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The following is an ultralight packing list for the USA. See all of our packing list posts here.
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Last month, I traveled for over 3 weeks with the contents of a well-packed 12L handbag.
And that’s all.
My bag weighed just 8.2 pounds (or 3.7kg), and I never once felt like I was truly missing something from my ultralight travel packing list.
Why would I do something so crazy?
Glad you asked:
- I hate carrying stuff and being responsible for stuff. As soon as my luggage becomes annoying, it’s hard for me to focus on anything else. Less stuff = less annoyance.
- I was crazy inspired by my chat with Theresa Christine about her trip without luggage. Minimalist packing to the extreme.
- FOR YOU! Yes, the biggest reason I decided to take on this challenge was for you, the HPL reader. My hope is that once you see how much is possible with just 12L of luggage, the idea of going carry-on only, or taking just a 30-40L backpack, will seem much more manageable.
My 3 weeks were spent in various parts of the US including Portland, Las Vegas, Chicago, Central Illinois, San Francisco, and 3 days/2 nights on an Amtrak train. The predominant goal of the trip was to visit friends and family across the country, sticking mainly to city travel instead of outdoorsy activities.
During the month of April, the weather can vary greatly from one day to the next, feeling like winter or summer. It could also rain. This all posed a packing challenge for me with my clothing, but what I settled on in the end was to just do my best and buy anything extra there if I really needed it.
To give the packing list a real workout, I wasn’t able to share any items with my travel partner. If I bought something that wasn’t deemed necessary, I wasn’t allowed to use those items until I returned back to Sydney. Anything else purchased along the way would be disclosed. Toiletries provided at hotels and the AirBnb’s were fair game, though.
The Ultralight Packing List
Minimalist Travel Wardrobe
Grab a free download of the outfits I wore from my minimal travel wardrobe at the end of this post.
In an ideal world, I would have packed less black. If I had known all of these items were to be on one packing list, I would have done a couple of them differently. But that’s OK. I was rarely wearing the black items without the blue Bliss Wrap over them anyway.
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1 x Outer Layer, Lightweight Merino Wrap: I went with the Icebreaker Bliss Wrap, made from 150 weight merino, loose and flowy and perfect for throwing over anything else on my packing list. (I adore this wrap, btw!) Choose your outer wrap wisely as this will be the main thing people see you in on your trip. I love my blue stripe wrap, but I do think a solid color would do the double duty of dressing up easier.
2 x Tunics: Tunics are perfect for layering over leggings, and when it’s cold, they cover more of your body for extra warmth. One tunic was a cheap, older viscose top I had from H&M. It was packed for an extra clothing option, but one that I wouldn’t cry over if I had to leave it behind. The second one was the Kathmandu Saval tunic, a 195 weight merino top, which is pretty lightweight and perfect for layering. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it is still sold.
1 x Long Sleeve Top: I tried out a top by Chalkydigits made of a merino tencel blend.
1 x Tank Top: A bamboo tank from Bamboo Body. Feels great close to the skin, can worn to bed or to layer. My Bamboo Body items were provided to me for review, but I was a past customer and knew that they provide quality garments I love.
2 x Casual Tops: Two 2/3 sleeve length bamboo tops from Bamboo Body.
1 x Convertible Scarf: The Chrysalis Cardi from Encircled.
2 x Pants: I brought the uber lightweight Anatomie Skyler Pants and the Icebreaker Villa Leggings, both in black, although when I was finalizing my packing list for this trip I wished I had bought the Skyler pants in a charcoal or blue for diversity. The leggings are of 260 weight merino making them more opaque than not. Both pants are quick-drying, but the Anatomie pants are lightning quick!
2 x Bras: One nude, one sports.
4 x Underwear: One Exofficio, one merino, one bamboo, and one cotton. The Exofficio and merino were my favorites as they dried quickly.
4 x Socks: Nothing special.
1 x Buff: Headband, ear warmer, beanie in one.
Minimalist Travel Shoes
1 x Walking Shoes: I went with the Nike In Season TR 5 as my main shoe- so comfortable.
1 x Fold-up Flats: My metallic gold Tieks have been serving me well for a couple of years now. They fold up so small for my luggage.
I didn’t stay in hostels with communal dorms and showers, so I didn’t need to pack flip-flops.
Small Containers: Conditioner, Facial Moisturizer, Facial Wash, Dr. Bronner’s, Toner, Toothpaste, BB Cream. I used a combination of Nalgene bottles in 1 oz (30ml), 1/2 oz (15ml), and 1/4 oz (8ml) sizes, along with a contact lens case. Taking only these tiny bottles were key to keeping my toiletries minimal.
1 x Solid Shampoo Bar: Travel sized and liquid free. The best toiletries for hand luggage are solids!
1 x Toothbrush + mini floss
1 x Deodorant: I brought a full size stick with me. I prefer solid deodorants but for some reason, those are not very popular in Australia. They don’t tend to have the solid versions in the travel size section. I like to top-up my deodorant mid-flight, so I didn’t want to wait to buy it there.
1 x Dove Bar Soap: I chopped a small chunk of my normal bar off at the last minute and brought that along. It was probably a third of the size of a travel size bar you’d buy at the shops. Not really necessary at all; I just had the space for it.
1 x Diva Cup: Packing the diva cup helped me save space in my luggage.
1 x Brush + hair ties: My reliable Mason Pearson brush isn’t travel-friendly in size, but I love it.
1 x Natralus Pawpaw Ointment: Can be used on the lips in addition to soothing dry skin and burns.
3 x Aroamas Solid Perfume Sticks: Multiple fragrances that take up no space.
1 x Packet of pain pills: For headaches, etc.
1 x Tweezers
1 x Razor: Picked up a Venus Snap in Portland.
Facial Wipes: A handful of face wipes in a ziploc bag.
1 x Smartphone: My Samsung Galaxy S5 with Otter Box cover was used in place of a laptop and camera.
1 x myType Keyboard: The myType Keyboard makes it feel almost like I’m typing emails on a real computer and not just my phone!
1 x Earbuds + adapter for plane
1 x USB charging cable
1 x USB wall plug: Instead of packing my Australian one and US adapter, I waited until I got to the States and bought a teeny tiny US plug for $5 at Walgreens.
1 x Baggallini Gold Seville Mini: A tiny day purse that fits in the packed 12L bag, but I often wore it on its own to hold cash and phone. (*FYI – I no longer recommend this specific bag. The clasps that connect the strap to the bag have come undone several times doing normal things. My bag has basically fallen off me while walking across the street. Not safe.)
1 x Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Half Cube: My new favorite packing cube. Having the extra compression is perfect for trying to fit your clothes into a tight space!
1 x ChicoBag Travel Zip- Quart Size Pouch: I used this pouch for my toiletries.
1 x ChicoBag Travel Zip- Medium Pouch: I used this for my socks and underwear.
1 x Sunglasses
1 x Small Notebook and Pen
6 x Teeccino Herbal Coffee Bags: I tried this whole no caffeine thing for a while, so I brought my coffee alternative with me to rotate between the occasional real thing.
Jewelry: 3 pairs of earrings, 1 bracelet, 1 ring.
Passport, Drivers License, Bank Cards, Credit Cards
How does it all fit in that 12L bag?!
This video I put together shows how the magic happens.
Was the minimalist packing list sufficient?
Yes. Nothing I packed went unused, and as mentioned in the beginning of this article, I didn’t feel like I needed anything else to have a good trip- including a laptop! When the weather was cold (like when it was in the 40s F in Chicago and windy), I layered all my merino items together and covered my ears with my Buff. When the weather was warm (like in Portland when it got up to the 80s F unexpectedly), I wore my light tunic with the Anatomie pants and Tieks.
The key is layers for any minimalist packing list to work. For mine, having several layers of merino was essential. Without being able to layer my light pieces of merino together for a warmer concoction, I would have been caught out in chilly Chicago. If not packing all the merino, a fleece jacket, or something more sufficient, would have been needed.
I also had plenty of outfit choices, believe it or not. You can get a free download that shows what I wore at the end of this post. And thanks to choosing mostly a wardrobe of merino and bamboo, two fabrics that smell less, I actually had to hand-wash the big-ticket items less often (although underwear was about every other night).
In terms of toiletries, if I hadn’t used some of the conditioner at the hotels, I may have needed more than the 1oz I brought. I did end up buying some extra facial moisturizer towards the end of the trip since my skin felt so incredibly dry. I also had access to laundry detergent in the middle of the trip that I used for a couple of washes of my clothes.
Would I do it again?
YES, DEFINITELY! There’s a lovely feeling about not having to check bags or wait at the baggage carousel. It’s awesome to zip in and out of airports, Ubers, and shops never having to think twice about the fact you’re still carrying all your luggage.
Although the one thing I would change is taking a 12L backpack instead of a shoulder bag. While the shoulder bag only weighed in at 8.2 pounds (or 3.7kg) and didn’t cause any pain or discomfort, I much prefer backpacks and a complete hands-free mode when traveling.
Ultralight traveling created no real drama for me on my trip. In fact, I think it caused more drama for other people who were regularly asking me where my luggage was! What it did do is free up some of that brain power that would normally be spent worrying about my luggage and packing list, not only on this trip, but on future trips as well. Once you scale back to such a minimal packing list, it resets everything.
You realize all those little things you always thought you needed in your bag, well, you don’t.
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A visual guide of the outfits I wore from my ultralight packing list.
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