer points of failure, and Rimowa’s two-wheelers have the wheels tucked into a lower profile, making the suitcase easier to stow. It looks like Rimowa no longer sells the Salsa line, or they call it “Essential” now. And if I had to do it all again, I would probably go soft-sided and use a Briggs, which is what my partner uses. I envy it often.
- Luggage tags: ProudGuy Tufftaag. Your fancypants leather luggage tag is no match for kickers. I put one of these on my carry-on bag and my luggage. Every time I’ve checked my luggage, it comes back with the tag on.
Everything goes in these two bags, including:
The clothes load
- Packing cube: Eagle Creek Specter Tech. You want packing cubes, period. This isn’t negotiable. They are the impossible clown cars of clothes loads. All of your clothes should go into a packing cube. And clean/dirty packing cubes are the best of all, because as you wear stuff you just throw it in the other side. I use a small packing cube for trips up to 6 days, and a medium clean/dirty for anything longer.
- Socks: Smartwool Men’s Classic Rib. It’s important to have wool socks, because they last forever and you can wear them for multiple days in a row. Smartwool work great for me, but many others swear by Darn Tough. I don’t use Darn Tough because they put their logo in giant letters on the top of the foot and I’m a vain jerk, although I like that they’re an independent company, made in America, built to last, etc.
- Underwear: lol that is none of your business. I wear one pair a day. I think “travel underwear” is a bit of a game of inches, unless you plan on hiking a lot in the jungle. Just wear whatever you normally wear.
- Shirts: Outlier Ultrafine. Merino is important because you can wear it up to three days. Longer wear means fewer washes, which means fewer shirts you need to bring in your pack load. Outlier is up to twice the price of many other merino brands. I like Outlier’s shirts, but really you just need merino wool, Outlier shirts are expensive, and I have found little difference between Outlier and other brands (like Western Rise) other than game-of-inches differences in build quality and long-term durability.
- Gym shorts: Pack whatever you want.
- Long underwear, for cold climates. I use Uniqlo Heattech at home and while traveling.
Beyond that, bring whatever you want. People spend lots of time assessing the best “travel” clothes, but really it’s better to minimize the quantity of clothes you’re bringing than to replace everything with ultralight performant stuff. The former is a harder practice, yet it is essential. We’ll talk about what happens when you get stuff dirty on longer trips in a bit, but the short of it is that everything you bring should be hand-washable in a sink. Bring a Tide pen for stains, if you’re concerned about that sort of thing.
Minimize shoes at all costs, keeping in mind that you can wear pairs that work for e.g. casual & the gym, or casual & formal (hi, Common Projects!). If you absolutely must bring a pair of shoes, keep them in a shoe cube to keep the ground-gunk away from the rest of your pack load.
At an absolute maximum (e.g. three weeks in Asia & Australia), I pack 9 pairs of underwear, 4 pairs of socks, and 3 shirts. I do laundry in my hotel sink using Soak one-time packets. They’re unscented, work wonders on pretty much everything you throw at it, and let you air-dry pretty easily. I hang everything on the hangers that the hotel gives me, and you can always ask the confused front desk for more hangers.
The toiletry load
- The bag: Eagle Creek Pack-It Quick Trip. Don’t waste your money on high-end leather dopp kits. You don’t need a giant dopp kit, and most of the ones out there are grievously oversized. You also don’t need one that is fashionable, because you’re going to get this wet on pretty much every trip, and you want your bag to dry out easily and not be gross. Pack all of your dry goods in here and leave your liquids to the liquid load. In practice, this means as many soaps as possible, your toothpaste, your razor, and a few sundries.
- Soap containers: Matador Flat-Pak Soap. These are absolute miracle workers and I will sing their praises forever. I carry three of them, for my body soap, face soap, and shampoo bar(!). They use up effectively no bulk in my pack load, and they somehow magically dry the soap bars with no residue. I have no idea how this happens, and I have no idea why I’m this excited about soap containers of all things, but here we are.
- Shampoo: JR Liggett Hemp & Tea Tree. Effectively unscented, these work great as long as you’re able to dry them out. Which you are, with your brand-new flat-pack soap case.
- Face soap: Chidoriya Green Tea & Pearl Barley. This came recommended from an old friend, and it rules. It smells amazing on you, doesn’t leave a scent, and it works extremely well for all humans of all genders.
- Body soap: Dr. Bronner Unscented Castile. Use whatever you want to use, but in general you should favor bar soaps over shower gels when traveling, even if you swear by a liquid soap at home. Less chance of mess when flying to cities at altitude, less to carry in your liquids bag, and fewer points of failure in general.
- Nail trimmers: Seki Edge. I trim my nails every Saturday, so if I’m traveling on a Saturday I need my nail trimmers. And Seki Edge makes the best ones that I’ve seen. Buy it for life.
- Styptic pencil: Pinaud. I cut myself shaving sometimes. This packs flat, tucks out of the way, and lasts forever.
- Neti pot: CVS nasal wash squeeze bottle, with single use packets. This sort of thing is available in literally any chain drugstore in the country. I am extremely on team neti pot, to the point where I pack one. This is the smallest I’ve seen.
- Comb: Chicago Comb Model No. 1, Carbon Fiber. For years I’ve used Chicago Comb’s stainless steel model, a buy-it-for-life piece that fits in my hand well and works just fine for my needs. I always had a plastic comb when traveling, since the steel model was too heavy to take in my bag. Then Chicago Comb came out with a carbon fiber model of my exact comb. Problem solved!
- Deodorant: Use whatever you wanna use. You don’t need a travel size, that’s unnecessary.
- Razor: I use a Mach 3, but use whatever here, too – and make sure you have blades to spare. Just make sure that you can take everything through security, especially if you are packing a straight razor or safety razor. Some countries are weird about that.
- Toothbrush: I use manual toothbrushes, and have no idea what you’d do with one of the fancy electric ones. You really don’t need a folding travel toothbrush. You also don’t need to saw the handle off of your toothbrush. (I’ve seen it.) Just use a normal toothbrush and put one of those caps on the end that protects the bristles while letting it dry out.
The liquid load
- The bag: Nite-Ize RunOff. Nite-Ize is more known for carabiners, flashlights, and other EDC accessories, but they also make an amazing and wildly underrated 3–1–1 bag, with a zipper so leak-proof that any blowup disasters are safely confined to the bag. It packs flat, weighs very little, and has a couple of straps on the back to hang off a hook.
- Containers: I exclusively use Muji containers for pastes & creams (like my shaving cream & hair salve) and Nalgene’s screw-top travel bottles for liquids (like my peroxide, which I use to gargle the second that my throat gets scratchy). I buy my Muji stuff whenever I visit NYC or Japan, because lol can you please open a store in Chicago already. I also use Nalgene’s smallest travel screw-top container for my earplugs, and Muji containers for daily pills and my melatonin on long-haul flights.
- Toothpaste: Whatever travel size of toothpaste works fine for you. This is a rare thing you’ll want the travel size of, because full-size toothpaste tubes are just too much bulk for what you get. I buy mine in bulk on Amazon; yes, Amazon sells bulk travel size stuff. (And for the record, yes, you need this to be in your liquids bag – because fluoridated toothpaste is utterly non-negotiable. Until powdered or tablet-based toothpaste can be fluoridated, this isn’t even a debate.)
If you have a giant fancy Korean skincare routine, you’ll want to consult Tortuga’s post on how to travel with it. I used to follow this religiously, but now I just bring my face soap and toner, which I’m sure is causing at least a few of you to recoil in horror.
The coffee load
There is nothing more centering and healing than a hot beverage that reminds you of home. The coffee load is sacred.
- The bag: Topo Designs Accessory Bag, medium. These are super nice and pretty cheap. I think I got this one as a gift from a friend, and it became the coffee bag because it fits all the coffee stuff.
- Scale: American Weigh Scales Blade Series. You want something tiny and square that can take a beating, with at least 0.1g precision. That said, if you want a real upgrade pick, you’ll want something USB-powered and waterproof – like the Acaia Lunar. I just can’t bring myself to buy a $225 coffee scale. Yet.
- Dripper: Tetra. I found this in Kyoto, and it’s a true wonder. It packs completely flat, weighs only a couple dozen grams, and fits standard-issue Hario filters, accommodating full-size pours for two people. It comes in both plastic & steel versions; I have the plastic one, and it’s served me well. I can’t believe more people don’t know about Tetra drippers. Once this one craps out I’m instantly buying another.
- Filters: Hario 01. Not much needs to be said. You know about Hario if you know about coffee. If you do Aeropress, skip the Tetra and these and bring your Aeropress.
- Conical burr grinder: Porlex Mini. Since you care about coffee, you know that a conical burr grinder is the only correct way to grind coffee, done to order. Porlex Mini is the easiest to pack that I’ve found, it holds 26g of coffee for a full Hario pour, and it performs handsomely.
- Mug: Snow Peak TI-Double H450. Oh, you joke about Snow Peak. You dunk on it because it’s expensive. But you pick this mug up once and you’ll change your tune. It’s easy to grip with boiling liquid in it. It packs so light that the only real issue is its bulk. And it handles a Tetra dripper perfectly. You need to bring your own mug because many hotels now carry only paper cups for hot beverages. Don’t be stuck tasting cardboard, and don’t end up with a cup so flimsy and small that it disintegrates at the mere idea of pourover.
- Coffee: Get it at a local roaster of your choice. Make sure that roaster’s espresso hoppers don’t have an oily residue on them, because that means they burn the beans. Find something natural and delicate, if you can. Buy online if you can’t.
I used to forgo the coffee load when traveling to cities that have a correct, modern understanding of coffee, but now that third-wave places are ditching pourover, there’s no guarantee that I won’t get what I want in the morning. And there’s also no guarantee that I won’t be staying near a coffee shop that I can hit first thing. It’s always more centering to pour the water yourself.
My friend Coleman wrote an excellent post on how to travel with a modern coffee setup.
The tech load
Everyone’s tech load is arbitrary, since your gear is arbitrary. But I will list the things that should be general to every tech load:
- Bag: Aer Cable Kit. This works well because it accommodates adapters, batteries, bluetooth speaker, and cables alike.
- Cables: Anker. I swear by Anker for almost all of my cables & dongles.
- Power bricks: Anker. Please, for the love of everything, replace your stock-issue power bricks with Anker bricks. You want to pay attention to the wattage that they output; use at least 60W if you have a 13” MacBook, 100W if you have a 15”. You want a power brick that can accommodate as many devices and plugs as possible. I personally use their “Atom” gallium nitride bricks, which provide double the power in about the same volume as your typical power bricks.
- Cable wrap: Bobino Cord Wrap. These are clever little plastic dinguses that let you wrap your cables like a civilized human. They cost less than 5 bucks apiece, last forever, and are totally worth it. Get the medium for 3’ cables and the large for 6’.
- Travel battery: Anker PowerCore 10000. You may be noticing a trend here. You don’t need a big one. I use a 4” Lightning cable to charge my phone during heavy-use days.
- Charge-only adapter: PortaPow Data Blocker. This cheap little wonder sits between your USB cable and whatever port you’re plugging it into, so that it only transmits power and not data. Super useful for security when you’re connecting to airplane seat backs, random USB outlets, etc. And your devices charge just as fast, too.
Other things that go in the carry-on bag
- Moisturizer: Dr. Bronner’s Unscented Magic Balm. Airplanes are dry, and I use this to moisturize in-flight and the day after. It’s also super useful in dry cities like Phoenix or Denver. Goes on a little greasy, but that goes away after a little while.
- Lip balm: Dr. Bronner’s Naked Organic Lip Balm. You may have noticed a preponderance of Bronner’s unscented products on this list. I prefer unscented stuff in general, so that answers that bit. On the Bronner’s allegiance, it’s cheap, performant, easy to find all around North America, an independent business, and they support causes that I believe in.
- Hand sanitizer: Byredo Vetyver. I know. I know. A $35 tube of hand sanitizer is a preposterous object, only possible in our current gilded age. But it completely rules. The smell is amazing. It doesn’t burn or sting. I use it all the time when on the ground. But when it runs out, it’s being replaced with regular hand sanitizer in my travel rig. Why? Because making an entire plane smell like vetiver is a bit of a faux pas. And the whole point of this is to use hand sanitizer on an airplane, because airplanes are far grosser than you want to contemplate. If you’re going to use any sort of skincare on an airplane, you want it to be as un-perfumed as possible, because the air has nowhere else to go than up the noses of every other passenger on the plane. Anyway, this rules, the end.
- Priority Pass. This comes for free with my business credit card. It comes in handy for lounge access, especially internationally.
- Pen & notebook. These are such personal choices that I refuse to weigh in.
- Yoga mat: JadeYoga Voyager. Yes, there is a flat-pack yoga mat. Yes, it still takes up considerable bulk in your pack load. It is also not the world’s greatest yoga mat. It is so thin as to provide effectively no cushion during practice. But it’s super grippy, and it works in a pinch. If you value yoga and meditation as much as I do, now you know what to pack.
- Earplugs: Mack’s. You’re staying in big cities. Cities are loud. I buy Mack’s in bulk.
- Daypack: Matador Freerain24. You’re not carrying your Tortuga around all day at your destination, are you? Gosh, I hope not. You want a smaller daypack that packs down to about the size of a baseball. Matador’s is the best I’ve found, and at 24L it looks like a normal backpack.
- Headphones: Jabra Elite 65T. Any Bluetooth true-wireless earbud-style headphones will do you just fine. If noise-cancelling over-the-ear headphones work better for you on planes, I won’t stop you from using ‘em.
- Laptop, if I’m working on the road.
- iPad, replete with keyboard case. My iPad Pro is the absolute best device for flights. Somehow the smaller bulk makes it way easier to use than a laptop.
- Water bottle. Hydrate or diedrate. Your water bottle should be an extension of your body, and your choice of one is highly personal. Why would I recommend one to you?
The long-haul load
Long-haul flights require more complicated gear:
- Bag: Klein Tools 5139 Canvas. I have 3 of this bag, and I use them for the long-haul load, the international load, and the conference load. Klein Tools is a Chicagoland company, and these bags will outlast me. I don’t need anything fancy or design-y. I just need something that will work, every time, without failing.
- Eyeshade: Bedtime Bliss. These work great because they don’t touch your actual eyes, so you can enter REM sleep more easily.
- Travel pillow: Travelrest Ultimate. I need one that wraps around my neck, especially in coach.
- Melatonin pills. I do a lousy job of sleeping on planes, so I need melatonin to knock me out.
- Pajamas & cozy socks. I treat all long-haul flights like they’re miniature slumber parties. 20 minutes after takeoff, I go into the bathroom, change into pajamas, and start tromping around the airplane like a weirdo member of a cult or something. The flight attendants are bemused. Passengers are horrified. The airplane is my private hygge temple for the next 14 hours and I fear nothing.
- Power adapters: Bestek Worldwide Travel Plug Set. I have two sets of all 8 adapters from Bestek, and I only bring the ones that I need. Frequently I only need one set of adapters, too. You don’t need a new adapter for Japan, even though Bestek includes one; they use the same plugs as in the US. You also don’t need a fancy voltage converter if you’re only bringing along modern tech. Any power brick will do the appropriate voltage conversion for you.
The international load
I take these when going anywhere outside of the country. These combine with the long-haul load for any big flights, but if I’m hitting up Canada or Central America, of course I need my passport.
- Passports, duh.
- Wallet: Makr passport wallet. This will last you forever, it wears in beautifully, and it handles everything you can possibly throw at it, carry-wise. I carry my Italian passport in a separate sleeve from Gfeller Casemakers.
- SIM card holder: Orbitkey Travel Kit. We use KnowRoaming for our data when abroad, and since we use Verizon at home, we need KnowRoaming’s SIM cards. (Those on GSM networks can use their stickers, which don’t require SIM hot-swapping.) But we also need a place to hold our Verizon cards when we’re traveling – and our KnowRoaming cards when we aren’t using them. This attaches to your keychain, packs small, doesn’t lose ‘em, and contains a SIM ejector tool built-in.a
- Global Entry card, if I’m going anywhere that has Global Entry preclearance, such as Dublin or anywhere in Canada. Sometimes they get weird about it.
The conference load
When I go to conferences, I bring a bunch of special equipment:
- USB-C to VGA, HDMI,DVI,DisplayPort, and mini-DisplayPort. Yes, you need dongles for all of these. Yes, I have encountered each one of these at least once in the past.
- USB-C to Ethernet: Anker. If you need to do a live demo, sometimes you can’t get on the local wifi and need a wireline connection. Ethernet dongles are also great for some old-school hotel rooms.
- Business cards & stickers.
- Markers, to sign books. I have used a brown Sharpie to sign every book for the past decade.
Stuff I carry on me
- Microcloth. I wear glasses. I need a microcloth. I don’t have a preferred brand, I just use whatever’s around.
- Travel kleenex pack. I have allergies. I need kleenex.
- Wallet. I carry a tiny card case from Common Projects when I’m domestic.
- My cell phone. Duh.
- A tiny emergency USB thumb drive that I keep in my 5th pocket at all times. I use one from Samsung. It contains scans of my passports, passport card, Global Entry card, driver’s license, medical cannabis card, and credit cards.
I keep separate sets of everything, so that it can stay packed ahead of time. My actual “packing” takes maybe 5 minutes, and it mostly comprises finding and packing the bags that I will need for the trip that I’m taking. The only exceptions are my headphones, devices, tech bag, and water bottle.
When you’re on the road, create a todo list called “repack,” due on the day you return, that tells you what to put back in your load. This includes things you’ve depleted, especially toiletries and coffee stuff. Every time something starts to run out, add it to the repack list. Replenish everything when you get home, as part of your unpacking. Then you’re ready to go the next time.
And that’s it! Life’s an adventure. I hope this makes your adventures a little easier!
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